Chapter Six of How to Write Creative Non-fiction

Hello and welcome to chapter six on the importance of narration and dialogue. Let’s make sure you understand this well and if you have any questions, let’s keep the spirit of dialogue alive and post your questions to your personal website and don’t forget to e-mail me so I know you’ve posted to your website.

Discussing narration brings us back to discussions about voice, although I will concentrate on different elements in this chapter. Good dialogue is like the spice to your stew – it can make your story extremely palatable.

We’ll begin with a discussion on narration with reference taken from Guide to Writing Magazine Nonfiction by Michael J. Bugeja. This excerpt is on page one hundred and three of the book:

Magazine writers need all the time they can get – not only to meet deadlines but also to convey to readers the reality of an experience.  If  a  subjective  truth  is significant, narrating it via the elements of grammatical, chronological, and literary time enchants or engages the audience, allowing readers to immerse themselves in a work. That’s why magazines are visually powerful. The medium was interactive long before webzines on the Internet.

Bugeja goes on to say writers use narration so the reader can relate to what you know. These moments of narration are determined by the following criteria:

  • Content. Will you share your own or a source’s personal experience? Or will you or your source speak as an expert without mentioning the personal experience at all? Or will you do both, sharing the impact of experience and the insight of expertise?
  • Expression of content. Will you put the readers on the scene, recounting events chronologically as if they were happening before the readers’ eyes? Or will you articulate your truths without any sense of plot (timeline) or chronology, as if you were conversing with readers or sharing your opinions?  Or will you do both, recounting events so readers can envision them first and analyze them later?
  • Structure. By answering the preceding questions, you can outline a story according to events associated with it or insights emanating out t – step by step, point by point.

The above outline helps you to think about some things in making decisions about when narration is appropriate in a story, or when you may choose to let your sources tell the story. We’ll have an assignment later on where you will have a chance to practice these elements. For now, we’ll continue by discussing important elements such as the use of tenses while writing your narration.

The following is not a grammar chapter; however, the tense you choose to use in your narration is important to how it will be perceived by the reader. Here’s an example from George Plimpton’s “How to Face a Firing Squad,” which first appeared in Esquire. He originally wrote it in the past tense, but Bugeja has also written it in the present and future tenses so you can compare how it affects narration:

Past Tense

In the early hours of December 22, 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was led out to the Semyonvsky parade ground in St. Petersburg to be executed by a firing squad. He was twenty-seven at the time. The crime had committed was the “attempt to disseminate writings against the government by means of a hand printing press.” Twenty others – poets, teachers, officers, journalists had been sentenced with him. The procedure was that they would die in groups of three. Dostoyevsky was in the second group.

It was a monstrous hoax, of course, initiated by Nicholas I, known with good reason as the Iron Czar. Just as the adjutant in charge of the firing squad was to lower his saber and shout “Fire!” one of the czar’s aides-de-camp galloped across the parade ground and handed the officer a sealed packet that contained commutations of sentence. According to a historian friend of mine, these were read out at agonizing length by an officer known as the worst stutterer in the Russian army. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years of penal servitude.

I looked all this up the other day because I had a luncheon date with Larry Rivers, the well-known painter, who during the civil unrest in Nigeria some time ago went through a similar, if not quite as dramatic, experience. How often does one have lunch with a man who has survived a firing squad?

Present Tense

In the early hours of December 22, 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky is led out to the Semyonovsky parade ground in St. Petersburg to be executed by a firing squad. He is twenty-seven at the time. The crime he has committed is the “attempt to disseminate writings against the government by means of a hand printing press.” Twenty others – poets, teachers, officers, journalists have been sentenced with him. The procedure is that they will die in groups of three. Dostoyevsky is in the second group.

It is a monstrous hoax, of course, initiated by Nicholas I, known with good reason as the Iron Czar. Just as the adjutant in charge of the firing squad is to lower his saber and shout “Fire!” one of the czar’s aides-de-camp galloped across the parade ground and hands the officer a sealed packet that contained commutations of sentence. According to a historian friend of mine, these are read out at agonizing length by an officer known as the worst stutterer in the Russian army. Dostoyevsky is sentenced to four years of penal servitude.

