Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfictionby Jack Hart
From the work of the New Journalists in the 1960s, to the New Yorker essays of John McPhee, Susan Orlean, Atul Gawande, and a host of others, to blockbuster book-length narratives such as Mary Roach’s Stiff or Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, narrative nonfiction has come into its own. Yet writers looking for guidance on/i>/i>/i>
From the work of the New Journalists in the 1960s, to the New Yorker essays of John McPhee, Susan Orlean, Atul Gawande, and a host of others, to blockbuster book-length narratives such as Mary Roach’s Stiff or Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, narrative nonfiction has come into its own. Yet writers looking for guidance on reporting and writing true stories have had few places to turn for advice. Now in Storycraft, Jack Hart, a former managing editor of the Oregonian who guided several Pulitzer Prize–winning narratives to publication, delivers what will certainly become the definitive guide to the methods and mechanics of crafting narrative nonfiction.
Hart covers what writers in this genre need to know, from understanding story theory and structure, to mastering point of view and such basic elements as scene, action, and character, to drafting, revising, and editing work for publication. Revealing the stories behind the stories, Hart brings readers into the process of developing nonfiction narratives by sharing tips, anecdotes, and recommendations he forged during his decades-long career in journalism. From there, he expands the discussion to other well-known writers to show the broad range of texts, styles, genres, and media to which his advice applies. With examples that draw from magazine essays, book-length nonfiction narratives, documentaries, and radio programs, Storycraft will be an indispensable resource for years to come.
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StorycraftThe Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction
By Jack Hart
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2011 Jack Hart
All right reserved.
Story is about eternal, universal forms. —Robert McKee
From the back of a Boston hotel ballroom I watched, intrigued, as Ira Glass cued interviews, modulated music, and led hundreds of writers through the theory that guides his storytelling. I'm a print guy, and Glass is a broadcaster. But at that instant I realized that this little dynamo, the creative genius behind National Public Radio's This American Life, followed exactly the same principles that I did when I chose and edited nonfiction narratives for my newspaper.
It was one of those ah-hah! moments, a point of insight that suddenly brought together ideas I'd never fully connected. I was experienced at editing nonfiction newspaper and magazine narratives, and I knew that many of the same storytelling principles applied to both. But the insights Ira Glass gave me about storytelling for radio made me realize that similar principles of scene-setting, characterization, and plotting apply no matter where writers tell their stories. The same interesting psychological complication can propel a character through a newspaper series, a radio documentary, a magazine article, a book, a film, or an online presentation.
I'm not sure how I'd missed that larger point, but the evidence for it was all around me. I was, for example, perfectly aware of Mark Bowden's experience at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bowden, a police reporter, wrote a multipart newspaper series on the American military incursion in Somalia. The Internet version of the series attracted nationwide attention, setting the stage for a successful book. Then Ridley Scott turned Black Hawk Down into a major motion picture. Bowden himself went on to become a national correspondent for the Atlantic.
Once I tumbled to the idea that common principles of storytelling apply regardless of medium, I noticed examples everywhere. Newspaper writers such as David Simon, a police reporter at the Baltimore Sun, used the material they collected on their beats to produce books that shape-shifted into other media. Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets morphed into Homicide: Life on the Street, a hit television show. Best-selling nonfiction books such as Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit all became successful Hollywood films.
I'd seen the same thing happen with long-form newspaper narratives I edited at the Oregonian. Barnes Ellis, a young reporter, teamed up with me on "A Ride through Hell," the story of an Oregon couple kidnapped by two desperados, and the tale was soon adapted as Captive, a made-for-TV movie starring Joanna Kerns and Barry Bostwick. Tom Hallman wrote an inspiring story about Bill Porter, a handicapped salesman. A version appeared in Reader's Digest. ABC picked the story up for 20/20, and then it reappeared as Door to Door, a TV movie starring William Macy.
Clearly, story is story. The same underlying principles apply regardless of where you tell your tale. As Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer winner, says, "All stories have a common set of attributes that are arranged in a certain specific way."
Anybody who hopes to reach full potential as a storyteller needs to discover those universals. Successful nonfiction storytelling requires a basic understanding of fundamental story theory and the story structures the theory suggests. Ignore them, and you'll fight a losing battle with human nature. Master them, and you're on your way to reaching a large and enthusiastic audience in just about any medium.
Story theory began with the Greeks, and we've been developing structures consistent with it for millennia. As Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru, puts it, "In the twenty-three centuries since Aristotle wrote The Poetics the 'secrets' of story have been as public as the library down the street."
True enough, but that doesn't mean the secrets of story are widely appreciated or universally practiced. I stumbled through half my career before I found my way to the library and asked for the right books. And over the years I've talked with scores of would-be storytellers who were just as lost. They wasted uncounted hours chasing after doomed narrative lines and ignoring topics with huge potential because they didn't recognize what was passing, unnoticed, right in front of them.
