1. Home 
  2. Introduction
  3. On Our Glossary and Taxonomy
  4.     Glossary of Terms
  5.     Taxonomies of Creative Nonfiction
  6.             Central Questions
  7.             Dramatic Design
  8.             Forms
  9.             Genre and Veracity
  10.             Imagery
  11.             The Mind
  12.             Language
  13.             Narrative Energy
  14.             Narrators
  15.             Scene
  16.             Topics
  17.             Truth
  18. The Central Question Podcast
  19. Contact the Authors

Glossary of Creative Nonfiction

We have alphabetized this glossary. When more than one term might be used for the same concept, we provide a definition for the term that we use in the book and refer to alternative terms with “See X.” 

Alliteration is the occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.

Altered Experiences affect how humans perceive time due to drug or alcohol use, medical issues, psychological issues, or spiritual issues. 

Associative Development is the process through which the writer studies their own images to discover a set of implicit concerns, obsessions, or curiosities, which can then be unpacked and analyzed through a series of associative leaps both intellectual and creative.

Associative Movement, rather than relying on chronology as the best way to structure creative nonfiction, is when a writer ties the central question together not by chronology but by association. Associative movement generates energy not by “what will happen next,” but the deeper suspense of “what it all means,” as the narrator compares the central question (again, the questions compelling the narrative) to the situation, or as the narrator links together ideas not based on time but based on how they thematically relate to each other. 

Assonance is the repetition of the sound of a vowel or diphthong (two vowels that combine into a single syllable, such as coin or side) in non-rhyming stressed syllables near enough to each other for the echo to be discernible.

Central Question, the, is the curiosity (or set of curiosities) that serve as a writer’s motivation, inspiration, and compositional directive. The central question is the ideas or actions that the writer will explore. Some might call it a creative nonfiction writer’s hypothesis. The central question is tied to the situation. 

Connotation is a word’s subtext or the conscious and subconscious associations of any given word. 

Consonance is the repetition of the sound of a consonant or diphthong (two vowels that combine into a single syllable, such as coin or side) in non-rhyming stressed syllables near enough to each other for an echo to be discernible. 

Cornerstone Images, like the cornerstone of a building, serve as the foundational images or scenes for rich creative nonfiction. These images help us discover the next image and the next. 

Creative Memory is the plumbing of our complicated memories to try and make sense of them by fitting them into our personal mythologies. Writers work to discover who we are by mining where we've been. 

Creative Nonfiction is trickier to define since it is based around what it is not: i.e. not fiction. Still, one definition is that creative nonfiction uses imaginative elements to write about real events. 

Creative Research is actively observing and researching the world around us (and this includes everything from remembering to researching to interviewing to reviewing maps and photos) and connecting this research to our central questions. 

Dilated Images are images that are slowed down and see up close, suggesting an image that has been long considered, as fight or flight and novel moments often are, and also images that have been, literally, seared into our brains.

Dialectical Movement is any time a writer explores a different point of view, either between characters or between parts of themselves. Dialectical movement is the inquisitive mind at work and it allows readers to see a situation from a variety of points of view. 

Drama came from the Greeks and means either a “theatrical act” or “a play” and comes from the Greek word for “to take action.” The shape of a drama on the page is a script. Drama doesn’t care if things are invented or true. Drama is one of our three genres.

Dramatic Design includes all of the ways writers can intentionally choose to organize and shape creative nonfiction—either through chronological movement or associative movement—to reinforce and contribute to the central question and knot of meaning. Dramatic design organizes our creative nonfiction in ways that allows our readers to see meaning in our shifts in focus, content, or ideas; leap forward or back in time; and where and how we create juxtapositions between images. 

Echoes are when a word, image, sound, or idea is repeated throughout a narrative. It’s a tactical move that creates emphasis through mirroring. 

Essay originates from the Latin word exxagium (through the French word essai) and means “a weighing” or “to examine” or “to try.” An essay, therefore, is an examination or the trying on of an idea or event.

Fact, in Medieval Latin, meant something that was literally a “thing done.” By the 1600s, a fact was understood to be “a thing that is known or proven to be true.”

Fiction includes all invented narratives. It is most often in prose form. 

Fight or Flight Experiences are moments where our lives are in physical or emotional charged moments. Time seems to slow, to stretch forever, as the brain races to take in enough information to decide if it should fight or flee. 

Filters are any description of our characters’ or narrator’s observing consciousness or mental activity. Filters describe thinking or observing rather than just allowing the character or narrator to think or observe. I wondered; She thought; He saw; I felt, and similar language, filters the character’s experience rather than just letting the character experience it. 