I looked all this up the other day because I have a luncheon date with Larry Rivers, the well-known painter, who during the civil unrest in Nigeria some time ago went through a similar, if not quite as dramatic, experience. How often does one have lunch with a man who has survived a firing squad?

Future Tense

In the early hours of December 22, 1849, Fyodor Dostoyevsky will be led out to the Semyonovsky parade ground in St. Petersburg to be executed by a firing squad. He will be twenty-seven at the time. The crime he will have committed is the “attempt to disseminate writings against the government by means of a hand printing press.” Twenty others – poets, teachers, officers, journalists will have been sentenced with him. The procedure is that they will die in groups of three. Dostoyevsky will be in the second group.

It will be a monstrous hoax, of course, initiated by Nicholas I, known with good reason as the Iron Czar. Just as the adjutant in charge of the firing squad is to lower his saber and shout “Fire!” one of the czar’s aides-de-camp will have galloped across the parade ground and hands the officer a sealed packet that contained commutations of sentence. According to a historian friend of mine, these will be read out at agonizing length by an officer known as the worst stutterer in the Russian army. Dostoyevsky will be sentenced to four years of penal servitude.

Students note: I’m not going to include the last sentence of this story because it sounds confusing in the future tense.

The basic information does not change, however, the tone of the articles change written through different tenses of narration.

The tenses of a story affect the general understanding to the reader. The past tense tends to give a more “historical” light to the piece. The present tense is often favoured  in  creative  non-fiction  writing  because  it’s  seen  as  more  “lively”  and “current.” The future tense is basically a writing style based on promises that may or may not be kept.

Think about your life. The things which have happened are past tense, or history. Think about  the things currently happening. This is present tense. Hopefully, it’s lively, or at least enjoyable. Perhaps it would make for a good memoir or personal essay. Think about your future – which may or may not be certain regardless of your intentions. However, the future tense is one of those powerful resources writer’s have because they can shed some light as to how a situation may play out. This is particularly good in the case of analysis and reviews.

To the reader, the tense you use will affect their state of mind and either put them in the past, present or the future. If you use these devices interchangeably, use them carefully. A movie like Momento (2002) is an excellent example of this device being used brilliantly in story-telling.

In a creative non-fiction piece, the best ones contain the same fundamentals you would also find in fiction stories – the differences are the non-fiction piece is based on facts. Some of the elements will be explained here.

More elements of story writing

Plot – Every good story needs a plot. A plot is the foundation of the story-telling thread. Movies like The Sound of Music have a plot of a young nun falling in love with a baron and his children while she works for him. Your stories will have a plot as well.

Character – After the plot comes the protagonist. In the case of The Sound of Music, the protagonist is the Julie Andrews character Maria. She is the main character in the plot. For your non-fiction pieces, it will be your extraordinary writing skills that will introduce your protagonist, as well as other interesting characters to the plot.

The goal with character development is every writer, including you, wants to make the reader feel like they know this person. You must add as much detail as you think of – appeal to all the senses. What kind of clothes does this person wear? What’s their favourite drink? What’s the first thing they do in the morning? etc. You want the reader to really understand and know your characters – especially the main characters and sources of your creative non-fiction pieces.

Here is some more information from a book that discusses story-telling from a digital media perspective, but is still relevant to creative non-fiction writing. It’s called Digital Storytelling: a creator’s guide to interactive entertainment by Carolyn Handler Miller:

The two classic characters, the must-haves of every work of linear storytelling, originated in the classic Greek theatre. The first is the protagonist, our hero. This character is the central figure of the drama, whose mission, goal, or objective provides the story with its forward momentum. The second is the antagonist, the adversary who stands in the way of the protagonist, and whose opposition gives heat to the drama and provides the story with exciting conflict.

Characteristics of Protagonists

Many authorities in drama, beginning with Aristotle, have contended that the most interesting characters are not perfect. In classic Greek theatre, as with Shakespeare’s plays, the main characters are afflicted by what is often termed “a tragic flaw.” Though noble in many ways, they also possess some weakness – jealousy, self-doubt, and ambition – a trait that leads to their undoing. In lighter stories  protagonists  usually  have  flaws,  too,  though  of  a  less  serious  nature. These dings in their personality will not lead to tragic consequences, but will often cause them trouble, and can also be the source of comic moments. Not every protagonist in interactive media has a flaw or a quirk, but such weaknesses are not uncommon….

