NON-FICTION KNOWHOW Narrative non-fiction

'Narrative non-fiction' is a buzz-word among agents and publishers. But what exactly is it? In the second of our series of Non-fiction KnowHow, Words & Pictures Co-editor, Claire Watts, explains.

What is narrative non-fiction?

Most non-fiction written for children describes facts or explains them. You might have a book about what life in the ocean is like, for example, or about how the universe came to be. These books are likely to be highly illustrated and the information will probably be very clear and simple to find and may be broken into small, easily digestible chunks.

Narrative non-fiction, or creative non-fiction, by contrast, uses the techniques of fiction in order to tell a story that is factually accurate. The best narrative non-fiction combines accurate research with compelling story-telling so that information is communicated in a way that reads like a work of fiction. The child reader is driven through the book by the narrative structure, picking up information as they go.

In recent years, educators have begun to recognise the importance of narrative non-fiction. These books give children who are more interested in information than story a chance to tackle long-form texts. They help readers learn to glean information from longer texts, a skill they need to interpret the increasingly lengthy and information-dense texts they'll come across in education and the workplace.

Elements of fiction in narrative non-fiction 

In narrative non-fiction, you may find elements of story-telling such as:
  • a narrator
  • a central character who will experience the events of the story and is likely to be changed by them
  • a set of scenes that follow one after another
  • a particular setting
  • dialogue
  • dramatic tension 

Accuracy in narrative non-fiction 

There are no rules! Some writers veer away from making up conversations for real people, while others use dialogue to make scenes more dramatic and convey information. When writing about animals, some authors may anthropomorphise their characters, while others keep their distance. It’s a matter of finding the tone that works to tell your story.

Why write information as narrative non-fiction?

A narrative structure is a way of holding the reader’s attention. The reader invests in the character or the situation presented at the beginning of the book and is willing to follow the story to see what happens.

In This Little Pebble, written by Anna Claybourne and illustrated by Sally Garland, a boy finding a pebble in his pocket is the start of a simple picture-book narrative that introduces the reader to geology.

Fiona's Robinson's Ada's Ideas is a biography of Ada Lovelace. Slightly more complex text along with stunning illustrations explain how Ada helped to create the world's earliest computer. 

Series such as Usbourne's True Stories, bring history to life for young readers through short, dramatic tales.


Difficulties to overcome

Some stories lend themselves to narrative non-fiction, while others do not. Biography is straightforward – the narrative of the subject’s life is already laid out – as is also the case with other
human stories. The further from human stories you go, the harder it is to write convincing narrative non-fiction without it seeming contrived. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult to pull off successfully. The constant problem is that key rule of writing fiction: “Show, don’t tell”. The narrative non-fiction book’s raison d’être is to convey information, but information cannot be allowed to interrupt the flow of the story.

Try it!

Many agents and publishers are keen to find new voices in this area. Well-researched and well-written narrative non-fiction tend to have a long life in libraries and schools. (And remember, having a long life in libraries means you get paid Public Lending Right long after your book has dropped off a publisher's backlist and out of print). Got a pet subject you'd love to pass on to children? Give it a go!

Claire Watts writes and edits non-fiction for children and is Co-editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her on

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