How do you tell a true story? It seems like an easy question to answer: the events are all laid out for you, because they all really happened. It can’t be that hard, can it?
It turns out that some people are better at telling true stories than others. One of the best is Jack Hart, who was for many years a managing editor and writing coach at The Oregonian. In Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, he has written a how-to guide for anyone who wonders how to tell a true story, from journalists looking to put together a news feature to writers who aspire to be the next Erik Larson (of The Devil in the White City fame).
Hart devotes chapters to various aspects of nonfiction storytelling: how to structure a story, how to choose points of view, how to write dialogue, how to settle on a theme, and more. He sprinkles each chapter liberally with examples, mostly from stories written during his tenure at The Oregonian. As one would expect from someone who has written a book about how to tell interesting stories, he keeps the reader’s attention throughout. And he teaches by example: his chapter on explanatory narratives, for instance, is structured in the form of an explanatory narrative.
On one level, this book isn’t intended for everyone. The primary audience is journalists who are looking for more depth than they find in typical news stories, and other writers who are wondering how to tell a true tale in an engaging way. On a deeper level, though, narrative nonfiction is all about making sense of the world as we experience it, and sharing the lessons with others. In that sense, this book really is for all people who want to understand the depth and breadth of human experience and tell others what they’ve learned.
I’m not a person who has read a lot of how-to books on fiction writing, so I’m a newbie when it comes to this genre. The only book about fiction writing that I can remember reading was Stephen King’s On Writing several years ago. What I remember most about that book were the autobiographical passages rather than the nuts and bolts of writing.
Brooks’s philosophy of writing is consciously different from King’s. Asserting that is a bold move, considering King’s success. Unlike King, whom Brooks calls an “organic” writer, Brooks believes that there are six core competencies when it comes to writing fiction: Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, Scene Execution and Writing Voice. Though that may sound formulaic at first glance, Brooks insists that using the core competencies in a story is no more formulaic than an architect obeying the laws of physics when constructing a building. Brooks says that those who intuitively grasp good story structure (like King) are able to just sit down and start writing without a plan, and what they end up with will be good. The rest of us need to go through the steps of deliberately using story structure. You can’t teach genius, but you can teach skill, and that is what the six core competencies are all about.
I enjoyed this book. Brooks argues what screenwriters have known for a long time (and what I’ve believed for a long time): creativity is best utilized, and recognized, within carefully defined boundaries. Otherwise, it becomes a mess that the audience can’t relate to.
One criticism of this book is that it was longer than it had to be. Brooks has such an evident fascination about and knowledge of his subject that he can get long-winded and go into great detail when, at least for this reader, not as much detail is needed. In fiction writing, excessive elaboration may not be as big a deal, but Brooks could use some trimming in this non-fiction book.