Convergent Narratives Structure

The convergent narratives structure is another form of reworked chronology available to the creative writer. This structure is sometimes called parallel structure, but this geometry metaphor is inaccurate parallel lines do not converge, according to the geometry axiom. Parallel narratives would best describe stories like those on NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and The Practice, in which several stories run side by side with cinematic cross-cutting between them. In most episodes, these stories stay...

Profiles

The first excerpt comes from a section of the New Yorker called Profiles. Calvin Trillin and other writers for that magazine write some of the best, most thoroughly researched, and longest profiles of any publication. Calvin Trillin wrote one about Edna Buchanan, a crime reporter for the Miami Herald in the 1980s. In the newsroom of the Miami Herald, there is some disagreement about which of Edna Buchanan's first paragraphs stands as the classic Edna lead. I line up with the fried-chicken...

Creative Nonfiction

When I wrote the first edition of this book, in the mid-1980s, creative nonfiction was a fairly new kid on the block. Since then, much has changed. The Internet explosion has opened up avenues for research a writer could once only have dreamed of having. That, along with the ease of in-depth research, done from the writer's desk on the now ubiquitous home computer, has contributed to the growth of the genre we now enjoy in books and articles of all kinds. So, what is this genre of writing,...

Personal Reflections

Personal reflections are usually written in essay form, but I've not called the following essays because we tend to associate that form with those dull things we were required to write back in school. Also, personal reflections are written in more forms than the essay, so I chose to use the more accommodating phrase. E. B. White, the modern master of the personal essay, said in the foreword to Essays of E. B. White There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many...

Historoclumping

In a not terribly serious way, Ken Kesey wrote in Esquire (June 1985) about the history of Oregon that led up to their Round-Up rodeo in The Blue-Ribbon American Beauty Rose of Rodeo. In the 1700s, explorers. Then pioneers. Then settlers tired of the Oregon Trail, this is fur damn piece enough, by gadfrey Then ranchers and stock, riders and roundups. Finally the wheat farmers draw lines, and more lines, gathering space, creating a county. .In 1865 the county seat was Umatilla Landing, where the...

Geoclumping

A brief, compressed clump of information given before getting too deep into the topic can include geographical or geological background. Ken Kesey, in the very next paragraph after giving us that rapid bit of historoclumping about the establishment of Umatilla County, Oregon, decided we need a geographic feel for it Umatilla County. Two million acres. Drained by McKay Creek, Birch Creek. Out of the Blue Mountains. Towns. Hermiston, Stanfield, Echo, Adams, Helix, Athena, Milton-Freewater. And,...

Teleclumping

Teleclumping is a term that describes writing that resembles the terse succinctness of a telegram's compressed language. Teleclumping is similar to chronoclumping except that the writing that follows the chronological references is in short and sometimes incomplete sentences, is typically present tense, and is sometimes laconic. Two examples come from John McPhee's Table of Contents, the first from A Textbook Place for Bears. Here, the police get calls about bears and enter the complaints...

Cake Peddler War Europe

Another slight variation on the litany technique is the use of paired words or phrases. Jan Morris made very effective use of this technique near the opening to her essay Not So Far A European Journey collected in Journeys Mrs. Thatcher's Britain is an uneasy kingdom, a kingdom of anomalies. It is poor but it is rich. It is weak but it is resilient. It is very clever in some ways, thick as mutton in others. It wins more Nobel Prizes per capita sic than any other nation, yet it can hardly keep...

The Trip Structure

One type of organic structure that has always appealed to people is the trip. The story is any kind of trip, usually told from beginning to end, has the advantage of following the logic of human thought (it proceeds from 1 to 10 or A to Z) combined with the organic logic of following the physical structure of the topic (the trip). This dual logic may explain the continuing popularity of the trip beginning, perhaps, way back with Homer's Odyssey. More likely, it began even before the invention...

