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What is Narrative Non-Fiction?

Kristina Stanley

Narrative non-fiction is a book written in the format of a novel but based on a true story.  The important words are novel and true.

Walt LarimoreI’d like to share a true story about a narrative non-fiction story that was edited in Fictionary StoryTeller. The book is at First Light. The author is Walt Larimore.

Walt Larimore spent 16 years of writing and researching at First Light, a narrative non-fiction about his father, Phil Larimore.

This shows you the first important thing about narrative non-fiction.

  • this genre requires a lot of research

His agent shopped the first version to over 40 publishers, and sadly, all rejected the novel. “I thought he could write, but obviously he can’t,” was one harsh response from a publisher. Walt did an entire rewrite, and still no one was interested. The story needed a clear protagonist.

This shows you the second  important thing about narrative non-fiction

  • A clear protagonist is key to a successful story

Then Walt found Fictionary which showed him the story arc – it was a roller coaster instead of an arc. The story began to emerge as Walt worked through each of the 38 Fictionary Story Elements. After all the previous rejections, Walt was brave enough to resubmit the version he edited in Fictionary, and see below for what happened next.

This shows you the third important element of narrative non-fiction

  • narrative non-fiction is an art form that requires strong story structure, just like a novel does.

Walt’s agent shopped the novel yet again. Three days later, he received 3 offers from 3 major publishers. at First Light is published by Knox Press (Simon and Schuster). It’s been nominated for 5 international awards, including the Military Writers’s Award for America. The first edition sold out and the second edition has been ordered.

Our message: Persistence pays off

We couldn’t be happier for Walt and his success with at First Light. Imagine if he’d given up and hadn’t changed the way he structured the story.  There are many book in this genre that have had success because they were written in story form.  Below, we share a link that lists 30 books that have been hugely successful because they structured a narrative non-fiction like a novel.

Top 3 Elements a Narrative Non-Fiction Story Needs

So back to what is narrative non-fiction.

It’s a story based on true events, and people love to read a story

  1. with a protagonist they can follow
  2. where the protagonist has a clear goal
  3. and there is something important at stake

When you’re writing your story, be clear on who the story is about. That’s the protagonist. It’s not enough just to have a protagonist. That protagonist must do something. And that’s where the goal comes into play.

Once there is a clear goal, there must be something at stake that depends on whether the protagonist reaches that goal or doesn’t reach the goal. Without something at stake, there is no story.

The Story Structure

A strong story structure will turn a mediocre book into a page-turner.  Check out Plot of a Story: Definitions and Examples for an overview of story structure. Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor Sherry Leclerc has done a wonderful job explaining the basics of story structure.

Examples of Narrative Non-Fiction

Check out 30 of the Best Narrative Nonfiction Books that read like fiction. I’ll bet you can find the top 3 elements in each of the blurbs. See if you can pick out the protagonist, what the protagonist’s story goal is, and what’s at stake.

Then try to write a blurb for your story that has these 3 elements. That will show you if you’re on your way to a best-selling narrative non-fiction story.

Where to Start A Story Edit

Just like a novel, your story will have scenes and chapters. Check out How to Write a Scene to get started.

Fictionary StoryTeller guides you through a structural edit of your story focussing on character, plot, and setting.

You’ll have noticed how much focus I put on story. People love stories. There is no debating that. So make your story shine.


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