Fiction vs. Nonfiction: What is the Difference Between Fiction and Nonfiction?

Sean Glatch  |  January 17, 2023  | 

Works of prose are typically divided into one of two categories: fiction vs. nonfiction. A work of fiction might resemble the real world, but it certainly did not happen in real life. Nonfiction, on the other hand, should not contain any fiction, as the writer’s credibility comes from the truthfulness of the story.

Any writer of fiction vs. nonfiction will use different skills and strategies to write in each genre. Yet, fiction and nonfiction are more alike than you might realize. Additionally, there are many works of prose that fall somewhere in between the fiction vs. nonfiction binary.

This article examines, in detail, the writing strategies available to prose writers of fiction and nonfiction. It also examines the fiction vs. nonfiction binary, and offers insight into the role that “truth” plays in both genres of literature.

But first, let’s uncover what writers mean when they categorize a work of prose as fiction vs. nonfiction. What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Definitions

Let’s begin by defining each of these categories of literature. The main difference between fiction and nonfiction has to do with “what actually transpired in the real world.”

“Fiction” refers to stories that have not occurred in real life. Fiction may resemble real life, and it may even pull from real life events or people. But the story itself, the “what happens in this text,” is ultimately invented by the author.

“Nonfiction,” on the other hand, refers to stories that have occurred in real life. The story may have happened in the author’s life, in the life of someone the author has interviewed, or in the life of a historical figure. It also describes works of journalism, science writing, and other forms of “reality-based” writing.

To further complicate things, writers might categorize something as being either “creative nonfiction” or, simply, “nonfiction.” This article discusses strategies for writing both, but with an emphasis on creative nonfiction, such as memoir and personal essays, as those skills apply to most forms of prose.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: A way of categorizing literature based on whether it happened in the real world (nonfiction) or didn’t (fiction).

Now, while these two categories exist, it’s worth noting that certain genres of writing sit somewhere in the middle. Some genres that straddle the fiction vs. nonfiction border are:

  • Autobiographical fiction (also known as autofic). An example is The Idiot by Elif Batuman.
  • Speculative nonfiction, or writing in which invented truths are not at odds with what transpired in real life.
  • Historical fiction, which typically involves the accurate retelling of real life historical events, with fictional characters and plots woven through that history.

But wait, how can a work of literature be both true and not true? We’ll explore that paradox later in this article. First, let’s explore the possibilities of fiction and nonfiction.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Examples of Each Category

The following genres can be classified as types of fiction:

Meanwhile, these are different types of nonfiction:

  • Memoirs.
  • Personal essays.
  • Biographies and autobiographies.
  • Books about history.
  • Periodicals.
  • Lyric essays.
  • Journalism, articles, food writing, travel writing, and other forms of feature writing.
  • Scholarly articles.

Learn more about different types of nonfiction here:

Characteristics of Fiction vs. Nonfiction

As you can see above, fiction and nonfiction are both expansive categories of literature. So, it’s impossible to describe all of fiction or nonfiction as being any particular thing. If I were to say “all fiction is about stories that haven’t actually happened,” that isn’t true, because genres like autofic and historical fiction exist.

Nonetheless, there are a few differences and similarities that can generally be stated about fiction vs. nonfiction. The differences include:

  • Whether the story is made up or real.
  • How the writer creates a plot for the story.
  • The role research plays in telling the story.
  • How themes are explored within the story.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Did It Actually Happen?

As we’ve already mentioned, the main difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether or not the story occurred in real life. In nonfiction, the story did occur in the real world; in fiction, it did not.

Fictional stories can be rooted in real-life events, but the scenes, plotline, and characters are invented by the author, even if they’re based on real people.

You might think of a couple of exceptions here. Historical fiction, for example, is often based on real historical events, such as Civil War stories. While the setting for the story happened in real life, and might even involve real historical figures, there are also fictional characters in the story, and the majority of scenes and plot points were fictionalized as well. If historical fiction interests you, check out our interview with Jack Smith on his novel If Winter Comes.

Another exception, in all seriousness, is fanfiction. Yes, Harry Styles fanfiction does involve a living, real life person. But the author is making assumptions, assigning character traits, and inventing plot points for Harry Styles that did not actually occur in the real world.

The point: fiction writers can (and always do!) borrow from real life. They might even tell their own stories as though they were fiction. Even in those instances, there are always details that are added, embellished, or altered to tell a more engaging story, so the stories themselves are still fictional.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: What’s the Plot?

Fiction writers use plot as scaffolding for a story. By plot, we mean the way that the events of a story are organized from start to finish. Our article on plot structures offers different ways that fiction writers have used plot to tell their stories.

This is true even of literary fiction, which is typically defined as realistic fiction in which the characters’ decisions drive the story forward, and the characters themselves form the story. (This is a somewhat problematic distinction between genre fiction, but we discuss that in our article on literary fiction vs. genre fiction.) In those stories, plot is centered around the conflict in the story itself.

