Narrative Nonfiction is a terrific way to combine true events with the facts that expand and explicate those events. As long as you accurately relate the facts, you are free to use them in a narrative. That sounds easy enough, but the truth is that you will often have a pile of — facts. How those facts are going to make a story anyone wants to read, let along a story faced on the truth, is not necessarily clear.
You could know precisely what you want to say and how you want to say it before you begin your research/reporting. In my experience, that generally ends in a stiff piece because you need to get the interviewees and facts to line up with what you want to say. It may be that you want to say something you can’t support.
You could just start interviewing everyone you can think of and see where it leads. That sort of fishing expedition often leaves you going back for a second round of interviews – actually two additional rounds, since you were overly generally in the first interview; every specific in the second; and now need some sense of this person, which you’ll gain through the third.
You could start by writing what you already know in an informal sort of list meant for your eyes only. You could then list the things you know you don’t know, along with why you think they might be important. You could also read whatever you can find as background material before selecting your interview candidates. You could then do a far-reaching and thorough interview that will hold up in 99% of circumstances.
The latter is the one I strive for, yet even with that, I wind up with a ton of research and branches I hadn’t anticipated – which is a good thing. Because of this, I pick a topic and then keep an open mind about the “way in.”
The Way In
I am working on a piece about the newest CDC research on suicide clusters in secondary schools. That’s a topic that is important to high schoolers’ parents. They might even read through a dry recitation of the key facts. How much better if I could write a story with the facts while including vital information?
For this to occur, I need more than a theme (being in touch with your teen is important), or a hook that serves only as a hook (a startling stat or a quick profile of a teen in trouble). To me, none of these is a “way in.” I wanted to find something in the research that formed the narrative of my piece. It could be a straight line with plot points that followed specifics of the study. It could be the story of specific teen(s), high school(s), or community(ies) with information that followed a classic narrative arc.
Either way, the factual information would be interspersed with the narrative. For this to work and be more than a party trick, the narrative had to be one that was authentic and spoke to the reader.
I would argue that the “way in” is the most important decision a writer makes because it drives the rest of the piece. As a result of this, it deserves some serious thought.
Graphic organizers work with my brain. If they don’t work with yours, you no doubt have found a method that does work for you. I have a big white board on the wall in my office. I love this thing. (Before I had it, I stuck those presentation pages to the wall to form a writing surface.)
I do the classic, draw a circle in the middle of the board. Then I write the things I can think of in one-word bits around the circle. If I have more info, I put that with lines, too. I keep it as simple as possible at this stage.
When I discovered that there were some ways in that did not resonate for me, I marked them with a red arrow and wrote NO. That still left me with many things to include – which were also possible ways in.
The Organizing Principle
The key to the “way in” is that it is your organizing principle. I have found, over the years I’ve been teaching, that people tend to gravitate to certain “ways in” throughout their writing. Some people take the tech route, some take the personal story route, some take the big picture route — it all goes back to when your English teacher asked you to find the theme that ran through an author’s work. I’m not saying there always is one, or that it never varies. I am saying there is a remarkable consistency in a writer’s approach.
Once I chose my “way in,” it gave me the approach to everything that followed. What was my “way in,” The way a Community Response can make a difference. To my mind, this was the most positive story. It will be a flat narrative line – there’s mounting tension and a climax, but not in a large sense – that will use the stages of recognition and the response as the plot points. The rest of the info will come at logical points throughout the piece.
Next Week – How can you use plot points in a factual account?