Applications of Creative nonncton

Throughout the book, I've used examples from some of the top creative nonfiction writers to illustrate the use of fiction techniques in nonfiction writing. This final chapter takes a look at specific applications history and biography, personal histories (memoir), travel, nature, science and technology, and journalism, or hard news. If you're a teacher, you might ask students to identify the fiction techniques being used in each excerpt. I hope, too, that when you read these short excerpts...

Snapshots

When introducing a character for the first time, or when introducing a minor character into the narrative, you may wish to present what I call a snapshot only a glimpse of him or her. Later, you may want to describe the person in greater depth, but everything in its own time. A snapshot of a person is not an oil painting, not even a good photograph it's not a biography, not even a profile or a sketch. It's a mere snapshot designed to give the essence of a person. It's detailed, however, and...

Telling The Whole Truth

Emotions inform our understanding all the time. So, to tell the whole truth about most situations that involve people and most situations do , in the words of Tom Wolfe, we need to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally. The best nonfiction writers do not tell us how we should think about something, how we should feel about it, nor what emotions should be aroused. They simply present the concrete details. The reader's brain, to the extent it has experienced or known something...

Snapshots Of Places

Snaps of places share the attributes discussed under snaps of people You're giving us a glimpse or two of the environmental context. As with snapshots of characters, this is not a profile, but just the essence of the place. Photographic terms lend themselves well to this concept. There is the microshot, the macroshot, and the megashot, each offering widening degrees of coverage. Frank McCourt uses the microshot in this excerpt from Angela's The room had a fireplace where we could boil water for...

Authortitle Index

Alexander, Caroline, 242 Allen, Moira Anderson, 216 All the Strange Hours The Excavation of a Life, 157 American Nature Writing, 257 Amory, Cleveland, 67, 68 Angela's Ashes, 191, 192 Arctic Dreams, 169 71 Atwan, Robert, 4 Ava Life in the Afternoon, 76 77 Baker, Russell, 55-56, 173-74, 259 Baldwin, James, 261 Banes, Charles H., 109 Barzun, Jacques, 230 The Basket-Case State, 70 Bear News, 254 Beautiful Swimmers, 91-92 Berkow, Ira, 6 Bernstein, Burton, 160-61 Bernstein, Jeremy, 251 Bernstein,...

Dress A A Badge Of Group Life

In addition to looking at a group's methods of entertaining itself, writers frequently look at the way people dress. Only an individual, not a group, can dress, of course, but if the individual is a member of some more-or-less identifiable group, he or she will likely dress like others in that group. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for example, its author, Robert M. Pirsig, and his son Bill are sitting at lunch in Miles City, Montana, when Bill says This is a great town, really...

Dia Logs Mono Logs and Other Logs Dialogs CapturEd CoNvErsatioNs

Both fiction and nonfiction writers have a basic choice to make when faced with establishing character They can do it directly through a written summary of traits telling or indirectly through dialog and action showing . Teachers of fiction writing usually tell new students that they can characterize best by showing a character in different situations and letting us note how he or she behaves and what he or she says. One fundamental reason for this is that readers begin to suspect a writer who...

Travel And A Sense Of Place

Although the writers quoted below all write about their travel experiences, they are not, in the usual sense, travel writers. Travel writers intend to help us plan our trips to places they discuss, letting us know important information about transportation, sleeping accommodations, restaurants to seek out or avoid , passport visa requirements, and the costs of everything. Their purpose is pragmatic. The writers collected here have a purpose more poetic than pragmatic. They try their best to...

Authority Through Realistic Details

Thinking back a few pages to Joan Didion's essay about the Santa Ana winds, recall how she brought the scene alive partly by including some specifics, some details about the phenomenon. When, for example, she wrote that the Santa Ana is a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon Pass, we begin already to understand it. Just telling us that it's a northeast wind helps us imagine it. When it comes whining down, we can hear it. When we learn then that it's whining through Cajon...

Entertaining Thoughts

In creative nonfiction writing you can sometimes get at the realities of group life by looking at what people do for entertainment. William Least Heat-Moon, for example, wrote in Blue Highways about his drive toward New Orleans and Cajun Country. I switched on the radio and turned the dial. Somewhere between a shill for a drive-up savings bank and loan and one for salvation, I found a raucous music, part bluegrass fiddle, part Texas guitar, part Highland concertina. Cajun voices sang an old,...

