For writers and readers alike, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. In general, fiction refers to plot, settings, and characters created from the imagination, while nonfiction refers to factual stories focused on actual events and people. However, the difference between these two genres is sometimes blurred, as the two often intersect.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that both fiction and nonfiction can be utilized in any medium (film, television, plays, etc.). Here, we’re focusing on the difference between fiction and nonfiction in literature in particular. Let’s look closer at each of these two categories and examine what sets them apart.
When it comes to the differences between fiction and nonfiction, Joseph Salvatore, Associate Professor of Writing & Literature at The New School in New York City, says,
“I teach a course on the craft, theory, and practice of fiction writing, and in it, we discuss this topic all the time. Although all of the ideas and theories…are disputed and challenged by writers and critics alike (not only as to what fiction is but as to what it is in relation to other genres, e.g., creative nonfiction), I’d say there are some basic components of fiction.”
Fiction is fabricated and based on the author’s imagination. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. While settings, plot points, and characters in fiction are sometimes based on real-life events or people, writers use such things as jumping off points for their stories.
For instance, Stephen King sets many of his stories and novels in the fictional town of Derry, Maine. While Derry is not a real place, it is based on King’s actual hometown of Bangor. King has even created an entire topography for Derry that resembles the actual topography of Bangor.
Additionally, science fiction and fantasy books placed in imaginary worlds often take inspiration from the real world. A recent example of this is N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earthtrilogy, in which she uses actual science and geological research to make her world believable.
Fiction often uses specific narrative techniques to heighten its impact. Salvatore says that some examples of these components are:
“The use of rich, evocative sensory detail; the different pacing tempos of dramatic and non-dramatic events; the juxtaposition of summarized narrative and dramatized scenes; the temporary delay and withholding of story information, to heighten suspense and complicate plot; the use of different points of view to narrate, including stark objective effacement and deep subjective interiority; and the stylized use of language to narrate events and render human consciousness.”
Nonfiction, by contrast, is factual and reports on true events. Histories, biographies, journalism, and essays are all considered nonfiction. Usually, nonfiction has a higher standard to uphold than fiction. A few smatterings of fact in a work of fiction does not make it true, while a few fabrications in a nonfiction work can force that story to lose all credibility.
An example is when James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, was kicked out of Oprah’s Book Club in 2006 when it came to light that he had fabricated most of his memoir.
However, nonfiction often uses many of the techniques of fiction to make it more appealing. In Cold Bloodis widely regarded as one of the best works of nonfiction to significantly blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, since Capote’s descriptions and detailing of events are so rich and evocative. However, this has led to questions about the veracity of his account.
“The so-called New Journalists, of Thompson’s and Wolfe’s and Didion’s day, used the same techniques [as fiction writers],” Salvatore says. “And certainly the resurgence of the so-called true-crime documentaries, both on TV and radio, use similar techniques.”
This has given rise to a new trend called creative nonfiction, which uses the techniques of fiction to report on true events. In his article “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” Lee Gutkind, the creator of Creative Nonfictionmagazine, says the term:
“Refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
Although it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction, especially in the hands of a skilled author, just remember this: If it reports the truth, it’s nonfiction. If it stretches the truth, it’s fiction.
Between fiction and nonfiction, which is your favorite, and why?
We see these words in libraries and bookstores, in magazines and online, but what do fiction and nonfiction really mean? What kinds of writing belong in each of these categories, and why?
You are not the first writer to ask these questions, and you will not be the last. Works of fiction and nonfiction can each be enthralling and valuable pieces of literature, but they are different in several important ways.
Continue reading to learn the differences between fiction and nonfiction, and how you can use these words in your own writing.
What is the Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction?
In this post, I will compare fiction vs. nonfiction. I will use each of these words in at least one example sentence, so you can see them in context.
I will also show you a unique memory tool that will help you decide whether a piece of literature is fiction or nonfiction.
When to Use Fiction
What does fiction mean? Fiction refers to made-up stories. These stories are not based on real-life events or characters. Fictional stories can be mysteries, fantasy tales, historical dramas, romances, etc.
In popular language, fiction is also used to describe anything that is not true.
Here are a few examples of the word fiction in a sentence,
- “I am penning a new work of fiction!” said the old-timey writer from a coffee shop in Paris.
- “The President’s allegations are pure fiction!” screamed the reporters.
- Many people did not know that The War of the Worlds was a work of fiction the first time they heard it.
- Some of the new technologies seem straight out of science fiction. –The Wall Street Journal
Novels are a classic example of fictional prose. If you enjoy reading novels, you are a fan of reading fiction.
When to Use Nonfiction
What does nonfiction mean? Nonfiction works are based on real people or events. Memoirs, biographies, documentaries, and works of history are all examples of nonfiction.
Here are a few more examples,
- “You will find the biography of Rutherford B. Hayes in the nonfiction section,” said the librarian.
- I would write a memoir, but the details of my life are so fantastical that people would not believe it is a work of nonfiction.
- The new self-help book climbed its way to the top of the nonfiction best sellers list.
- A biography of a book, rather than a person, is a relatively new wrinkle in nonfiction. –The Washington Post
If you enjoy reading biographies, memoirs, historical works, or books on current events, you are a fan of nonfiction works.
Nonfiction sometimes appears as a hyphenated word: non-fiction. Either spelling is accepted, but, as you can see from the below graph, you can see that nonfiction is much more common.
Trick to Remember the Difference
Now, let’s go over a trick to remember nonfiction vs. fiction.
A work that is nonfiction is a recounting of real events. A work of fiction is based on made-up people or events.
Since fiction and false begin with the same letter, we can easily remember that fiction is false, even if it is an excellent and well-crafted story.
You can extend this mnemonic to nonfiction as well. A nonfiction story is not fake.
Is it fiction or nonfiction? Fiction and nonfiction are two categories of writing.
- Fiction deals with made-up people or events.
- Nonfiction deals with real life.
Fiction is also a word that is commonly used to describe anything that is not true, like wild accusations or patently false testimony. This article, though, is a work of nonfiction.
Since fiction and false each begin with the letter F, remembering that a work of fiction is not a true story should not be difficult to remember.
It might be difficult to remember the difference between these words, but remember, you can always reread this article for a quick refresher.