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November 28, 2011 9:45 PM   Subscribe

I need to write narrative history for this paper. And I have no idea how. If you have tips for writing narrative or telling stories in general and narrative history in particular, those would be most appreciated!

I'm not good at telling stories. In one class, I was supposed to write an autobiography so I just listed a series of facts about my life. When I talk about my day or when I remember things it's never a flowing timeline, just little snapshots with no narrative.

I'm realizing though that the type of history I'm doing for my honors thesis would be much better if I was able to tell stories about certain historical figures convincingly. How do I do this? The best history writers are really good at setting the stage and drawing you in to the historical context. Is there a crash course on story writing skills? Can I learn this from a book? I've tried imitating historians I admire but it just sounds fake.
posted by kingfishers catch fire to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This might be a good stepping off point.
posted by timsteil at 9:54 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: What I do (and what does not work for everyone) is throw everything onto paper and shape what I have. Granted, this method can take more time than you have, especially in the beginning when you may not know how to focus your questions. However, it can also lead you to make connections between things you never would have noticed before, or to get curious about things and find a unique direction.

The best tip I have is to think about it like paper isn't involved. How would you tell the story to someone else? "Get this -- so this guy started as a humble shoemaker in a tiny Bulgarian village, right? And you know Michael Caine -- yeah, the guy who was in Austin Powers. So Michael Caine's car breaks down in Bulgaria during a Dakar-to-Reykjavik rally, and who is the only guy around who knows how to patch a Bugatti tire? Uh huh. And THAT'S how Uwe Boll got a job in the movies."*

Now, you might not want to be quite so casual in your language, but think of it this way: when you tell a story to a friend, you tell them only the most crucial parts, and the parts that are most interesting. You fill in the blanks where you think it's necessary, and you tailor it to what that person -- your audience -- already knows.

Or imagine yourself as a curious reader instead of the person who has been slogging away at this story for months. What would you want to know? The story can't just stop when Uwe Boll patches the tire -- who actually gave this guy money to start something? (Seriously -- who?)

Take time to have other people read your work and tell you what they think. Your readers don't have to be in your field; in fact, it might even be better if they aren't, because then they can tell you what jumps out or what needs more background without the bias of knowing what's a given.

Remember, too, that in a story you can stop yourself and talk about the little details that catch your eye. THESE are the details that will make your story come alive and drive the narrative. These are the "nuggets" that will make your reader say, "Huh; I never thought of that" or "I had one of those, too!"

Example: "Caine never would have trusted Boll -- until he noticed Boll's collection of Pet Rocks arranged surreptitiously behind a display of Communist propaganda."

Or "'The cost of getting the car back to my workshop in Tunisia was ridiculous,' recalls Crispin Glover, Caine's navigator on that fateful trip. 'I tried to add up the cost on my calculator, but the numbers were so big they wouldn't fit.'" You can see the numbers in front of you; you can feel Crispin's frustration at having this blasted device -- which he expects to work properly -- being unable to handle this stupid little task.

Finally, when you show something like Crispin's frustration, it becomes even easier to see when you recognize him as a character. Characters aren't just for fiction writing. Whatever way you define the word, a character is a multidimensional personality whose actions happen because of the way he is. So -- conversely -- what parts of "the way he is" drive him to do certain things?

Characterization is where you can really go to town with historical stuff. You can even use an entity or an organization as a character, particularly when you track how the organization has changed over time. What factors -- internal and external -- led it to change? What did it used to be like, and what is it like now?

Example: why does Uwe Boll make such crappy movies? Well... back in the 1960s, young Uwe's mother had a brief but torrid affair with a Slovakian cameraman, who left before he taught young Uwe the meaning of panning and scanning.**

*may not be entirely accurate
**this may also not be entirely accurate... it's just what I heard, man.

Here are some books that others have suggested to me (I am a professional writer who does a lot of profiles). They may lean toward journalism, but I think they can help you focus more on the story and the telling. You have the facts; now you just need to arrange them.

Follow the Story (James B. Stewart -- his name comes up a lot in these situations)

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (Brenda Miller)

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (Vivian Gornick)

Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction (Theodore Rees Cheney)

Intimate Journalism: The Art and Craft of Reporting Everyday Life (Walt Harrington)

The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality
(Lee Gutkind)

Writing Creative Nonfiction
(Philip Gerard)

The New New Journalism: Conversations With America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft (Robert Boynton)

If you would like to chat, or have me take a look at your work, I love to help :) Feel free to MeMail.
posted by Madamina at 7:48 AM on November 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've had to write exactly 1 story in my life: a "well-researched historical fiction" for a college research writing class.

Because I have no real writing ability or imagination, I wrote a series of entries from a "found" diary of a fake person who was in Tibet when the Chinese took it over. The prof LOVED it.

Bonus: Because it was a diary the grammar could be sloppy, the writing poor, and the narrative choppy.
posted by coolguymichael at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2011

Response by poster: Man, I wish I could get away with imagining a fake diary! Unfortunately this is history, where everything is supposed to be true and the narrative serves to make the argument stronger...

