Friday, August 16, 2013

Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart

The art of telling an effective story, whether as a matter of fiction or of non-fiction, has become increasingly celebrated and promoted as the most effective means of communicating a message. Wherever we turn for advice about communicating effectively, we're told about the power of story—or narrative, if you prefer the more hifalutin term. The reasoning is simple: we seem programmed to remember stories, tales across time involving characters who engage us in their pursuits. 

Jack Hart is a professional journalist who describes the skills needed to write an effective non-fiction story for a newspaper or magazine. The book provides many tips and explanations about how good stories are written. He also discusses the usefulness of ways of communicating other than by narrative, such as by explanation or report. But the award-winning stories that Hart's colleagues have written about all sorts of topics have enhanced their effectiveness (and one assumes their readership) by using narrative. The elements, when you reflect upon them, seem almost self-evident: characters (persons that we can care about and understand); a conflict or obstacle that presents the protagonist with a challenge; change through time (a narrative arc); carefully considered facts necessary to give life to the scenes. Like lawyers, journalists have a professional ethical obligation to "tell the truth," as problematic as that obligation is. Both professions require us to ground our narrative in some sense in "what really happened," perhaps easier for journalists because they don't (or least shouldn't) work for self-interested clients. One of Hart's main concerns is the ethics of truth-telling, including an exploration of those boundaries. 

Who might enjoy this book? Anyone who might want to tell a story, fiction or non-fiction. (The fundamentals of the two genres are not so different, and Hart draws on numerous sources that were written about fiction and playwriting.) However, I read Hart's book from the perspective of an attorney, an advocate. I’m convinced more and more that the first job of an advocate is to learn and then tell our clients’ stories in a comprehensible and engaging manner. In some cases, the law as written may prove an insurmountable road block to a remedy. But in most cases, especially in those that require a judge or a jury to resolve, making the client and the client’s plight as sympathetic as possible is an essential component of successful advocacy. Lawyers don’t write essays about “why my client should win in 500 words or less," but our briefs come close to allowing us to do that. As advocates, attorneys need to become as literate in telling a story as we are in forming an argument (which also may incorporate storytelling). Many attorneys face challenges with younger jurors and lawyers who possess a native mastery of visual storytelling that older, more logocentric persons like me lack. But I suspect that whether the story is told only in print, many of the same principles apply in visual mediums. If the book has one weakness, it’s that it's limited to exploring narratives only via the written word. Oral and visual storytelling must gain a place in the advocate’s arsenal in addition to the written word. 

But make no mistake: this is an outstanding book, well considered and well written, even if it's not written as a narrative!  Anyone with any occasion to consider writing a narrative will benefit greatly from this book

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