Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Narrative Nonfiction 101

In the spirit of sharing what I'm learning while on furlough at Starbucks, here's some wisdom from the book I'm lapping up faster than my latte, called Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide (published by the Nieman Foundation):

• “The most mundane tale, imparted by an inspired storyteller, captivates….Readers will gladly follow a voice they trust almost anywhere” – Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, TTS

• “Structure is the deliberate and purposeful sequence of the reader’s experience.” Mark Kramer, TTS

• “Every narrative tale—from The Iliad to the latest Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper serial—has the same underlying structure…: A central character encounters a problem, struggles with it, and, in the end, overcomes it or is defeated by it or is changed in some way. If the story, as it unfolds in life, lacks one of these elements, you should not attempt to write it as a narrative.” –Bruce DeSilva, TTS

• “The narrative nonfiction equivalent of the film sound track is an idea plot: an ordered succession of arguments that moves forward in sync with the narrative plot….The more the writer thinks about the movement of the idea track in the narrative while reporting, the less clunky the execution.” – Nicholas Lemann, TTS

• “Beginning to read a story should feel like embarking on a journey, starting toward a destination. The writer must decide what larger meaning the story represents and lead the reader to that. Is it about fear? Is it about shame? Pain? Love? Betrayal? Hate? Faith?” – DeNeen L. Brown, TTS

• “To report and write good narrative it is important to develop a clear process that takes you from beginning to end: exhaustive researching, choosing a strong main character, thinking the story through, and reporting the story, scene, and theme. I have found that if I stick to that process and don’t take shortcuts, I always end up with what I need for the story. It might not be the story that I started out looking for, but it will be a story.” –Walt Harrington, TTS

And my personal favorite:

• “The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes. Going into a narrative—into the narrative process—is a dark road. You can’t see your way ahead….The well of inspiration is a hole that leads downward.” –Margaret Atwood