Elements of Nonfiction

Four Major Elements of Nonfiction

  1. Lay out
  2. Information
  3. Characterization
  4. Style and Tone

Lay out

Layout should attract the reader and encourage reading and progression through the book.

  • Format is interesting, attractive, magnetic
  • Index
  • Glossary, pronunciation key
  • Table of contents
  • Book size
  • Photographs compliment text, located near the related text, captions accurate. Illustrations are important but if the writer relies too much on pictures, the reader/listener/viewer may not get a comprehensive understanding of the information that would be better communicated with words.


Information includes facts, little known information, and ideas that spark curiosity, create mystery, and propel the listener/reader/viewer to discover and learn.


Style and tone

Style should maintain the reader's interest. Nonfiction presents information, but the listener/viewer/reader doesn't need to be bored by a collection of information in choppy sentences. Good style adds interest to the story.

Style and tone that presents information - interestingly

Readers are attracted to nonfiction because they have a question or curiosity. With the question answered or curiosity satiated what is there to keep the reader reading? Therefore, authors of nonfiction sequence information to create wonder for the reader as s/he uncover facts that lead from discovery to discovery. In doing so the scope of information must be presented from simple to complex to provide the reader essential information for understanding ideas presented and prepare them for more complex ideas to come.

The author must also decide the scope of information to present; giving enough detail for comprehension but not so much as to overwhelm. Mary Lou Clark does this in You and Relativity, she introduces the concept of relativity by saying: "relative to the sixth floor, the third floor is down, but relative to the first floor, the third is up." Then describes frame of reference building the vocabulary and associated concepts needed for later understanding of relativity.

Isaac Asimov, is very good in doing this in books he wrote for children and adults. An example is when he tells the story of how Mendeleev spent years sorting, classifying, and arranging cards that represented elements, until he arranged them in the order of the periodic table, Chemistry.

Jean George in Spring Comes to the Ocean creates curiosity by her descriptions of the animals.

"First he unhooked the muscle at the spiral end of his old shell. Then he pulled himself out and stood vulnerable, so naked that even a wind-blown grain of sand could kill him. His exposed belly was so delicate that a nodding grass blade could cut him in half... He slashed his tail through the air and stuck it into the new shell. Backing carefully, he reached his tail down and around until he felt the last coil of the shell. Then he hooked onto it with a grip so strong that few could pull him out. When at last he had a firm hold, he contracted all his muscles and slammed himself deep into the shell."

Rachel Carson in The Sea Around Us , increases wonder by telling no one was around when the ocean was created long ago. We would expect it impossible to tell how, when she surprises us by telling a us that it is possible.

"Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea. Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts, there is bound to be a certain disagreement. ... It must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine. The story is founded on the testimony of the Earth's most ancient rocks which were young when the earth was young."

Style and tone of a narration

Many authors use a continuous narrative to join topics in books and sustain interest, Isaac Asimov was an expert with this technique.

Another technique, to make facts interesting, is to personalize the readers' experiences by making comparisons and using I and you. Why Can't I?; by Jeanne Bendick , compares the child's feet to a flies and uses you.. "The bottoms of your feet are smooth and slippery. You can make them a little sticky by wearing sneakers. But you're still too heavy to walk up a wall or across the ceiling."

Another consideration in the narrative is the words. Many times authors will use smaller words, because of readability tests or fear that children can't understand big words. But the size of the word is less relevant than if the word is part of every child's vocabulary: like McDonald's, hamburger, refrigerator, aluminum, dinosaur, telephone...

Another error is personification and sentimental distortion in animal stories. Authors should tell the story through observation not how they think the animal thinks or feels. Yellow Eyes, by Rutherford Montgomery gives very good and interesting descriptions.

Many children want stories that have real people telling the story, use of the pronouns we and you achieve this.

Watch for condescension and sarcasm. Superstition in different cultures is often treated in this manner. Edwin Tunis treats his subject this way:

"There was no Indian who was even reasonably free from superstition; it covered everything in the world. When every animal and every tree, and every stream and every natural phenomenon was possessed of a spirit, probably malevolent, it took a lot of finger-crossing and wood-knockin to ward off evil. The Indian was afraid of everything ... of killing snakes and wolves ... of witchcraft and of the owls he associated with it ... superstition ... pervade all Indian living."

Milton Meltzer in All Times, All Peoples: A World History of Slavery wrote: "white, black, brown, yellow, red- no matter what [your] color, it's likely that someone in [your] family way back, was once a slave." we’re told why: "It was hard for [the earliest peoples] to feed themselves... That is why, when they raided other people, they killed them instead of taking them prisoner. If the winners had spared the lives of the losers, they would have been unable to feed them." Then we are told that as farming and food production grew, and it was possible for conquerors to feed prisoners, they kept them as slaves.

Condescension in animal stories is often in the form of anthropomorphism, suggesting the animal is so boring that the author has to make it human to create an exciting story.

Didacticism and propaganda - it is hard for some authors not to preach, especially when the subject is as important as drug abuse. But if the facts are carefully arranged, the evidence presented, ideas will build to prove the point. If not the book may cause students to dismiss it as pure propaganda or to create doubt and mistrust in what the authors have written. The author is obligated to present the information in a scientific manner. If there are differing theories or evidence, then the author needs to address them.

Objective - Creators of nonfiction have the obligation of being objective. The creator must sort through information and decide what to include or omit. How much fact and how much narration. If the information should just be possible or probable and if controversial information should be included.

Underlying themes are essential in nonfiction. The manner in which the information is presented creates an underlying theme that may be positive, condescending, negative, curious... or what ever. It is important to consider that the reader's/viewer's/listener's understanding and attitude will develop with respect to the ideas, subjects, or people in the text; shaping the reader's/viewer's/listener's understanding and attitude by the themes; shaping the ideas and emotions that they take from the piece, which may be carried with them for life. The Invincible Louisa, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and Up From Slavery, all have underlying themes which unify the story. Again this is best done with reasoning and examples not by being didactic or preachy. Notice the different underlying themes, of Columbus and Indians, created by the style and tone in the following passages:

Columbus and his men saw a new beautiful world. Here were brown men with no clothes at all. Their bodies were painted red and other bright colors... They were pleased to take gifts of bells and beads and scarlet caps. They were a gentle and friendly people.

[The Indians] who had been hiding behind trees and rocks came up to the white men. They came in the friendliest manner. These natives were light brown in color, and rather tall, They had straight, coarse, black hair, and large eyes. They stroked the Spaniards' clothes and their beards.

Columbus finally managed to "talk" to the Indians by making signs with his hands. The Indians made signs too. They "told" Columbus he was welcome.

[All Columbus saw] were naked, red-skinned savages. They threw themselves to the ground and worshipped Columbus and his bearded men ... They thought that gods had descended from the heavens on white-winged birds. They led the white gods to their homes.

Curiosity quickly overcame fear on the part of the people of the island, and soon they came out to meet these strange men from another world. These very handsome people were Tainos ... Columbus called them Indians. He described them as gentle and helpful in every way. They wore no clothes, and many of the men painted their bodies.

...the only sign of gold was the gold rings that the natives wore in their noses. Indeed, that was all they wore. The people were as naked, Columbus said, "as their mothers bore them" which of course, was pretty naked. Otherwise, they were normal looking. They didn't have umbrella feet or eyes on their shoulders.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's Notes ©