I edit mostly narrative nonfiction, and I think in publishing and writing we tend to take that word “narrative” for granted—as if any text, just by being the length and shape of a book, is a narrative. Give me strong characters and vivid scenes: We say this in a way that can make those attributes feel like their own objects, separate from the author’s purpose. But the narrative-nonfiction story itself isn’t just a tool to baby the reader, to make the book “feel like fiction,” or to create an entertaining reading experience. Great narrative nonfiction requires world-building to convey the writer’s ideas or argument, to get into all the fascinating nooks and crannies of the phenomenon they’re exploring, to make readers understand the depth and importance of something happening around us.
I love the experience of reading narrative nonfiction precisely because I need much more than a headline or an article or a tweet to understand the story. I need to get inside the head of that “character”—to see the inside of their house, meet their colleagues, understand their neuroses, and overhear their whispered conversations—in order to wrap my mind around the larger sequence of events in which they played a role. Ideally, when it’s not forced, that world-building stuff isn’t just for fun—though it probably will be fun.
—Madeline Jones, editor, Algonquin Books