We’ve talked about voice, tone, and humor. We’ve also discussed viewpoint. But how do we make it all work seamlessly? And can you use the same tools in nonfiction as you do in your fiction writing? It is like putting together a puzzle. But the good news is that if you get a firm understanding of how these tools can work for you, it becomes easier to shape your essays, reporting, and non-fiction books, no matter what the subject.
A great story is a great story.
Think about Susan Orlean who has made an amazing career on picking the right tools for her nonfiction stories, and making you feel like you are there. What she does with the tools, in her best-known book, The Orchid Thief, is mystifying. But she has also delivered wonderful immersive work in her many articles for The New Yorker, by mixing painstaking reporting with the tools we talked about. She decides each time, what road map she is going to use to best shine a light on her story. And note, it is always about the story.
You can do this, too.
Start with a vision for what you want your essay to be about.
What do you want to tell?
Who is going to populate this story?
There are some basic decisions you make at the beginning of your work. It doesn’t mean that this is etched in stone. In fact, chances are great that they will change as you go along, or at least when you get to the revision stage. I often wonder about the tools author and MacArthur Fellow, Ta-Nehisi Coates uses when he delivers these straight to the bone essays for The Atlantic. He is edgy, but he never sacrifices the story for the edge. And yet, he always has a voice and a point of view. You could almost know it was him, without seeing his byline.
You will choose your tools—as carefully as you choose the people to best tell your story. Here’s an example. Let’s say you are writing a piece on the first time you used your grandmother’s famous recipe for pound cake. You have a few choices. You can make the piece sweet and nostalgic. Or you can tell a humorous story about how disastrous your first attempt was. You can use the narrative of baking the cake to weave in details of your relationship with your grandmother. Or maybe, after you baked it to perfection, the dog jumped on the counter and took a big chunk out of it. You might not have all the answers until you sit down and start writing.
At this point I suggest that you throw caution to the wind. You just nail a first draft. Don’t worry about word count or extraneous characters, like your cousin, Louise. Put it all down. Use the tools you think will work at the time. Because it is a first-person essay, you have one piece of the story as the anchor—the story will be told from your viewpoint. You try to capture the sensory and emotional details. Then after you’ve told all you wanted to tell, you let the piece cool, like the cake. Go back to it and use one of my favorite tools. Ask the piece what it wants to be. Or put another way, decide what it is about. Believe it or not, it will tell you. And it will tell you how to get there. So many times I started a story thinking it was about X but in truth, when I got to the fine bones of the piece, it was about Y. And that’s ok. It means that I must use my voice, tone, humor or lack of, and viewpoint to illuminate the story I want to tell. If you want good examples of this in writing about food, the best place to start is in your own kitchen, looking at the narratives in your cookbooks. Or to make your research easier, check out the Best Food Writing Series, edited by Holly Hughes.
Why can’t you just tell the story once and call it good?
Because it takes stumbling and bumbling blindly through a piece to get to where you want to go. A few times it comes out organically perfect, but those times are rare. A good writer relishes the revisions it takes to make the essay sing, just as it does a short story. The revision process is the checks and balances of writing. It is where the recipe is made. And when you are done, you pack up your tools and start over again. Writers write. And we learn from each story.
One of the queens of the all tools when it comes to telling a great story is Shonda Rhimes. She just launched a multimedia site, and has a great interview with novelist and memoirist, Amy Tan. It is a terrific discussion on how it all comes together. Be sure to take a look at Amy’s take on story, and other great content on writing.
Andrea King Collier is an award-winning journalist and author. She writes for leading print, online and broadcast outlets. She is the author of The Black Woman’s Guide to Black Men’s Health, and Still With Me… A Daughter’s Journey of Love and Loss. She is also an in-demand writing teacher and coach.