What all protagonists do need are qualities that make them likable, believable, and attractive enough for you to want to spend time in their company. We need to understand why they have chosen to go after the particular goal the y are seeking – their passion to do this must make sense to us. After all, we must be able to identify with them. In other words, we need to be able to imagine ourselves in their position and feel what they are feeling.

Miller continues by discussing the antagonist. She mentions the antagonist is that person or thing that opposes the protagonist from reaching their goal. It is this type of conflict and finding the right sources to express these concepts in creative non- fiction that will turn your stories from good to great. Do keep these things in mind which Miller notes: ….opposition can also come from natural forces, such as violent storms, or from physical challenges, such as negotiating a boot camp obstacle. Opposition may also come from nonhuman threats, such as the spiders, snakes, and alligators….

Even humourous opponents fill an important function:

  • They help sharpen the conflict.
  • They supply obstacles.
  • They pit the protagonist against a force that is easy to comprehend.

Keep in mind Miller is writing about interactive media, so many of your creative non-fiction stories may not have many spiders, snakes or alligators in them. However, if your protagonist has a fear of these things, that may make for an interesting creative non-fiction in itself. You may also have a number of antagonists in your story that your protagonist has to deal with.

Miller goes on to discuss techniques for developing digital characters that can also be employed when fully developing and writing your characters for your creative non-fiction pieces:

  1. Probe deeply: Invest time in working out the character’s backstory and psychological profile. What kind of family he or she is from and what kind of upbringing and schooling did he or she receive? Is the character from a small town or a big city? What are the special skills and talents of this person, and what are the kinds of things he or she simply can’t or won’t do? What is the romantic and marital history of the character? What is your character most afraid of? What does the character most hope for? Though you may never use most of this information, it will help you develop a rich and interesting character, and sometimes a small detail will give you just the inspiration you need to give the character a unique and unforgettable touch.
  2. Motivate the character: What is it the character is striving for in this narrative? Why is it so important? Each character should have a goal, not just the protagonist and the antagonist. The motivation should be something this is easy to understand and doesn’t require much explaining.
  3. Make the character vivid: interactive media does not leave any room for subtlety [neither does creative non-fiction writing]. The user needs to be able to “read” the character quickly – to understand the essence of that character. The character’s most important traits should shine through clearly and should not be blurred by too much detail or by contradictory personality clues. Thus, you need to decide what essential things you want to project about each character and focus on those. For a model, look at comic strips, comic books, and animated movies, all of which do a good job of using shorthand techniques to convey characters.
  4. Avoid  stereotypes,  or  alternatively,  play  against  them:  When  you  have limited time or methods to reveal who your character is, it is extremely tempting to fall in to the use of stereotypes. Yes, the participants will be able to quickly recognize the thick-necked bully, the eccentric scientist, and the gossipy next door neighbour. But they will just as quickly yawn, because stereotypes make your work seem predictable and bland. It is much more interesting to take a stereotype and twist it. How about a thick-necked bully who has a tender spot for little old ladies? Or making the eccentric scientist a little girl? Or having the friendly next door neigbour is mute?
  5. Use dialogue to help convey personality: Dialogue can do more  than impart information; it can reveal information about the character’s personality, background, and occupation.

Miller also makes some powerful suggestions on ways of revealing character in your writing that can apply to creative non-fiction:

  1. Their physical appearance: this includes not only their face and body, but also how they dress and how they move.
  2. What the say…
  3. Their interactions with other characters: The way characters act with each other can reveal a great deal about their emotions and feelings for each other.
  4. What they do: Behaviour can indicate emotional states like anxiety, anger, and sorrow. It can also indicate slyness and the readiness to be aggressive.
  5. What other characters tell us: We can learn about a character’s history from what other characters say about them.

Theme – The theme of a story like The Sound of Music is basically “love conquers all.” In Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the theme is murder and justice. Your  stories  will  equally  have  a  theme  to  them  which  will  most  likely  develop naturally; however, it’s good to think about what you want as the theme of your story. Your focus statement will be helpful in developing the theme.