Flatlining entails dialing back abstract language of emotions, using an almost-reportorial tone, so that the reader can bring their own emotions to the experience. Flatlining is best used in emotionally or physically charged situations. 

Flashbacks and Flash Forwards are when a character or narrator re-experiences a previous or future event. Flashbacks and flash forwards are different from reflection in that reflection is thinking about a past action while flashbacks are remembering the actions themselves as scene on the page and flash forwards are remembering an event that will occur at some future moment. 

Prolonged Flashbacks and Forwards are fully fleshed-out scenes that slow the chronological movement of our creative nonfiction to a halt as we either relive a past scene or imagine a future scene. 

Anecdotal Flashbacks and Flash Forwards are quick in nature. They may be no longer than a few words or a quick summary of a scene. Anecdotal flashes can blend more seamlessly and provide opportunities to quickly establish metaphors and resonances—a satisfying sense of pattern across time. 

Forgetting Curve highlights the speed at which memories break down. Research shows that humans lose over half of their memories in under a week unless they actively review the experience. This loss of memory, the forgetting curve, occurs because the brain cannot hold onto all of its memories. 

Forms are the ways in which writers fashion situations into central questions, knots of meaning, and, ultimately, art. Form gives content shape, and shape is what distinguishes the chaos of experience from artifact, raw material from masterpiece. 

Traditional Form, the, is when creative nonfiction narratives have a beginning, middle, and ending and typically uses standard chronology. 

Braided Form, the, weaves together two or more ideas, experiences, and/or images, eschewing chronology and formal logic as its organizing principle. The braided form slowly intertwines questions, ideas, and/or moments, bit by bit, until by the end, the reader cannot help but see these ostensibly separate strands as naturally linked. One of the components that comes along with this weaving is that the ideas being explored are revealed to the reader slowly. 

Collage Form, the, juxtaposes multiple and often seemingly unrelated images or ideas side by side. Thoughtful juxtaposition is key to the collage. How two or more images or ideas bounce off each other is where the collage gathers its strength. Rather than working chronologically or by neatly tying things together, as in the braided narrative, the writer is after the affect that comes from putting together a range of startling or striking images or ideas

Flash Form, the, is less defined by what it is and more defined by the size of itself. For the flash form, there is a strict word count, which leads to a compression of ideas and images. Some consider flash to be anything under five hundred words. Others set the word count higher or lower. Regardless, it’s the use of compression that sets the flash apart. 

Lyric Form, the, is what poets call the prose poem. The lyric form leans into poetic elements to create meaning: language, rhythm, sound, alliteration, torque, repetition, cadence, musicality. Indeed, the root of the word lyric is lyre, a musical instrument that accompanied ancient song. The lyric form is songlike; it hinges on the inherent rhythms of language and sound, both to create shape and to reveal meaning. Lyric forms are artful, but with purpose, requiring the reader to complete the meaning by provoking meditation. 

Graphic Form, the, pairs visual images with words. These images might be pen and ink, photographs, paintings, etc. These images establish tone, setting, and other vital details. The writer relies less on words, especially because there is less space on the page for words, and more on the intersections and combinations of words and images. 

Found Forms, the, adopt a structure from other structures. For example, a writer might create a narrative that looks like a take-out menu, a website for a pet adoption facility, a how-to format, playlists, address books, a field guide, a set of directions to building something, an email, a map, an interview, a math problem, a test, or a multitude of other forms. The only limitation of found forms is the writer’s imagination. 

Genre is writing differentiated by its shape. In creative writing, we primarily have three genres: poetry, drama, and prose. 

Incident Frequency is the number of times a moment occurs in the real world in comparison to the number of times it occurs on the page. Three categories exist: the normative frequency, the iterative frequency, and the repetitive frequency.

Normative Frequency is when the number of occurrences of a real event match the number of times the event is shown on the page. 

Iterative Frequency is when the number of occurrences on the page is lower than the number of occurrences in the real world. The iterative is best used to remove non-novel experiences. 

Repetitive Frequency is when the number of occurrences on the page exceed the number of occurrences in the real world. Repetitive is best used to highlight fight or flight and novel experiences and, at times, altered state experiences. Writers use repetitive frequency to highlight how an issue is so powerful we keep returning to it. 

Infrastructure is a web of connected or resonant images that serve as scaffolding for the work; infrastructure holds the work together like nexus points in a spider web.

Internal Scene is when a writer stops action and moves from the real world into the brain for thought. Because the writer is no longer experiencing the outer world, there is no perception of time occurring, instead only introspection, speculation, and reflection. 

