I am writing a short story which is a dramatization of a true story. When I classify it, should I tag it as fiction or nonfiction?

4 Answers 4


There are several levels of fiction and non-fiction.

  1. Documentary. Non-fiction. Basically, a substantially accurate account of the event. A few details might have been inadvertently changed, such as the weather, clothing, or lighting, but almost all assertions correspond to actual facts.

  2. "Based on a true story." Up to about 90% fact, but some details have been deliberately altered. Treated as fiction because it is claimed as such. Everybody connected with the story knows what the "real" facts are, but it is understood that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between story events and actual facts, even though the story line is "mostly" accurate. A dramatization might fall into this category. An example is the "Sound of Music," which e.g. conflated two events, the (1927) marriage of the Captain von Trapp and Maria, and the (1938) "Anschluss," by putting the second event right on the heels of the first in the movie.

  3. "Inspired by a true story." About half-fact, half-fiction. Now we're getting into the realm of true fiction. The important thing to do is to stress the events are likely to be fictitious by NOT making any one part too "true to life." Once you've set such a high standard for part of the story, people will expect the rest of the story to conform to that standard, possibly putting the story into the category above. This kind of a story would not use the Captain's and Maria's real names.

  4. "Suggested by a true story." There are some factual elements, but the story is mostly fiction. Again the trick is to make sure that the facts aren't too "convincing," to the point of leading readers to believe that the rest (fiction) is actually fact.

  • This is an excellent, clearly researched and well laid-out answer. You must be a writer. ;-)
    – Shaul Behr
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 11:58
  • @ShaulBehr: Thank you for the comment. I am the published author of this book, amazon.com/Modern-Approach-Graham-Dodd-Investing/dp/… am working on a screenplay. The latter is "suggested by a true story" which is to say that I have dealt with these issues. I remember reading the above in one of Syd Fields' books, but forget which one
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 12:13

I would point to Michael Sharra's Pulitzer-winning account of the Battle of Gettysburg which was painstakingly researched but published as Fiction because of the way Sharra told the story.


If the story contains celebrities or public figures it is can be non fiction. If the story is about private citizens: any good lawyer will tell you it's fiction c/w (The names have been changed to protect the innocent).

Here's the problem: if you write "After the birth of their first child Mrs Smith became frigid, her libido died and she had no interest in sex" and the truth is revealed as Mrs Smith spent every day boinking the pool cleaner and had no energy to service her husband when he arrived home - the divorce bill may end up in your lap.

  • One probably wouldn't get into trouble for alleging "frigid" when the truth was "adulterous" (although one would get into trouble for alleging the reverse.) Defamation does not occur when the (false) allegation is "less bad" than the true facts, because "defamation" refers to painting things as worse than they actually are.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 2:35
  • 1
    Interesting take . . . where's the points chart that indicates levels of defamation?
    – Surtsey
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 2:47
  • To the best of my knowledge, there isn't one, except in the minds of the jurors that try the case. So you did have a point about possible defamation. I just added my two cents that it would "probably" be worse the other way. In the (American) society of 50-100 years ago, "frigid" or "sexless: was much less bad than "adulterous" because sins of "omission" were considered less serious than sins of "commission." Today or some time in the future, it's possible that a jury might find in favor of your plaintiff.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 22, 2017 at 11:22

This is a question I ask myself.

You would need to really think about this.

How much of it is fiction, versus how much is non fiction.

Or talk to the publisher // editor.

  • This answer should be a comment,
    – Joe
    Commented May 24, 2017 at 0:25

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