Nonfiction writing recounts real experiences, people, and periods. Fiction writing involves imaginary people, places, or periods, but it may incorporate story elements that mimic reality.
What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?
The terms fiction and nonfiction represent two types of literary genres, and they’re useful for distinguishing factual stories from imaginary ones. Fiction and nonfiction writing stand apart from other literary genres (i.e., drama and poetry) because they possess opposite conventions: reality vs. imagination.
What is fiction?
Fiction is any type of writing that introduces an intricate plot, characters, and narratives that an author invents with their imagination. The word fiction is synonymous with terms like “fable,” “figment,” or “fabrication,” and each of these words has a collective meaning: falsehoods, inventions, and lies.
Not all fiction is entirely made-up, though. Historical fiction, for example, features periods with real events or people, but with an invented storyline. Additionally, science fiction novels function around real scientific theories, but the overall story is untrue.
What is nonfiction?
Nonfiction is any writing that represents factual accounts on past or current events. Authors of nonfiction may write subjectively or objectively, but the overall content of their story is not invented (Murfin 340).
Works of nonfiction are not limited to traditional books, either. Additional examples of nonfiction include:
- Instruction manuals
- Safety pamphlets
- Medical charts
Comparing fiction and nonfiction texts
Outside of reality vs. imagination, nonfiction and fiction writing possess several typical features.
Fictional text features:
- Imaginary characters, settings, or periods
- A subjective narrative
- Novels, novellas, and short stories
- Literary fiction vs. genre fiction (e.g., sci-fi, romance, mystery)
Nonfiction text features:
- Real people, events, and periods
- An authoritative narrative
- Autobiographies, letters, journals, essays, etc.
- Venn diagrams, anchor charts, mini-lessons, extension activities
- Index, citations, and bibliographies
- Academic/peer-reviewed publishers
What does fiction and nonfiction have in common?
Oftentimes, an elaborate work of fiction has more in common with nonfiction than a simple fairy tale or children’s book. Examples of shared traits include:
- Major literary publishers (e.g., Hachette Books and HarperCollins)
- Photographic and illustrated book covers
- Stylistic elements such as an index, glossary, or citations
- Themes involving history, mythology, and science
- Creative prose narratives
Prose narratives of fiction vs. nonfiction
According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, we can narrowly distinguish fiction from nonfiction through the use of “prose narratives,” a term that refers to an author’s storytelling form.
For works of fiction, authors typically use prose narratives such as the novel, novella, or short story. But for nonfiction books, prose narratives take the form of biographies, expository, letters, essays, and more.
Prose narratives of fiction
A novel is a long, fictional story that involves several characters with an established motivation, different locations, and an intricate plot. Examples of novels include:
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Beloved by Tony Morrison
A novel is not the same as a novella, which is a shorter fictional account that ranges between 50-100 pages long. You’ve likely heard of novellas such as:
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
Lastly, the short story normally contains 1,000-10,000 words and focuses on one event or length of time, such as:
- The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe
- The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
Prose narratives of nonfiction
Since nonfiction represents real people, experiences, or events, the most common prose narratives of nonfiction include:
- Informational texts
Biographies and autobiographies
A biography is written about another person, while an autobiography’s author tells the story of their own life. Popular biographies include:
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
The difference between the two modes of nonfiction is further illustrated with autobiographies such as:
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
- I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by Malala Yousafzai
Journals and letters
Journals, diaries, and letters provide a glimpse into someone’s life at a particular moment. Diaries and letters are great resources for historical contexts, and especially for periods involving war or political scandals.
Journal and letters examples:
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- Ever Yours: The Essential Letters by Vincent van Gogh
By definition, an essay is a short piece of writing that explores a specific subject, such as philosophy, science, or current events. We read essays within magazines, websites, scholarly journals, or through a published collection of essays.
- Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
- The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison
Informational texts present clear, objective facts about a particular subject, and often take the form of periodicals, news articles, textbooks, printables, or instruction manuals. The difference between informational texts and biographical writing is that biographies possess a range of subjectivity toward a topic, while informational writing is purely educational.
Publishers of informational texts also tailor their writing toward an audience’s reading comprehension. For instance, instructions for first-grade reading levels use different vocabularies than a textbook for college students. The key similarity is that informational writing is clear and educational.
Genres of fiction vs. nonfiction
The French term genre means “kind” or “type,” and genres organize different styles, forms, or subjects of literature. Some sources believe fiction is categorized by genre fiction and literary fiction, while others believe that literary fiction is a subgenre of fiction itself. The same arguments exist within nonfiction genres, except nonfiction is organized by subject matter or writing style.
