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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Has this ever happened to you?

I’d love for you to think I’m such an expert that I never screw up and my stories just flow from my computer straight into print, but it’s not good to lie. So here’s what happened to me recently. I got this assignment from a travel magazine.  I had pitched it last fall. For six months, I heard nothing. I assumed they didn’t want it. Then, out of the blue, I get an email: If you’re still interested in writing it, we want it for the September issue. I thought: What? I said, “Great! Sure, I’ll just drive up to Washington for a few days, do a little interviewing, take some new pictures and shoot you the story.” I contacted the subject. Yes, she was up for a story. She looked forward to my arrival.

Sounds pretty good, huh? It was about a six-hour drive each way. I put the dog in the kennel, packed for three days, and headed north. The weather was great. I was happy to get away. I wandered around taking pictures, thinking things were looking a little shabby, but no big deal. It wasn’t tourist season yet. Then I sat down with the director of the place for our interview. We got about a half hour into it, and she said, “I should probably tell you that I’m planning to close in October.” Uh, just for the season? “No, forever.” I started calculating. If the article came out in September and they were closing in October . . . Maybe they could still publish it. But probably not. Meanwhile we were still talking. She was saying maybe an article would help attract new funding. I was nodding my head, sure, sure.

I was screwed. Part of me thought, I don’t have to tell the editor. If I don’t mention it, she’ll run the story. I’ll get paid, and life will be good. Another part of me thought, No, she always fact-checks with sources. She will call, and the director will tell her. Sigh. Maybe I could sell it to another publication with a shorter lead time, or I could just post it on my blog.

So we finished the interview, very friendly. The pictures turned out great. I drafted the article while it was still fresh in my mind, just in case. Then I sent it with a sample photo and told the editor the truth. She mulled it over and said, “Sorry, but I love the picture!” I didn’t even qualify for a kill fee.

So what have we learned here? Always, always, before you dive into an article with both feet, find out if they’re closing, going out of business, or making drastic changes within the next year or so. You can couch it in positive terms, e.g., “What exciting things are you planning for next year?” But do ask. I know I will in the future.

It was a nice trip anyway.

Happy writing.