Chapter Two of How to Write Creative Non-fiction by Donna Kay Kakonge

Hello and welcome to chapter two on basic elements of story-telling. Here I will explain three story-telling techniques in writing: BME, inverted pyramid and the circle. We’ll also discuss the importance of focusing your story. Let’s start with focus – it’s very important.

Focus

It may be wise to diversify a business, but your writing needs to have focus.

When I worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), one of the many things I learned was the importance of focus.

Many times I was trained on were how to create strong focus statements that included the word “because.” For example, if I were doing a story on the number of people who are self-employed, I might create a basic focus statement like this,

Focus statement: The number of self-employed people is on the rise because job security is scarce in this millennium.

The reason for this focus statement which is meant to be written before writing anything is to make sure you stay on track. This keeps your writing focused. A key thing that many professional writers do after writing the focus statement is to constantly refer back to it if they feel like they’re getting lost in the story. Plus, it helps you as the new or established writer; remember why you are writing the piece in the first place.

One of the points of this ebook is you can’t come up with a focus statement until you have your idea – that’s to be explored in the next chapter. Let’s continue with BME. But first, another assignment – what fun!

MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT 2.1

Think of a story idea you have been burning to work on for quite awhile. It may be the story which prompted you to buy this ebook. Write a one sentence focus statement with the word “because” included. Post your focus statement to your personal website.

Beginning, Middle, End (BME)

There’s a phrase in journalism called BME. This stands for beginning, middle and end. It’s the basic way most of us tell stories. A story can go something like this:

Beginning: I was rushing to the house to feed my cat and find my car keys to get to work. When I couldn’t find my keys, I decided to take the bus.

Middle: I ran to the bus, missing it by seconds because I don’t know the sched- ule. Once I checked the schedule I realized one wasn’t coming until another 30 minutes. I flagged a taxi, the fourth one finally stopped and I jumped in to get to work.

End: Once I arrived, I was 45 minutes late and it was my first day. I lost my job and $20 on the cab ride.

This basic story has a beginning, middle and an end. Each paragraph can be seen as each part of BME.

To understand this concept, imagine you’re telling a story to a friend or family member. You probably use BME all the time. It still works in the same way as fiction stories as well as using BME with creative non-fiction stories. The beginning is meant to warm the reader to your story. The middle is basically the climax and the end draws everything to a conclusion. Your aim is to leave the reader satisfied.

Things to remember:

In story-telling you don’t want to leave your reader confused. This is the number one rule. Following the structure of BME has many advantages – it gives a natural flow to your writing. This is an admirable quality to have in any piece of writing flow.

Some things to look out for are making sure you have answered all questions raised by your story. There are always exceptions to the rules and if you’re writing a real-life mystery you may want to leave it as such at the end. However, in most cases, readers  want  their  questions  about  the  story  answered.  Since  you  don’t  have  the luxury of being able to talk to them face-to-face, and this about the luxury of communicating through the written word, make sure you are clear.

That’s why many writers in newspapers and magazines will include their email addresses at the end of a story so they can be contacted. Make yourself accessible to your readers so you can engage with them. They may have tips or ideas on how you can improve your writing. They may also simply want to praise you for your work. Alternatively, they may want to lambaste you for something you’ve written. Whatever the reason, getting used to praise, criticism and everything in between is just part of the business of writing.

BME  has  many  advantages  for  certain  types  of  stories.  It  works  well  with personal  essays,  travel  pieces  and  even  memoirs.  It’s  your  vivid  writing  that  will engage the reader and this discussion of basic elements of story-telling is just the beginning of helping you to structure your pieces.

Here’s another example from The Toronto Star, July 27, 2006. The story is titled, “Yukon crash ends faith mission” by Nasreen Gulamhussein and Steve Rennie:

Beginning: It began two weeks ago as a Muslim community outreach mission. Several men crossed the country by van, visiting Muslims from Toronto to Inu- vik, N.W.T. to see how they lived how they practiced Islam.

Middle: They were due back in early August, but a fatal car crash above the Arc- tic Circle took the lives of five of them – four from Toronto, one from Whitehorse in the Yukon.

Only one man, Zafar Malik of Toronto, survived the crash.

The others, Azmat Sheikh, 38, Naoman Sidat, 56, Mohammed Saeed Manjawala, 33, Mohammed Pathan, 65, and Whitehorse resident Khalid Malik were killed Monday when their red minivan went off the road as it rounded a gravel turn on the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, said RCMP Sgt. Dan Gaudet.

The van, which was traveling south from Inuvik, then plunged 12 metres down a steep embankment, he said.

Reached yesterday by the Star in his Inuvik hospital room, Zafar Malik said Sidat, the driver, lost control on the gravel.

