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Storytelling for Nonfiction Writers: Three Tools to Consider

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.

Cropped notebook image by Daniel (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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!

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  1. The opening sentence to Mrs. Dalloway is one of my all-time favorites.

    And while I’m here, I’ll just add that your writing tips are great.

    Yes, great is a weak word, but it’s past noon and I haven’t been away from my computer yet today.

  2. I replied to someone yesterday stating that while I enjoyed their short story I didn’t find the age and actions of the protagonist congruent. I thought it was a fair comment. Like you said you have to consider the audience. Another that asked for feedback, I replied, consider your audience, their educational level, life and cultural experience. I also mentioned to try being a bit more succinct but not cryptic. You want avoid language that’s too wordy or flowery. That person was from a different part of the world and used different descriptors than those of which I am accustomed.

  3. It is amazing just how much fat we can cut – that’s something I never really learnt until I started writing for a living.

    Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous and can be excessive.

    ;)

  4. Thank you for another great post. I’ve been struggling with writing my posts, and this is a reminder to delight readers with each paragraph and treat their senses with every word.

  5. Well, I’m writting a story just for fun, I don’t expect any readers as I know it’s lame, but I’ll try using these tricks in my story. Thanks, that was really interesting ;3

  6. Hi. I’m a non-fiction writer but with a bunch of stories to tell. You are so right: I have to force myself to edit, and to omit some of the information that I have just to keep the narrative flowing. Sometimes I’m better at it than others. Thank you for your fabulous tips.

  7. Sometimes, the truth and indeed true life stories really can be stranger and deeper than fiction……..Ah but how to tell those stories, that is the question!

  8. It’s so interesting to read this today, because in the last 24 hours or so I have been trying to remind myself of this very thing–to remember to tell a story, to entertain my readers! I write mostly about genealogy, and its easy to get factual.But its so important to entertain as well–but hard to do! Thanks for the encouragement and instruction!

    1. A lot of my mom’s genealogy she relates is in story form. I get tired of hearing the same stories over and over and over…… I’m sure you know what I mean. Write what you know! Use your characters as inspiration. People used to ask where my mom was. She was either in an archive or out at a cemetery chalking headstones to read. My sister and I just started telling people, “Oh, she”s out digging up dead relatives!” You should have seen their faces and heard the replies!

  9. I love this! I think the best non-fiction creates a story with a central narrative arc. I think it’s easier be guided through an idea or historical event than to be merely given it – the former cements it in your brain and lets you learn it, while the latter can only be memorized. Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost is a great example of this, as is Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve never been inspired by particular piece of fiction, but fiction writing does figure heavily in my non-fiction writing process.

  10. This is a really good idea. I normally blog about upcycling furniture and I think it’s really important to take my readers on a journey from ‘before’ to ‘after’. Thanks! :-)

  11. As a rule, details tend to slow the ongoing narrative. So, where details pile up, the writer intends the pace to slow for emphasis on that moment. All you say is useful stuff. Additionally, detail is where setting is evoked with all it’s possibilities for symbol and depth. Often perfectly fine narrative lack the grounding of setting with a writer too possessed with the narrative or dialog. Press on with the good words.

  12. Good tips. Non fiction is always a story, cos its personal to the writer, so should be entertaining as well as accuratish. Academics have invented endless jargon to make students aware of the personal stand-points, that influence their research.
    I like good punctuation cos it helps to make reading easier and quicker.

  13. helpful tips, thank you! you make a great point especially in that it’s okay to “tease your readers and even to confuse them.” i think this is easy to forget in my day-to-day with short stories in commercial advertisements. it is definitely something i will take with me back to the office :)

  14. Thank you for this well timed article! I am a 3 week old blogger that wants to help empower people that are not open to the self help style articles. I am trying to help people look at the lessons from their own lives by sharing my own real life stories that have helped me gain confidence and made me see life from a different and better perspective. At first I was exited to see my audience grow and felt really good about what I was doing, but in the last week numbers dropped off. Could anyone give me some honest feedback please? Do I need to be more like Virginia?

