A non-fiction novel is simply a story that happens to be true.
Not every long story needs be a novel. A story can be told as a news report or a memoire. It just so happens that this true story was told as a novel. It contains:
- Characters that evolve over time
- Point of view (POV), in this case by the protagonist-narrator
- A plot – what makes it a story
- Suspense and anticipation, revealing just what is necessary for readers to keep wondering what comes next
- Foreshadowing, to create the anticipation and to prepare the reader
- Flashbacks, lots of flashbacks
- Dialogue, which you won’t find in a news report or a memoire
- Internal dialogue from the protagonist’s POV
- A deepening understanding of the forces behind the story as the plot proceeds
- Settings, including “exotic” sites, such as an industrial park, a bank, a post office, a construction zone and a military base
There are no rules for writing a novel. There is no single, correct path. This is the path I took, and will probably be useful for 90 percent of readers, 80 percent of the time. (I made up that probability calculation, by the way.)
Start at the most important point in the story. As with any novel, you do not have to start at the beginning. You can, if you like. The Wizard of Oz starts at the beginning. The Lord of the Rings starts at the beginning. I just prefer to jump into the action.
Research for accuracy. In fiction, you can make up exciting places like Ventopia or Smoresville. In non-fiction, you need to get the details right. If you mention a 30 foot wall around an abbey and somebody happens to walk by that abbey, there had better be a 30 foot wall. Fortunately, Google Streetview makes some of that research easier.
It is fair game to change names of people or places if you wish to protect the identity of the innocent. Or of the guilty, because sometimes the guilty have tanks parked in their garages. If you do, best to include that in a disclaimer, mentioning that Smoresville does not actually exist.
Consult a libel lawyer. As a ghostwriter, this is not my problem. But I do flag things that I suspect might be dangerous to a client. And I do mention repeatedly that they need to consult a libel lawyer, until they finally burst out screaming, “OK, OK! I get it. I’ll run it by a lawyer.”
Develop characters. In this case, the protagonist does not develop much over the course of the story itself. But he does build his later strategy on his earlier experiences. Ample flashbacks help readers see how he developed. They also help readers see how he views new events in light of his previous experiences.
The antagonist doesn’t develop over the course of the story, either, but the unfolding of his true nature is revealed through flashbacks, as well.
You have to make readers feel like they are getting to know the characters better, and that those characters are in some way growing.
Flashbacks for backstory. Yes, I might have overused flashbacks. But it makes the story so much more dynamic when you can bring in relevant events of the past where they explain or set the stage for events of the present. Much of thrill of many a book is in the flashbacks.
Documentation. It’s a true story, right? Are there court records? Is there correspondence? Are there media reports? Gather the evidence, make reference to some of it. Quote sparingly from the documentation, just enough that readers get a sense that this is not just fiction.
Dialogue. This is a great way to explain many things that otherwise would be nothing more than a long-winded narrative. Often the dialogue is within the protagonist’s head, giving readers two views in one:
- what is happening
- how the protagonist feels about what is happening
Can you add some fiction? Can you make up some details? Sure. Why not? It’s a novel. Just be very careful how you present it. If you make up anything that significantly changes the sorry, it becomes fiction. If you don’t put a disclaimer, such as “fiction based on a true story”, you’ll be a dirty rotten liar. You don’t want that, do you?
In the case of the novel I wrote, I did make up some details:
- Descriptions of incidental people: to avoid identifying them.
- Specific quotes in the dialogue: more succinct wording for a better read than the rambling discussions of real life (and who can recall the exact words spoken a couple years ago, anyway?)
- Dialogue between a couple of the main characters. Some dialogue was added that might not have happened – dialogue that gives readers the two views I mentioned earlier. CAVEAT: Do this only with people who are willing to sign off on that dialogue. You can’t put words in somebody’s mouth without his or her permission.
The key to making things up and still writing the true story is that the reader sees what really happened. The meaning of the events has not been changed. The essence of the dialogue has been faithfully captured.
A non-fiction novel is easy to write, because you don’t have to make up the plot. However, it might also be hard to write, because you cannot play much with the plot. You do control a few things:
- the order in which you include each event
- what to include and what to leave out
- what you emphasize
- point of view
If you enjoy writing, but creating a plot is not your strong suit, this is exactly the genre for you. Any biography can become a non-fiction novel. Any story of a business can be written as a non-fiction novel. And I am willing to bet, if you are creative enough, any how-to book could be written as a non-fiction novel. Maybe.