Adopt These Storytelling Techniques and Become a Better Nonfiction Writer
I was a bored thirteen-year-old bookworm, staring down the barrel of a four-hour long flight without a book.
My mom could see the desperation in my eyes and handed me a ten dollar bill to use in the Hudson News bookstore across the Pittsburgh airport.
I scanned the back wall lined with New York Times best selling books, prominently propped up in acrylic, see-through shelves. None of them looked interesting. Until, a paperback of a bespectacled, brown-haired boy flying on a broomstick caught my eye. I plopped down my cash and walked back to the terminal.
Thirty thousand feet in the air, I cracked open the fresh, new spine. The first few sentences transported me to a world I never wanted to leave. My seat could have fallen through the bottom of the plane, and I wouldn’t have noticed.
JK Rowling pulled me into her story, and twenty years later, she still hasn’t let me go. As a newly minted driver, I parked my ‘94 Honda Accord into a Barnes ‘n Noble to finally find out if Voldemort would ever return. I skipped homework and missed sleep as a college sophomore learning about Horcruxes. I anticipated the release of the final movies as a newlywed. I dressed up my son as “The Boy Who Lived” for his first Halloween.
I love reading stories–we all love reading stories–because of how they make us feel.
“If I ask you to think about something, you can decide not to. But if I make you feel something? Now I have your attention.” –Lisa Cron, Wired for Story
Our brains transmit dopamine when we read an engaging story. That same feel-good hormone that’s released when you read your favorite novel is also released when you read even a small story, one to illustrate a point or open up a chapter.
The science behind stories doesn’t apply just to fiction. Stories in nonfiction are crucial to getting your message across too. If you want to write with more influence, you need stories.
And if you're silently freaking out because you aren't a fiction writer, rest assured you don't have to be. The story doesn’t have to be long or even that big of a deal. It could have happened to you or someone else. I opened up this post with a common story most of us can relate to: reading a book on a plane. Whatever you tell, it just has to engage the reader.
So how do you do that? What are some tried and true storytelling techniques you can use? I’ve got a few.
1. Hook ‘em.
Remember, your story doesn’t have to be long or that big of a deal. BUT it does need to be interesting. Make it relatable with a situation we’ve all been in. Add in humor or a universal emotion (like love or fear or eating a delicious meal). Or, throw us for a curve and give us a peek into a dream life.
2. Start with the action or conflict.
Think about your top five favorite movies. I can almost guarantee you that at least one–if not all–start in the middle of the action. The bad guy is running away from the good guy. The couple is fighting. The family is moving. There is always action. The principle applies to nonfiction too. Don’t start your story with lots of lead up. Get right to the heart of it. What’s the most interesting part of your story? What’s the thing that will engage your audience the quickest? Start there.
For this post, I started with the conflict. I was bored and needed entertainment. I didn’t start with, “I was sitting in the airport with my family getting ready to fly home from Pennsylvania where…” This doesn’t pull anyone in. Phrases to avoid in order to get into the action are: “I want to tell you a story about…” or, “One afternoon, I was washing the dishes…” Don’t be afraid to jump right in.
3. Foreshadow what’s coming ahead.
Fiction writers love this technique for good reason. Foreshadowing gives hints of what’s to come without giving the story away. It builds tension. You can use sentences like: “I thought our problems were over. I was wrong.” Or, “That knock on the door changed my life, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.” These create intrigue. Readers have to know more. Why were you wrong? How did that knock change your life?
When you really master this technique, readers crave more. The tension remains high, and they want to keep reading.
4. Show, don’t tell.
We don’t like to be told how to think, right? Telling, instead of showing, is trying to tell reader’s how to think. When you say someone is beautiful, you don’t give the reader the room to make the judgment for themselves. Plus, you box in their imagination.
Instead of saying, “She was beautiful,” try showing her beauty. “Her braided hair was pulled up in a loose chignon. Her fair skin contrasted sharply with her dark eyes. When he looked at her, his breath caught.” You’re pulled in so much more with a description of her instead of your telling.
So how does this translate into nonfiction? Avoid abstract words like “beautiful,” “honorable,” “exhausted.” When you’re self-editing and you run across a word like this, ask yourself how you can show this instead of tell.
“I was exhausted.” → “My head hit the pillow and I couldn’t close my eyes fast enough.”
You don’t have to change this for every abstract noun. But inserting more showing than telling goes a long way.
Lists like this can sometimes feel overwhelming. You might be tempted to try to apply all of these techniques in your work. Instead, take one and work on it for one chapter. Then take another and apply it for another chapter. In time, your writing will strengthen!