Editor’s note: In his second and final installment from last weekend’s “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University, current Nieman Fellow Gabe Bullard explores strategies for storytelling as outlined by author Joshua Wolf Shenk during his session at the event. In his first dispatch, Bullard covered a panel discussion featuring “Serial” producer Sarah Koenig and New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos, among others, discussing how to get access to difficult sources.
Here is one way to tell a story:
Notice how the life-or-death stakes are established in the first 30 seconds. Then the story is filled in, with a nice mirroring between emotional and physical peril. It’s effective and powerful. But it’s just one strategy.
This video was the first example author and journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk used in his session last weekend at the “Power of Narrative” conference at Boston University. Called “Plotting the Course: Narrative strategies for long-form non-fiction,” it focused on three techniques for managing true stories.
While explaining this first technique—setting stakes and following an arc—Shenk reminded the crowd that “it’s not enough to move through time.” A story that progresses this way needs an arc. Sometimes, that arc can be seen as an actual arc – a shape, as illustrated in Shenk’s second example, a videotaped talk by Kurt Vonnegut.
But the story doesn’t have to be entirely linear. Shenk highlighted E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig” and Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which both reveal major plot details early on (spoiler: White’s pig dies in the first paragraph).
The second technique was what Shenk called the “Frank Gehry approach to nonfiction.” Find the shape a story takes, then build it with your facts. The most extreme example is Janet Malcolm’s New Yorker piece “Forty-One False Starts,” which takes the form of its title—41 abandoned ledes that coalesce into a story about artist David Salle.
Shenk’s other examples of Frank Gehry narratives also came from The New Yorker. Ian Frazier’s “Canal Street” follows the shape of the street and the pace of its traffic, slowing at the section about the Holland Tunnel. The most meta — and most recent — example of the structure was John McPhee’s “Structure.”
The final story form is not quite as direct as the first, nor as abstract as the second. It’s the method of building a story with voice and example, going, as Shenk described “around rather than through” the topic, as Joan Didion does with the Haight-Ashbury lifestyle in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” It’s attitude up front, followed by scenes. “Manifestations of chaos,” according to Shenk, in his description of Didion’s piece, which opens with a summary, but concludes with a sort of second nutgraf, all filtered through her critical style.
“The primary image a reader will see in your piece is you,” Shenk said, citing David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” another narrative piece that follows the author’s voice through a series of scenes, resulting in a conclusion suggested in the lede.
These three forms aren’t just ways to write the stories, and they aren’t only meant to be considered once you’re at your desk, sorting through notes, Shenk said. They can shape a piece much earlier, and Shenk described an instance of the form changing his approach. While reporting his 2002 Atlantic piece on Lincoln presenters, people who dress as the 16th President, Shenk realized the story was truly about “how to be a Lincoln presenter.” This guided the rest of his reporting (some of it conducted in costume) and writing. “Pursue [your form] to the end of the earth,” Shenk said, “and see where it leads.”