Internal Scene, Types,

Fantastic, the, is where the writer brings in invented or imagined elements to a work of creative nonfiction. Though most or all of the fantastic is untrue (and possibly impossible), the fantastic allows the reader to better understand the mind and emotions of a narrator. This understanding comes from what we learn about why the narrator invents and imagines, which is what we all do most of the day: we imagine, we invent, we create. And the fantastic, though invented, should lean into the emotional truths of a situation. 

Introspection is a narrator examining their current feelings or state of mind. Introspection is generally less about situations and more about the emotions that arise from situations. Introspection is less about the past and more about the current state of the narrator or character. 

Reflection is contemplating, meditating, or ruminating on an idea or event that has already occurred. The term reflection also means, scientifically, the echo of sound or light waves off a surface. Reflection is not the situation explored in our creative nonfiction but the echo of that situation.

Speculation is envisioning either past, current, or future events based on knowledge at hand. Speculation allows a character to re-imagine a past, present, or future situation from their own perspective or from other people’s perspectives. And this is something that everyone does every day.

Research also gives the feeling of internal scene. When a writer properly places research into creative nonfiction, readers experience the writer’s mind in active thought. Further, research also helps the reader see the connections the writer is making, which, again, offers us internal scene. 

Juxtaposition is when a writer uses associative leaps. The writer places two “things,” often unrelated, side by side to see what is created or revealed. How we put things together in creative nonfiction is as crucial as what we put together, and that is what juxtaposition is: placing unlike things beside each other. 

Knot of Meaning, the, is the conclusion arrived at after writing toward and writing with our central question. The knot of meaning is most often not a single answer but a complicated view of our central question. If the central question might be considered the creative nonfiction writer’s hypothesis, then the knot of meaning might be considered the (subtlety stated) thesis that proves, disproves, or complicates the writer’s hypothesis. This proving, disproving, and complicating arises from creative memory and creative research and is creative in nature.

Leaps help writers break from standard chronological movement by moving a narrative across time and space to focus on the most significant moments as sections of the narrative get grouped together by association rather than strict chronology. 

White Space is a pause between two sections and, if used intentionally, is rife with meaning. White space is not a blank space, or merely a visual transition. Instead, white space is a meaning maker. White space asks readers to make connections between the sections it separates, and it does it often without a transition. Further, white space often uses juxtaposition to increase strength. 

Malleable Memories is a term that reminds us that all memories are, at their core, inventions and re-creations. 

Memoir traces itself back to the Latin word memoria, which means, simply, “memory.” Memoir is a sharing of the writer’s memories or the construction of one’s story from one’s memory. 

Myths are stories that a culture believes to be true (and may be true) while the outside world believes a culture’s myths to be untrue or distorted.

Myths, Personal, are stories that a writer accepts as truth and fact but are actually falsified by malleable memories and the distortion of our phenomenal truths.

Narratives are often thought to be stories with beginnings, middles, and ends and are organized by time, rather than space. That said, many narratives focus on issues other than time to convey the meaning of a story. 

Chronological Narratives are narratives have a temporal frame—some movement through time, which helps highlight two different versions of the writer. First, we see the writer as a character in the actions of our creative nonfiction. Next, we see the writer as someone reflecting on those actions; this is our narrator. 

Achronological Narratives break with chronological organization. These are often considered "experimental," outside of the boundaries of traditional meaning-making, and we borrow terms from other art forms (visual art, music, etc.) to describe these achronological narratives. These forms include the lyric, collage, braided, and so on. 

Narrative Energy is the reader’s engagement with the material on the page, regulated by the writer’s control over language, tension, pacing, stakes, and rhythm. Narrative energy is not created from subject matter alone, or action-packed plot lines, but through the writer’s use of language, tension, pacing, stakes, and rhythm.

Narrator is one version of the writer and is constructed entirely of words. The narrator guides readers through the situation and is also, often, the main character involved. 

Narrator, Reliable, is someone the reader trusts to be honest in our creative nonfiction. 

Narrator, Types of, 

Dramatic narrator, is a narrator who only reports on a situation and is not a participant, as is often seen in journalism. The writer keeps the reader outside of all characters’ thoughts (since the writer doesn’t have access to any thoughts of those involved in the situation) and, often, out of the narrator’s thoughts. Normally, the dramatic narrator only reports on character actions and words. There are two types of dramatic narrators. They are the observer and commentator narrators. The dramatic observer narrator is not involved in the situation either on an action or emotion level. The observer narrator reports rather than experiences. We hear no thoughts from this narrator. Instead, the observer narrator allows the characters to solidify the central question only through words, actions, and research. A more engaged narrator that also uses dramatic distance is the dramatic commentator narrator. Again, this narrator is not engaged in the situation but does offer internal scene about the situation. So, here, the reader sees the situation through other characters’ actions and dialogue but also receives commentary on those actions from our narrator, who appears to be standing off to the side of the situation. 

