Savvy Saturday – When Stories Aren’t

Writing fiction is hard. We all know this. Authors of any kind of fiction have to make up believable characters, design a compelling plot, drive it forward using well-chosen words, and so forth.

Writing fantasy is harder. In addition to the above, an author have to set their characters and plot in a world that’s somehow different from ours, yet believable, consistent, and interesting.

But you know what I’m finding is even harder? Writing nonfictional stories. Or, as I like to describe them, stories that are having trouble finding their story-ness.

For a Christmas present, I told an older friend of mine that I would ghost-write one of the stories about her life that she likes to tell and wants to preserve for posterity. I thought, correctly, that it would be a good challenge for me as a writer – it would force me to write about characters I didn’t make up, tell about events that actually happened, and find a way to be compelling even in a world without magic.

Those have all been challenges, definitely. But what’s harder, I’ve found, is something I wasn’t expecting: giving the story direction, which basically means giving it story-ness.

In a good fictional story, you start with a direction in mind before you even start writing. Characters want to do something, achieve something, or possibly keep something from happening. This direction becomes the foundation of the story, and its driving power, until something happens to give the characters a new direction. This keeps happening until the story finally reaches its climax. This sense of narrative is a large part of what makes a story an actual story. The narrative direction of The Quest of the Unaligned, for instance, is obvious: Alaric wants to deliver the Prince’s Crown to the Cadaerian capital city by the summer solstice so that he can go home to Tonzimmel and never again have to deal with crazy people who believe in magic. This direction is gradually, or suddenly, replaced by others throughout the course of the book, but the characters always have a goal towards which they are working. This goal is passed along to the reader, who keeps turning pages because he or she feels the urgency of the characters. A good story, even if it meanders a bit, will always keep its goal or direction in the back of readers’ minds.

The problem with real life is that stories often don’t have this direction. Very often, the stories we want to tell are about funny, strange, or meaningful things that happen to us, but they don’t make sense from a narrative perspective. In other words, they aren’t actually stories.

For instance, I could tell you a fish story. If I were making one up, I could tell you that I was on a lake in Minnesota and feeling down because I’d failed a test. I was already feeling like a failure, and let me tell you – after hours of catching nothing, I was feeling even more helpless and incompetent than I had when I started. So I was thrilled when I finally felt a tug on my line. I reeled it in, fighting the fish on the other end for a good ten minutes before I finally pulled it into the boat and found that – you guessed it – it was just under the size limit. I was so frustrated that I almost decided to keep it anyway. But that wasn’t who I was, so I got to work. With the fish squirming in my hands, I jiggled the hook out of its mouth. What do you know, though, that dumb fish bit right back down on the lure again. Now even more frustrated, I grabbed the lure again. After another minute of slippery and delicate maneuvering, I had almost extracted the lure, when the fish squirmed once more and chomped down on the hook so hard that I couldn’t see how I would get it out of the creature’s mouth.

Why? I thought. Why should I do this again? Again, I thought about keeping it – the fish did seem to have a death wish after all – but then I looked at flopping pitifully in my lap and shook my head. No. This fish just needed a little extra help. It was going to live, if I had anything to say about it! Setting my jaw, I wiped my hands on a spare towel I kept in the boat, and carefully wiggled and pulled and twisted that hook until I got it out of the fish’s mouth. And when I slipped the fish back over the side of the boat and watched it swim away, full of life and shining silver in the clear water, my feelings of helplessness slipped away with it.

Okay, so that story isn’t fantastic, but at least it has a general driving theme. Person feels helpless, person is given a situation in which she addresses her helplessness, person no longer feels helpless. Yay.

Now that’s a nice story, but here’s what actually happened. I was out on the lake fishing with my sister and father, and we were having a great time. At least I was; my sister was quite young, and so was a little bored with the whole process. I hooked the fish in question but wasn’t good enough yet to actually land it, so my father pulled it into the boat. It was way too small to keep, and he did the dirty work of actually getting the hook out of the fish’s mouth. The next part of the story was true, however: it was so stupid that it bit down another two times on the lure before my dad could finally release the fish. As he worked, getting ever more exasperated, my sister and I were giggling about how dumb the fish was. He finally got the hook out for the last time, released the fish, and we all continued on in our quest to catch something big enough to eat.

This is an amusing happenstance, an anecdote to tell around the dinner table that night, “You wouldn’t believe how dumb this fish was that we caught!” but not a story of the sort that gets written down and shared. It has no driving force, no reason that things happen, no beginning and end. It just is. And things that just are, aren’t stories.

That’s why, I’m discovering, it’s difficult to write compelling nonfiction. The same collection of astounding happenings that’s fun to hear about in person just falls flat when it’s written out on paper. But since it’s nonfiction, the author doesn’t have the liberty to create themes and purpose where they don’t exist, or to change or streamline events to make them more narratively coherent.

So what do you do? I’m not sure what the best solution is, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far: sandwich the true story in between a realistic (but made up) opening and closing. The opening and closing will exist to introduce and then to sum up the “point” of the story, which I will try to emphasize by stressing certain parts of the narrative and leaving others out. (For instance, certain individuals, while telling a story in person, might describe the exact outfits that everyone wore when they went camping and were chased by a bear. That doesn’t mean these details should actually make it into the final story.) I’m hoping that this will strike an appropriate balance between keeping the story “the way it happened” and writing something that will be readable and interesting.

However it turns out, though, I’m glad to have had this chance to experience a very different kind of writing process and keep improving my skills. If I can write a compelling nonfiction narrative, after all, my next fictional story should be a piece of cake!

Your turn: Have you ever attempted to write a nonfictional story? If so, do you have any tips or experiences you’d like to share?

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