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Defining Creative Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography

In this post, learn the definitions and differences between creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, and biography so that you know which genre you're writing.

Q. At first I thought I was writing "narrative nonfiction." As I proceed through the book, I have begun to wonder whether I might be writing "creative nonfiction," or even an "autobiography." Could you please further elucidate the distinctions?
- Mark

A. Well let's see...Narrative nonfiction IS creative nonfiction. They are one in the same—the terms used interchangeably, though the former is more common right now. Both are used to define nonfiction that reads like a novel. Examples: Into the Wild, The Right Stuff, In Cold Blood, Seabiscuit. Films like Apollo 13, The Perfect Storm, etc. 

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When you're talking about a biography or an autobiography, you're talking about a work that really focuses on one individual. I tend to feel like autobiographies and biographies are usually for celebrities. Brad Pitt gets a biography... 

Defining Creative Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography

How do you know if your work is a memoir, biography, or narrative nonfiction?

Biographies tend to be sweeping—focusing on the whole life. Memoirs tend to focus on an aspect or time period of a life, though not always. For example, Marley & Me was about his time with the dog—THAT was the aspect. A Long Way Gone was a memoir written about a man's experience as a child soldier in Africa—THAT was the aspect. 

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Biographies tend to be about one person. Narrative nonfiction can focus on several or many. When the book is mostly about you, it's an autobiography. When the book is about bigger things than yourself, then it's narrative nonfiction. Know, however, that the term "narrative nonfiction" is typically used to describe books that are NOT about the author. 

And sometimes the genres can overlap. For example, a book I just got done writing about called Bonnie & Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend, by Paul Schneider is called a biography by the publishing company, but it feels more like narrative nonfiction to me. 


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