It all began in 1965 with Truman Capote's four part serial for The New Yorker (later published as a book) titled In Cold Blood. This detailed account of the murder of the Clutter family, the criminals behind the deed, and the investigators who solved the crime, became the first nonfiction book to be written using fiction techniques. Truman Capote called his new genre the "nonfiction novel," and the combination of journalistic reporting and fiction-writing techniques engrossed readers nation wide.
Since then, the genre has been called "creative nonfiction." However, this too is a misnomer, for it leads many novice writers to believe that they can create or make-up facts, details, or dialogue. In truth, a more accurate term for this genre is "dramatic nonfiction." To produce a piece of dramatic nonfiction successfully, the writer must utilize dramatic writing techniques while also proving all information as fact. Such an undertaking is painstaking to say the least.
In the case of true crime stories, the author – when possible – interviews the victim, witnesses, culprits, investigators, and attorneys, while also reading a myriad of documents like court transcripts and witness testimonies to collaborate all the facts. No thought or feeling is added unless the author can confirm it with documented corroboration. The author must have proof that the subject wore a red dress, or that the weather was cloudy, along with every other detail stated in the piece.
In their 1991 book Private Lives of Ministers' Wives (New Horizon Press, Far Hills, NJ), Liz Greenbacker and Reverend Sherry Taylor contradict the commonly held belief that the minister's wife is perfect. Chapter 1 details the events of one minister's wife as she places a plastic bag over her head to commit suicide. Every detail - from her thought that seeking professional help for her depression would ruin her husband's reputation to the stale, warm air she breathed as the bag closed in around her mouth – is 100% accurate.
The authors extensively interviewed this woman, getting all the facts from the subject herself. How? Obviously, the suicide attempt failed. Had it been successful, Ms. Greenbacker and Reverend Taylor would not have been able to write this episode with such vivid clarity for they would not have been able to prove all the facts and details.
Not surprisingly, many writers delve into the genre of dramatic nonfiction by writing about events from his or her life. The research for such an essay or book is easier as the author often has all documentation readily available and can verify all facts through personal or family member diaries, photo albums, and interviews.
Then, the author brings those facts to life using fiction-writing techniques. Action verbs, verb tense, sentence structure variety, vocabulary choices, dialogue, and paragraph placement aid the dramatic nonfiction writer in creating tension, emotion, and drama.
The first-person dramatic nonfiction piece is similar to, but should not be confused with, the personal essay or memoir. In the personal essay, the author can take several true incidents and combine them into one moment in time while adding in details that may or may not be accurate but prove the premise. The personal essayist writing about feeling sad on her first day of school might mirror her mood by saying the weather was raining even if it had been sunny.
In a memoir, the writer pens experience the way it is remembered. This writer might remember rain on her first day of school, but her mother might remember it as a sunny day.
In a dramatic nonfiction piece, the author checks the weather account for that first day of school and relates it accurately.
To this day the power of Truman Capote's genre captivates readers of all ages. One need only walk into a bookstore or library and find the true crime section to witness the popularity of dramatic nonfiction.
With twenty-four hour news channels, thirty-second sound bites, and Internet sites like http://www.smokinggun.com, today's readers are savvier and more demanding. The recent controversy over the accuracy of James Fey's book A Million Little Pieces further proves how the line between truth and fiction is becoming more and more blurred, and how today's writer must be ever more vigilant in following each genre's guidelines.
Judy L. Adourian is the founder and owner of Writeyes, a teaching, critiquing, and support network for writers. She is the Executive Editor for NEWN, a quarterly magazine that publishes poetry, short stories, personal essays, and novel excerpts. She is also a member of the International Women's Writing Guild and is their Rhode Island regional representative. Currently, Ms. Adourian is co-editing a book titled Going Potty, a collection of humorous essays about the challenges of potty training and actively seeking submissions. She can be contacted through her website http://www.writeyes.com