In nonfiction, the author’s goal is to organize what actually transpired in the real world into a cogent plot. For many writers, that means telling the story in a linear fashion, with careful attention to the most salient details and how they’re presented to the reader.

Of course, many creative nonfiction writers do tell stories non-linearly, particularly in genres like the braided essay, lyric essay, and hermit crab essay.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: The Role of Research

Most prose writers will have to do some amount of research to craft effective works of fiction and nonfiction. Memoirists may be able to tell their story entirely without research, but anything to verify the accuracy of information counts as research, such as looking up old emails, the streets and locations of certain events, etc. Rarely can one’s memory suffice to tell an entire story.

Fiction writers integrate their research into the story. Let’s say your story is set in New York, a city you’ve visited, but never lived in. You have a character that lives in Bushwick, which is served by the L, M, J, and Z trains. You may need to research that, and when that research is integrated into the story, you’ll write that your character “took the L train.” (In other words, you will not write “I discovered that Bushwick is served by the L train, which my character took into Manhattan.”)

In nonfiction, research informs the story, and is directly cited in the text. Let’s say your story involves New York rent and the aforementioned L train. You might be writing about the time that the city almost shut down the L train—they needed to do repairs to the tunnel beneath the East River connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. When it was announced that this service was going to be suspended, rents drastically dropped in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a recently gentrified neighborhood, and many people locked in historically low rents. People were very upset about this sudden closure, and the L service was later not suspended, meaning, ironically, a bunch of people got cheap rents without losing train service.

This is the kind of story that a journalist might write about. Or, you might be someone who locked in that cheap rent, and it’s part of the story of your time living in Williamsburg. In any case, if it’s nonfiction, you’ll want to cite it directly in the text. A journalist might cite people that they interviewed, or a city historian might cite this article and this article. Someone writing creative nonfiction might not need to add a citation, but they would still want to research and communicate the details here so that the reader has context for their story.

To summarize: fiction writers integrate research into their stories, while nonfiction writers cite research to bolster and verify their stories.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction: How Themes are Explored

Theme refers to the overarching ideas presented and explored throughout the story.

Fiction writers explore themes implicitly; for them, the theme of a story is rarely stated. If, for example, the theme of a story is “justice,” then the fiction writer might explore who receives justice, who doesn’t, and how that justice (or lack thereof) is doled out. However, the fiction writer will not say “this character did not receive justice” explicitly—that’s for the reader to understand and form their own opinion about.

Nonfiction writers typically state their themes more openly. In a memoir or essay, the writer might explore why justice was or was not given to them, what factors went into that decision, and what it means to live a life after being (or not being) dispensed justice.

Some nonfiction writers might explore themes without stating them, or even without realizing they’re exploring them. But, because the nonfiction writer wants to convey what it was like to be the subject of the story, they will inevitably explore, and therefore openly state, the deeper parts of the story itself. This includes the author’s emotions, background, external circumstances, and the themes and conclusions that they drew from their experiences.

Similarities Between Fiction and Nonfiction

Despite the above differences, fiction and nonfiction have many similarities, too. In brief, these similarities include:

  • The interplay of plot, characters, and settings to explore themes and ideas. While the people of nonfiction stories might not be considered “characters,” they are people presented in a certain way, and with a certain intent, on the page.
  • Utilizing prose to tell a story. Fiction and nonfiction writers can both experiment with this: novelists have included poetry in their stories, and essayists, particularly lyric essayists and hermit crab essayists, often play with the prose form.
  • The desire to entertain, inform, enlighten, challenge, and/or move the reader.

Fiction vs. Nonfiction Venn Diagram

What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? The below Venn Diagram summarizes what’s similar and different about the two genres. Virtually all things in the world of literature have exceptions, so while the below is not true 100% of the time, it’s a good place to start teasing out the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

fiction vs. nonfiction venn diagram

Fiction Nonfiction Both
Invented from the writer’s imagination. Occurred in the real world. Require the interplay of plot, characters, and settings to explore themes and ideas.
Utilizes plot structures and conventions to tell a story. Follows the plot of a story that actually happened. Are written in prose, though the writer can experiment with this.
Research is woven into the story. Research is stated and cited within the story. Are written to entertain, inform, enlighten, challenge, and/or move the reader.
Themes are usually explored implicitly. Themes are usually stated explicitly.

The Role of “Truth” in Fiction and Nonfiction

The primary difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether or not the story happened in the real world. Yet, we’ve already mentioned three example genres in which fact and fiction can coexist peacefully. So, how much does “truth” matter in fiction vs. nonfiction?

Certainly, most works of nonfiction must be entirely factual. Memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, scholarly works, books about history, and journalism must all adhere to what actually transpired in the real world. When works of nonfiction fabricate details, someone is bound to figure that out eventually, and the ensuing scandal probably isn’t worth it.

