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Thursday, May 13, 2010


A Storyteller's List for Nonfiction Writing

This is my third and final post about what I learned at the latest conference I went to, which was the Missouri Writers' Guild annual conference. (For more information on this wonderful event and what to look for in a conference, please see my photo essay in the newest edition of WOW!.) Today, I thought I'd share some great information I learned about storytelling for nonfiction writers from Dick Weiss, who was an award winning writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and currently is a contributing editor for the St. Louis Beacon.

In his talk, he shared with us a storyteller's list, and he talked about the importance of including as many of these elements as possible in nonfiction writing. Some people call this "creative nonfiction", which are the types of true stories you find in anthologies such as Chicken Soup for the Soul. But you will also find these kind of stories in feature sections in newspapers and magazines. His point was in order to capture a reader's attention and keep them reading, nonfiction writers need to use these elements.

Here's the list:

  • Action: Begin a piece of writing with an action scene. He showed us an example from a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning story titled "When Workers Die." The writer started off in the middle of the action, instead of describing the deceased workers first.
  • Scene: In any type of writing you do, you must give the reader a sense of place. Weiss said the number one thing you need to ask yourself is: "What details am I going to pick out that ring true [to this place]?" He also suggested one great way to get a sense of place is to visit and then turn on the radio to a local DJ. Listen to the way he talks and what he talks about as well as the commercials. What's important to the residents?
  • Character: Yes, nonfiction writing has characters--these are the real people you are featuring in your stories. Depending on your story, you may want to describe a person's characteristics, especially if he or she is the focus of the piece. He showed us a Philadelphia Enquirer piece where the journalist started out with a profile of an interesting guy who was important in the investigative story that followed.
  • Dialogue: This is always tricky in a nonfiction piece because contrary to some writers' beliefs, you are not supposed to make up ANY dialogue if your story is true. Even if you think you know what someone probably said--you can not put it in the story unless it is verified or documented or you heard it yourself. Weiss also pointed out that dialogue is not the same as a quote. Dialogue is happening between two or more people in real time while the action is going on. Harper Barnes, who wrote the book Never Been a Time about the 1917 East St. Louis race riots, included dialogue in his book because he read it in congressional hearing documents, and people were testifying under oath.
  • Passion: Weiss pointed out that the best stories show the passion the writer has for the subject matter. He said to ask: "Is there passion attached to it [the subject matter] somehow?" If you are having trouble finding passion for a story, start looking at the details. If you are not getting enough details, then when you interview people, keep asking them questions to go deeper into the story. Sometimes, the first answers you receive just barely skim the surface of information interviewees are willing to share.
  • Theme: Universal themes are often mentioned when writers talk about memoirs. Shorter pieces can have themes, too. Weiss said to look at the big picture and give people a "wide-angle look" as well as supplying small details about the individual and his story.
In today's newspapers and magazines, nonfiction writers are using the same elements as fiction writers--this is what readers are expecting. These elements hold a reader's attention and keep people buying print media.

If you write nonfiction, do you use these elements? Have you found storytelling elements to help your nonfiction sell?

post by Margo L. Dill,
photo by alexkerhead

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