Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Is there such a thing as actual non-fiction? In short, yes, but it almost always comes in the form of graphs, bone-dry reports, and scientific studies where the authors deliberately fight against a sense of narrative in favor of pure fact. Everything else – diaries, memoirs, historical writing – has a dash of narrative in it, whether it’s in the form of presentation, focus, or content.
In its most extreme form, we call this ‘creative non-fiction’, a genre in which the reader allows for the author to tell their version of the story. Elsewhere, in work we otherwise see as straight non-fiction, authors do their best to remain objective, but it’s still important to understand that nothing is inherently interesting – it’s all in how you tell it. The reverse is true; John McPhee’s Oranges may be about a type of fruit, but it sure isn’t boring.Even non-fiction relies on narrative to engage the reader.Click To Tweet
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at how you can unearth the story in your non-fiction; the sense of progression and consequence that turns fact into disaster or triumph and personal stories into bestsellers.
What fairy tales teach us about storytelling
Hanging the facts on a fairy tale scaffold is a simple and effective way to find a non-fiction story line. Take a look:
Beginning: establish who you’re writing about and what they want. Once upon a time, there was a princess who was cursed with a terrible affliction. She wanted to break the curse.
Middle: whoever you’re writing about goes after what they want. There will be a rhythm in here – some success, some failure. The princess traveled to a far-off land to find a special herb that would heal her. Many hazards made the way difficult, but she had some help from a wise old wizard, a handsome prince, and a talking squirrel.
End: the result of either achieving or failing to achieve the goal constitutes what’s often called the ‘falling action’. The curse was broken, the wicked witch who cursed the princess was banished forever, the prince and the princess got married, and everyone lived happily ever after.
When you figure out which parts of your project fit into each of these phases, you have two vital things:
- A story line.
- The ability to weed out details that aren’t relevant to the story.
Let’s say I’m writing a story about a robbery that took place at a gas station in the Bronx. I’ve interviewed dozens of people, I’m buried in notes and audio clips, and I sit down and start writing. Some of my notes include vignettes about the neighborhood, demographic data, and even stories about the perpetrator’s childhood from his older cousin. I could spend a lot of time copying those notes into my word processor, cutting and pasting until my head spins, only to find the resulting manuscript resembles a jungle more than a book.
What if, instead, I have a story line I want to more or less follow: beginning, middle, and end? I put my notes into piles according to this outline. Any notes that have no pile either go through the shredder or into a folder labeled ‘just in case’. Now, if I decide to move some piles around – perhaps placing one earlier than its chronology suggests in order to generate suspense – I still have a central story line, and my readers can follow it without needing a machete to cut their way through the jungle.
‘Characters’ in non-fiction
If you’re writing biographical non-fiction (about people), you have one or more protagonists. One of the most vital elements to a good story – fiction or non – is some sort of conflict and resolution from the perspective of the protagonist. To structure your project from this angle, begin with a short series of questions, derived from the fairy tale model:
- Who is the main character? (princess)
- What do they want? (get rid of curse)
- How do they get it (or fail trying)? (perilous journey and a little help along the way)
- What is the result? (eternal happiness)
Let’s look at how this works in non-fiction. In the heart-wrenching Iris Grace, the family of a young autistic girl struggle to cope – Iris with the scary world around her, and her family with the reality that their little girl does not talk.
- Who: Iris and her family
- What they want: a sense of normalcy; a meaningful relationship
- How they get it: the incredible intervention of a cat named Thula
- The result: Iris begins to communicate, and so a new life begins for her family – one full of joy and connectedness
This format is effective because it has a story arc, and because it focuses on the people. That is, the two main elements of good fiction are also requisite to storytelling in biographical non-fiction: plot and character. There’s a reason Twelve Years a Slave made for amazing non-fiction and a great movie; there are specific people to follow and a narrative the reader needs to see conclude.Plot and character are vital (and harder to uncover) when writing non-fiction.Click To Tweet
Not all non-fiction works will have a central antagonist. They may instead have circumstantial challenges or lesser enemies, though some will have actual persons who significantly hinder the protagonist’s progress toward their goal – a competitor, an abusive spouse/parent, or even the protagonist herself, acting as her own worst enemy.
Likewise, there will be other characters who help the protagonist – friends, spiritual mentors, loving family members. The role these people play in the story must be tied to that central story arc in order to retain focus. In conducting research, suss out all possibilities, then attach them to your outline or scrap them as you see fit.