All these aspects of story development give the narrator – you – omniscient powers. You make the decisions as to how the story will be told. You may choose to structure the dialogue and narration (which strongly indicates character development) in the third person if you insert yourself into the story. You may choose to do it in the first person. However, you choose to do it, or experiment with different methods until you’re satisfied with a particular story-telling structure – it’s up to you.

The best to discover powerful narrative styles is to read as much as you can. You should be reading as many newspapers, magazines, books, seeing movies and reading online as much as possible.

The best way to understand theme is thinking about the media you like – what has been the general theme? When it comes to reality shows – in general the theme is people  will  do  anything  for  money  and  fame.  In  Shakespeare’s  novels,  he  often exposed the underbelly of human nature. It’s the overall impression you want to leave with the reader, which is quite different from the story-telling and strategic nature of plot development.

MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT 6.1

Create a plot, character and a theme:

In this assignment you will be creating a plot, character and theme and using a real-life source to create a two-page story. First, start by interviewing your source – which is the basis for how many stories develop in creative non-fiction. From there you will naturally find the plot and theme.

Remember, if you find the character interesting, so will your reader and all the other elements of this assignment will fall into place.

Dialogue

Strong dialogue can help a reader love you and your writing. When collecting your research and doing the interviewing, which will be discussed in chapter seven, you don’t need to use all of the information you gather. You need to be selective. You want to use the best parts. Here’s an example from Cheney’s Writing Creative Nonfiction. It’s from the bestselling book The Selling of the President by Joe McGinnis about Richard M. Nixon:

He took his position on the front of the heavy brown desk. He liked to lean against a desk, or sit on the edge of one, while he taped commercials, because he felt this made him seem informal. There were about twenty people, technicians and  advisors,  gathered  in  a  semi-circle  around  the  cameras.  Richard  Nixon looked at them and frown.

“Now when we start,” he said, “don’t have anybody who is not directly involved in this in my range of vision. So I don’t go shifting my eyes.”

“Yes,  sir.”  All  right,  clear  the  stage.  Everybody  who’s  not  actually  doing something get off the stage, please. Get off the stage.”

There was one man in the corner, taking pictures. His flash blinked several times in succession. Richard Nixon looked his direction. The man had been hired by the Nixon staff to take informal pictures throughout the campaign for historical purposes.

Are they still Richard Nixon said. “Are they our own stills? Well then, knock them off.” He motioned with his arm.

“Can them. We’ve already got so goddamned many stills already.” Richard Nixon turned back toward the cameras.

“Now, when you give me the fifteen-second cue, give it to me right under the camera so I don’t shift my eyes.”

“Right, sir.”

Here’s an example of letting pure conversation tell the story. It’s from Gay Talese in a chapter called “The Soft Psyche of Joshua Logan” in his book The Overreachers:

Now he was back in the dark theatre, the lights of the stage beaming on the actors going through a scene in the garden of their Louisiana shack; Claudia McNeil’s voice was now softer because she had had a touch of laryngitis a few days before. But at the end of the scene, she raised her voice to its full power, and Logan, in a pleasant tone, said, “Don’t strain your voice, Claudia.”

She did not respond, only whispered to another actor on stage. “Don’t raise your voice, Claudia,” Logan repeated.

She again ignored him.

“Claudia!” Logan yelled, “don’t you give me that actor’s revenge, Claudia.”

“Yes, Mr. Logan,” she said with a soft sarcastic edge. “I’ve had enough of this today, Claudia.”

“Yes, Mr. Logan.”

“And stop Yes – Mr. Logan-ing me.” “Yes, Mr. Logan.”

“You’re a shocking, rude woman!” “Yes, Mr. Logan.”

“You’re being a beast.” “Yes, Mr. Logan.”

“Yes, Miss Beast.” “Yes, Mr. Logan.” “Yes, Miss beast!”

Suddenly, Claudia McNeil stopped. It dawned on her that he was calling her a beast; now  her  face was grey and her eyes were cold, and her voice almost solemn as she said, “You….called….me….out….of…my….name!”

“Oh, God!” Logan smacked his forehead with his hand.

This conversation is one-of-a-kind. The character development and interest in the story is propelled by the dialogue.

