Creative Nonfiction Structures (& Prompts to Try Them Out)
This month, Creativity Matters is digging into the ways you can explore creative nonfiction writing in your work. Even if writing a hard-hitting doesn’t interest you, there is a lot more to this diverse genre than most people think.
As we saw last week, everybody is “ready” to write creative nonfiction. It’s just a question of which topic suits your interests best.
But it isn’t just about having great topic ideas. Once you know what you want to write about, you need to consider what structure will best convey that topic to your readers.
Every topic you want to write about has a structure that fits it best. Your job is to find it.
Finding the Right Structure
Last fall, I went to see the Immersive van Gogh art exhibit in Cleveland, an interactive experience with van Gogh’s paintings that has been showing at different locations throughout the country.
The show does indeed immerse you in the artist’s work. Set in a cavernous, darkened room, van Gogh’s art paints itself across the walls and floor, places you in its settings, and allows you to get up close and personal with his most well-known work.
You can walk around the room, lie on the floor, sit on a cushion next to the walls, or sit on a bench, and the more times you sit through the show, the more opportunities you have to view it from different angles.
What caught my attention about experiencing van Gogh’s body of work in this manner was just how diverse his paintings are. Most people know him for the cool, calming shades of yellow and blue in The Starry Night, but this style doesn’t characterize all his work.
Van Gogh was known for using different color palettes depending on the subject he was portraying. For example, his paintings of the working class use darker colors, while his art inspired by natural settings and flowers explodes with lighter shades.
If he had reversed the two color palettes, it would have created an uncomfortable dissonance in his work—the difficult lives of miners and farmers would not come across as well with vibrant yellows, greens, and blues.
Van Gogh was also meticulous about his choice of medium, as he did not only colorful works, but simple sketches. His drawings using graphite and charcoal are less recognizable than his paintings, but convey so much about his subjects and natural settings that the use of color would detract from.
The point is that the real-life subjects you choose to write about can take any structure and use any media that will best communicate the ideas behind them.
The most thought-provoking essays play with form and structure in a way that creates a unified experience for readers, helping them to better understand the topic.
Here are a few creative nonfiction structures you can play with as you experiment with topics that intrigue you.
A framed essay features an opening and conclusion that connect in some way, providing bookends for the main story. You see this a lot in novels and films—think Old Rose in Titanic telling the sub crew about how her voyage on the ship changed the course of her life, or adult Gordy in Stand by Me writing his memoirs after learning that his childhood friend has been killed.
One way I like to use this structure is to think of a present-day event that triggers a memory from the past. Begin with the present event, then segue into the memory, then return to the present day at the end. The idea is that the introduction and conclusion should reinterpret the events of the past, showing how they remain relevant to your life today.
Nonfiction is a great genre for poets to try because it is inquisitive in the same way poetry is. Just as poetry can help uncover meaning through unique images and combinations of words, evocative language can also be used to explore your topics.
While frame essays are driven by storylines, lyric essays are driven by the musicality, tone, and rhythm of language. One experiment I’ve had some success with is to take a poem you’ve written and rewrite it as prose. You may find that it translates to this new structure word for word, or that individual phrases and images remain with new scaffolding in place.
I’ve written in the past about the importance of writing in other genres, and lyric essays are a great way for poets in particular to get their feet wet with nonfiction.
(NOTE: Do you want a free poetry workbook? You can grab one here.)
Hermit Crab Essay
I had a hermit crab when I was a kid, and once, I saw it change its shell. It was fascinating to see that for these fragile creatures, a shell offers protection and shelter, and that multiple different shells can fit that purpose.
I would even decorate the shells and leave them around its aquarium to see which ones it would pursue.
Hermit crab essays use different forms to portray deeply vulnerable and sensitive stories. They can, for example, take on the structure of grocery lists, postcards, letters, social media posts, personality quizzes, instruction sheets, how-to guides, and more.
Think of a genre apart from a traditional essay that you can use to convey the topic you want to write about, specifically, how you can use the conventions of the genre to explain it to readers.
This nonfiction structure takes two or three ideas that may not appear related and weaves them together in interlocking segments, using numbers or white space to indicate a break between the sections.
I find that this structure can help you see the relationship between different things that come to mind when you think about your topic. Writing about those relationships can help you interrogate your thoughts on the subject, making you consider why these diverse subjects come to mind.
I’ve also discovered that braided essays work well when art is used as inspiration. Pick a work of art that inspires you—a book, movie, song, theatrical production, visual work, etc—and freewrite about what the experience of that art makes you think of.
Then, write an essay in alternating sections that relates that work to a particular experience or moment in your life.
There are many more structures for creative nonfiction, but these are the most fun to experiment with, and after all, that’s our goal for this Creativity Matters series.
Remember, your goal in using these prompts isn’t to write a completed essay or become a nonfiction expert. Your job is to have fun and see what you can make!
In the meantime…the Ultimate Writing Project Workbook can help you get started.
This free workbook contains prompts, worksheets, templates, and more cool stuff to help you work on your writing.
Plus, you get BOTH the fiction and nonfiction editions of the book when you sign up.
Click here to get more information and request your FREE copy!