Readership surveys consistently find readers want local news and anything presented in narrative form. Currently sought after by editors, the narrative has come in, and out of fashion since Charles Dickens wrote for newspapers. Critics have called creative non-fiction, literary non-fiction, new journalism or feature writing.
Other than his two novels, Tom Wolfe writes narrative non-fiction. Sebastian Junger used narrative non-fiction to write The Perfect Storm.
Elements of Narrative
Narrative non-fiction borrows some, not all, of the techniques of fiction. It specifically uses narrative form, character, setting, and voice. It may also use foreshadowing and flashback.
The narrative has two forms or structures – two-part and three-part.
Two-part narrative, used for very brief pieces, follows the ancient form of the joke. It has a premise and a punch line. The writer has located that valuable ending, the punch line. The premise anticipates that punch line. A vast array of conventions exists to foreshadow the punchline in the premise.
The three-part narrative has a structure, a beginning, middle and end, known in fiction as complication, action, and resolution. In the complexity, a sympathetic character encounters something unexpected. The best complications involve basic emotions and facts of life: love, hate, pain, death, disability, extreme danger. In the middle, the character or characters take action to overcome the complication. The ending must resolve the complication – the character wins or loses the struggle.
The complication requires a sympathetic character. Sympathetic does not necessarily mean likable. It means someone with a character trait or traits the reader can relate to. The sympathetic character must have a determination, or at least a readiness, to act. The character must have the motivation to overcome the complication. No motivation, no story.
In some great stories, the setting becomes so strong critics call it another character. Every story must have a setting or settings. This seems obvious, but, reports need little or no setting. A report of a governmental body making a decision in the seat of government takes place in that amorphous seat of government here or there or somewhere else. Narrative requires specific place. Sonia Nazario’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story ”Enrique’s Journey” in the LA Times could only happen in the boy’s journey from Honduras to the U.S. to find his mother.
Many fiction writers have said, find the voice, you’ve found the story. Beyond choosing first-person, second or third, the writer has to find a tone appropriate to the story. Junger narrates The Perfect Storm in a third-person voice as coldly objective as the nor’easter of his subject. Wolfe narrates Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the excessive language appropriate to the times of that subject.
Two Key Ideas of Narrative
- Always look for endings.
- Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
A report has no beginning or end, only middle. A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Beginnings, great and small, happen every day. Middles occupy the majority of people’s lives. The writer of the story always looks for endings. Endings indicate story. With the ending, the storyteller works backward through the middle to locate the beginning.
Accessory facts attach to nearly every good story. Too many of these facts, related to but not essential to the core story, can weigh it down until it devolves into a report. Accessory facts have a place, but not in the story. They belong in sidebars or graphics.
Putting it together
Narrative non-fiction needs some type of outline and extensive re-writing. Any experienced reporter can open the notebook and write. The narrative writer has to spread out the material gathered through reporting and find the best path through. The outline can take many forms, from a simple list to index cards pinned to a corkboard or wall. The first draft shows what the outline could not imagine. The fourth draft improves the third.