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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.

    Liked by 3 people

  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.

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  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.

    ;)

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  4. 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

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  5. 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.

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  6. 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!

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    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!

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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! :-)

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  9. 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.

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  10. 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.

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