At the same time, there’s something to be said about “truth” as a multifaceted concept. One person’s truth can be different than another’s; two people can both have honest, differing interpretations about the exact same event. What matters more than truth, if anything, is honesty.

When memoirists publish their work as memoirs, they assert to the reader that what transpired in the text actually occurred in real life. (So, publishing a memoir about wandering Nazi-torn Europe and being adopted by wolves would not be true or honest, even if it’s a potent metaphor for how the author felt.)

Yet, a memoirist might include information in the novel that’s controversial, in dispute, or otherwise not verifiably true. Does that mean the author lied to their reader?

It really depends on the writer and what they wrote. Consider a few things:

  1. Emotional truth is sometimes at odds with factual truth. That’s not to say you should invent a metaphor and claim it actually happened. But, the brain works in weird ways, makes odd associations, and reacts to the truth strangely. As a result, your brain might distort memories to make an intense emotion make sense. What the writer conveys to the reader is still an accurate portrayal of how they experienced something, even though their memory of the event itself has been skewed..
  2.  Relatedly, memory is fallible. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you will inevitably forget, distort, or invent details in the memories you set on the page. Research on flashbulb memories proves that none of us remember exactly how we experience our own lives. But, often, the details we do invent have a profound psychological importance, and can still provide moving imagery and description to the story.
  3. All writing, particularly literature, requires some form of invention. What we mean by this is, real life is far, far messier than literature. In literature, we use plot as a way of organizing a story, and within that story, the details of settings and characters are carefully chosen to explore broader themes and ideas. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. By asserting these craft elements into retellings of reality, we inevitably neglect certain details, or insert our biases and prejudices into the ways we frame a story. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t strive for the truth—we should—but it is to say that the entire truth may never be properly conveyed. Again, honesty matters more.

Why bring this up? Because all creative nonfiction is an exploration of the truth. And, as all writers know, the truth is far, far messier than fiction. Few truths are absolute. As such, an author’s integrity and dedication to honesty matters much more.

As for fiction, the events of the story are usually fabricated—though writers always pull details from their own lived experiences. Dostoevsky named characters after his children; Steinbeck set the majority of his stories in Central California, where he grew up; Murakami’s novels frequently feature jazz, classical music, baseball, cats, and other things of intimate importance to his life. Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being involves characters Ruth and Oliver, named after the author and her husband. The fictional characters have similar traits to the real life Ruth and Oliver.

Sometimes, a work of fiction is rooted in nonfiction, with only some elements added or fabricated. For example, our instructor Barbara Henning’s novel Thirty Miles to Rosebud is semi-autobiographical.

And, of course, many works of fiction involve completely fictitious elements, especially in genres like fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Even for those genres, however, fiction should still try to arrive at some fundamental truth. Good fiction will inevitably (though not intentionally) teach the reader something about themselves, about others, and/or about the world around them.

Writing Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Many prose writers dabble in both fiction and nonfiction. Which should you write? Are there differences in writing one versus the other? What’s the main difference between fiction and nonfiction writing?

As we’ve discussed, the primary difference between fiction and nonfiction is whether the story occurred in real life. So, the primary difference in writing fiction vs. nonfiction comes down to the concept of “story” itself.

Our instructor Jeff Lyons argues that a story is a metaphor for the human experience. When we follow the plots of characters who must become different people to overcome certain obstacles, we see ourselves and our shared humanities reflected in those stories. To achieve this metaphor, the author must follow certain plot structures. Even in literary fiction, which often breaks the rules of plot structure, the plot must organize and enhance the story that’s being told, since plot is always what develops from the decisions that characters make.

Nonfiction, particularly creative nonfiction, also follows stories of adversity. In fact, most memoir publishers prefer to sell books about people overcoming adversity—feelgood stories sell better than ones that end on a low note. Yet, these stories aren’t metaphors, they actually happened. And, the author isn’t trying to follow a plot structure, the author is trying to organize the story details into a plot that people can follow.

And, other types of nonfiction are less concerned about plot, and more concerned about sharing information. Book length projects might have a plot, but many scholarly works and periodicals don’t need a plot, and many works of journalism follow the Inverted Pyramid. (There are, always, exceptions to these generalities.)

To summarize: Writing fiction involves crafting a story to create metaphors for the human experience. Writing nonfiction involves organizing factual information into a story that readers will best understand.

Outside of these differences, fiction and nonfiction typically utilize the same elements, at least in varying degrees. They both have characters, storylines, and themes, they both benefit from the tactics of stylish writing, and they both seek to inform, move, and captivate their readers.

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Explore the distinction between fiction vs. nonfiction (and everything in between!) at Our fiction writing and nonfiction writing classes will help you discover your story and write it stylishly.

Sean Glatch

Sean Glatch is a poet, storyteller, and screenwriter based in New York City. His work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Milk Press,8Poems, The Poetry Annals, on local TV, and elsewhere. When he's not writing, which is often, he thinks he should be writing.

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