Monday, November 5, 2007

Writing the Narrative Nonfiction Book

Narrative Nonfiction. Ahh, the words roll off the tongue like buttah. They roll off the tongue...and plop to the floor with a thud. Narrative Nonfiction? Just what in the name of Aunt Nellie's mare is that?

At first, the phrase seems like an oxymoron. A narrative is a story. Nonfiction is journalism. So, this pup is a true story? Or a made-up story that just happens to be true? What's going on here? Double talk? Jabberwock? Exactly! Whether you call it Narrative Nonfiction, Creative Nonfiction, or Literary Journalism, it's one-in-the-same. What we're looking at here is nonfiction that reads like a novel.

The key word in Narrative Nonfiction is nonfiction. Narratives must be fact. Unlike the Historical Novel that uses a real-life element as a focal point and then is fleshed out with fictional elements and characters, the Narrative Nonfiction tale starts with fact and ends with fact (and, in fact, has fact sandwiched in between). It's a story told as a story, complete with beginning, middle, and end.

Sound like a piece of cake? Seem like the most natural thing on earth? Yeah, sure. After all, every article you read in the newspaper, every story you see on 60 Minutes is fact. Each one is a story. Each one has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So, what's the big deal that sets Narrative Nonfiction apart?

Well, writing an 800-word article versus a 90,000-word book is one big deal. While it's relatively easy to write Narrative Nonfiction in short lengths, it becomes dramatically more difficult to sustain the exercise over hundreds of pages.

Writing compellingly is another big deal. No one expects to fall in love/hate with the subject in a newspaper article. But for a Narrative Nonfiction book (or magazine article, etc.) to be a success, the author must make the reader feel something, must make the reader care, must make him want to learn more.

How does a writer do it? The answer lies in presentation.

The Narrative Nonfiction book is a hybrid, a melding of the art of storytelling and reporting. It's a way of taking the very real world of people, places, and events and relating them in a story-like fashion. Instead of "just the facts" (remember the "lean-and-mean" admonitions you learned in J School?), NN demands that the author set the scene, unleash the drama, flesh-out the characters, and relay the story in a compelling voice that the reader wants to hear.

Nabokov once remarked about narrative: "If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not narrative; that's plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that's narrative."

In other words, Narrative Nonfiction bridges the gap between happenings (plot) and emotions. It doesn't tell only what happened, it tells why it happened, how people were affected by its happening, and what happened as a result. It's a whodunnit with real characters. It's a historical novel without any fiction. NN must make the reader want to read on, whereas basic nonfiction reporting doesn't. The Narrative Nonfiction writer needs not only tell a story, but also tell it compellingly.


George Jensen, 26, of 5353 Los Alamos Blvd., died in his home last night, February 23, of suspicious causes. Jensen, who was last seen alive at 7:30 p.m. by his girlfriend, Marsha Franks of 2735 Glenwood Ave., was a victim of suffocation. Police suspect foul play.

Narrative Nonfiction:

George Jensen had entered the prime of his life. At 26, the world had finally opened its portals to him, and Jensen had decided to explore them. Affable, outgoing, boyish in his charms, yet street-wise and shrewd beyond his years, he was the ideal candidate to make his way through life successfully. He was the doctor people feel comfortable in going to, the clergyman people feel safe in confiding in. He was everything to everyone. But when Jensen's girlfriend said good night to him one snowy evening in February, all that would change. Jensen's dreams--and his girlfriend's--would come crashing down around them and disappear forever.

You get the point. This isn't simply meat-and-potatoes reporting; this is something more. And, the good news is, editors are actually looking for Narrative Nonfiction to publish.

Where can you find a publisher for your Narrative Nonfiction? The Web is a good proving ground.

Also, newspapers and magazines are publishing increasingly more Narrative Nonfiction, which is good news for all narrative writers. After decades of USA Today-style underwriting, where news bites, charts, graphs, and sidebars told only the meat of a story, it's heartening to see the trend swinging back the other way. Newspapers and magazines are at last returning the word, "story," to the phrase, "true story."

Book publishers, too, are turning increasingly toward Narrative Nonfiction as a reliable source of income. One glance at the pages of the New York Times Review of Books confirms that the Narrative Nonfiction is here to stay and only growing stronger.

"I'm getting an increasing number of requests from editors for Narrative Nonfiction," says literary agent Faye Swetky of The Swetky Agency. "A number of editors who used to handle fiction are now acquiring Narrative Nonfiction exclusively. That's a pretty good indication that there's money for Narrative Nonfiction in the marketplace. Otherwise, publishers simply wouldn't be interested."

And that, for freelance writers everywhere, is the best news of all.

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