Novice writers, particularly those writing nonfiction, see their responsibility as researching to gather information about events and then telling their reader the story of what happened. Their role is to organize and report, in a history, a biography or a memoir, the facts as they have found. The result often has a “This happened...then, that happened…then, the next thing happened,” quality to it. The author has discovered the facts and told the reader what they are. She has told the story, but it reads more like a list.
Think of the difference between a historical monograph and a narrative history. The monograph – the standard form for academic history – is a focused methodical exposition of the facts involved in one limited aspect of history. It can often make the most interesting material dry and dull to read. Narrative history, however, utilizes the tools of the literary artist to bring an event or story to life. Is it any wonder that historians like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Robert Caro have found a large popular audience for their narrative histories while monographs have remained deep in the recesses of the research library? History would be better served if historians heeded Rudyard Kipling’s advice, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”
We have lost sight of the fact that the term storyteller comes from the oral tradition. The storyteller is a performer who creates a dramatic portrayal of a story which includes speaking in the voices of multiple characters. Think of Garrison Keillor’s tales of Lake Wobegon on his NPR show A Prairie Home Companion.
For a writer the dramatic performance of a story consists solely of words. Part of the challenge is to avoid interjecting herself between the reader and the story. The most oft delivered advice to writers is to show what’s happening, not tell about it. Mark Twain, a man who certainly understood storytelling whether as a platform performer or an author, said it much better, “Don’t say the old lady screamed-bring her on and let her scream.”
In the classic view drama consisted of three things – time, place and action. The first two involved what science fiction writers call world building. Authors writing about events that have already happened, whether in the recent or more distant past, must engage in the same process when they recreate a setting consisting of both a particular place and a historical context. When, as Twain advised, you bring the characters on, they step into that setting. The trick is to describe what happens next in a way that will let the reader experience the story’s action first hand. What is really required is that the writer be a story shower, not a storyteller.
Who is you favorite nonfiction storyteller? Why? Leave a comment.