A soup-to-nuts look at narrative nonfiction, Jack Hart’s “Storycraft” breaks down different approaches to telling true stories and the components that make or break them. In writing the book, Hart brought to bear a doctorate, years of teaching in college classrooms, and a quarter-century of experience at The Oregonian, where he edited several stories selected as Pulitzer finalists and winners. We caught up with Hart by phone last month to talk about the book. In these excerpts from our conversation, he discusses different kinds of narrative, the importance of selecting the right structure, and the writer’s responsibility to master basic story forms – “the ones that we know work.”
(This conversation has been lightly edited for length.)
I’m going to ask you about some of the things you cover in the book, seeing as most of our readers won’t have read it yet. So even —
But they will read it soon.
Of course they will – this will be such a compelling conversation. But I was interested in how you tie together a lot of different approaches to narrative, offering a kind of umbrella approach to what story is and how it works in nonfiction. Coming at it from a different angle: Do you find yourself finding one or two main ways that stories tend not to work?
Well, I think that you hit on it when you talked about the umbrella. I think that a lot of folks who work in various forms of narrative don’t realize all the structures available to them, and they often try to force square pegs into round holes. So a writer and an editor may have material that would be great for an explanatory narrative, and they try to turn it into a full-blown story narrative, with a narrative arc and a climax and a denouement, and all the elements that go into that. They turn a potential silk purse into a sow’s ear – they have great material but the wrong structure. So I think an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.
Not everyone will have thought about the differences in some of these categories. Could you talk about, say, story narrative versus explanatory narrative?
Explanatory narrative is the classic New Yorker form – the McPhee, Susan Orlean, David Grann story – where you have a narrative line, a sequence of actions with frequent digressions, where you talk in more abstract terms, more report-like terms, about the context. So McPhee writes about a trucker crossing the country, let’s say. Sometimes you’re in the cab with the trucker, driving, and often you are off exploring various dimensions of trucking and hazmat materials or fuel consumption or the country’s freight system or whatever.
So that’s an explanatory narrative. It’s the form that Rich Read used when I worked with him on “The French Fry Connection” that won the Pulitzer in ’91, I think it was.
A classic story narrative has the narrative arc that you find in a novel. An initial section is devoted to exposition, in which you introduce a protagonist. The protagonist engages a complication. You move through a section called rising action, in which the protagonist grapples with the complication. Eventually you reach a point of insight, in which the protagonist sees the world in the new way that finally allows resolution of the complication that sets up the climax, and then leads to a final wrapping-up-of-loose-ends section called falling action or denouement.
You don’t always have all those elements in a nonfiction narrative, but sometimes you hit a home run, as Tom Hallman did with his 2001 Pulitzer, the one I worked with him on, called “The Boy behind the Mask,” which had every single one of those elements in it, as complete as any novel could be.
There are very short narratives that just take the form of a single scene; we call those vignettes or tone poems. There are profiles that contain both narrative and report elements. There are personal essays that usually start with a first-person narrative, a sequence of actions that describe a personal experience, then go through a turn and reach some kind of conclusion.
There are long-form issue essays – Atlantic magazine-style pieces in which there’s a first-person exploration of some large theme. And then there are all kinds of bastard forms that include elements of one or more of these various structures.
But finding the right structure is key, I think. If a good writer finds the structure that works with his or her material, then right out of the gate, you can write an awfully compelling narrative.
I mentioned Rich Read. “The French Fry Connection” was his very first narrative ever, and he won a Pulitzer for it. And David Stabler made the finals for his very first narrative. … That was a piece I didn’t deal with in the book, which was called “Lost in the Music,” about a cello prodigy who kind of imploded during his senior year of high school, as a lot of prodigies do. A really fascinating story.
It seems like there are challenges to balancing when to go scenic and when to do summary, and kind of ending up in a mushy middle ground.
Let’s step back a minute. I like to distinguish between reports and stories. Reports tend to be abstract, and their principal purpose is to convey information. Stories tend to be very specific, and their purpose is to convey experience. So you have informational writing and experiential writing.
Most journalists most of the time write reports, and that’s a perfectly valid function of journalism – probably its most important function in the long run. When they attempt to tell a story, sometimes those old habits die hard, and they have a difficult time getting down the ladder of abstraction and entering the world of scenic narrative, where you’re describing specific events and specific scenic elements that unfold in, at least to the reader, what appears to be real time.
And most standard journalistic dailies are written at sort of the middle rungs of the ladder of abstraction. Writers who’ve been doing that all of their adults lives have a difficult time breaking loose sometimes and starting to move down to the highly specific scenic narrative, and then in the case of explanatory narrative, occasionally digressing and moving way up the ladder of abstraction to talk about the larger context and the meaning of what’s happening.
Do you have suggestions for any of our readers who are trying to make that leap?
Yes. Just step out the door and stand on a street corner, and take some very specific notes about the actual things that are happening before your eyes, and write up a very specific scene, the kind of thing that never appears in the standard journalistic report. Because that’s a basic skill that you need to tell great, true stories.
