People sometimes ask whether a novel can be nonfiction. To answer that question, you need to know two things: what a novel is, and what nonfiction is. Let’s look at each of these separately.
What is a novel?
A novel is a term defining both genre and length.
A novel is a book with a story-like structure. That means its story follows an arc. That’s a fancy way of saying that its sequence of events is told in a logically predictable manner. There are many types of arcs, but here is the basic structure:
Stasis → Climax → Resolution
Stasis is a fancy word that simply describes the point at which a story begins. Climax is the height of action, and the resolution is how the conflict in the story comes to an end. As in real life, a sequence of events can describe a single event or lots of smaller events combined to form one large event.
Writers put their own spin on each of the elements of a story arc using their own creativity and a good deal of skill. This is why there can be millions of novels, all with the same common story arc, but never with exactly the same story.
Nonfiction is as capable of being told in a story-like fashion as fiction is. All you have to do is take a look at your local newspaper, especially those stories about politics and crime. Stories unfold with an opening, then rise to a high-stakes event, and eventually resolve. They can be of any subgenre except science fiction, because by definition, it is fiction.
But a newspaper is not a novel. Although journalism is gradually beginning to borrow many of the elements that writers use in fiction (creating a new format referred to sometimes as “new journalism”), news writing does not equate to a novel because it’s nonfiction that reports on events that are happening in the current time.
Nonfiction as a novel (sometimes called “narrative nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction”) tells real stories from the perspective of the distant past. That past can be years or months. What counts is the writer’s intent…and length of the book.
Here at Short Story Book Club, we consider short stories as works that run about 200 pages or less. Sometimes more, but generally less. It puts defining short stories in a decidedly gray area, making it a topic too broad to address here.
All we need to know for now is that books longer than a short story but shorter than a tome would be what we’d consider a novel. That said, defining length can be tricky. Counting two hundred pages for a book of size 6” x 9” is a little different for a book of size 5” x 8”.
To overcome the size problem, some people refer instead to word count, which can be yet another gray area. Some people say novels start at 40,000 words. Others say it’s 50,000 or more.
Word count, for sure, is the more precise way of defining the length of a novel. If you have an electronic copy of a manuscript, you can use one of the many tools available online for gauging word count. There are also sites that list word counts for popular books already in print. Without access to either of these methods, you’d have to count the words in a book on your own, either one by one or by estimating the number of words on a page and then multiplying by the number of pages in the book. But as the kids say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” So, unless precision is necessary, the best way to decide whether a book is a novel is by its page count.
“But wait a minute,” I hear you say. “I go to the bookstore all the time and see short books with the words ‘A Novel’ on the cover.”
It’s true, there is a new trend these days to label books as novels even if they’re technically short stories. This phenomenon is the result of creative marketing. A savvy publisher figured out one day that if you call a book a novel, more people would be likely to read it. So now it’s a thing.
Nonfiction can be of any length, so there’s nothing keeping you from calling a work of nonfiction a novel if it meets both the length and genre criteria we just discussed.
So what makes something nonfiction? At its most basic level, nonfiction is anything true. It’s the opposite of fiction, which is a story about things that are made up. That’s the long and short of it, but there’s also a bit of gray.
In addition to retelling stories from the distant past, narrative nonfiction or creative nonfiction sometimes slips into a gray area of its own.
Without being dishonest, a nonfiction writer may bend the truth for narrative effect. An author might write about what another person is thinking or fill in the blanks of a true story with logical events for context. The writer isn’t lying but adds elements of good storytelling to get the story across.
Whether it’s ethical to write nonfiction with sprinkles of fiction is open for LOTS of debate. There are writers who believe that paraphrasing quotes is akin to writing absolute fiction. There are others who believe just the opposite. These questions about what constitutes truth permeate through all media.
So, when deciding whether something is in fact nonfiction, using your own judgement about what matters to you in terms of “truthiness” or whether such a thing as “alternative facts” exist is probably the most important consideration for deciding whether something is nonfiction.
The Nonfiction Novel
Putting everything we’ve discussed together, we can say that a nonfiction novel can indeed exist and that it has these characteristics:
- It is has a story-like structure.
- It has a length of about 200 pages or more.
- It tells a story that is true.