Non-fiction: one thing after another?
There’s a classic line in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, in which a schoolboy states that ‘history is just one thing after another’ (I’ve taken a swear word out – I’ll leave it to your imagination). It’s a memorable moment in the play. But the implication that ‘one thing after another’ is negative, or boring, isn’t confined to fictional schoolboys debating the merits of a history degree. It’s something that writers should be aware of, too.
Think about Hollywood action movies: at their most formulaic they boil down to one expensive set-piece after another. No matter how many cars are smashed in the climactic chase, or how many punches the hero lands on his implausibly passive assailants, the cumulative effect of these events is often boredom. Even Renton, the off-his-face narrator in Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, notices that the Jean-Claude Van Damme film he’s watching is a case of filmmakers ‘sticking the weak plot thegither’ through a sequence of choreographed encounters with a dastardly villain: it’s just one thing after another.
When I wrote a literary travel guide to Scotland, I was aware that the easiest way to bore readers was through this repetitive structure of one thing after another. At the same time, how else do you write a book comprising of dozens of examples of writers who visited, or were otherwise inspired by, a whole range of different places? I think a lot of non-fiction writers (as well as authors working in other genres) face a similar conundrum with how to present details that aren’t connected by an obvious, overarching narrative structure. Here are three of the ways in which I dealt with this issue.
Where’s the story?
Writers often contrive to turn non-fiction into a more engaging story by telling it in first-person: ‘I found myself in Huddersfield, where I met Mary the bus driver, who said I really had to visit the local stamp-collecting festival. There I learned that Mozambique’s stamps are unique because…’. If you don’t want to put yourself in the limelight, look for other novelistic techniques which can make your writing more engaging. The writers who pioneered the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s relied upon multi-sensory description, inclusion of the telling details which bring real people – as well as fictional characters – to life on the page, and judicious use of dialogue. In my book I didn’t use first person, but I did turn facts into mini stories, such as imagining the journeys Romantic poets took to get to mountaintops, as well as the lines they wrote there. And I relied upon incidents that reveal character, such as Percy Shelley brandishing pistols on the threshold on his wedding night.
An engaging tone is a must in creative non-fiction: a lack of attention to tone is what makes so much academic non-fiction heavy going. One way to create an engaging tone is through focus on register. I try to avoid using too many long words, and only turn to them when there are no alternatives: ‘indefatigability’ seldom adds anything that ‘tirelessness’ doesn’t, except a sense of the writer’s pomposity. Humour is also important for leavening the factual lump in non-fiction. One of my favourite non-fiction writers, John McPhee, is a master at throwing in self-deprecating humour in order to make fact-heavy paragraphs more readable. Admittedly there are some subjects which shouldn’t be dealt with lightly, but that doesn’t mean that long-distance lorry drivers, or oranges, or the search for the Loch Ness Monster (all subjects of McPhee’s) need to be written about in humourless prose.
One of the most common pieces of advice in creative writing is to avoid unnecessary abstraction. In non-fiction this can be tricky, as you’re often dealing with concepts and ideas. So, when you have to make an abstract point, remember to back it up with an example. This doesn’t need to be completely po-faced. For instance, in my literary travel guide I wanted to emphasise how much of a statement it was that Edinburgh’s main train station, Waverley, is named after a novel by Walter Scott. To hammer this point home, I asked readers to imagine that trains to London terminated at King Lear Station, rather than King’s Cross.
When you’re next working on a piece of life writing or other non-fiction, pay attention to how you communicate facts and report events. Look for ways to utilise the skills you’ve learned in fiction writing exercises, and ask yourself how you can make your subject-matter into a story, rather than simply one thing after another.
Image of Newton’s Cradle on creative commons license from Pexels.