Journalism

Journalism presents a broad, almost limitless opportunity for writers of creative nonfiction. Before the early 1970s, traditional newspaper reporters and editors would never have believed for a moment that writing in their publication would be increasingly creative. The word creative connoted that reporters would make up the news, create facts out of whole cloth, or, at best, would write subjectively about the news, instead of objectively, as they had been taught in school and by their editors....

Third Person Point of View

The choice of first person or third person centers on distance. Do you want close-up, intimate, immediate, involved writing First person does a better job of that. Do you want to stand back for an overview, deal with more characters, more descriptions of people and settings Third person would be a better choice. When the New Journalists of the early 1960s were experimenting with the kind of creative nonfiction writing we're talking about here, they were criticized for putting the journalist too...

Points Of View

After the writer has made the key decision about angle of approach, he or she must make an equally important decision from whose point of view shall the article or book be told Point of view concerns through whose eyes the reader views the action. There are several points of view from which to select, and, as a general rule, only one point of view should be used in a single piece. To tell a story through more than one set of eyes tends to confuse the reader. Writers strive for unity multiple...

Nature And Human Nature

Many creative nonfiction writers find topics of great interest within nature and the out-of-doors. Some writers tell us about the wonders of nature, ecological systems, and life in the wild without drawing any moral message, except, perhaps, that we should preserve nature. Other writers use nature as a jumping-off place to wax philosophical about the nature of humankind. Like most things, neither category is purely one or the other. People writing about the wonders of nature will often briefly...

Interviewing for Subjective Reauty

All the discussion about interviewing and other research methods thus far has had to do with what is sometimes called objective reality. The writer conducts his or her research to develop material that will be useful in re-creating for the reader just the way things occurred and looked at the time. For creative nonfiction writers, objective reality is not the only reality. There is also the subjective reality the emotional life of a person, what goes on in his or her mind. Critics of subjective...

Ethical Considerations

Consideration of ethics intrudes on any serious discussion of facts, accuracy, thoroughness, credibility, creativity, or professionalism in any nonfiction writing, but especially in journalistic writing. We can't get into the legal implications of unethical behavior ethicists and lawyers sometimes clarify these issues for writers. And, as many books have been written on the subject of ethics in journalism, we won't go into great depth on the subject, fascinating as it is. I want only to provide...

Drama In Contemporary Fiction

For the nonfiction writer, advice to show rather than tell means put more drama into your nonfiction writing. Show the reader what's happening. We believe what we see we distrust what we're told. That's the secret to writing, whether fiction or nonfiction Capture your readers' attention through the eyes and ears the senses. For most people, the most used sense is the visual one. In writing, showing means much more than offering visuals for the mind's eye. You can also show something about a...

Opening Dramatic And Summary Methods

This book will discuss techniques for telling a story, whether fiction or nonfiction, that grow out of two basic methods the dramatic or scenic method and the summary or narrative method. Like so many great truths, the methods may sound too pat, too simple, but they're simple only in that they are so fundamental. I had never heard about these methods until I read Leon Surmelian's book, Techniques of Fiction Writing. I am forever in his debt and you, too, will soon be. Surmelian wrote about...

Dramatic Openings

With the following dramatic scene, George Orwell opened a book about his early years, Down and Out in Paris and London. It puts us immediately into the environment he's about to discuss. Not content with telling us about his street, Rue du Coq d'Or, he shows us the street by letting us hear some of the inhabitants speak. And he doesn't have them speak just so we can hear their speech patterns, he has them speak of things that show us what life was like on the street of the golden rooster. The...

The FLashback

Another fiction device, the flashback, is valuable in the toolbox of the fully prepared creative nonfiction writer. The flashback is another example of how you can rework chronology, re-create time. This device, however, is subject to abuse. It should be used for artistic reasons, not to fill in something you forgot to set up earlier. Starting out a piece in the middle of things and then going back to pick up the story for a subsequent straight chronological development is not a true flashback....