Madamina, that was really helpful! I'll go check some of those out of the library.
posted by kingfishers catch fire at 9:28 AM on November 29, 2011

Best answer: Wow, I would have loved for this thread to have existed two years ago, when I started trying to figure this all out. I do long-form narrative books, so a bit different from Madamina, but the same lessons apply. I'll tell you what I would have loved to have heard then.

Per story ideas, she is dead on. Try to get at the guts of the human motivation. Who's your main character? What does he or she want? Or is it a group of characters? What do they want? Put yourself inside somebody's head as much as possible and just walk through their experience. X happens. How do you react? How does that lead to Y? The key, as with any fiction or film, is to find out what drives the characters and line yourself up as close to that silver bar as possible.

But there's also something else you have to consider writing non-fiction or history, and one way they differ hugely from pure fiction: you're not just telling a story or even exploring ideas; you're making a case; you might even be making an argument.

To journalists this is obvious, but if you come from the world of drama or fiction (as I did), it's a total shift in perspective and so a total mind fuck if you're not aware of it. You have to hit the beats of the story, but you also have to hit the beats of your information--or your "ideas plot." In short pieces, this happens somewhat intuitively. In long pieces--and I'm guessing your thesis is long--organization is everything.

So here's what I would recommend.

1) Find your models: Take a week or even two weeks and read a bunch of books that are structured like this. And not just how-to books, which are great, but which will mostly go over your head without experience. Also read stories. There are tons of lists out there--and tons on Mefi. A good place to start is books written by New Yorker writers: Susan Orlean, Ian Frazier, George Packer, etc.

Also check out Hampton Sides, Michael Lewis, Tom Bissell--basically anybody else you see on a big list non-fiction list who treats a subject that interests you.

Look at what they are doing. Take a bunch of notes. How are they different? How do they mix story with information? Don't worry about the details. Look at their structures.

2) Review your subject notes: Go back to your material (your thesis subject) and read all those notes. You don't need to be reading for detail. Just get a sense of the thing in your head. Remind yourself why you were so attracted to this subject in the beginning.

3) Outline your plot: Do what Madamina says. Find your story. Figure out what's compelling. Think of this like a story in the purest sense. "This happened, which led to this, which led to this, and oh my God that led to this." Attach yourself to a central character or a group of characters and walk yourself through their experience.

Plot all this out, preferably on a big space where you can stand back and look at it. Read through from the beginning. Is it engaging? Do you get bored anywhere? What happens if you cut that or move it around? Bring a friend in to read it. Do they get bored? Remember that's the key issue: it has to be interesting. People dedicated real lives to this story.

4) Outline your ideas plot: Find another big wall. Trying to forget about your story entirely, figure out your "ideas plot." Think of it like an essay. What's your thesis? What's your big idea? How does that case build? How will you support all the points?

This is super important. Why? Because, like I said before, you're not just telling a story. You're telling it in a particular way, with the goal of making a particular point about those events--about their causes, effects, themes, whatever.

Work on all this until you have your argument down solid. Again, bring in somebody who's opinion you value and trust and have them listen to your argument. Is it convincing? Just as importantly: is it interesting? You're making a real case about something potentially important, so it should be.

5) The tricky part: combining the ideas plot with the actual plot. This is hard. It takes practice, and there are all sorts of tricks, so don't get discouraged, but also know that if your two plots are compelling the big rocks should break themselves.

My basic recommendation would be to get as physical about this as possible. You're looking for "link points." (These are all made up terms. I'm sure other writers have their own.) When do the two plots intersect? What's your first idea in your ideas plot? When does that first idea show up in the actual plot? Usually it's at the very beginning. Your character or characters hear about something, or seeing something, or learn about something that makes them aware of the subject. Slip that into your outline.

Then keep going. Working your way down the ideas plot, slip them into your story, piece by piece. Like I said, it's hard and really fucking frustrating when it doesn't work out right away, but you'll figure out all sorts of tricks and transitions to get around this as you go along.

The key: If your plots are in order, if you are building your argument and telling a story, readers will come with you. They get to engage with a narrative and learn something. They are willing to forgive bumps in the road.

6) Once you have that big old stitched together outline, fill it in. Going paragraph by paragraph, add the details that will support your story and the information that will support your point.

Do this until the thing is full. There will be bumps and inconsistencies and boring parts, but you should, at that point, feel like you have a book (or a thesis) in front of you. The rest is nuance, which you will learn as you go, and which other writers can help you with.

That's what I've got. I hope this rant helps.

Oh, and one other thing. You're at a university, yeah? I'm sure there are profs at your university who have written these kinds of books. Go find them. Say to them what you said to us. Our advice is enough to get you started, but you're really going to want someone to be looking at your stuff as you go along. Also, if you are at all serious about doing this professionally, you would kill for those mentors later.

Of course feel free to me-mail me if you have any questions. And use Madamina too! She knows what she's talking about.

Good luck. And thanks for asking this question.
posted by vecchio at 3:05 PM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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