Holding readers’ attention with a storyline

Biographers, writes Peter Ginna on Nieman Storyboard, are often tempted to organize a subject’s life story by theme. “They want to write about their subject’s womanizing, say, so instead of threading every extramarital affair into the ongoing storyline, it seems simpler to give the topic a chapter of its own. This may be perfectly valid, and allow a deeper discussion of what links the affairs together. But it tends to kill narrative momentum.” And it tends to produce a book of essays rather than a compelling story, says Ginna, in a piece on how to keep someone reading a book-length narrative, When journalists become authors: a few cautionary tips (12-15-11).

Read what Ginna has to say about structure, the background problem, thin sourcing (do research; don’t just rely on interviews with your subject), narrative exposition (showing both the forest and relevant trees), overcoming excessive fondness for unnecessary facts (beloved because they were so hard to find), and the importance of conveying to readers up front and in conclusion why they should care about the subject.

He recommends another piece: Jack Hart on “Storycraft” and narrative nonfiction as an American literary form (Nieman Storyboard, 10-20-11). Hart provides a succinct explanation of narrative arc and other terms that crop up in discussions of narrative nonfiction, such as explanatory narrative (as in The French Fry Connection by Richard Read). I recommend Hart’s book on the subject: Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Narrative Nonfiction. Understanding the principles of the narrative arc would improve many a personal history.

It goes by various names: creative nonfiction, literary journalism, narrative nonfiction, and fact-based storytelling, among them. On my Writers and Editors website there are links to explanations of narrative nonfiction, to excellent online examples of narrative nonfiction, and to more books about the craft.

–Pat McNees
Writers and Editors
Bethesda, Maryland

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