[This last installment in a four-part series on writing historical narratives focuses on the importance of plot in nonfiction storytelling. The series is based on a lecture given by Adam Hochschild at Vanderbilt University in February 2011. Part 1 is a call to bridge the divide between academic writing and narratives intended for the general public. Part 2 addresses the importance of setting and scene in storytelling. And Part 3 examines the role of characters in historical writing.]

The final ingredient is that of plot. How do you unfold a story, and how do you unfold it in a way that is going to hold the reader’s attention? Here, I think the essence is the withholding of information. Keep people on the edge of their seats. Keep them wondering what’s going to happen.

That line, “meanwhile, back at the ranch” comes, of course, from the cliché of the Western movie, where something happens: the stagecoach is robbed, and the villain grabs the heroine off of the stagecoach, galloping off into the desert with her tied to his saddle. And then you switch to another line of action, leaving the moviegoer wondering. “Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” something else is going on.

This is the oldest technique in storytelling, switching back and forth between different strands of a plot. Every Shakespeare play does this. Every TV soap opera does this. And so I’m always looking for those “meanwhile, back at the ranch” moments, when I can leave the story hanging at a suspenseful point, when people are wondering what’s going to happen next.

Telling the story of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire was ready-made for this technique, because it stretched out over 50 years’ time, and there were many moments of either great discouragement by the abolitionists or of false hope – or where something else made the action stop for a time. I tried to make use of those, and I made sure that when I stopped the action, I had another strand of the plot going somewhere else that I could turn to and pick up. For example, once such moment where it was obvious to me that I should pause the action: Parliament had much more power than the king by the 18th century, but the king still had to sign all legislation before it became law. So if the king was indisposed in any way, that meant that things had to come to a stop, because a law couldn’t become finalized.

Of course, God’s gift to a writer, once again, was King George III, who went mad. People went mad in much more colorful ways in the 18th century than they do now, I think. He believed he could look through a telescope in his palace and see Germany. He went out and shook hands with tree branches. He planted steak in the ground to see if it would grow into a herd of cattle. All kinds of things.

When the king went mad, it meant things had to come to a stop in Parliament, because if they passed a law, he couldn’t sign it. I end a chapter with King George III going mad; that brings the action to a stop. I switch to another strand of the action, leave the reader waiting for a chapter or two, and then come back. And, ah, “The king was restored to sanity.” How, by the way, did they know he was restored to sanity? He sat up in bed one morning and sang “Rule, Britannia!” to his wife and daughters, and that was taken as a sign of returning sanity.

Here’s another moment I tried to make use of that way: The abolitionists were deeply discouraged in 1789. They had tried and failed to get a bill abolishing the slave trade through the British Parliament. The argument that was always made against them was that if Britain stopped the slave trade, then “our great rival, France” would get all the business. Suddenly, in July 1789 comes the news that there’s been a revolution in France, and the Bastille has fallen. The king is out, and the abolitionists’ friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, has become mayor of Paris. All sorts of other friends of theirs were in important positions. So they felt enormous hope, and they immediately dispatched their chief organizer, Thomas Clarkson, who’s sort of the central figure in the book, to Paris.

As it turned out, that was a false hope, because the French Revolution’s embrace of human rights, it soon became apparent, did not extend to slaves. But I don’t want to tell the reader that right away. I want the reader to feel that there’s a moment of hope – but leave the reader in suspense as to whether that hope will be fulfilled. So I end a chapter with Clarkson going to Paris, then turn to another strand of the action, and only come back again and reveal the disappointment of Clarkson in Paris a chapter or two later.

I’m always looking for places where I can pause the action. Often they are times when in actual life as it was happening, there was indeed a period of weeks or months when people didn’t know how things were going to turn out.

For example, in the book about World War I I’ve just finished, there is a moment soon after Britain introduced conscription when they hadn’t completely sorted out what they were going to do with people who refused to fight. There were 49 conscientious objectors who were imprisoned in Britain and then told that “It doesn’t matter that you’re saying you won’t fight. You’re being sent to the army in France – where the penalty for disobedience is death.” They were put on a train in custody, sent through London to Southampton, and put on a ship for France. As their train passed through London, one of them was able to toss a piece of paper out the window pleading for help. A sympathetic railway worker found it and immediately alerted the organization that was the central organizing point for conscientious objectors.

The people there, of course, were frantic and contacted the War Office and members of Parliament, trying to find out what had happened to these people, who as far as they knew were on their way to the front in France, where they would be shot if they refused to obey orders. Nobody knew what their fate was going to be. Then, a couple of weeks later, a smuggled message from France got through to England. All they were able to say was “We are being held in Boulogne.” The pacifists in London immediately dispatched two clergymen to Boulogne, and they also sent a delegation to see the prime minister demanding that these men not be shot.

But there were weeks when no one knew whether these 49 conscientious objectors were going to be shot or not. And there again, I tried to use that as a suspense point, to pause the action, end a chapter or a section of a chapter with their fate hanging in the balance and pick up another strand of the action. Which was very easy to do, because it was right at that moment that the final preparations were being made for the Battle of the Somme, all of which was going on just a few miles from where these folks were being held. Finally they were reprieved at the last moment, and sentenced to prison instead of death – but that piece of information I didn’t want to give out right away.

The hidden storyteller

These, then, are some of the basic storytelling techniques. I think that even people who don’t think of themselves as knowing them unconsciously do use them. We use them in conversation every day. We use them often very skillfully when we tell stories to small children, because the only way you can get a child to pay attention is if you can make the character really colorful, if you can make the story really suspenseful, if you can make your listener  wonder what’s going to happen next.

I’m just saying that you have to apply these techniques in writing as well, and that you can do so in writing that meets the highest scholarly standards. Can you apply it in every type of historical or social science writing? Not necessarily, but you can do it in many, many kinds of writing.

I’ll just end by telling you a little story. Whenever I write something, especially when I do a book, I always like to send a draft to people who know much more about the subject than I do. Since I write about history and I tend to jump around in times and places to pick a subject, there are always people out there who know a whole lot more about the subject than I do, because they’ve been studying it all their lives. They’re specialists in it. I’m always afraid that they’re going to resent an interloper coming into their field, but never is that the case.

When, for example, I finished “Bury the Chains,” the book on British slavery and abolition, I asked half a dozen different people whose writing I knew and in many cases learned a lot from – all but one in the academic world – to read the manuscript. All of them agreed to, and five of the six followed through and actually did so.

What really moved me was this: They did make enormously valuable suggestions correcting factual errors that I had made – and being helped to find such things before the book was published was what I was hoping for when I sent it to them. But what pleased me to no end was that although none of these people were what I think of as popular narrative writers, several of them saw the spirit of what I was trying to do – and made literary suggestions as well. One of them said, “Well, you make a lot of this character later on. Don’t you think you should introduce him earlier?” Somebody else said, “I think you could build things more suspensefully by reversing the order of these two chapters,” and he was right. These were people who don’t write this way themselves but they were willing and eager to help somebody who was. Somehow that moved me and made me think that there’s really a hidden storyteller in all of us, and that those two cultures of writing don’t need to be so separate after all.

[Watch for Hochschild’s next book, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918,” coming this May.]

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