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alt-non-fiction
September 12, 2011 9:12 PM   Subscribe

Unique approaches to nonfiction storytelling. In Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler tells the saga of how a strange museum came into being. He interweaves stories of the museum's founder with stories of the artifacts displayed. The effect is a comfortable narrative of seemingly diverse and difficult topics. What are some other narrative strategies for relating an informative and entertaining nonfiction story? I'm not looking for book recommendations but details of interesting and accessible approaches to odd material that may be biographical.
posted by Jason and Laszlo to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
There's the mystery format -- e.g., the "medical mystery" genre, in which some rare disease or strange poison is as a puzzle that gets solved throughout the course of the story. A lot of discoveries in physics and biology seem to be told this way.

Oh, and there's this oldie but goodie: "In labs on opposite sides of the country, two teams of geniuses race toward an identical conclusion..."

There's the love story interwoven with the science or history story.

There's the "travels across time" genre too. I can't recall the name of it but I remember seeing a TV documentary about a victorian archaeologist in Egypt. There were bits of 1800's british history interwoven with 6,000 yr old egyption history, and you just came away from it awed at the sheer size of the desert and the sheer scale of time.

Fantastic question, btw.
posted by selfmedicating at 10:02 PM on September 12, 2011


Rebecca Skloot discusses how Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe helped her come up with the braided nonfiction story structure she used for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
posted by mynameisluka at 10:33 PM on September 12, 2011


Yes, agree that this is a fantastic question. The concept of "psycho-geography" by Guy Debord is a similar way of looking at the real world. From the wiki (No way I am going to summarize Debord): Psychogeography was defined in 1955 by Guy Debord as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." Another definition is "a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities...just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape."

Also, dang, Mr. Wilson's cabinet of wonder, what a delicious tome!
posted by ouke at 12:12 AM on September 13, 2011


I'm not sure how I would describe it, but the technique used in Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy struck me as making a good book on the topic an excellent book in general. It takes core aspects of a field - such as say a major judged show - and weaves a story about how that show came to be, who goes there, who judges, what they bring, what it is like for an outsider, etc. In fact, the author does this for multiple data points throughout each chapter, and then weaves it all together with a story about her only attempt at taxidermy, which apparently came about because of all the interesting people she met while doing research. I'm not sure, again, what to call this style, but it feels like a hybrid between journalistic writing, narrative, historical biography, and any number of other styles.
posted by strixus at 1:31 AM on September 13, 2011


John McPhee often tells the story of an arcane subject (the history of plate tectonics, the modern merchant marine, etc.) through the lives of people for whom it is a passion or an overwhelming concern. His preface to Annals of the Former World is instructive in its reflections on how he combined four separate books into one narrative (with a fifth part added on to complete the story).
posted by brianogilvie at 2:32 AM on September 13, 2011


David Hackett Fischer pulls together pairs of chapters on pre-revolution America and an alt-non-fiction retelling of Paul Revere's eve in Paul Revere's Ride. The material pairs together well in that he focuses on historical analysis of particular factors in the start of the American revolution. For example, there's a detailed analysis of the connotations of the term liberty to the loyalist English and the American colonists based on their religious and political histories. This leads into a chapter on the initial political missteps on both sides that lead to increased tensions. In another chapter, he goes into the terrain and tactics before recounting the events of the British retreat from Lexington and Concord.
posted by bfranklin at 6:33 AM on September 13, 2011


Two pretty indispensible books re this are The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William Blundell, and Writing for Story by Jon Franklin.
posted by timsteil at 7:49 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jonathan Spence structures the narrative of The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci according to the visual anchor points central to Ricci's mnemonic technique.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:06 AM on September 13, 2011


The Lost City of Z combines the parallel trips of the author and British surveyor and explorer Percy Fawcett, retelling an old mystery and describing that same setting in modern times.

Descartes Bones charts the progression of Descartes remains through various collections, while depicting the ongoing conflict between early scientific studies and the dominant religion of the day and area.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:12 AM on September 13, 2011


Another method is to wrap the nonfiction in fiction. Moby Dick is famous for containing a whaling encyclopedia inside its story. And Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates is basically a geography book with some kids who skate to each location.
posted by CathyG at 8:25 AM on September 13, 2011


It might not fit because it's about fiction, but Paul Schrader's Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tells the biography of Mishima by using three different running currents interwoven: his early life, a few theatrical-feeling depictions of his fiction through the years, and his last day alive including the standoff. The fictional portrayal pieces are highly stylized, almost garish which is quite a contrast from the other two types of narrative running along with them.
posted by ifjuly at 5:02 PM on September 13, 2011


Devil in the White City flips back and forth between the rather dry (but still fascinating) story of the building of the World's Fair in Chicago, and America's first (?) and worst (!) serial killer. It's extremely effective.
posted by smoakes at 4:06 PM on September 18, 2011


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