If you want to write successful narrative, half the battle is knowing what you're looking for. A sharp eye for story comes from understanding that its basic ingredients are universal and learning how to spot them in the real world. If you want to find a great story, look for the ingredients I'll be explaining in the rest of this chapter. If you want to write a great story, study the techniques I'll describe in the rest of the book.
You'll seldom find every element of story in one slice of reality. But choosing to pursue a narrative isn't a black-or-white, all-or-nothing, kind of proposition. If you find a situation filled with lots of story elements, you may want to go whole hog, tackling a full-fledged story that, long or short, brings a character through a complete narrative arc. If you have a more limited action line that helps explain an interesting process, you may still have what it takes for a good piece of explanatory journalism. Or a personal essay. Or a vignette. Or maybe you'll just have enough to drop an anecdote into a more conventional report or news feature.
Or not. If what your audience really wants is unadorned information, straight facts that cut right to the heart of the matter, that's fine, too. The packaging for a loaf of bread usually carries the baker's name, a list of ingredients, and not much more.
On the other hand, the wrapper for my favorite bread comes with a two-hundred-word narrative revealing that the baker's fifteen years in prison "transformed an ex-con into an honest man who is doing his best to make the world a better place ... one loaf at a time."
Now, who wouldn't at least try a loaf of bread with that kind of story behind it?
THE STORIES WITHIN US
Joseph Campbell's A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) showed us that the same deep-seated archetypes lurk in primal stories created by all kinds of cultures. And respected scientific researchers ranging from Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist, to Steven Pinker, a linguist, have argued that storytelling has uniformities that suggest an evolutionary basis. Certain systems of organizing information give us an edge, goes the argument, a way of perceiving the world that has helped us survive.
New techniques for analyzing the brain support the notion that we're hardwired for story. When science writer Stephen Hall created a story in his head during an MRI brain scan, an area the size of a sugar cube lit up in his right frontal lobe. In his report for the New York Times Magazine, Hall labeled that thimbleful of brain, located in the inferior frontal gyrus, "the storytelling area." It linked with other brain centers, such as the visual cortex. All told, they formed what Hall described as the brain's "storytelling system."
Hall's example hardly qualifies as a rigorous scientific study, but it strongly suggests a biology of story. To me, that makes perfect sense. The myriad ways we use story to cope with the world make it hard to imagine that narrative isn't part of our fundamental nature. As Barbara Hardy, the English literary critic, put it, "We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative."
I'm also not surprised by the scientific evidence that most human beings have a better grasp of narrative than other forms, that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. Research also demonstrates that we remember facts more accurately if we're exposed to them in a story, rather than a list, and that we're more likely to buy the arguments that lawyers make in a trial if they present them as part of a narrative.
We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too, which may explain why we're so fascinated by the narratives of others. Psychologists have studied the way we picture our own life stories. They've found, according to the New York Times, that each of us has a kind of internal screenplay, and that "the way we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but also how we behave."
Understanding that story is rooted in our brains and behavior helps explain why successful storytelling contains so many common elements. But it doesn't tell you what those elements are. Or, more importantly, how to create them with the written word.
THE ROOTS OF STORY
Lajos Egri, who in 1942 wrote an influential guide for playwrights that's still in print as The Art of Dramatic Writing, argued that character was the driving force in story. Human needs and wants, he said, set stories in motion and determine all that follows.
We live in a world of scarce resources, whether they be caviar or companionship. So characters who want something usually have to overcome opposition to get it. Wants, in other words, create conflict. "A story is a war," said Mel McKee. "It is sustained and immediate combat." Others expand the idea of conflict to include the array of problems that keep human beings from achieving their goals, some of them purely internal. They usually refer not to conflict, but to "complications."
So, at its most basic, a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them.
That's a succinct expression of what's generally known as the protagonist-complication-resolution model for story. You see it in various forms. Philip Gerard, who writes both novels and book-length narrative nonfiction, says a story follows when "a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences." Bruce DeSilva, former writing coach at the Associated Press, says, "Every true tale ... has the same underlying structure. ... Character has a problem. He struggles with a problem. Most of the piece is about the struggle, and then you get a resolution in the end in which the character overcomes the problem or is defeated by it."
I'm partial to the story definition Jon Franklin included in Writing for Story, his groundbreaking text on narrative nonfiction:
A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.
Franklin's definition is simple, yet precise. And it lends itself to more detailed analysis of the key ingredients in story.
A sequence of actions. In any story, principal characters do one thing, then another, then another, and the writer's recounting of that sequence creates the narrative. At its simplest level, then, a narrative is just a chronology of events.