“We tried to put brakes on it to make it slower, and it just slipped. It went out of control. It rolled, rolled, rolled and went down. The road was so bad.”

Initial response came from the nearest RCMP detachment in Fort McPherson, about 160 km away, after another driver reported the accident.

End: When paramedics arrived at the scene, four of the men were already dead and two were hurt. One of the injured men died at the crash scene and Zafar Malik was airlifted to an Inuvik hospital, where he is recovering.

Although the story continues more at length, this gives you a strong example of the BME method. I’ve indicated throughout the story where the beginning, middle and end are.

Also keep in mind that in writing some longer pieces like this one, sometimes to keep a strong structure for the piece, there may be more than one BME structure throughout the story. A story will have more than one beginning, more than one middle and more than one ending.

MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT 2.2

Write a one page story following the BME format. Make sure your story has an extremely strong beginning, a strong middle and an unforgettable ending. Think of the most fantastic true story you’ve told and write about that in the BME format. Post your assignment to your personal website.

Inverted Pyramid

Pick up any newspaper, some magazines or even take time to read online and you will definitely find the inverted pyramid format.

Visualize the pyramids of Egypt. If you could shrink them with a magic wand, convert them into a shape you can see on your computer screen or notebook and write within those lines – what would you story read like?

Well, it would be like the stories you are seen on the front page of newspapers. All the important information is packed into the first few paragraphs. The least important information is included near the end. In terms importance, it funnels down. A funnel is another way to see this format.

With the speed many people live their lives these days; the inverted pyramid method has advantages because people can read the information quickly. Rather than spending the time to read an entire story like they may do with the BME method, they can read a few paragraphs and still get the gist of the story.

Writing in the inverted pyramid format takes more organization than the BME method. You need to make sure you understand the essence of your story and be able to get to the nuts and bolts fast. In the first paragraph, you want to make sure you have included the information you need – plus don’t forget focus. well.

The inverted pyramid method also needs a lead. Journalists know about leads

Leads are when you basically included the focus of your story, written in a way that doesn’t sound like a focus statement (unless it’s wonderfully written), in the first paragraph. It should answer the question – why should I care about this story? This is true of your focus statement as well.

The difference between a lead in traditional journalism and in creative non- fiction is that it wouldn’t take on a “newsy” sound. You as the writer have more liberty to include powerful phrases, vivid vocabulary and luxurious language. At the same a time you want to make sure your writing is easy to read and understand – I’ll tell you why.

Most commercial published writing is written at a grade 8 reading level. The reason for this is because not everyone has a high school education, higher level education or access to the Internet and libraries where they can learn in non- traditional ways. If you want to be read, you want to make yourself understandable. Use the KISS principle – Keep it Simple Stupid.

To continue with the inverted pyramid structure – the rest of the story should still flow, making sure paragraphs follow logically, it’s answering the necessary questions of the reader and remains educational, as well as entertaining.

With  the  inverted  pyramid  method,  you  may  want  to  include  background research near the end which is less important information for the reader to know. With this method, you are giving the reader the option to know the basics in the first few paragraphs, or more by reading the entire article.

Here’s an example from the front page of July 27, 2006’s Globe and Mail by

Shawna Richer and Gloria Galloway:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper under attack by political opponents over his Mid- dle East policy, said yesterday he will seek explanations from the United Nations and the Israeli government about the “terrible tragedy” that killed a Canadian peacekeeper in Lebanon.

Mr. Harper described as “troubling” events surrounding the Israeli attack that killed four peacekeepers, including Canadian Major Paeta Derek Hess-von Krue- dener, who was serving with the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization. Canadian officials characterized the major as missing and presumed dead.

These two first paragraphs of the story include the lead and most of the story. Near the end, it reads like this:

The Prime Mister said it is premature to say whether a UN peacekeeping force should be dispatched to Lebanon. But he said he would prefer Canada keep its troops out of Lebanon because a ceasefire between Israel and the Lebanese mili- tant group Hezbollah should be enforced by Middle East countries. The United States has proposed a NATO-led intervention force in southern Lebanon and wants the UN to sanction it as it did for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“There is no consensus on any kind international force in Lebanon, either from the UN or NATO,” Mr. Harper said.

“I’ve made clear our preference would be not to see Canadian or foreign troops involved, but obviously we’re prepared to work with the international commu- nity on whatever plan a consensus develops on.”

The less important and more detailed information was included at the end of the story. This is standard inverted pyramid format which you can find in almost newspapers all over the world. Just reading the first paragraph or two usually gives 90 per cent of the information on what the article is about.

MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT 2.3

Find examples of the inverted pyramid style you admire in your local newspaper and post a link to it on your personal website.

