In writing my second novel, I made a discovery about all novels, a discovery that has essentially become my mantra.
I wrote my first novel on my own instincts and an astonishing number of drafts, twelve years’ worth. That’s a common story; less common and more thrilling was that when I was finished, the book sold within 48 hours to Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Then it was time to write my second novel, far more complicated than my first. I kept getting lost among the cast of characters, and the time frame bedeviled me. So I took apart novels I was currently admiring to see the machinery at work. That’s what I do, or if I’m teaching, we do this as a crowd. I make tables and graphs like the nerd that I am, gathering and plotting craft and technique data.
Within books I’m drawn to, my first discovery was that every subplot restates the plot or theme of that book. For example, in a novel about a reasonable character at war with her instincts, the subplots might pit her rational nature against deeply felt urges, such as her emotional, artistic, or spiritual selves. This allows the author to amplify what our character is up against without being redundant: reason vs. love, beauty, lust, faith.
Looking in any direction revealed that what holds for plot/subplot is true across the board: every slice of the novel embodies the entire novel. The first line of a book is the whole book, as is the title, point of view, the characters, plots and subplots—even the verb tense and language.
I call this “the DNA of the novel.” It’s hard to believe that this notion didn’t come up in every literature and writing class I took, or that I didn’t recognize this earlier. I’m telling you: just as a fingernail clipping or a cheek swab contains all the information of an entire human being, just as the acorn carries the entire oak in its little nut package, so does every element of the novel contain the entire book.
The reader shouldn’t feel tangled in or even consciously register these strands (you don’t see your baby’s DNA; you see the expression of the DNA and find satisfaction in tracing the strands back to their sources—Mom’s eyes; Uncle Frank’s curly hair). Each decision the writer makes reinforces the others to support, layer, and add resonance to the novel’s emotional core.
I’m hard at work on a feminist immigration novel that centers around Yelena Gomelikoff. My working title, The First American, refers to Yelena’s status and her attitude: “Being the first American in the family is my badge of honor, and I know I sometimes make it sound as if my parents, Ekaterina and Gregor Federoff, crossed the ocean in 1898 to give birth to me.” However, the title also alludes to the treatment our country gave and still gives its first Americans, indigenous or immigrated.
Yelena has a foot in the Old Country because her family belongs to the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox church; however, as a New Country citizen she sets herself against other immigrants in their coal mining town—be they Russian, Polish, Italian, or Irish. For that reason, the story is in first person; she’s the first person on this perch.
It’s also first person because these are my people and I can’t find any evidence of their literary footprint, despite this country’s rich tradition of Russian Jewish immigrant fiction. And so this book is personal.
After Yelena introduces herself, she narrates the novel in past tense, a choice I made for straightforward and devious reasons. The novel documents these immigrants’ experience and includes a visit from Teddy Roosevelt, a mining disaster, and women’s suffrage: history books are past tense. However, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, the past tense offers the reader false comfort: this story happened a while ago, back when folks were racist and sexist. So Yelena says on the novel’s opening page: “although I’d lived my whole life here, I was given as much grief as any foreigner,” way back when people looked down on children of immigrants.
Diction is challenging in a period piece centered around an immigrant family. Rather than give dozens of examples, I’ll share a pervasive one. “Ma made every effort for American to be my first language”—choosing to write “American” rather than “English” throughout the book uses diction to show the immigrants’ makeshift word choice and underscore their desire to be of this country.
Stumbling through my story, I often make wrong choices. Like a scientist, I have to discover what makes my book distinct; unlike a scientist, I have to invent it as well, while also creating the body that houses it. My job as a novelist, through many drafts, is both to identify the novel’s DNA and then hew to its expression so that every decision allows the book to be more and more itself.
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.
There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.
Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.
In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.
Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?
Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:
- Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
- Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
- Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
- Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
- Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.
As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure, resulting in a new structure or shape.
Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.
Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.
Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.
Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:
- Setting-time and place of the story
- Action-something happens.
- Dialogue-someone something not always
- Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
- Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
- Point of View-first, second, third person.
- Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
- Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end
Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.
You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.
Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.
Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:
- Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
- Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
- Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
- Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
- Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
- Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
- Theme-the meaning of the story
The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.
Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:
- Assonance and alliteration
Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.
Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:
- Personal thoughts and feelings
- Personal perspective
- stream of consciousness
Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.
Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction. Avoid using clichés and jargon.
Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:
- Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation. A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
- Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
- Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind, to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
- Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
- Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
- Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.
Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:
- Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
- Parallel Structure
- Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
- Alliteration and Assonance
- Sensory Imagery
For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
Tags:Creative Nonfiction, fictional techniques, Literary Journalism, memoir, Personal Essay, personal reflection, poetic devices, scene, showing, storytelling, summary, tellingBy Dave Hoodin Creative nonfiction Writing, Creative Writing, Literary Journalistic Essay, Meditative Essay, memoir, Personal Essay, Personal Narrative Essay, The Lyrical Essay, The Opinion Essay, Travel Essay on .