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The Introduction to Storycraft

Nearly thirty years ago a police reporter walked into my Northwest Magazine office and pitched a story. A drunk driver had killed a young mother, and the reporter had dutifully written a routine news brief. But the woman’s death haunted him. What tricks of fate had led her to the improbable place and time of her death? What kind of life had she left behind? And what of the man who killed her? Was he just another drunk, or did unsuspected humanity lurk behind the stereotype? Surely, the story went beyond the two column inches our newspaper had buried on page B6, plugging the space above an ad for dental insurance.

So Tom Hallman came to the Oregonian’s Sunday magazine, where I was the newly minted editor, and sold me on a true story. The version we’d publish would have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Strong internal structure would regulate pace and create dramatic tension. Instead of sources, it would have characters. Instead of topics, it would have scenes. It would be scrupulously accurate, but it would reveal truths beyond the reach of an ordinary news report.

“Collision Course,” the five-thousand-word narrative that resulted, was unlike any journalism Tom or I had ever produced. The way readers responded to it was new to us, too. They called or wrote to tell us how riveting the story had been. They had been lost in it, instructed by it, moved by it. And they wanted more.

That story launched a lifelong love affair with narrative nonfiction.

The timing was perfect. Our experiment with true-life storytelling caught a wave of rising interest in stories drawn from reality. Book-length works of reported nonfiction such as John McPhee’s Coming into the Country and Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine made regular appearances on the best-seller lists. Tony Lukas’s Common Ground, a meticulously reported account of forced racial integration in Boston, was about to win a Pulitzer Prize. During the same period, fiction lost its iron grip on the American imagination. The Atlantic reported that the percentage of Americans reading fiction, plays, and poetry fell by ten points between 1982 and 2004, reaching an all-time low of 47 percent. Nonfiction took up most of the slack.

The trend reached way beyond books. Over the next few years nonfiction storytelling would explode in major American newspapers and magazines, narrative nonfiction would show up on radio, and the documentary would assume new prominence in film. Eventually, the Internet would change the way nonfiction writers worked and push the form in new and exciting directions.

We rode the narrative nonfiction wave through my years at Northwest, using the form to explore topics ranging from logging to heart transplants to genetic engineering. The magazine’s readership soared, making it one of the best-read parts of the Sunday paper. So when I became the Oregonian’s writing coach, I used the skills I’d developed during a dozen years as a full-time university professor to teach narrative theory to the rest of the Oregonian’s writers and editors.

They were stunningly successful at putting theory into practice. Oregonian narratives won national awards for stories on religion, business, music, crime, sports, and just about any other subject you can imagine. Rich Read worked with me on an international business story that won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism. Tom Hallman and I joined forces again on a story that won a Pulitzer for feature writing. Michelle Roberts worked with me on a narrative submitted as part of the package that won the Pulitzer for breaking news. Rich Read and Julie Sullivan, another writer who worked with me one-on-one for years, served as part of an Amanda Bennett team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Gold Medal, the highest honor in American journalism.

I remained the writing coach even after I became a managing editor. As the logical spokesman for the paper’s writing program, I appeared at national conventions for everybody from newspaper editors and journalism professors to food writers, investigative reporters, travel writers, wine writers, and garden writers. I wrote a column for Editor & Publisher magazine, and produced a monthly instructional newsletter that circulated nationwide. I continued to teach occasional university classes on writing, and each year my focus shifted more toward nonfiction narrative. Every speech, workshop, class, and article forced me to think more deeply about what attracted readers to true stories about real people.

But my most valuable education came from working with scores of writers on hundreds of stories. Producing for publication, often on tight deadline, gave me a practical grounding in story that the world’s best graduate school couldn’t possibly match. When I finally retired, I figured it was time to pass along the most useful lessons I’d learned.

Storycraft is the result.

I hope you’ll find that it’s a practical book. I’ve filled it with examples taken from my work with writers who wanted help, not literary hairsplitting. Help with their reporting, help with their selection of scenes, help with their descriptions of characters, and help with their choices about what to include and what to leave out.

They also wanted to know their options. The classic narrative arc you learn in college fiction classes is only the tip of the tale. And you won’t find a particularly full menu of narrative nonfiction forms in the existing technique books, which tend to focus on one variety or another. So I’ve included guides to a smorgasbord of reported nonfiction types. We used them all at the Oregonian, including explanatory narratives, vignettes, and magazine forms such as narrative essays, both personal and topical.

