Several years ago, Adam Hochschild, the acclaimed author of King Leopold’s Ghost and other nonfiction narratives, told a Vanderbilt University audience that academic writing doesn’t have to be boring. Scholars of history and science — theoretically any discipline — can use basic storytelling techniques without sacrificing gravitas. “I think that even people who don’t think of themselves as knowing (storytelling techniques) unconsciously do use them,” Hochschild said. “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.” Watch Hochschild’s talk here or read the transcript, which we ran in four parts: accessibility; scene and setting; character; and plot.
Part 1, on accessibility:
Half a century ago, the novelist and physicist C.P. Snow wrote about how these days we live in two cultures, where scientists and humanists seem to have lost the ability to talk to each other. I think today writers and intellectuals live in a different world of two cultures – one that has to do with whether you are writing for your fellow specialists or for a wider audience. There’s almost an assumption that writing is either academically rigorous and directed at fellow scholars or that it’s less careful and directed at a wider audience.
I encounter this assumption in all kinds of strange ways. A number of times I’ve received letters or emails from people who’ve liked a book of mine and have written me to say “how much I enjoyed your novel.” I always bristle, because even though I wish I were capable of being a novelist, I’m not, and I immediately want to write back and say, “Wait a minute! That book had 850 footnotes! Didn’t you see them? I wasn’t making anything up.”
People seem to assume that if they find something readable or lively, it’s likely to be a piece of fiction. Similarly, I think there is sometimes an assumption among scholars that your work will not be taken seriously if it sounds too accessible. I’ll give you a curious example. Years ago, there was the famous Masters and Johnson study of human sexuality. I remember that, in an interview at the time, Masters and Johnson said that they had deliberately written their first book, “Human Sexual Response,” in a cumbersome style so that it would be taken seriously by health professionals.
Part 2, on scene and setting:
An essential ingredient of any writing that is going to reach out and grab the reader’s attention is evoking where the story that you’re talking about takes place. It’s something worth spending a lot of time figuring out how to do.
I’ll give you an example from my last book, Bury the Chains, which is the story of the antislavery movement in the British Empire. There’s a crucial meeting that takes place in that book, May 22, 1787, when the first interdenominational antislavery committee was formed in London. It marked a real landmark in the history of human rights, I think, and took place in a Quaker bookstore and printing shop in a little courtyard, which is still there today in London’s financial district – although unfortunately the printing shop is not – called George Yard.
I was trying to evoke this moment, time and place, and trying to describe what the scene was like. We know what happened at the meeting, because we have minutes that were taken, but we don’t have a description of the scene. However, there are building blocks that you can use to put together a scene like that. I spent a lot of time scanning newspapers of the time. I began to see advertisements for other businesses in George Yard. There was a pub there. I saw an ad from a fellow who gave dancing and fencing lessons. These were some of the things that took place right in this little courtyard where the printing shop was. I could not find a description of this particular printing shop, but there is a vast amount of material on what 18th-century British printing shops looked like – and also a great many paintings and drawings. I spent some time studying books on the history of printing.
Part 3, on character:
The next key ingredient in the trio I mentioned is character. Telling history through a set of characters is by no means the only way to do it, but it’s certainly a powerful one. What works for me is finding a network of characters who, in one way or another, are connected to each other, and trying to evoke a period of history or a story of something such as the antislavery movement through that networked group of characters. I think that’s a powerful form of storytelling because, here again, life itself unfolds this way. Each of us is at the center of such a network. A variety of people have connections to each of us, and many of them have intricate connections with each other.
Of course, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters tell their stories in the same way. It’s never a succession of characters who have no connection to each other that we meet in a movie or play or novel. They’re members of the same family, or they’re friends, or they fall in or out of love, or they’re rivals.
So I always go looking for such characters, for some way of finding a web of people through which I can tell a story. My book King Leopold’s Ghost was about King Leopold II of Belgium and his conquest of the Congo, the brutal system of forced labor that he imposed there, and the extraordinary opposition to this system that created the first international human rights campaign of the 20th century.
Part 4, on plot:
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.