What is narrative nonfiction? It’s basically a true account that uses scenes, characters, action, and dialogue to tell the story. Exposition tells readers what happened: Person A did thing X at place Y and time Z. Newspaper journalism is often said to provide current information in the expository form of who, what, where, when, why. “Literature,” in Ezra Pound’s words, “is the news that stays news.” Why? Partly due to form. In places of the raw facts, narrative concerns itself with with “showing” the story, not telling, and it includes interiority, which is often off-limits to strict reporting. The difference between narrative an exposition is probably more nuanced than that, but this is a great place to start. If you’re writing personal essays, then try narrating your stories. Tell readers who, what, where and how, but do it through scenes, characters, action and dialogue, bringing these elements to life on the page. Readers shouldn’t just receive information─this thing happened at this place. They should hear it, see it, smell it. Put them in the scene in the action. That’s narration, more or less.
Narrative nonfiction can definitely include exposition. Many stories require some amount of analysis─what did it all mean? Synthesize info for readers─but that exposition is only a part of the story, not the story’s primary form.
One great example of narrative is Gwendolyn Knapp’s essay “Consider the Rat Pack.” It begins:
My mom has empty-nest syndrome, though her nest is filled with more junk than you could nail to the walls of the world’s Cracker Barrels. In the cement-block house with the raccoon infestation on Missouri Avenue in New Port Richey, Florida, my glorious southern mama works on her knack for collecting and preserving everything.
The woman has two storage spaces, one for fabrics only, which goes to show what happens when you buy bulk polyester in the seventies. She has enough stuff in her home so that when you go there she must guide you through the living room like a seeing eye dog: just cling to the back of her shirt as she pulls you through areas you can’t navigate alone. Rest in peace if you knock over centuries of teacups and they crash to the terrazzo. My mom would kill you. And how could you sweep up all the broken pieces? Sheldon The Cat would walk on the shards and then need expensive surgery.
Mom belongs to a club called Questers. This is a group of twenty-five or so women whose collective age adds up to the number of boxes in their living rooms. These women meet once a week to discuss pack-ratting.
“We’re not pack rats,” Mom always laughs. “We’re Questers.”
The quest itself is not to find a new knickknack—that’s easy—but to find a space in your house where the knickknack will go. That is a long, arduous search.
Reading the different volumes of the Best American Essays series, you get a great sense of how narrative works, but you also get to see the many ways essayists mix narrative with exposition. Because the series uses a different guest editor each year, the mix of essays differs substantially volume to volume. You also see how many nonfiction writers eschew strict narrative for a more expository approach. All approaches are fine, but if you’re going to write so-called literary nonfiction, or what some people called creative nonfiction, knowing the difference and strengths of each is essential.