Narrative nonfiction is the craft of telling a story using only true events. That sounds like boxing with one hand tied behind your back. It isn’t. If you have a story, the true events are essential to that narrative. Using them to bring the beginning, middle, and end to life becomes an exercise in finding just the right details. Throughout the process, you know that when you do, the reader will be that much more involved in what you have to say.
The Story Announces Itself
In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin points out that there are stories all around us if we are open to and adept at finding them. He suggests looking for action – then tracing back why someone took that action. He posits that near the start of the chain you will find the complication, which will lead you to the story. With that story in mind, the research and writing to tell that story are fairly straightforward.
An example of this? A Dateline story in which a young girl crashed her airplane in a desolate area and happened to be seen by two men – two of only 4 or 5 people who visit the year annually – just as she crashed. “Morrison [the reporter] said that the unlikely “two needles in a haystack” circumstances that led to the crash and the hunters happening to be in the area combined with Morgan’s [the young girl who crashed] determination to become a pilot and the rugged wilderness make for a compelling story.”
The Writer Finds the Story
A far less efficient way to write narrative nonfiction – and the only way I, of course, write it – is to pick a topic and then find the story within the topic. I can tell you that it is about as efficient as researching the history of transportation when you need a new car. There are stories in that research – many, many stories – but none of them has much to do with your purchase of that new car. Anything you come up with also feels a bit contrived and not quite on point.
Basically, you picked a topic that interested you. The topic could be anything from fracking to industrial chemical accidents to religion to operatic divas. You read about your topic, spoke to some people about it, thought about it a lot. Now you have a better grasp of the topic, but still no idea what you’re going to write about it. Maybe you need to do more research…
Maybe you’d better not. Your time will be much better spent thinking of a question that goes with your topic and setting out to get an answer. That question will bring you to your story. In answering the question, you will find the meeting of fact and circumstance that answers your question and brings the information to life for your reader.