Preface to Storycraft, Second Edition
Nearly forty years ago a police reporter walked into my Northwest Magazine office and pitched a story. A drunk driver had killed a young mother, and the reporter had dutifully written a routine news brief. But the woman’s death haunted him. What tricks of fate had led her to the improbable place and time of her death? What kind of life had she left behind? And what of the man who killed her? Was he just another drunk, or did unsuspected humanity lurk behind the stereotype? Surely, the story went beyond the two column inches our newspaper had buried on page B6, plugging the space above an ad for dental insurance.
So Tom Hallman came to the Oregonian’s Sunday magazine, where I was the newly minted editor, and sold me on a true story. The version we’d publish would have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Strong internal structure would regulate pace and create dramatic tension. Instead of sources, it would have characters. Instead of topics, it would have scenes. It would be scrupulously accurate, but it would reveal truths beyond the reach of an ordinary news report.
“Collision Course,” the five-thousand-word narrative that resulted, was unlike any journalism Tom or I had ever produced. The way readers responded to it was new to us, too. They called or wrote to tell us how riveting the story had been. They had been lost in it, instructed by it, moved by it. And they wanted more. That story launched a lifelong love affair with narrative nonfiction. The timing was perfect. Our experiment with true-life storytelling caught a wave of rising interest in stories drawn from reality. Book-length works of reported nonfiction such as John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine made regular appearances on the best-seller lists. Tony Lukas’s Common Ground, a meticulously reported account of forced racial integration in Boston, was about to win a Pulitzer Prize. The trend reached way beyond books. Over the next few years, nonfiction storytelling would explode in major American newspapers and magazines, narrative nonfiction would acquire star status on radio, and the documentary would assume new prominence in film. Eventually, the internet would change the way nonfiction writers worked and push the form in exciting new directions. The podcast would marry the newest medium, the internet, with one of the oldest, radio, and find an enthusiastic new audience.
We rode the narrative nonfiction wave through my years at Northwest, using the form to explore topics ranging from logging to heart transplants to genetic engineering. The magazine’s readership soared, making it one of the best-read parts of the Sunday paper. So when I became the Oregonian’s writing coach, I used the skills I’d developed during a dozen years as a full-time university professor to teach narrative theory to the rest of the Oregonian’s writers and editors. They were stunningly successful at putting theory into practice. Oregonian narratives won national awards for stories on religion, business, music, crime, sports, and just about any other subject you can imagine. Rich Read worked with me on an international business story that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. Tom Hallman and I joined forces again on a story that won a Pulitzer for feature writing. Michelle Roberts worked with me on a narrative submitted as part of the package that won the Pulitzer for breaking news. Rich Read and Julie Sullivan, another writer who worked with me one-on-one for years, served as part of an Amanda Bennett team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Gold Medal, the highest honor in American journalism.
I remained the writing coach even after I became a managing editor. As the logical spokesman for the paper’s writing program, I appeared at national conventions for everybody from newspaper editors and journalism professors to food writers, investigative reporters, travel writers, wine writers, and garden writers. I wrote a column for Editor & Publisher magazine and produced a monthly instructional newsletter that circulated nationwide. I continued to teach occasional university classes on writing, and each year my focus shifted more toward nonfiction narrative. Every speech, workshop, class, and article forced me to think more deeply about what attracted readers to true stories about real people.
But my most valuable education came from working with scores of writers on hundreds of stories. Producing for publication, often on tight deadline, gave me a practical grounding in story that the world’s best graduate school couldn’t possibly match. When I finally retired, I figured it was time to pass along the most useful lessons I’d learned.
My first effort produced A Writer’s Coach, a survey of the techniques that the best writers I worked with used to make their words powerful, evocative, lyrical, and—most of all—effective. Random House published that book, but over time it grew dated and lost visibility inside the publisher’s enormous list. A few years later, I published the first edition of Storycraft, which covers the kind of storytelling that had dominated my later career, with the University of Chicago Press.
When the opportunity arose to bring A Writer’s Coach to Chicago, I jumped at the chance. The move allowed me to update the examples and shift the emphasis to audiences beyond newspaper writers. It also made it possible to resurrect my original attempt to make the book the first half of a package that included Storycraft. And it allowed me to restore my original title for the book, which reflected that intent. Now Wordcraft is paired with Storycraft under the UCP imprint, and both books contain cross-references that help them work as the instructional pair I’d originally hoped to create.
I heard from hundreds of writers who benefited from A Writer’s Coach, as well as from teachers who found that it connected well with students. In part, that connection resulted from the practical emphasis I tried to include on every page. The tips and suggestions I made were, after all, gleaned from working with accomplished professionals, often under tight deadlines. What worked for them usually worked for students and other writers struggling with one of the most complex and difficult crafts human beings have devised. I made every effort to maintain and expand that practical emphasis in the update that turned A Writer’s Coach into Wordcraft.
I’ve carried the same emphasis on practicality into the second edition of Storycraft. The first edition also produced a heartwarming outpouring of feedback from readers. And the emails, calls, and letters that I found most rewarding credited Storycraft with helping them overcome tough challenges—finding a structure that fit unusual material, untangling knotty organizational problems, and clearing up questions on point of view, chronology, and level of detail. As I’d hoped, many of the writers who contacted me also singled out Storycraft for its practical value. I kept take-it-to-the-keyboard usefulness high on my list of priorities as I chose examples taken from my work with writers who wanted help, not literary hairsplitting. Help with their reporting, help with their selection of scenes, help with their descriptions of characters, and help with their choices about what to include and what to leave out.