Plot, on the other hand, is clearly something different than mere narrative. A plot emerges when a storyteller carefully selects and arranges material so that larger meanings can emerge. A plot, says Burroway, "is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance." For Eudora Welty "Plot is the 'Why?'" Or, as the novelist E. M. Forster famously put it, the narrative is that "the king died and then the queen died." The plot is that "the king died and the queen died of grief."
Narrative plus plot, according to this view, equals story.
Plot unfolds as a pattern of cause and effect and winds its way through a series of "plot points," defined by Robert McKee as "any development that sends the story spinning off in a new direction." One of the most valuable things I do when coaching a writer is to list the plot points. That gives us what we need to plan the story's trajectory.
Consider a short breaking-news narrative I once worked on with Stuart Tomlinson, then a police reporter in one of the Oregonian's metropolitan bureaus. He called my office, excited about what he'd learned, and I asked him to walk me through the story.
A police officer had been sitting at an intersection, watching traffic whiz by. No plot point yet. Nothing had happened to change the ordinary direction of events. Then "a pickup blew by, pushing eighty." Now that's a plot point. Once a patrolman sees a vehicle roaring through an urban intersection at nearly eighty miles an hour, his day's bound to go spinning off in a new direction. And for this patrolman, Jason McGowan, things were just beginning to get interesting.
The pickup truck smashed into a passenger car, trapping the woman driver in twisted metal (Plot Point No. 2). The pickup driver fled on foot (Plot Point No. 3). McGowan ran him down and asked a couple of bystanders to watch him (Plot Point No. 4) while he dashed back to the passenger car. It burst into flames (Plot Point No. 5), threatening to incinerate the woman inside. Two more patrol cars arrived (Plot Point No. 6). The police officers used fire extinguishers from their patrol cars to suppress the fire (Plot Point No. 7), but it flamed up again (Plot Point No. 8). One of them rushed into a nearby convenience store and grabbed another extinguisher. Same result (Plot Point No. 9). The woman in the wrecked car moved—she was still alive! (Plot Point No. 10). Firefighters arrived with the "jaws of life," a device used to pry wreckage apart (Plot Point No. 11). An ambulance whisked the victim off the hospital (Plot Point No. 12), where she later met with McGowan and thanked him for saving her life.
Phew! One plot point after another. And once Stu and I had them identified, we had everything we needed to construct a narrative arc for the story. We knew what to include and what to leave out. We knew the possible starting points for the story, the best material for cliff-hangers and other dramatic devices, where we'd have to shift points of view, and the answers to just about all the other questions that come up when you're plotting a story.
A sympathetic character. The character who drives the story forward is the protagonist, and the protagonist is an active player, the one who takes action to achieve a desire, overcome an antagonist, or solve a problem. So when you're looking for a protagonist search for the person who makes things happen.
A conventional police reporter covering Stu Tomlinson's story would have focused on the victim, writing a report that put her at the center of a standard who-what-where-why? news report. Stu wisely choose to tell the story via Jason McGowan, who had the hallmarks of a good protagonist. For one thing, he was accessible. Stu knew him from earlier stories and had rapport with him. So McGowan was available for the kind of extensive interview Stu needed to reconstruct the whole story. McGowan also had been in a position to observe the whole series of events that made up the story. Lots of otherwise ideal protagonists pop in and out of a story line, appearing for short periods of active struggle with a problem before disappearing while someone else steps up. In Stu's story, the other patrolmen who arrived and tried to put out the fire were potential protagonists. So were the firefighters who operated the jaws of life. But none of those witnessed the whole story. True, you can tell a story by shifting point of view through a series of players. But you're usually better off sticking with one.
Note, too, Franklin's emphasis on a sympathetic character. Not surprisingly, novices often want to write narratives with bad-guy protagonists, but bad guys seldom work as narrative protagonists. For one thing, they seldom show us the way things should be done. For another, readers can't identify with them. And for yet another, readers expect heroic—or at least likeable—protagonists, which is why criminal protagonists in Hollywood movies usually come off as loveable rogues. If you give some sociopath protagonist status in a nonfiction story, readers will invest the brute with positive qualities he doesn't deserve.
That doesn't mean you can't write about bad guys, of course. You just don't make them your protagonists. Ann Rule, who's made a lucrative career out of true-life crime fiction, focused her 1987 book, Small Sacrifices, on Diane Downs, a pathological narcissist who shot her own children. But Rule chose Fred Hugi, the prosecutor who put Downs in prison, as her protagonist. Not only did Hugi put the monster behind bars, but he and his wife adopted two of the killer's surviving children, one of them partially paralyzed. Now that's a sympathetic character.
Excerpted from Storycraft by Jack Hart Copyright © 2011 by Jack Hart. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jack Hart is a former managing editor and writing coach at the Oregonian. He received the first National Teaching Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and a University of Wisconsin Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to journalism, has taught on the faculties of six universities, and was named the Ruhl Distinguished Professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. He is the author of A Writer’s Coach.
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