No matter what topic you write about, engaging your readers should always be among your top priorities. Here are three storytelling tricks we can learn from fiction writers.
Fiction writers know that stories are always more engaging that mere accounts, reports, and statements. That’s why they devote so much of their time to crafting the right pace, structure, tone, and level of detail for the stories they wish to tell.
It’s easy to forget we’re telling a story when we write a nonfiction post. That’s why thinking about fiction can be so helpful for bloggers of all stripes: it forces you to remember you’re a storyteller first.
No matter what your next post is about — a chapter of your memoir, a rant about politics, a movie review, a travel journal, or a frittata recipe — building it around a central narrative will help you hook your readers. While it might take practice before you find the narrative mode you’re most comfortable in, here are three storytelling tricks that will get you started as you hone your craft.
The thick of things
In real life as in reading, first impressions count. As writers, we often feel the need to explain everything, to make sure everything’s clear — but often do so at the expense of getting to the action. Consider these two opening sentences. Which story are you more likely to continue reading?
Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway was an upper-class married woman in London. She was hosting a big party that night and was a bit stressed about it, since her servant, Lucy, still had many things to do. She decided, then, that it would make the most sense to get the flowers herself.
Or this one:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach.
Yes; I’m cheating. Clearly, we’re not all Virginia Woolf (the second sentence is the one with which she opens her novel Mrs. Dalloway). But what she does here is something we can all try to remember in our own writing. It’s okay to tease your readers and even to confuse them a bit (who’s Lucy? Who’s Rumplemeyer? Why are the doors taken off the hinges?) when you start a new post, as long as you give them some fun, dynamic action to chew on.
The telling detail
The basic building blocks of stories are almost always the same — someone loves someone else; someone wants something they can’t get; someone wishes to go home (or someplace else) but can’t find the way. How do writers tackle this inescapable repetition? They own the story on the level of the detail — the atoms that create specific people, places, and emotions with language.
It’s important to note that “details” don’t necessarily equal an endless series of adjectives and adverbs: verbs and nouns can be just as specific as modifiers.
Look how much depth is given a secondary character (in Vladimir Nabokov’s Spring in Fialta) in one mid-length sentence:
Her fiancé was a guardsman on leave from the front, a handsome heavy fellow, incredibly well-bred and stolid, who weighed every word on the scales of the most exact common sense and spoke in a velvety baritone, which grew even smoother when he addressed her [...].
For nonfiction bloggers, details are just as important — they allow your readers to imagine your reality (or whatever reality you’re writing about) as a rich, three-dimensional space, and help your review, your recipe, your rant stand out from the crowd. It’s easy to forget others can’t see the world through our eyes; adding enough detail helps them approximate your own, specific perspective.
Lean, mean language machines
Fiction writers know that it takes a fraction of a second to lose the reader’s attention. A plodding description, a dialog that doesn’t get to the point soon enough: it’s that easy to make a reader zone out.
The answer to that danger? Become your own most ruthless editor. “Cutting away the fat” doesn’t mean you can’t write long posts, use rich language, or develop complicated ideas. The two authors quoted in this post — Woolf and Nabokov — would laugh at that notion. It means that what stays in stays in for a reason.
Does this mean you have to belabor every last sentence, sit on drafts for days on end, and obsess over commas until you can’t keep your eyes open? Of course not. Not all posts require the same level of editing, and not all posts (or all blogs, for that matter) demand the same level of polish. Sometimes the value you obtain through spontaneity and looseness trumps anything you can get with another edit.
Just try to read your post through another reader’s eyes. If something feels superfluous, it probably is — and the backspace button is there for a reason. As long as you don’t forget the “Publish” button along the way, there’s no reason not to use it.
Has a piece of fiction writing ever inspired your nonfiction blogging? We’d love to hear more tips if you have them!