They also wanted to know their options. The classic narrative arc you learn in college fiction classes is only the tip of the tale. And you won’t find a particularly full menu of narrative nonfiction forms in the existing technique books, which tend to focus on one variety or another. So I’ve included guides to a smorgasbord of reported nonfiction types, including explanatory narratives, vignettes, narrative essays, and podcasts.
I approached the second edition with the same priorities, but I expanded them to embrace the changes that have made narrative nonfiction even more important and widespread over the past decade. Podcasting, for example, has exploded as a vehicle for sometimes stunningly good narrative, a development that even the Pulitzer Prize Board has recognized with a rare new annual prize for “audio reporting.” The second edition contains an all-new section on podcasting, detailing the ways it differs—and doesn’t—from more traditional print and documentary film versions of the form. The text dives into podcasting elsewhere as well, expanding existing theory whenever necessary to accommodate audio storytelling.
Another significant development since the first edition of Storycraft is the explosion of research on storytelling’s origins in the structure of the human brain. The first edition certainly recognized that we are biologically designed as storytelling animals, but ten years ago the fMRI was just beginning to make a mark. The research provoked by the new techniques also inspired anthropologists and others to launch scientific research illuminating the central role of storytelling in cultures worldwide. Hundreds of research papers later, we have added understanding that can make all of us more effective storytellers. The second edition also includes dozens of new examples, which I hope make the point that narrative nonfiction is a vital, growing form, one that’s thriving outside of newspaper newsrooms and making a mark in every mass medium.
Some truths remain immutable, however. Mastering a wide variety of narrative forms is still one key to success. Another is learning enough about story theory to avoid the fatal error of forcing narrative onto inappropriate material. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of classic storytelling. But experience has taught me that most subjects are best suited to simple informational writing that makes the key point quickly. Sportswriters start game stories by telling us the final score for a reason. And if your neighbors want to know if their school won’t survive the current round of budget cuts, you’d be foolish to begin a report on the critical school board meeting with a long narrative windup. Ditto with the short reports that fill internet news feeds such as those from Google and Apple.
In keeping with the emphasis on practical application, virtually all of my Storycraft examples are from published work, and many of them are from stories I had a hand in bringing to publication. Every work cited is listed in the bibliography, along with some exemplary works of narrative nonfiction not cited. Unpublished material and citations requiring explanation are listed, by chapter, in the notes included at the end of the book.
Storycraft also includes the editor’s perspective. Most books on narrative technique ignore editors, and nonfiction narrative editing is included in only a very few educational programs. But storytelling—whether in newspapers, magazines, books, podcasts, or online—thrives only when writers team up with strong narrative editors. Harold Ross and William Shawn built the ongoing nonfiction narrative tradition at the New Yorker, and Harold Hayes laid the foundation for much of modern narrative nonfiction during his years editing Esquire. In the introduction to The Hot Zone, Richard Preston says Sharon DeLano, the Random House editor who handled the book, helped him see the critical role story structure plays in crafting compelling book-length narrative. More recently, Ira Glass has demonstrated the key role of a visionary producer and editor through his role of maestro for public radio’s This American Life and host Sarah Koenig’s hugely successful podcast, Serial.
One of the other things I discovered during a quarter century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize.
Like me, those writers came of age in newspaper newsrooms, a fertile incubator for great narrative over the past thirty years. But today’s newspapers struggle with the fragmentation of their audience and a shift to the digital delivery of news. Long-form narrative can be expensive, and pinched newspaper newsrooms produce far less of it than they did two decades ago. It’s safe to assume that the next generation of nonfiction storytellers will travel paths different from the writers who worked with me. Writers tackling narrative in other media may have to find new routes to their audiences, too. The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to use print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them.
Those principles are what Storycraft is all about.
Although fewer writers will discover nonfiction storytelling in traditional newspaper newsrooms, it’s reassuring to note that plenty of other doors lead to careers in narrative. Tracy Kidder studied creative writing at Harvard and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and narrative nonfiction is a staple in the creative writing programs that have blossomed in universities all across the country.
Ted Conover focused on anthropology at Amherst College and came to nonfiction storytelling through ethnography. Before he became one of the best American magazine writers, William Langewiesche was a professional pilot. Ira Glass has spent most of his professional life in public radio. The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft. In keeping with the broad reach of today’s narrative nonfiction, most of the examples I’ve used in Storycraft come from sources other than newspapers. But I’ve used a sizable number of newspaper examples, too, mainly because I was intimately involved in them as a writing coach and editor. I wanted this book to reflect the depth of my own experience, and one of my principal aims was to share what I learned in the trenches. Good narrative comes from specific real-world decisions made by writers and editors who not only understand the abstract principles of story, but also know how to apply them in the real world. I have to believe that writers working to master narrative learn best from someone who’s been there, someone who knows both theory and practice. For me, that means drawing on my newspaper background, and—more recently— conversations with nonfiction narrative writers in workshops and coaching a number of nonfiction narrative books from inception to publication. Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much.
When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The theory and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities. Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action leads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.
Ultimately, the common ingredient in all great storytelling is the love of story itself. If you share that with me, let me tell you what I’ve learned.
“Instructive and essential, reading Storycraft is like finding the secret set of blueprints to the writer’s craft. Better still, it is engaging, funny, and wise—wonderful to read and wonderful to learn from.”—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and The Library Book