Why even non-fiction has to tell a story

It always intrigues me that ‘writing’, to most people, appears to be ‘writing fiction’. Time and again I’ll see stuff on social media pivoting on that idea – ‘writers – what’s your character arc?’, or ‘what’s your latest plot twist’ or whatever.

Non-fiction? Sure. But as it happened, the events I covered followed the exact same structure as a three-act play. Click to buy.
Non-fiction? Sure. But as it happened, the events I covered followed the exact same structure as a three-act play. Click to buy.

Whereas non-fiction writing is always seen as a secondary product of expertise in a subject. If you happen to write a book on railways, you’re not a ‘writer’, you’re a ‘railway expert’.

Nobody on social media asks, ‘writers, how’s your interpretation of your subject panning out’?

To me that’s kind of odd, because to me writing is writing – and the techniques needed for non-fiction are identical to those for fiction. That includes actually telling a story.

I don’t mean ‘fictionalising’ non-fiction. What I mean is that non-fiction, too, demands standard writing techniques to hook and draw the reader, which means taking them on a journey. In this sense ‘story’ means ‘an organising principle around which content is directed’.

That’s principle is true of every piece of writing from fiction to non-fiction, including short stories, poems, novels, treatises, non-fiction books and so forth.

In non-fiction that journey is usually called the ‘argument’, but it’s the same thing as a ‘story arc’ in terms of its function when drawing readers along – telling them the story. You start with a proposition and then proceed to show why it’s true (or untrue, as the case may be). And it’s necessary to keep the reader captured throughout.

It’s also surprising how much non-fiction doesn’t have it – where, apparently, it suffices merely to copy data out of archival sources and plunk it down into the book.

That’s fine if you’re interested in data lists – but even ‘dictionary’ type content still needs an underlying organising principle (‘story’). Years back I recall chatting with the late Prof. Bill Oliver, who was in charge of the huge Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, then being set up.

Bill told me that he had a very clear vision of where this dictionary was going to go. Was it merely a list of famous people with some stuff about their lives? Of course not. These things, inevitably, run as ‘top down’ stories, collecting details of the rich, famous and powerful. Bill – quite rightly – wanted to give it a different flavour by changing the organising principle.

The story of the DNZB was going to be one that included all people – including the poor. A social dictionary. And Bill did it, too. It’s online. Here are my contributions:

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5v1/van-asch-henry-piet-drury

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2t50/tucker-richard

And if you want to check out Italian Odyssey, jump across to Amazon – it’s available on Kindle. Free to Amazon Prime users in 2016.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

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2 thoughts on “Why even non-fiction has to tell a story

  1. I think that’s brilliant. It makes a lot of sense. One of my favorite non-fiction books (that tells a story) is “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.” It tells a wonderful story of heroism and sacrifice. One of the best military stories I know of.

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