Whichever way you look at it, all nonfiction and fiction have distinct genres and subgenres that overlap, and there’s no single way to categorize literature without spurring controversy. If you’re ever doubtful about a particular book, try checking the publisher’s website.
What is literary fiction?
If we stick to the dry characteristics of literary fiction, we can define it as any writing that produces an underlying commentary on the human condition. More specifically, literary fiction often involves a metaphorical, poetic narrative or critique around topics such as war, gender, race, sex, economy, or political ideologies.
Literary fiction examples:
- Quicksand by Nella Larsen
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
- The Sellout by Paul Beatty
What is genre fiction?
Broadly speaking, genre fiction (or popular fiction) is any writing with a specific theme and the author’s marketability toward a particular audience (aka, the novel is likely a part of a book series). The most common genres of “genre fiction” include:
- Science Fiction
Crime fiction and mystery
Crime fiction and mystery novels focus on the motivation of police, detectives, or criminals during an investigation. Four major subgenres of crime fiction and mystery include detective novels, cozy mysteries, caper stories, and police procedurals.
Crime fiction and mystery examples:
- The Godfather by Mario Puzo
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
The fantasy genre traditionally occurs in medieval-esque settings and often includes mythical creatures such as wizards, elves, and dragons.
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
The romance genre features stories about romantic relationships with a focus on intimate details. Romance themes often involve betrayal or heroism and elements of sensuality, idealism, morality, and desire.
- Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
- Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
Science fiction is one of the largest growing genres because it encompasses several subgenres, such as dystopian, apocalyptic, superhero, or space travel themes. All sci-fi novels incorporate real or imagined scientific concepts within the past, future, or a different dimension of time.
Science fiction examples:
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Suspense and horror
Sometimes described as two separate genres, suspense and horror writing focuses on the pursuit and escape of a main character or villain. Suspense writing uses cliffhangers to “grip” readers, but we can distinguish the horror genre through supernatural, demonic, or occult themes.
Suspense and horror examples:
- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
- The Shining by Stephen King
Genres of nonfiction
Finally, we meet again in the nonfiction section. When it comes to nonfiction literature, the most common genres include:
- Autobiography/Biography (see “prose narratives”)
- Narrative nonfiction
A memoir recounts the memories and experiences for a specific timeline in an author’s life. But unlike an autobiography, a memoir is less chronological and depends on memories and emotions rather than fact-checked research.
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Self-help writing focuses on delivering a lesson plan for self-improvement. Authors of self-help books describe experiences like a memoir, but the overall purpose is to teach readers a skill that the author possesses.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
The expository genre introduces or “exposes,” a complex subject to readers in an understandable manner. Expository books often take the form of children’s books to provide a clear, educational summary on topics such as history and science.
Examples of adult vs. children’s expository books include:
- Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson
- A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami Decristofano
Narrative nonfiction (or “creative nonfiction”) tells a true story in the form of literary fiction. In this case, the author presents an autobiography or biography with an emphasis on storytelling over chronology.
The line between creative nonfiction and literary fiction is thin when the narrative’s presentation is too subjective, and when specific facts are omitted or exaggerated. Literary scholars refer to such works as “faction,” a portmanteau word for writing that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction (Murfin 177).
Narrative nonfiction examples:
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Additional resources for nonfiction vs. fiction?
Understanding the elements of fiction vs. nonfiction writing is a common core standard for language arts (ELA) programs. If you’re looking to learn specific forms of fiction and nonfiction writing, The Word Counter provides additional articles, such as:
- Transition Words: How, When, and Why to Use Them
- What Are the Most Cringe-Worthy English Grammar Mistakes?
- Italics and Underlining: Titles of Books
Before you visit your next writing workshop, class discussion, or literacy center, test how well you understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction with the following multiple-choice questions (no peeking into Google!)
- True or false: An author’s imagination does not invent nonfiction writing.
- Which term is synonymous with fiction?
d. None of the above
- Which is a type of nonfiction writing?
d. Short stories
- Which is not a trait of literary fiction?
a. Underlying commentary on the human condition
b. Poetic narrative
c. Social and political commentary
d. None of the above
- Which genre of nonfiction is the closest to literary fiction?
c. Narrative nonfiction
- “Essay.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
- “Fiction.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
- MasterClass. “What Is the Mystery Genre? Learn About Mystery and Crime Fiction, Plus 6 Tips for Writing a Mystery Novel.” MasterClass, 15 Aug 2019.
- Mazzeo, T.J. “Writing Creative Nonfiction.” The Great Courses, 2012, pp.4.
- Murfin, R., Supryia M. Ray. “The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.” Third Ed, Bedford/St. Martins, 2009, pp. 177-340.
- “Nonfiction.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.World Heritage Encyclopedia. “List of Literary Genres.” World Library Foundation, 2020.