The distinction between Creative Non-Fiction and plain Journalism is hard to define but easy to recognize. The former pops off the page while the latter is just passed over. Journalism classes teach writers to put all the valuable information in the first four paragraphs, because usually, that’s as far as the reader will make it before they get bored.
Creative Non-Fiction abhors the idea of that brand of brevity. It’s goal is to draw the reader in and keep them there, not letting go until the audience has finished and gone back to reread sections to get a better understanding of the story. Sometimes the two are placed side by side in a magazine and most people don't recognize the difference...
But the reader just glimpses at the journalistic article and spends the rest of his time reading the Creative Non-Fiction. As writers, we all prefer to have the attention.
What is it that separates the two?
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re writing about the increase in the rate of bank foreclosures. You have all the numbers, maybe an interview with a family who is about to lose their house and an interview with a bank official. If you haven't done the research yet and need a some advice, you can check out how to work through writing assignments on topics you're not familiar with...
If this were going to be a journalistic report, all you would need to do is find a good opening line and then start churning out the numbers and sprinkling in some quotes to reinforce the facts. But that’s not what you’re going to do because you are a creative writer and you have a story to tell.
Journalists have an obligation to be objective, creative writers have no such requirement. Having said that it’s important to note that both have an obligation to present the facts as they are, or as the writer perceives them.
By presenting the work as non-fiction, the author has an ethical responsibility to tell both sides of the story, even if they make it clear which side they agree with. Facts can’t be manipulated or changed, or even omitted just to make a point. What makes the difference between creative non-fiction and journalism is the way the story is presented.
Like any good piece of writing, the story in Creative Non-Fiction needs a structure. The basic structure is the same as in fiction. Start with a premise or introduction, build up the action in the story until you reach a climax, then tie all the facts down to a resolution.
If you have all the facts in front of you, they just need some organization. First, you need to know what the point of your story is. Perhaps you want to talk about irresponsible loaning or irresponsible borrowing. Is the family a hapless victim or did they have a hand in their own downfall? Then build a structure to meet the needs of the story. Lets say our story is going supposed to show how a culture of consumerism is actually to blame for all the foreclosures.
We already know the premise for the story. Once upon a time there was a Family that bought a house and started a family. (Don’t use this line, it’ll drive your editor crazy).
Start by describing the family. Make it personal. Readers have to see something of themselves in the main actors of the story. It doesn’t have to be an admirable trait but it has to be familiar. Otherwise, they’ll just read as far as the first four paragraphs and abandon the story.
Here are two examples of the same story.
“The rate of foreclosures has reached an historic high, at 7.1% Monday. Ordinary families like the Smith’s of Gotham are losing their houses and have no where to turn.”
This is how a typical story would read in your local paper. It would then go on to list several other numbers and quotes from the Smiths about how horrible their lives have been since it all started. The problem with this type of introduction is that the reader doesn’t care about the Smith’s. They’re just an example of bad things happening to other people. They don’t see how it affects them.
Creative Non-Fiction Tells A Better Story...
Here is another example that makes better Creative Non-Fiction.
“Early in 2002, then house-hunters John and Jane Smith walked into the first property of the day and didn’t need to see much past the living room’s stone fireplace before they were sold.
December 26, 2007, Jane can’t stop crying as she takes down the wreath from above that same fireplace, knowing that it will never sit there again. The bank sent them one last foreclosure notice and they have less than a week to vacate the property.”
The story is familiar but specific. It clearly evokes an image. The reader recognizes the common desire to have a house and a family and they see a specific picture of couple shopping for a house. Then the next sentence, they see that dream being taken away. They can empathize and are suddenly involved in the story.
It’s the specifics that make the story truly come to life.
Using descriptive, concrete language will help the readers to see the story and will motivate them to finish reading. Always keep an element of suspense. How did the Smith’s get in this position? Why weren’t they able to keep up with the payments? Why did the bank foreclose instead of try to work with them?
Always keep the reader looking for the next ‘why.’ You’ll have the answers as long as you’ve been thorough with the interviews. Don’t be afraid to call back, since you’ll have the Smiths contact information (no editor worth his salt will print a story from an unknown or new writer without checking the sources so you better have them). When you're researching you should always overdose with information.
Hemingway said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens the iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.” As the writer, you should know everything, be familiar with every aspect of the story and write only what makes it both unique and universal.
We already know the climax of our story. The Smiths are forced to move out of their house shortly after Christmas. The resolution of the story should answer most of the questions that were raised. Most but not necessarily all. The specific questions should be answered but in the case of our story, there will be one left over. Were the Smiths a victim of the Bank, themselves, or a culture of consumerism?
You may have an opinion and if you can do it cleverly, you can work it into the story. But this is an example of a question that doesn’t have to be explicitly answered. The best Creative Non-Fiction makes the reader think without knowing they’re thinking.
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