Circle

The circle method of writing is something I was taught by a terrific teaching assistant I had while I was at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

I wrote an essay I thought was brilliant when I finished it, but it needed a lot of work with 20/20 hindsight. She helped tremendously by teaching me the circle method. (Notice I just told a story using the BME method).

The circle method is simple. It’s based on the concept that life is a circle. All humans and living things come into this life as babies – needing care. Then, we grow up and we can be independent. Then we die – not to be morbid, but this is one of the sure things of life.

Writing is like capturing a slice of life, some stories; features in particular are referred to as “slice of life” pieces by editors at publications. The way you write the circle is by ending the story the way you begin.

Although I have said this style of writing is simple, some writers find it difficult – to others it comes naturally. It’s a matter of truly understanding the beginning of your story. Rather than having an ending that doesn’t connect to the beginning, such as in the BME method – you make sure your ending ties everything together with the beginning. You may even re-use words from the beginning paragraph.

Here’s an example from one of my creative non-fiction stories.

Matoke

In the early 1980s, when I was 10 years old, things changed at my school with the arrival of a new vice-principal. At O’Connor Public School in Toronto, Canada, Mr. Goldberg set up a close-circuit television studio. The show the students and Mr. Goldberg produced was called OCTV News.

In a small room of the school that used to be the teachers’ lounge, coffee makers and plastic cushions were replaced by an anchor’s desk and a camera as big as me. A few grade 5 students, myself included, rotated through the various produc- tion jobs. Sometimes I was the sound engineer, which meant putting the needle on the Beatles song, “Here Comes the Sun”, and our theme music. Sometimes I was the announcer, which meant telling Angelikki to show up to the Peter Pan play rehearsals. She was playing Peter, and I was Wendy.

One “International Day,” we had to bring a dish from our heritage to be sampled by other students. Mr. Goldberg forgot it was International Day and did not write anything into our scripts about it for the OCTV News. That day I was co- announcing.

“Donna and Eric, just ad lib about the International Day after the news,” said Mr. Goldberg seconds before we went on-air.

After the news, Eric asked me what dish I had brought in and I told him “matoke” – a common Ugandan meal made of steamed and mashed green bananas. “Where is Uganda?” asked Eric.

“In Africa,” I replied.

“Oh Africa! I thought they ate people there, I didn’t know they ate food!” said

Eric, and I almost burst into tears.

“I think there’s a lot you don’t know about Africa, Eric. My uncles, aunts and cousins who still live there do not eat people,” I said, still forcing back the tears.

“Well what is Africa like?” he asked.

I had only been to Uganda as a baby; I was born and raised in Canada. My father came to Canada on a Commonwealth scholarship. When he returned to Uganda for a new job with a new wife and baby (that was me), Dictator Idi Amin was in power. We all escaped the country with only our lives.

I told Eric – and also about 500 other students who were watching OCTV – every- thing I knew about Uganda. I told them stories about my family who lived in a brick house, not a grass hut; who drove cars, not camels, and who ate matoke, rather than people. The response was phenomenal. Scores of students wanted to know more. They had questions, many of which I could not answer. I asked my teacher if my father could come to class and talk about Uganda. Soon afterwards, Daddy was standing at the front of the class with my globe piggy bank, rattling change as he turned it to point out Uganda.

My father said we fed those students with knowledge of African people. I guess we did feed those kids at O’Connor a lot more than matoke.

END

Another example of this style is the movie “Groundhog Day.” The way this move begins is the same way it ends.

MID-CHAPTER ASSIGNMENT

Find examples of the circle method in a form of writing and post a link to it on your personal website.

Conclusion

Remember that with all the methods mentioned, focus is the first and most important thing as a start. Without it, your piece will be “all over the place.” Readers don’t have the time to figure out what you’re trying to say.

It’s like being a filmmaker – most moviegoers make up their mind about a film within the first few minutes. The difference is many of them won’t ask for their money back once they’re in the film and feeling completely bored.

With writing, they’ll stop reading – you’ve just lost someone to communicate with, to deliver your message.

The three different story-telling styles we have discussed are BME, inverted pyramid and the circle.

BME, standing for beginning, middle and end, is similar to how you would tell a story to anyone you know. Inverted pyramid is a different style commonly found on the front page of newspapers and online. The circle is similar to the “circle of life” and the beginning mirrors the ending so everything comes around again.

ASSIGNMENT:

For the three methods we’ve discussed; BME, inverted pyramid and the circle choose one of the styles and post it to your personal website.

I will not be marking this assignment, but I will be reviewing it and so will your peers. Sharing your work with others is also known as peer review, or peer editing. It always helps to get another “set of eyes” looking at your stuff. This helps to make it great. Get in the habit of exposing your talents in writing to others. As readers and perhaps writers themselves, their opinion counts. Doesn’t mean you need to listen – but, feedback always helps.

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