What Makes a Nonfiction Book?

We could answer this question simply by saying - it is not fiction. Leave it right there and we’d all be satisfied. Or would we? Things always seem simple until we start looking further into them. Black and white suddenly becomes about fifty-one shades of grey.

The Opposite of Fiction

Let's get this obvious statement out of the way.

We could say it is not fiction and walk away. That might suffice most of the time, but there are grey areas. Why not? They seem to exist in most areas of life. They exist even in book genres. Most things are not crystal clear only because someone makes the lines a little muddy between categories.

Fiction is a story that is not fact. It might be based on fact, but the story is not complete truth. It is written to entertain. Looking for truth in a fiction book could really lead you astray. Yet you can learn a lot from fiction books. Many theories, historical truths, and theological stances can be taught simply through a piece of fiction.

A nonfiction book is one that is full of facts….Okay, that can be argued quite vehemently as well depending on the topic, the author, and the one who wants to lynch me. ARGH! This is getting harder than I thought. Maybe we should just dive into the topic.


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The Truth/Facts

Nonfiction books present the truth. Facts are found in all nonfiction books. Now you can close your mouth before you catch flies or pick yourself up off the floor from the hysterical laughter you have from thinking I mean that, well entirely mean that. They don’t present them in a deliberate fictional setting. How’s that? Does that make you happy.

Okay, Webster defines nonfiction as “literature or cinema that is not fictional “. The intent is to present something that is not fictitious. Whether you want to claim it is...well that is a whole other matter. Whether the premise the nonfiction piece is based on is bogus, it is still considered nonfiction because it is meant to be factual and not fictional.

Is this still clear as mud? You thought you knew the answer and then I started throwing all sorts of monkey wrenches in the works. Let's look at other aspects.

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Style

Non-fiction books will not be told in story format. You will not pick them up and think you are reading a novel. The closest you’ll get to that will be biographies and autobiographies. Many of them can be written in a story style and still be nonfiction.

Most non-fiction books are informational in style as in an encyclopedia, textbook, or reference manual. Some are visual while others will not have a single image in the book aside from what is on the cover.

They present fact with references and supporting documentation. You might find maps, charts, diagrams, lists, and timelines in nonfiction books as well.


Intent

The intent for most nonfiction books is to share information. It is designed to teach and enlighten. A side benefit can be entertainment, but that is not the general purpose of most non-fiction books.

Some nonfiction books come from research and dissertations. They are looking to prove a theory or explore a different facet of a particular topic. These books might be the ones contested as fiction, but the intent is to explore the facts. Whether or not you agree with the premise doesn't make it a fictional piece. It is the intent.

Types

There are several types of non-fiction books. I’ve alluded to a few, but let’s dive in deeper.


Reference

These non-fiction books are some of the most prolific and span across many of the other types of non-fiction books found in most stores. This category includes encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauruses. It can also include record books, primary document books, and anything that focuses on information more than anything.


Biography

A biography is a book where one person is writing about another person’s life. If I wrote a book about Martha Washington, that book would be a biography. Even if it only explored a small section of her life or took a viewpoint that wasn’t popular, it is still considered a biography.

There are such a thing as fictional biographies. These are biographies based on fact but presented in a fictional format. Do not look at these as biographies that you can use for research. There is still much conjecture and fabrication on the author’s part to enhance the story and fill in gaps.


Autobiography

An autobiography is a book written about someone by their own hand. It is the story of their own life. It might just be a part of their lives, but the story is their own and not written by anyone else.


Memoirs

In truth, memoirs are autobiographies. You’ll find them under autobiographies though some stores have them on different shelves. They are very specific autobiographies. They focus on certain aspects of a person’s life instead of their whole life.


Self-Help/Instructional

These books can come in a vast variety of types and formats. Many are labeled as ‘how to books’. These are designed to help readers in practically every area of life from how to use specialized software to how to braid how to how to survive after the loss of a loved one.

Books for professional and personal development can be found under this category. They can instruct on how to develop contacts to how to control one’s anger. These books are written by professionals and people who been there and help others through the same scenarios.


Academic

Typically these are standard textbooks though any book can be used as a textbook. But the books under this topic are the ones written as textbooks. They are written and designed to fit into the appropriate classroom levels.


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Which non-fiction books do you use the most?

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A nonfiction book is assumed to be boring, but it can be fun and exciting. It can be a resource, be entertaining, and be educational.

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2 comments

heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 20 months ago from Chicago Area

I write and read nonfiction almost exclusively. Most of what I read is business, self improvement or academic type stuff. Good review of what it is... and isn't!


RGraf profile image

RGraf 20 months ago from Wisconsin Author

Thank you. I have met people who do not know what nonfiction books are which prompted this article.

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