Interior Narrators offer readers access to the thoughts and emotions of the narrator, especially concerning the situation. Most first and second person narratives use interior narrators.  There are two types of interior distance narrators: secondary narrators and protagonist narrators. The secondary narrator is involved in the situation but is not the main character. With a secondary narrator, we often feel as if we are hearing a second-hand story. The most intimate interior distance narrator is the protagonist narrator. Here, our narrator is a main character. The reader feels as if they are experiencing the situation through the narrator’s eyes, which is exactly how the situation unfolded.

Narrator, Unreliable, is a narrator that readers do not trust. There are two types of unreliable narrators in creative nonfiction. The intentional unreliable narrator and the unintentional unreliable narrator

Narrator, Intentional Unreliable, is a narrator who cannot be trusted, yet the reader understands that the writer can be trusted. With these narrators, the writer intentionally highlights a deceitful/confused/or otherwise untrustworthy narrator because the writer recognizes that the narrator (a version of the writer) cannot be trusted in this moment and, therefore, the only fair way to portray that narrator is to make them an untrustworthy narrator. 

Narrator, Unintentional Unreliable, is a narrator who the reader doesn’t trust, but the reader carries that distrust over to the writer as well. With the unintentional unreliable narrator, in the writer’s mind, the narrator is credible. But in the reader’s mind, the narrator is untrustworthy. In this instance, both narrator and writer lose credibility, and the reader disengages with the piece. 

Narrator-situation Distance is the narrator’s proximity to the situation Narrator-situation distance affects where in time, emotion, and space the narrator stands in relationship to the situation. This distance controls how close the narrator feels to the situation, how long they have been able to reflect on a situation, and, often, but not always, how close the reader feels to the situation. 

Narrator-situation Merge is when a writer is too close to a situation, temporally and emotionally, resulting in little to no narrative distance, which leads to little or no internal scene. 

Non-novel Experiences are the opposite of novel experiences; they are the mundane moments in our lives that the brain “forgets” because this information is a repetition of what was learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. 

Noumenal, the, originates from the term “Ding an sich,” which can be translated as “thing-in-itself.” The noumenal is the actual world or the factual world. 

Novel Experiences are any new (and important) event in our lives. The brain remembers these events because they are new, important, and might teach us something about how to emotionally or literally survive this world. 

Phenomenonal, the, is the world of appearances and interpretation, the world filtered through a human’s senses. Broken down into mathematical terms, noumenal truth + our senses = an individual’s phenomenal truths. 

Poetry originates from the Latin word for “poet,” which means “maker” or “author.” Poetry is most often defined by its use of line breaks and its reliance on heightened language. Poetry doesn’t care if things are invented or true. Poetry is one of our three genres. 

Prefabricated Language is words and phrases that are so familiar that they cease to mean in any significant way. They function as abstractions, rather than vivid and particular description. 

Denotation is a word’s literal meaning. 

Prose is writing shaped into paragraphs. The term prose is birthed from the Latin word for “straightforward,” since most prose is more linear than poetry. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and (usually) traditional uses of punctuation. Prose doesn’t care if things are invented or true. 

Significant Sensory Details are sensory details that work on multiple levels to reflect emotional truth and teach the reader how to experience the image. The best sensory details evoke an emotional or aesthetic mood, cultivate setting or character, create or extend a metaphor, or in some other way convey multiple levels of meaning. 

Situation, the, is what is being explored: who (the characters), what (the plot), where (the setting), and when (the time period). The situation is tied to the central question. 

Social Self is understanding who we—the writer—in context to the larger world. We can understand our social selves by looking at where we are situation in the larger world. This includes examining gender, race, religion, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc while also exploring the social, historic, and cultural shifts that take place during our lifetimes. 

Speed of Scene examines the amount of time it takes a reader to read a scene versus the amount of time the actual event comprised. Five speeds of scene exist. From fastest to slowest they are Gaps, Summary, Scene, Dilation, and Internal Scene. 

Gaps are the fastest movement of time. Gaps, as their name implies, leave out most or all details of an event. Gaps skip over non-novel moments where we forget things because they are unimportant. Drug and alcohol-affected moments also often have gaps. 

Summary, much like gaps, deals with non-novel moments. When using summary, we distill an event down into just important details. 

