Story Craft

Up and in my home office. It is 3:12am. Again around 3am. Here I am with the book Story Craft – The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. Am I eternally cursed by some dark magic force of 3am? I first fell victim to this probably in autumn 2005, living in Paddington, just north of Hyde Park in London. The frequency of early wakings varied, with far more in some periods than others for either external or internal reasons. I am happy to remain so though and to continue exercising the freedom to naturally wake up early and work on what interests me. Knowing that I have this choice, I am very grateful. It is wonderful to have taken great pleasure in reading or working on a subject of interest before the dawn; by the time the dawn cracks, hitting the road for a jog and seeing the world around me slowly wake up to a new day, I secretly think to myself that I am ready for this new day. One benefit of starting the day early is that it helps to direct attention to truly important topics during the day. To think that I have been very much immersed in certain subject a few hours before the typical start of the day, it would be insane to waste the rest of the precious day on any trivial matters. It is the third 3am over a week time that I have been accompanied by this book. It is not a hard read. But it is far away from my area of expertise that so much of it feels very fresh to me such that I like re-reading some passages.

 

You may find this very encouraging, if you are concerned about the lack of experience and talent for narrative nonfiction writing: One of the other things I discovered during a quarter-century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize….The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft.

 

In talking about what this book is about:

The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to combine print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them. Those principles are what Storycraft is all about….to share what I learned in the trenches….

Speaking of the wide application of storytelling:

Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much. When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The story and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities.

Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action heads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.

To support that narrative is part of our fundamental nature, the author quoted Barbara Hardy:

We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

This scientific evidence included in the book suggests that mastering storytelling would be great for non-literature, for example, in our case, the discussion of technology and leadership topics too:

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.”

 

To write a good piece of narrative nonfiction, the first step would be to identify and choose a story to tell. So what are the roots of a story?

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…a story follows when “a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences.”

In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin defined narrative nonfiction as:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.  

 

After reading this book, my understanding is that the key ingredients of a good story are its characters (or protagonists), a sequence of actions (including narrative and plot), complications and resolutions.

  1. The protagonist is the person who makes things happen. Jack Hart advises us to choose a sympathetic character over a dark one, for the reason that it helps the readers to establish the connection with the protagonist. He also advises to not shift point of view too much and that it is better to stick with one through a single character.
  2. Narrative is about a chronology of events, whereas plot is about the cause and effect, or the force that supports the story to take certain trajectory.
  3. Complication is the trouble that our protagonist has to deal with. There is no story without a complication, on the other hand, complication alone does not make a story. To demystify the choice of complication: not every complication has to have life or death consequences…“The great dangers in life and in literature are not necessarily the most spectacular,” Janet Burroway says. “The profoundest impediments to our design most often lie close to home, in our own bodies, personalities, friends, lovers, and family. Fewer people have cause to panic at the approach of a stranger with a gun than at the approach of mama with the curling iron.”
  4. Resolution: the ultimate aim of every story. The resolution releases the dramatic tension created as the protagonist struggles with the complication. It contains the lesson that the audience carries away, the insight that the story’s readers or viewers or listeners can apply to their own lives. It seems to me, we too often err on the side of dragging the resolution for too long when we should have put the final stop to the article or book. It is more appealing to hint the reader with a very succinct “telegram” that prompts the reader to do the thinking rather than spelling out the full message. When I read articles like that, we feel more involved in connecting with the story and contributing to the creation of that resolution.
 

In creating a story, one technique recommended is to list the plot points and use them to plan the story’s trajectory. To illustrate what a plot is and how it is different from 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.”

 

A lot of the messages in this book are larger than being guidance for writing narrative nonfiction. For example, “You can resolve a complication…by changing the world or changing yourself.” Is it not true in every aspect of the universe? “A compelling story must immerse readers in another world, carrying them away from their mundane daily cares.” This applies not only to written stories, but also to other forms of inputs, like technical writings, maths deductions, music, paintings, presentations and so on.

 

After educating us on the principles of story structure, Jack Hart dives into the practical specifics in the rest of the book. It teaches “how to convey character, action, and scene”, helps the readers to explore the point of view, find the voice and develop his/her own style of narrative writing through sharing a large amount of excellent examples and the author’s first-hand experiences.  

 

The last chapter of the book discusses ethics. Jack Hart leaves us with his fundamental principles: Be honest, get it right, keep everything transparent. Don’t fudge, ever, even if a tiny departure from reality produces a huge payoff in drama, clarity, or style.

 

This book challenged me, like a number others I have read this year. But then, what is the point of reading or doing anything, if it does not challenge us to be better?

I hear birds are singing. Time to get out for the fresh air of the beautiful dawn.

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