Tell us a story–even in nonfiction

Back in the olden days when I was in journalism school, reporters were taught to write straightforward factual stories with no personal comments or artsy asides. Just give the facts, backed up by quotes from interviewees and printed matter. Well, the times have changed. Even the most hard-news articles require a little fictional flavor these days. If you’re writing about the budget mess in Washington, we want all the details, of course, but they’ll slide down easier if you add a touch of humanity. Did the president look unshaven and haggard? Did the Speaker of the House sound hoarse because he’s been talking so much and getting so little sleep? Do you tell us about how they waited right up to the point of disaster before agreeing on a compromise that will keep the government from going into default?

Narrative. That seems to be the buzzword these days. Give us a character and a story. At last year’s Future of Freelancing conference, held at Stanford University, one of the panelists urged writers to see their articles as stories. Their queries should lay out the scenes their stories will include. Think of it as a little movie. Get the editor’s attention, then tell how you will structure the story. As with fiction, show the editor why the readers will care about what you’re writing. Why will they be interested and what will they take away from it?

My MFA is in creative nonfiction, a genre which specifically calls upon the techniques of fiction to tell stories. We use characters, dialogue, setting, suspense and all the other facets of fiction, except that we’re not making it up. Visit the Creative Nonfiction website for lots of great information on this genre.

It used to be that creative nonfiction and journalism were completely different things. Now narrative nonfiction techniques are appearing in feature articles everywhere, not just literary magazines. In an article on travel writing in the May/June 2011 Writer’s Digest, L. Peat O’Neil writes, “Try to experience your time on the road not just as a reporter, but as a traveler–because the days of conventional travel writing in a distant passive voice are long gone. Today’s writer participates in the narrative, sharing stories with readers in much the way a newly returned traveler tells friends about the journey.” O’Neil suggests that travel writers focus on telling a good story, putting details about locations, prices, etc., in sidebars.

When you’re reading articles and books, look for the narrative elements in nonfiction. Look for a personal narrator, settings, dialogue, a story arc, etc.  See how the writers tell their stories, then try to do likewise.

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One Comment on “Tell us a story–even in nonfiction”

  1. Peat O'Neil says:

    Thanks for mentioning my article! My latest book is Pyrenees Pilgrimage, available in Kindle (and print) through Amazon. L Peat O’Neil


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