A special challenge of narrative nonfiction is deciding how closely you want to stick to the truth. Do you want to be fully dedicated to it, come what may? Or do you want to soften some blows, change some names to protect the guilty? Maybe you feel a little creative exaggeration will make for a more engaging story.
There is a very real danger in drifting from the truth when you write your story as narrative nonfiction. Remember that the difference between narrative nonfiction and other types is that narrative uses fiction techniques to tell a true story. That does imply that the story is still true.
Bestselling authors and major news organizations have been forced to retract ostensibly nonfiction stories that turned out to be false. One recent incident involved Rolling Stone magazine’s campus rape story. This story included some vividly dramatized scenes—written like a novel—with fully formed dialogue and everything. That kind of artistic license can get a writer in trouble.
In his article “The Re-Creationist Myth” on the Lingua Franca site, Ben Yagoda analyzes the Rolling Stone story to see how the writer’s dramatic techniques produced a narrative that was engaging—but ultimately too far afield from the truth. The writer describes in precise detail events she did not witness. The biggest mistake she made was neglecting to interview the person she identifies as “Drew”—the primary perpetrator. That his voice is not included in the story was one of the inconsistencies which led to the story’s retraction, and to allegations that “Drew” doesn’t even exist.
Re-creationism is a device that can work really well in the telling of stories in which a protagonist does not encounter an antagonist, but that in other kinds of stories has inevitable flaws.—Ben Yagoda
James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces,* fell into this trap. He invented so much in his “memoir” that as more and more of the details were debunked by investigative journalists, his publisher had to add a disclaimer stating that the book is a combination of facts from the author’s life and “certain embellishments,” which is putting it lightly.
The further from documentable truth you get, the more you need to clue your readers in to what you are doing. One technique memoirists and other narrative nonfiction writers use is creating composite characters. This allows two or three characters to represent, for example, your entire high school class. Homer H. Hickam Jr. does this in his memoir Rocket Boys, but he says so in an author’s note at the front of the book. He tells us that some peoples’ names have been changed, and that he “sometimes combined two or more people into one when I felt it necessary for clarification and simplification.” Hickam also admits to having “taken certain liberties in the telling of the story, particularly having to do with the precise sequence of events and who may have said what to whom.”
This kind of disclaimer is necessary when you bend the truth to tell your story.
In an article for Poynter Online, a journalism site, Roy Peter Clark outlines two basic principles:
- Don’t add to a story things that didn’t happen.
- Don’t deceive your reader.
He writes, “It is not the fiction that’s the problem, but the deception.”
So if you use techniques like invented dialogue or composite characters, add a disclaimer to let readers know you have done so. Just don’t mislead people into believing things that are not true.
*—Not to be confused with James N. Frey of the How to Write a Damn Good Novel series, who will straight up tell you when he’s writing fiction.