    1. Hi pollyesther, my first question is: what exactly do you mean when you say “not open to self-help style articles”? What are you trying to avoid, and what particular thing do you think your writing will give them? I don’t mean this critically; I’m asking because I am genuinely curious and a bit confused. :)

      I took a look at your blog per your request. Lots of interesting stuff to read there, and I got a little “sucked in” for a while, which is a good thing! :)

      It might help you to work on your beginnings, or opening sentences in particular. For example, in your entry “The Lesson My Dog Taught Me”, you began by saying “My dog, “Gibbo”, an 8 year old black and white Kelpie cross Labrador managed to totally surprise me in the last few days,” and you then described your exploits digging in the garden.

      Instead, you could cut straight to the action by starting in middle of that paragraph, and opening up by describing the potential peril of the rotting posts! Something like:

      “The posts of the car port had begun to rot. Imagining the whole thing tumbling down around my garden, I began the hard work of digging a new home for my precious plants. As I sweated, hard at work, my dog Gibbo…”

      In my head, I call this the “SVU technique”, after the crime shows Law & Order: SVU, where they always begin an episode with action. But really, it’s just another term for Virginia’s approach of cutting away text.

      All in all your blog is great and I hope you keep writing!

      1. Thank you Burlywoods, for taking the time to look into my stories and writing this very helpful feedback! I am trying to avoid scaring off stubborn people that don’t like reading posts on how to improve their lives by giving them entertainment that they can use at their own will to achieve the same goal in a different way (my immediate family was the inspiration for that idea). I love how you gave such a clear example of how to play with the story I wrote, which gave me a lot more clarity! I am determined to make my blog successful and help others by being the change I wish to see, so I will take your advise and incorporate it in future posts. Thanks so much for your encouragement! :)

      2. Great! I’m so glad my feedback could help. I see what you mean now; I certainly know quite a few of such “stubborn” people myself. ;) Best of luck with the blog!

  15. U knw wat bro.? I’m a fiction writer! And what evr u hav written up there, is exactly how a fiction writer feels about his writing! Smetmes we mght add detailing, sometmes v may not, but when writing a crime story or adding a twist to the climax v add some detail and try to add few more details at are quite irrelavant, so tat d detail tat is actually important goes unnoticed adding up to d unexpected twist when it is revealed

    1. Having just published my first blog today, this was a lucky post to find and get a bit of practical inspiration from. I would welcome some comments on my first blog to get some feedback on my maniacal moan on The Maniacal Monocle
      Yay! This app on iPhone is so bad it puts you off commenting!

  16. I love Mrs Dalloway! Virginia Woolf was a great writer. Good to see you’re still spinning words. Lost track of you after OD decided to close shop. Glad I found you. HLB

  17. Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing. I am just at the beginning of my blog and I feel it is difficult sometimes to “not write for yourself” so these tips come handy.

  18. Great summary of (almost) every novel in the world! ‘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.’
    Great advice! ‘cutting away the fat’, that’s the hardest part for me, (I love my words! all of them!) but I’m trying. How much to say/insinuate/leave for later/never say at all… and all those adverbs and adjectives that need to be axed! Food for thought… and thank goodness for beta readers, and friends, and critique groups, and posts like yours that make us think ‘outside of our own box’…

  19. I am incorporating Scheherazade from 1001 Nights into my true story of eloping with an Egyptian Muslim man I met on the internet during a mid life crisis. The basis for the story is the binder of email printouts I saved of our correspondence, I am segmenting the story into episodes with one email each, wrapped with a fun account of my fantasy life with Scheherazade as my housemate.

    Join the fun on my “Joyride to Egypt” at:

    https://aishasoasis.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/ep-13-joyride-to-egypt-difficult-answers/

  20. Great post. I like to take into account two of George Orwell’s “writing rules”: never use a long word where a short one will do and if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  21. This is an excellent post and one I’ve saved for future reference. Obviously these tips can apply to both fiction and nonfiction, but I do believe us nonfiction writers have unique challenges.

    For me, the first and second tips are the most apt. I have to constantly remind myself to avoid “explainitis” – or that dry paragraph you compulsively find yourself writing, like you’re beginning a user manual.

  22. Great advice! Neal Stephenson’s passionate explanations of the scientific interests and motivations of his characters really helped me see how engaging non-fiction writing could be

  23. Couldn’t agree more! Great tips for budding writers like myself! Thanks for the insight! :)
    Could you please read through my blog and let me know your reviews
    rinaakameow.wordpress.com
    I am a fiction writer :)

  24. I like to write simply to flex my imagination muscles. But these tips will help the poor souls who might actually read what I put. Thanks