Scene matches the actual time of the event. This is closest to the real time of an event. Here the time it takes to read a narration closely matches the actual time of the event. Scenes often come from all the times when our perception is affected—fight or flight, novel, and altered experiences. 

Dilation occurs when the reading of a moment stretches longer than the actual event. Dilation is slower—because of the level of detail added—than real life and often mirrors fight or flight, novel, and altered experiences.

Internal Scene is when a writer stops action and moves from the real world into the brain for thought. Because the writer is no longer experiencing the outer world, there is no perception of time occurring, instead only introspection, speculation, and reflection. 

Stakes are what stands to be lost, gained, or changed in the future, while, in contrast, tension is a kind of collision or trouble.

Tension is trouble or conflict, and wielding tension effectively is essential for reader investment. In life, and on the page, we must push against something to see the world in a new way. Not only does tension keep our readers engaged—because two or more forces are colliding—but more critically, it’s the only way that change occurs. Without tension, we continue to move forward in the same direction and with the same perspective. 

Moment of Tension, the, is the cause of sitting down to write. This is always something that has already occurred. 

Moment of Reflection, the, which is when the writer wrestles with the moment of tension to uncover the stakes.

Toothbrush Syndrome, the, is when writers stick too doggedly to the timeline, insist on holding our reader’s hand through time, which often leads to a series of plodding plot points. 

Topics are simply the situation, especially what is occurring. Topics are often confused for genre or forms. We can write about any given topic in any genre, using any degree of veracity, and within any form. 

Autobiography is a chronology of the writer’s entire life. It begins at the beginning and ends whenever the writer stops writing. It focuses on all the major details of a writer’s life. The autobiography is shaped to reveal the impact of seminal events and/or shifts on the subject's emotional, physical, and/or intellectual development—or the subject's impact on others.  

Environmental and Nature focuses on how humans interact with or affect the world around us. These pieces often focus on a place, especially details about the location in question. 

Immersion is where the writer tries on a next life, experience, or activity. This is either something the writer has never done before or something the writer hasn’t done in many, many years. The newness of the activity is what the writer is exploring.  

Literary Journalism is the intersection between journalism (factual reporting) and creative nonfiction. Here, writers focus on reporting, but also lean more into heightened language and scene work. 

Meditations is more philosophical, and often works to unpack an ideas of profound personal importance to the writer. Meditations tie back to Montaigne’s Essais. Often meditations don’t aim to prove a point, but rather to explore a question in depth and with precision. These narratives are often not structured chronologically, but instead follow the movements of the mind.  

Memoir examines a period of a writer’s life, especially as related to a single question or idea, and especially related to past moments, which is why memoir takes its name from “memory.” This is a major focus of the memoir, probing our memories in order to reveal complex meaning. 

Personal is similar to memoir. Some writers highlight page length as the difference between these two topics (personal is often considered short, say under twenty pages, while memoir is book length), but we argue that the personal is not determined by length, but by a focus on more immediate events than memoir. Whereas memoir looks backwards, the personal examines the immediately lived life. In some ways, the distinctions between the two are negligible and indefinable, but worth offering here as a launching point for discussion. 

Portrait examines someone or something other than the writer themselves. The writer turns their gaze from their own life and instead focuses on a person, event, or place. 

Persuasive focuses its attention on proving a point. Here, the writer, rather than exploring a question—as seen in the meditative—stares right at the issue and tries to convert the reader to a new point of view. 

Science and Math deals with explaining or highlighting key new discoveries. This topic often works to “translate” a complex scientific or mathematical idea into a language an average reader can understand. 

Speculative focus on situations where the writer uses speculation, deduction, and extrapolation to write about something they do not fully know. Often, the speculative looks forward or backward in time to make an educated guess on how an event might have turned out differently.

Sports zeroes in on an event or athlete and focuses on the game or activity being played. These can, often, overlap with the profile.

Travel focuses on giving the reader an inside look at another place. The travel topic also often examines insiders and outsiders. 

Truth comes from the West Saxon word triewe and means “faithful" or having the “quality of being true.” True, meanwhile, traces itself back to Proto-Germanic. Since the 1200s, true has meant “consistent with fact” and since the 1300s has meant “real, genuine, not counterfeit.”

Truth, Aesthetic, deals with the ways a specific writer—or related group of writers—artistically deal with their topic. Aesthetic truths deal with what forms or style a writer uses to uncover their knot of meaning. 

Truth, Emotional, is how someone feels about or interprets a previous event and/or how an event feels during the moment. 

Veracity comes from the Latin term “vērāx,” which means “to speak truthfully.” Veracity is “a truth” or “a truthful statement.” Veracity is what differentiates creative nonfiction and fiction.