Captured Conversation

In his bestselling book, The Selling of the President, Joe McGinniss captured many conversations that seemed to reveal President Richard M. Nixon. In the following excerpt, Mr. Nixon has come to the Green Room of the White House to make a political commercial videotape. He took his position on the front of the heavy brown desk. He liked to lean against a desk, or sit on the edge of one, while he taped commercials, because he felt this made him seem informal. There were about twenty people,...

Voice

In objective impersonal writing, the writer narrator writes about thoughts shared by many people, ideas available in the literature, the newspapers, and in the general public opinion. The impersonal narrator never gets personal by voicing his or her emotions or deeply held thoughts about the topic at hand. Journalists have been told to write in this impersonal voice to maintain an objective tone the reader should not know how the journalist feels about the subject, only what others say about...

Summary Openings

Whereas the dramatic method requires the people to live out the story right before our eyes, the summary method, essential to most creative nonfiction, requires a teller. The summary method has its values and strengths, of course, but it also has its weaknesses. The weakness of the summary method lies in the teller No matter who tells the story, the reader experiences a story being told instead of watching it unfold. As in life, we tend to believe more what we overhear than what we're told....

Eccentric Structures

Your writing must be unusually good to succeed with one of the slightly off-center, eccentric structures that follow. Your style, the vividness of your writing, must be of such high quality that your reader will happily or tolerantly put up with some vagueness of direction. Your writing must be so enjoyable that the enthralled reader goes along for the ride, figuring you'll end up at a destination at least as interesting as each of the intervening ports-of-call. Not that all writing must be...

Research Methods

Although I've set aside this section to discuss research in the creative nonfiction writing process, it's not too different from research done for any good nonfiction writing. Readers today expect creative non-fiction writers, journalists especially, to provide not only a complete and objective treatment they also expect some subjective treatment, which usually means treating the emotional content of the story. They want the complete picture, a picture that includes fully developed scenes,...

Monologs

Monolog may not be the technically accurate word to cover what I have in mind here, but I refer to a speech given by one person. It may be a formal speech, or an excerpt from it, or it may simply be a lengthy speech by one person within a lengthier conversation between two or more people. It could also be a lecture, or part of one, given by a professor, minister, or drill sergeant. They come in many variations and disguises, but what follows here are three that illustrate how the writer can say...

Litany

When you complete your research for an article or book, you'll often find that you can't include all you'd like to because of length limitations. Sometimes the simplest thing is to leave out some information, but when you feel you absolutely cannot leave out certain things, litany is a technique that can be useful. Litany, because of its vague resemblance to church litany, simply lists single words or short phrases that accumulate in the reader's mind to create and leave the impression of a...

Writing Scene By Scene

In addition to all of the other methods creative nonfiction writers use to achieve a high level of realism, they tend also to walk readers through a story scene by scene. In traditional journalism, the basic building block was the fact. Reporters rushed around collecting facts from dusty records at City Hall, interviewing experts, and talking with the people involved. Facts piled on facts, interview quotes stacked on interview quotes. All of this took place in the name of accuracy,...

Descriptive Versus Explanatory Summary

Descriptive summary is distinguished from explanatory by its presentation of the quality of an action. While explanatory summary would capture the sequence, logic, and meaning of the action, moving us through time, descriptive summary concerns itself with giving us an overall sensory impression, moving us through space. If, for example, we were writing about a battle going on, descriptive summary would give us interesting snapshots of the action, details of the uniforms, the weapons, the sounds...

Popular Culture

Writers like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion have inspired a generation of other fine writers who keep us abreast of another world, that of our rapidly changing and wonderfully diverse popular culture. Sometimes these writers give us our first insights into what's happening to us as a people right now. We see our foibles, our fads, and our lives, sometimes distressingly clear, through their marvelously refractive eyes and quick intelligence. We all like to read about ourselves, thus opening a wide...