Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Essential Elements of Narrative Nonfiction

This fall I’ll be co-teaching a class on how to write narrative nonfiction—nonfiction that tells a story. It’s a subject that has engrossed me for years, ever since I began work on my first nonfiction picture book biography, The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, over 13 years ago.

Back 1996, I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but guided by my wonderful editor, Tracy Mack, I fumbled my way forward. Just as Waterhouse hoped his dinosaurs would bring history to life, I also hoped my story would do the same.

The book took about four years to write, partly because of the difficulty of finding information on my subject, but mostly because I was exploring a relatively new genre. I could find plenty of classes and how-to books for writing fiction, but very, very little on how to write narrative nonfiction.

And so, I revised and revised through 14 drafts, trying to shape an accurate, engaging story. Other books and magazine articles followed, and I began to get a better sense of what needs to be in place for narrative nonfiction to work:

Story structure: Narrative nonfiction tells a story and, like any story, there needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end.

Point of view: Textbooks have an omniscient narrator, but narrative nonfiction is told from the viewpoint of the characters in the story, as if we were walking around in their shoes and seeing the action unfold through their eyes.

Theme: A story needs a guiding concept, a key idea that gives focus and meaning to a story. This is true for novels, and it’s true for narrative nonfiction as well.

Strong character/s: Strong characters take action. They are in the driver’s seat, moving the story forward.

Voice: Impassioned, sly, suspenseful, comforting—a storyteller’s voice, their use of language, sets the tone for a satisfying story.

Sensory imagery/concrete details: Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures help place and keep us in the shoes of the character driving the story.

These are the elements I use to tell stories and hopefully—like Waterhouse’s dinosaurs of brick, cement, and iron hooping—bring history to life.

For more information on my class (co-taught with Highlights senior editor Kim T. Griswell), or the many other classes taught by authors and editors, visit the Highlights Foundation Founders Workshops.


Rosalyn Schanzer said...

It was really fun to read your blog, Barbara, because all my picture books are narrative nonfiction too, and I love hearing how other people approach this genre. We have a similar set of "rules" but one fun thing I like to do is this: Instead of covering every single little detail about my person or place or event, I try to base each story on an outstanding hook that can draw the readers in (John Smith's 12 great escapes, for example, or the opposing points of view of George Washington and King George III). Ideas like these automatically make readers want to turn the pages to find out what happens next.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Barb, what a great and generous post. Your class is going to be fantastic. I am going to print out your post and tack it to my bulletin board. Thank you!