Last month, I looked at what it takes to write good characters within the context of narrative nonfiction. Writing characters well is absolutely crucial to telling a good story — but there are other elements that are necessary, too. So today, here are a few thoughts on crafting a good narrative nonfiction plot:
1. Creating plot in narrative nonfiction is all about choosing wisely what you keep and what you cut.
It’s relatively easy when you’re creating a fictional story from scratch to give it a nice plot structure. In narrative nonfiction, this can be a lot trickier. Real lives and events don’t usually follow satisfying plot patterns without a lot of conscious effort.
After you’ve done boatloads of research on a subject, it can be very tempting to stuff all the interesting details you possibly can into the story. It’s equally tempting to fall back on simply telling a person’s life story from birth to death. Neither of those approaches, however, will typically yield a good story.
As an author, you can’t be afraid to cut out the material that isn’t necessary to the story you want to tell. (If you want to know how hard a wrench it can be to cut out excess material, check out this post on deleting scenes from The Right Word.) How do you know, though, what’s important enough to keep?
2. Remember that character should always shape the action of the story.
Good plot is always shaped by character. If you’re writing fiction, you start with your character and ask, “What would this character do?” If you’re looking at real events or a real person’s life, you move in the opposite direction, figuring out a subject’s character from their actions. Once you’ve figured out a character’s motivation first, then you can more easily go back and think about which events work best to help the reader understand that character. What events happened in the character’s life to motivate them? What actions did that motivation cause them to take?
For instance, in The Right Word, Roget’s unhappy childhood caused him to turn to his books and his word lists for comfort. Doing so in turn inspired his curiosity about the world and a wild, ambitious desire to put all the ideas in the world into some meaningful order — and that desire in turn inspired Roget to create his Thesaurus. Character causes action, action in turn shapes character. The events of the story should follow a logical pattern of cause and effect that feels consistent with the character.
3. Use scenes that set up conflict and show resolution.
Conflict and resolution are classic components of plot for very good reason — they are the fundamental elements that make up that emotional journey. Conflict is any sort of need or desire or problem the character has to overcome. This might sound obvious, but I frequently see manuscripts that just lay out a string of events that seem to plod along without providing any dramatic tension to hook the reader — as if their subject never really faced any hardships or struggles. The resolution, of course, is the answer to that conflict. It’s what happens when something in the story changes — either the character or the world they live in, or perhaps both.
In my initial research I learned that Rousseau faced staggering obstacles throughout his career: poverty, lack of training, and most of all, the savage reception from the art establishment. I found it poignant that his jungles were entirely imagined, that he’d never had the chance to travel. Conflict and triumph are important elements of compelling narrative — so I sensed good story potential.
What makes Rousseau’s story so compelling is that he does triumph, despite an almost absurd assortment of obstacles. He’s too old. He’s too poor. He’s too untrained. He’s too unorthodox. In the end of the book, though, his persistence has paid off: the critics no longer laugh, and his paintings now hang in museums all over the world. Having felt Rousseau’s anguish early on in the book, the reader can fully savor his triumph — that’s resolution.
4. Look for the dark and difficult points in a character’s story.
One final piece of advice: delve into moments of darkness. This might sound a little gloomy, but it’s actually a really wonderful way to accomplish several goals. For one thing, it helps the reader sympathize with the character. But even more importantly, it’s often times of suffering and hardship that most clearly define who a person is. And suffering can be the catalyst for the most dramatic character growth. Often the people we admire most are those who have transcended some of the greatest hardships.
In The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, Chris Barton writes,
John Roy was just a toddler in 1849 when his father took sick and died. Pat Lynch left all he had, including his unfinished plan, to a friend named Deale. But Deale did not liberate Catherine, nor John Roy, nor William. Deale kept them enslaved and sold them to a new owner.
John Roy might have been free by the time he was two. But he was not. Precious time — years of would-be freedom — were lost.
This is a dark scene for a picture book. But this dark scene sets up the driving motivation for the character — now John Roy Lynch has to make up for those lost years of freedom.
All of the events an author includes in the plot line of a book should have purpose and build on each other. The reader should be able to feel that the story is heading somewhere, taking them on an emotional journey and leaving them in a different place than they were when the story started.
In future posts, we’ll be talking about other elements that go into a strong narrative nonfiction picture book, including voice and theme. See you next month!
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.