Are there things that shouldn’t be done as a narrative? You talk at some length about that in the book.
Oh, yes. Lots of things. (Laughs.)
But are there groups of things you see regularly tried as narratives that just don’t work?
One of my reviewers, as we went through the review process at University of Chicago press, was Cynthia Gorney, a great narrative writer. She teaches at Cal Berkeley now. Folks who deal with students always tell me this, but Cynthia made a very solid point that students want to run off and do narratives on things that are inappropriate for the narrative approach. For journalists, most of the topics they tackle are inappropriate for a narrative approach. It’s the information that’s important, not the story itself.
If people are hanging on the edge of their seats to hear the latest development in a running story, you don’t want to start with a long expository narrative arc windup. You’ll drive them to some other information source. Most of what you see in the daily paper should be written as a report.
Then what do you think are the parameters around news narratives?
On news narratives that are dailies, you don’t want something that’s a huge breaking story. We had our best success with interesting rescue stories, police enforcement stories, things like that – where the story is of greater interest than the actual news content. So we often had things that might have run as fairly minor news briefs or zoners that turned into great stories that made Page One. But the audience wasn’t out there aware that news was coming and hanging on the edge of their seats to hear what the latest-breaking developments were in those cases.
You don’t want your election results as a narrative.
There’s a lot to cover. One of the things you talk about is character development and the necessity of a sympathetic protagonist. A lot of the best narratives have sympathetic but often deeply flawed protagonists. Do you have suggestions on how to keep it real while maintaining the reader’s sympathy for the protagonist?
Well, just because the protagonist is flawed doesn’t have to mean he’s unsympathetic. I heard a really interesting segment on the “News Hour” last night with Russell Banks, the novelist, who’s just written a book … This is a book about, apparently, sex criminals who can’t find a place to live, based on true life, who have holed up under an expressway in Miami.
The protagonist is a young man who is a convicted sex criminal, although the circumstances of the crime were something along the lines of sex with an underage girl who wasn’t that much different in age than he was. Obviously, he’s deeply flawed, and he’s in this terrible situation, but Banks made the point that he has to be a sympathetic character in order for the narrative to carry the reader through the story. That’s something we tend to forget. Journalists tend to focus on victims and perpetrators, neither one of which make terribly good protagonists in a true story.
Following on that, the concept of round and flat characters is something else you address. I’m sure we’ve all read stories with too many flat characters, where nobody emerges in the round. Have you seen many stories that suffered from too many round characters?
I just read one. It was written by an acquaintance, and I’m not going to mention the name, but there were probably six or seven very fully developed characters, and the narrative flipped back and forth from one to the other, and it was just impossible for me to keep them straight and to follow the story.
Do you think at that point it becomes an issue of point of view or stance, or is it just an over-proliferation of developed characters?
Both point of view and stance are shifting so rapidly and into so many different positions that the reader gets lost. At best you can have maybe three or four fully-developed characters. And if there’s a single protagonist, or maybe a couple of protagonists who can be developed even further, so much the better.
For those who have started to develop their voices and their ability to turn a nice phrase, you argue the importance of structure. What are the structural mistakes you see most often?
Well, that gets back to just choosing the wrong structure. A lot of would-be narrative nonfiction writers come into this with their focus on the story narrative with the complete narrative arc and try to force material into that form that just doesn’t work. I know that Tom Hallman had that experience early in his career. I’ve seen it with lots of other writers. It’s just a question of being aware of all the structures that are available to you and choosing the right one, or choosing none if it turns out that the material is best handled in some form other than narrative.
Not to upset the applecart, but in fiction, some of the most important strides have been made by people who pushed back against the conventions of story in their time. Obviously a lack of understanding of story mechanics is probably a more pressing problem, but do you think there’s room for mavericks to push the envelope on narrative journalism?
Oh, absolutely. I hope they do, and I’m looking forward to seeing some great new forms emerge. That said, you learn the established mechanisms – the ones that we know work – first. Picasso was an accomplished landscape and portrait artist before he branched off into cubism.
So often, young writers bridle at the notion that there are established forms that work, and that they have an obligation to learn those first. But a blues musician has to learn 12-bar blues before attempting something else.
That’s most of what I wanted to ask you about today. Is there anything else about the art of storytelling that you’d like to say?
One point to make is that there is a theory of story, and there are certain basic structures of story that apply in so many different fields and contexts that it just behooves all kinds of folks to apply themselves a little bit and to learn some of these forms. We’ve had an explosion of nonfiction storytelling over the past 20, 30 years. And now you see creative artists of all kinds doing terrific narrative in film and broadcast, as well as traditional locations like magazines and newspapers.
And certainly in the book world, this has become one of the dominant forms. I think it’s a major, major development in world literature. In a way, because this is a largely American development in literature, it’s analogous to the development of jazz. So what jazz was to world music, I think nonfiction narrative is to world literature, at least in English.