Fiction writers must have it so easy. If their story is dull, they can add a little spice by, well, making things up. And yet readers hold non-fiction storytelling to equally high storytelling standards. What’s a profile writer, essayist, or narrative nonfiction writer to do?
While we can’t in good conscience encourage you to take liberties with the truth, there are some tools made specifically for our tall-tale-telling brethren that we can adapt for our own articles. Take, for example, the Writer Emergency Pack, a Kickstarter project that just saw its release on Amazon.
Building a non-fiction deck
As a journalist, I’ve adapted the Writer Emergency Pack for specific situations: so far, it’s mainly been when I’m preparing to write a profile or a sourced article. I use the cards to try and find a way to tackle my interviews with fresh and unique angles—or at least more interesting questions. For example, card #12, “Stack of Needles,” points out that too much can be worse than too little. While we can’t exactly overwhelm our interview subject with more than she can handle, as the card suggests, we can ask her about a moment when she got too much of what she wanted—and how she handled it.
The deck repeatedly suggests counterintuitive themes, which can be forgotten when trying to find a cohesive way to piece together a profile around a singular theme. When writing on a profile of a leader with many allies, “Lose the Cavalry” can be a reminder that even the most heroic figure sometimes has to fend for himself. Card #24, “That’s Not the Dragon,” says, “You thought that was the real enemy? Nope. The real danger lies ahead.”
Of course some interview subjects may look at you funny if you ask these strange questions verbatim: “When was a time where you were fighting against something, but then realized the real enemy was much greater?” is a bit awkward. But sometimes stringing together strange questions can get someone talking in a deeper way, teasing out aspects of their lives that they don’t typically share. This can help you showcase the depth of their character, and bring your writing beyond clichés.
Two other cards that caught my attention were “Talk It Out,” which recommended a discussion between the hero and antagonist, and “Every Villain is a Hero,” in which one imagines the story from the antagonist’s perspective. (John Gardner’s Grendel is a great example of this.) These can apply to non-fiction writing well: Asking someone you speak with what they would have done in someone else’s shoes can help you get insight on their perspective.
Another card that’s particularly useful for non-fiction is #17, “Magnify”: “Up close, everything looks different. Zoom in to focus on a moment, a detail, or an emotion.” This is useful for any retelling, but particularly if you are spending a significant amount of time with someone you’re covering. What can you look at more closely? What’s a tiny detail or action you’ve noticed that you can incorporate into a description of your subject?
Each illustrated idea card in the deck comes with a matching detail card which explains the concept in the front, while the back gives three suggestions for a story. Again, these can’t be used literally in non-fiction writing, but it can rev the creative engine, so to speak.
One card, “Zombie Attack,” asks what a story’s hero would do if confronted by a mindless, unstoppable horde. “‘Zombies’ don’t have to be the walking dead,” the detail card points out. “From soccer hooligans to snotty seniors to social media swarms, there are mobs in every genre.” When has the person you’re writing about had to escape? If not brains, what did the proverbial zombies want, and what would they do if they got it? What were the enemies’ weaknesses that your hero, er, interviewee had to capitalize on?
Readers want story
Whether you love fiction or hate it, you should know that readers are looking for the same storytelling elements in your profiles and blog posts that they do in a short story: intriguing characters, descriptive settings, and counterintuitive plot lines, just to name a few. If nothing else, the Writer Emergency Pack can help you tease out differences between individuals you’re profiling or covering, as well as make your interviews a bit less rote and routine.
Swapping intriguing questions for boring ones will really make your storytelling shine—and you don’t even have to make anything up to do it.