“Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” by Jack Hart

Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure began with a book order for three texts, to be read before the residency begins August 6th. The first book I tackled was this one:

Storycraft got me really excited about my writing. What higher praise could I give?

It is a practical book filled with examples, written for an audience of journalists who are experienced at producing true stories about real people and events, for publication, usually on tight deadlines. This isn’t writing to find out what you think, or writing to learn a la William Zinsser. This is effectively using the tools of the writing trade to write better, faster.

The book starts with cogent advice on structure that could save you weeks of work repairing bad drafts, and returns to go deeper on structure after a tour of basic components like point of view, voice, scene, character, action, and dialogue.

I particularly appreciated Hart’s parsing of narrative nonfiction into several specific forms: reporting, story narratives, explanatory narratives, and “other.” That last category contains vignettes, tick-tocks, bookend narratives, personal essays that “take an idea for a walk”, and issue essays like Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine article “An Animal’s Place” that grew into The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

My favorite line in the book is “give structure its due.” Hart backs that up with a quote from John McPhee, who says outlining is essential to his process. “Going through all that creates the form and the shape of the thing. It also relieves the writer, once you know the structure, to concentrate each day on one thing. You know right where it fits.”

It didn’t hurt that Hart frequently referenced my favorite writing instructor Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the complication, three developments, and a resolution–that’s Franklin’s infallible advice on structure.

Being written for journalists, the book reports the evolution of this genre from the “New Journalism” of the 1960s-70s pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and the like. Hart takes a dim view of their emphasis on the subjective perspective. His chapter on ethics points us toward what I’ve heard referred to as “the nonfiction contract” (although Hart doesn’t use that term), a hallmark of today’s creative nonfiction (the term currently in vogue). In that contract with readers, the author’s challenge is to portray the world accurately, without indulging in speculation, compositing of characters, collapsing of time/space, exaggeration, etc. “Develop an ethical habit of mind,” Hart counsels. “When a story idea takes shape, the first questions should measure the idea against its ethical implications… Question everything with the same tough intensity that a district attorney brings to bear on a criminal defendant.”

The fact that the book is written for journalists means it reads a little differently than the many “how to write your memoir” books I’ve collected. Many in this genre offer writing craft tips in the same vein, but Storycraft is to those what a master class is to a weekend workshop. The topic list is the same, but the instruction goes much deeper.

At the same time I was chowing down Storycraft I was drafting a 4000-word sample essay about my MFA project, a company history of Glory Foods drawn from interviews with one of the founding partners. I literally felt my brain expanding as I swallowed chapters whole, then immediately tried to apply what I was learning to what I was writing. Each draft grew stronger under Jack Hart’s specific, practical advice.

Would you benefit from reading this book? That depends on your intentions for your writing. If you have one life story you plan to tell, for an audience of family and friends, there are easier little how-to-write-memoir books I’d point you to. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith is one of my favorites, (reviewed on Trues Stories Well Told back in 2011).

But if, like me, you want to deepen and clarify what you know, to learn terminology for things you’ve sensed but never been able to put into words,to take your nonfiction writing to a new level, to boy oh boy is this a great guide!


About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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