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 person by letting the reader "hear" him or her speak. You may show us one thing when we hear a man speaking before the Rotary Club; you may show us something quite different when you let us hear him talk with a waitress when he's out of town on business. Unless you have also described him for us, we can't "see" him, but the scene will have certainly "shown" him to us just the same as we will have had several views of him through his conversations.

Good, dramatic nonfiction openings tend to move; they have life within them, life that moves, that gets somewhere. In a good piece of nonfiction, if life doesn't get somewhere in the opening lines, the reader must at least sense movement or the promise of movement, sense that the freeze-frame will soon launch into action. Readers will not wait long for this. Playgoers may not walk back up the aisle if they don't like the first few words of the play on stage, but the article reader can easily flip to another article if the movement of life is neither present nor promised.

Many years ago, readers would stay with the writer, sometimes for many pages, while the writer warmed up to telling the actual story. That was the style of the day; it fit the slow pace of life in that time. Today, the reader faces many demands on his or her time. This is complicated by an ever-shortening attention span in people of all ages. A shortened attention span would seem to spell nothing but negatives about the future of reading—and, closer to our hearts, writing—but fortunately, there is another side to the coin. As the result of television, the Internet, and the increasing pace of life in general, most people today are quicker on the uptake. They're ready to receive and process concentrated bursts of information much more rapidly than could readers several generations ago. This two-sided coin (or is it a two-edged sword?) influences our writing—or, at least, our thinking about writing. On the one hand, readers can generally accept high loads of information because of increased abilities, but on the other hand, they're quicker to put aside a piece of writing that isn't sufficiently interesting, entertaining, or informative. This means that writers can be more direct, creating an impression with a few bold strokes, a single exemplary, vivid incident, and some carefully selected concrete details. If the writer intends to have readers, he or she must grab them and do everything possible to stretch that short attention span. The first 250 words must do it. Good openings make us feel we're there, in the infield, involved in the double play.

Poor openings resemble a professional baseball pitcher's motions: a long, involved, often self-conscious wind-up punctuated partway by a furtive look to check first base, another squeeze of the rosin bag, and then another tug at the visor, another hitch of the pants, and finally, the pitch itself—sometimes three pages too late to catch the reader. The skilled nonfiction writer steps to the mound, checks out the batter, and hurls the word directly at the reader. It may end up a curve, but the game's begun—we're hooked, we're grabbed, we're involved in the game.

Like much good fiction today, nonfiction articles often begin in medias res, in the middle of some action, some event. An opening can begin in the midst of some very dramatic action with people talking about things we may not at first understand (but are intrigued by), or it can begin with very little or no conversation. Many nonfiction pieces start out with conversation.

In nonfiction, as in fiction, when people appear, and particularly when they begin to converse, the story comes to life. Until then, it's largely promise. Knowing this about fiction inspires many creative nonfiction writers to open with conversation. The reader comes down the aisle looking for his or her seat while taking in the dialog progressing on stage and is engrossed, before turning down the upholstered seat to get settled in.

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