Number 1 tip for nonfiction storytelling


On book writing coach Lisa Tener’s excellent blog I recently found her interview with novelist and writing teacher Chrystal Wilkinson about What Nonfiction Authors Can Learn From Fiction.

In short, she recommends that nonfiction writers write scenes.

No matter what the genre, providing the reader with a narrative arc through sensory language and making something happen is essential to both fiction and nonfiction.

If you’ve recently enjoyed a piece of nonfiction in a magazine or online, chances are it begins with an anecdote about the subject of the story, or about the author’s personal connection to the subject matter. Telling a short story in a scene is a compelling way to draw the reader into a larger story. If you can do this well, you can write about anything and take the reader with you. For example, I never imagined I would be so taken with this book about studying Russian novels, this one about a journey on foot through East Anglia, or this one about immigrants trying to turn barren Montana prairie into farmland.

For memoir writers, scenes are critical. I read a lot of memoirs-in-progress. I’m forever urging authors to picture their story in terms of the key moments of their larger journey. It’s not easy, but it’s essential to identifying the scenes that must go in your book. Those key moments are the ones that move your story forward, like stepping stones across a deep pond. And it’s precisely those moments that require dramatization.

In my own manuscript-in-progress, I suspect I’ve got a lot of rewriting ahead of me, and it will likely involve animating some rather lovely but dead paragraphs into scenes. (Or cutting them.) Readers want action, no matter what sort of prose they prefer. The paradox for me, and probably for many writers, is that I need to write a lot in order to work out what exactly the core of a chapter is about … which then in turn dictates the scenes I must bring to life.

And that’s of course the hard part, the challenge and the joy of it all. When narrative, characterization, sensory detail, dialogue and a narrator’s tone work in sync, it’s thrilling to read, and even more thrilling to have written it.

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