Mastering a wide variety of narrative forms is one key to success. Another is learning enough about story theory to avoid the fatal error of forcing narrative onto inappropriate material. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of classic storytelling. But experience has taught me that most subjects are best suited to simple informational writing that makes the key point quickly. There’s a reason sportswriters start game stories by telling us the final score. And if your neighbors want to know if their school will be closed, you’d be foolish to begin a report on the critical school board meeting with a long narrative windup.

In keeping with the emphasis on practical application, virtually all of my Storycraft examples are from published work, and many of them are from stories I had a hand in bringing to publication. Every work cited is listed in the bibliography. Unpublished material and citations requiring explanation are listed, by chapter, in the notes included at the end of the book.

Storycraft also includes the editor’s perspective. Most books on narrative technique ignore editors, and nonfiction narrative editing is included in only a very few educational programs. But I’ve seen narrative thrive only when writers teamed up with editors such as Neville Green at the St. Petersburg Times, Jan Winburn at the Atlanta Constitution, and Stuart Warner at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Editing plays a critical role in great magazine and book narrative, too. Harold Ross and William Shawn built the ongoing nonfiction narrative tradition at the New Yorker, and Harold Hayes laid the a foundation for much of modern narrative nonfiction during his years editing Esquire. In the introduction to The Hot Zone Richard Preston says Sharon DeLano, the Random House editor who handled the book, helped him see the critical role story structure plays in crafting compelling book-length narrative.

One of the other things I discovered during a quarter-century of working with nonfiction storytellers is that successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret. If you’re interested in exploring the art of true-life storytelling, don’t let lack of experience intimidate you. Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers. Some of those virgin ventures into true-life storytelling achieved far more. At the Oregonian David Stabler, the classical music critic, plunged into his first narrative, a series on a musical prodigy, and made the finals for a Pulitzer Prize. Rich Read’s first narrative won a Pulitzer Prize.

Like me, those writers came of age in newspaper newsrooms, a fertile incubator for great narrative over the past twenty years. But today’s newspapers are in transition, struggling with the fragmentation of their audience and a shift to the digital delivery of news. It’s safe to assume that the next generation of nonfiction storytellers will travel paths different from the writers who worked with me. Writers tackling narrative in other media will have to find new routes to their audiences, too. The entire media marketplace is in upheaval, and young storytellers everywhere will face unprecedented challenges. The most entrepreneurial will adapt to changing technology, finding new ways to combine print, audio, and video in a digital environment. But the most successful will also carry with them the unchanging, universal principles that apply to all stories, regardless of the technology used to deliver them. Those principles are what Storycraft is all about.

Although fewer writers will be finding their way to nonfiction storytelling through traditional newspaper newsrooms, it’s reassuring to note that plenty of other doors lead to careers in narrative. Tracy Kidder studied creative writing at Harvard and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and narrative nonfiction is a staple in the creative-writing programs that have blossomed in universities all across the country. Ted Conover focused on anthropology at Amherst College and came to nonfiction storytelling through ethnography. Before he became one of the best American magazine writers, William Langewiesche was a professional pilot. The only real requirement for great nonfiction narrative is determination to master the craft.

In keeping with the broad reach of today’s narrative nonfiction, most of the examples I’ve used in Storycraft come from sources other than newspapers. But I’ve used a sizeable number of newspaper examples, too, mainly because I was intimately involved in them as a writing coach and editor. I wanted this book to reflect the depth of my own experience, and one of my principal aims was to share what I learned in the trenches. Good narrative comes from specific real-world decisions made by writers and editors who not only understand the abstract principles of story, but also know how to apply them in the real world. I have to believe that writers working to master narrative learn best from someone who’s been there, someone who knows both theory and practice. For me, that means drawing on my newspaper background.

Ultimately, I don’t think the source of a great true-life story matters much. When it comes to learning by example, where a story appeared is far less important than how well it was told. Skilled, passionate storytellers will excel at their craft in whatever medium allows them to reach an audience. The theory and craft of good storytelling even transcend the mass media. As Ted Conover demonstrated, both ethnography and nonfiction narrative share immersion reporting as a core technique. Lawyers attend workshops on constructing narratives that will persuade juries. Psychologists use storytelling in therapy. I hope Storycraft offers insights valuable across the spectrum of narrative possibilities.

Storytelling has such wide application because, at its root, it serves universal human needs. Story makes sense out of a confusing universe by showing us how one action leads to another. It teaches us how to live by discovering how our fellow human beings overcome the challenges in their lives. And it helps us discover the universals that bind us to everything around us.

Ultimately, the common ingredient in all great storytelling is the love of story itself. If you share that with me, let me tell you what I’ve learned.