Narrative tips for nonfiction writers: more from the 2010 Mayborn Conference
I recently led a writing workshop at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and talked to students about finding the meaning in their stories and going deep – while at the same time writing in a simple and clear way. Here are some tips.
FINDING THE STORY
- Every story has its surface-level meaning. Let’s say the surface story for “Titanic” is that a huge ocean liner goes down. But what is the theme of the movie? What is the real meaning of the story? Theme, at least in my view, is the underlying meaning of the story.
- Stories can have several thematic strings, and especially powerful ones are layered in that way. As a writer, I think you want to figure out what is the most important one, the one that you want to spend the most time on.
- When doing narrative, you have to sharpen your focus and figure out what your story is really about. Think about one set piece, performance, play or wedding – something that takes place within a set amount of time. There are also natural journeys like a road trip, or internal journeys, like addiction or abuse.
- If you’re the narrator, we need to see you and to understand who you are.
- When you’re trying to get readers to care, to get readers in on that, they have to see some of what you have seen. Try to figure out what it is that the reader really needs to know.
- If you decide to write about deeply personal things, you have to go all the way. If there’s painful stuff you’re holding back, it won’t work. If you’re not ready to go there, that’s fine; maybe let the story sit for a while.
NUTS AND BOLTS
- You want to engage the reader immediately – start in the middle of things.
- As you add to the number of characters in your story, the more complicated it becomes, because the reader has to keep track of more people.
- Once your language is powerful, your next step is to take it and pare it down, read it aloud and see when the sentences go on. When you find that, you either break up the sentence or get rid of adjectives and adverbs.
- Be simple and clear; don’t let the beauty take over – which is not to say you shouldn’t have any beautiful writing. You want some beautiful sentences, but you don’t want to overdo it.
- The more you focus your narrative on scenes, the stronger your narrative will become.
- Really good narrative writers talk about limiting the number of flashbacks. Tom French diagrams flashbacks with loops and tries not to have more than one or two.
- Metaphors are really hard to carry out. My advice would be to use them very sparingly. You can use so many layers of metaphors that you get confused. A story can be compelling without any overt metaphors.
- One really useful thing to do after you write your first draft is to see what happens after you remove the first paragraph or two. Often times it’s the second paragraph that’s the real beginning.
- Watch out for trying to explain too much.
- You don’t have to put a bow at the end or always have a totally clean resolution. Is there a way for you to evoke an idea without necessarily saying it or explaining it? Is there an image or scene that can convey a feeling or idea to close the piece?
Tom Huang is the Sunday and Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and currently president of The American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. He was also co-editor of “Best Newspaper Writing 2008-2009.”