A well-structured story can still bore you to death. To garner readership, you need to connect the world of the story to your readers’ interests. To get a feel for this, picture different social interactions you’ve had. There are people who captivate anyone within earshot, and then there are those that leave you thinking, “What is the point and when are you going to stop talking?”
The difference is in the value that a story holds for the listener – humor, emotional connection, advice or encouragement, education, etc. The challenge in adding value to your writing is the leap from private laptop to public forum. To bridge this gap, envision yourself reading each chapter at a coffee house open mic. Do people get up to use the bathroom? Would you be on the edge of your seat?
If your manuscript is organized but a little lackluster, try asking the following:
- Who’s going to read this book? Besides ‘everybody,’ who is your most likely audience? Picture them responding as you write. Find a few friends who are interested in the topic and pick their brains.
- What books are on the shelf next to yours? Go read those books. Again.
- When people finish your book, what do you want them to say about it? “That was ______!” Heart-warming? Suspenseful? Hilarious? What’s the overall feel, and which parts of the story either contribute to that feeling or detract from it?
- If I were telling this story to a group of friends at a bar, how would it go?
- Are the details powerful, or am I including them merely because I have them?
- What’s the ‘wow’ factor?
Books like Killers of the Flower Moon, Team of Rivals, and Child of the Jungle are as gripping and entertaining as their fictional counterparts, and it’s because they’re focused, deliberate, and crafted for the reader.
Non-fiction that isn’t character-centric can be a bit more difficult to organize. As John McPhee puts it:
The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner.
– John McPhee, ‘Structure’ from The New Yorker
If you’re writing about cash crops in Ohio or the spread of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, you aren’t telling a story so much as laying out a dinner. There are no mandatory ingredients, but the meal still needs a cohesive theme, and it should be something people want to eat. Mostly, that comes down to these basics:
- Logical progression (what happened next and why)
- Sticking to one central idea (just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s part of this book)
- Not everything’s a story (don’t force it)
John McPhee’s books, aside from exemplifying excellent structure, are a great standard for weaving stories into thematic non-fiction projects. The Pine Barrens, for instance, takes New Jersey’s vast, almost mythical wilderness as its theme, but its pages are rife with stories about the people who live there, their own folklore, and anecdotes about McPhee’s experience writing the book.
The effects of well-integrated stories are reader interest and a sense of connectedness to the topic. If I read an encyclopedia entry on the Pine Barrens, I might, if I’m really into the woods or New Jersey for some reason, think, “Huh. Cool. Who knew?” When I read McPhee’s account, I’m transported into the world of the Pine Barrens as effectively as if reading a novel. The stories give the region vibrancy, and I’m drawn to the people in them.
You can see this in non-fiction works by Jon Krakauer, Michael Pollan, and countless others who don’t rely solely on existing reader interest to draw an audience. The gap between the authors’ personal interests and the readers’ is bridged by stories. Here’s how to make sure the stories you include have the same impact. They should be:
Public speakers have said that, when they begin a story, all the heads in the audience suddenly come up out of their laps. Still, while it therefore behoves speakers and authors to incorporate frequent stories into the overall content, how long one holds listener interest between stories depends on how well the story integrates with the wider material.
The minute a story veers off theme, it’s like throwing oregano onto an already well-seasoned plate of shrimp. It doesn’t fit the theme, it doesn’t taste good, and it instantly reduces interest in the rest of the meal. It doesn’t matter if the story is interesting. If it is incongruent with the main trajectory of the book, you lose that sense of direction so important to keeping your readers with you.
Lastly, non-fiction readers appreciate true stories. There’s a time and place for allegory, but weaving real people’s stories into your narrative has a predictable effect on your readers: it becomes real for them, too. Hypothetical and generic stories diminish non-fiction.
The common need in all writing is organization. In the case of biographical non-fiction, you’ll have a story arc, and in thematic non-fiction, the logical progression won’t follow a specific person, but it’s no less important that your readers have a sense of logical flow, enhanced by well-chosen stories. If you’re writing about people, find the plot and characters using the questions above, and when writing about something else, try an outline, and bring stories into each section.
I’m curious… have you found the story in your non-fiction? What’s your wow factor? Let me know in the comments, and check out What Authors Need To Know About True Crime and ‘How do I turn gripping real-life events into gripping non-fiction?’ from From The Mailbag: Your Questions Answered By An Editor for more great advice on this topic.