by John Briggs
Turning facts and figures into a compelling story.
It’s been said that the best non-fiction reads like a fast-paced thriller. And it should read like solid fiction with one exception – everything in it has to be true.
So how does a non-fiction writer keep you on the edge of your seat?
Tips for Writing Good Non-Fiction
Story Arc. Does your story go somewhere? Does it have a defined beginning, middle, and end? Too many authors mistake covering a character’s entire life as fulfilling that requirement, but it’s not enough. Your chapters and scenes also have to follow that formula. Don’t just tell us that Christopher Columbus reached the island of Hispaniola in 1492, tell us what happened when he arrived, how the Caribe treated him (and vice versa), and what happened when he left. Beginning, middle, and end.
Description. Description is the real key to good non-fiction. Paint a picture for your readers. What sounds better? “He was thrown into a dark prison to await trial” or “He was thrown into a dark prison with a dirt floor and fetid water bucket and told to await his trial, but no one would tell him when that would be. Judging by the days carved into the walls by previous inmates, though, he knew he would be here for months.” Make those scenes and settings come alive.
Characters. Good fiction always contains colorful characters. If you’re person is worth writing about, they’re already colorful. Capture it. Find out their dominant personality traits and bring them to the fore. In my upcoming book Mary Dyer, Friend of Freedom, Mary Dyer was the most loyal friend you could ever ask for. She always stood by her friends, and I repeatedly show that in the book. She’s an interesting person because she put herself in danger to defend her friends. Find what makes your characters tick, back it up with examples, and make them real to your reader.
Show the Bad Stuff. In a follow-up to that, don’t be afraid to show your character doing bad things, even if they’re a saint. Remembers, saints can be sinners from time to time. What was it St. Augustine said? “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet!” Include the bad stuff, too. It makes your characters more interesting. Hero worship is for comic books.
Emotion. Too many writers forget that the people in their stories are real. It’s bland to say, “He met the love of his life and they were married a year later.” Is that how the person would describe their courtship? Like they went out to buy groceries? Or would it be better to say, “He met the beautiful Jane at a garden party at a friend’s house.
After an hour of stealing glances across empty chairs and collected groups making small talk, he found the courage to speak with her. Over two cups of punch he was delighted by her humor and intellect and found she made his own dull wit sharper. Before the sun had set, he knew had fallen in love.” Give your characters depth of feeling. Just make sure that’s how it actually happened. Remember, bland is for the paper your book is printed on.
Make Facts and Figures Flow Seamlessly. You need those age-old facts and figures, but present them in an interesting way. It’s easy to say, “The Battle of Gettysburg took place over three hot days in July, 1863,” but it’s better to say, “The Battle of Gettysburg was waged over three hot days in early July, 1863, when the temperatures in south-central Pennsylvania routinely reached 80 degrees Fahrenheit but the temperature on the battlefield could be well over 120 degrees. Soldiers were nearly as likely to drop from heat exhaustion as an enemy’s bullet.”
Good research may be the key to quality non-fiction, but good storytelling makes sure people want to read it.
P.S. I used history here because it’s what I’m most comfortable writing, but you can do it with any non-fiction subject, including science, philosophy, politics, economics, psychology — you name it. Find out how your favorite author did it, and then see if you can, too!
Guest post contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, is coming out Sept 6th, 2016.