Tips to using dialogue:

  • Record conversations while you’re reporting and transcribe your notes
  • Avoid using “said” and “say” repeatedly after people make their statements. Use your dictionary to find other ways of expressing your subjects’ statements. You also don’t want to overuse the word “states.” Some alternatives may be “explained,” “expressed,” “mumbled,” etc. You want to try to capture how the person actually made their statement rather than always just writing they said this and that.
  • Narration should also be used as the point where you enter the story to explain something further, always use when necessary and try not to overdue – unless this is a stylistic device you are striving for where there is little dialogue in a piece
  • Remember dialogue is important because it gives more life to a piece
  • Alternatively, if you a writer of great talent, lack of dialogue will display your extraordinary story-telling skills

Carolyn Miller in Digital Storytelling has some great things to add about dialogue:

Despite all these new ways of communicating, dialogue is still a supremely important tool in most forms of interactive entertainment [as well as creative non-fiction]. It is a tool that has been refined and shaped through centuries of use. Even Aristotle, in his typically pithy way, offered some good pointers on writing effective dialogue. In the Poetics (Chapter XI, Section16), he explained that dialogue is “….the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in a given circumstance.” In other words, the character’s lines should be believable and reveal only what is possible for him or her to know. And the speech should not ramble; it should be focused on the matter at hand.

A little later (Chapter XI, Section 17), Aristotle goes on to say that the words an actor speaks should be expressive of his character, showing “….what kind of thing a man chooses or avoids.” Thus, the words the character speaks should reflect his goals, and probably his fears as well. Aristotle’s remarks on dialogue have stood the test of time, and are as applicable to interactive media as they were to Greek drama.

In addition to Aristotle, we can learn about dialogue from modern day screenwriters.  One of the most valuable things they can teach us is to use dialogue sparingly, only when there are no other means of conveying the

information. “Show,” they advise, “don’t tell.” But when screenwriters do resort to dialogue, they make sure the exchanges are brisk and easy to understand. They use simple, clear words, knowing this is not the place to show off one’s vocabulary. And they break the exchanges between characters into short, bite-sized pieces because long speeches make an audience restless.

Here are some pointers on dialogue from Miller:

  1. As Aristotle indicated, keep speeches focused. They should be short and to the point.
  2. Do as screenwriters do, and use clear, simple words and informal language and grammar.  Short sentences are preferable to long ones and avoid complex sentence constructions. Don’t let your characters deliver long blocks of speech.
  3. The lines a character speaks should be “in character.” In other words, what the character says should reflect his personality, his age, his mood, his educational level, his profession, his goals, and his point of view.
  4. Read what you have written out loud, listening for inadvertent tongue twisters, awkward phrases, unnatural speech, and overly long lines. Then cut and polish.

Miller also gives some tips on adding written communications in your stories. I’m only including the points which apply to creative non-fiction writing:

  1. If producing a document that one of the …characters…wrote, the writing should be “in character”….
  2. Keep the document short. People don’t want to spend much time reading.
  3. If writing an email, model the telegraphic style of real emails, and even include an emoticon or two.
  4. In the same way, model any other specialized type of written communication

– including Web pages, blogs, and newspaper articles – on real life examples. If you know anyone who works in that field, have that person read what you’ve written and give you feedback. Strive to make the piece of writing as authentic looking as possible. From a participant’s point of view, part of the fun of stumbling across a…document is the sense that it [is]…”real.”

Conclusion

Narration and dialogue are key elements in making your story great. Especially when it comes to dialogue, it’s the actual process of interviewing and capturing conversations that can add life to your stories. This will be discussed more in chapter seven.

ASSIGNMENT

Write a two page story using the points discussed in this chapter on narration and dialogue. If you feel like you’re having difficulty on how to introduce dialogue, try tape recording a conversation with you and a friend to get a sense of the flow of how dialogue works. Then, transcribe the dialogue. Add narration to help explain the dialogue. Post the assignment to your personal website for my review.

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Author: kakonged

I am an author, journalist, teacher, and lawyer who lives in Toronto, Canada. This picture is a selfie that was done on Saturday, February 24, 2018, nearing six years of my being dreadlocked.