Monday, 9 March 2015

Creative Nonfiction Part 2 - Nola Passmore



It's Okay to Make a Scene

Novels and movies are typically made up of scenes: little stories or vignettes that progress the plot in some way.  Perhaps it’s a glimpse into the protagonist’s character, the foreshadowing of a tricky situation, a skinny latté between friends or a phone call that sets off a rippling chain of events.  The point is that something happens.  However, scenes are more than the playthings of fiction writers; they’re “the building blocks of creative nonfiction” (Gutkind, 2012, p. 107). 

Anna Elkins’ award-winning essay about her travels in Israel includes visits to thermal pools, a kibbutz and Roman ruins, but never reads like a travelogue.  There’s peril, interpersonal encounters and deeper questions of life and meaning.  She writes beautifully (e.g. “two contrails met in a calligraphy of white”), but another reason the story is so engaging is that it’s told almost entirely in scenes.  If you have ten minutes to spare, it’s well worth reading Of Danger and Beauty.  I count five major scenes.  The first takes place in Tel Aviv where a missile is intercepted.  The second involves Anna and her friend Tsach having a dip in the Dead Sea.  Can you identify the other three?

Elkins also makes good use of dialogue to enliven her scenes.  Cate Macabe provides a great list of tips for crafting realistic dialogue (e.g. handling dialect and avoiding information dumps).  Also see my post on speech tags.  However, using dialogue in nonfiction poses special problems.  What do you do if you’re writing about a past event for which there is no audio or video recording?  Won’t that involve making up some of the lines?  If so, doesn’t that mean it’s no longer accurate?

According to Gutkind, it’s important to be “true to your story, true to your characters, true to yourself” (p. 30).  Readers understand that you didn’t tape record that life-changing conversation with your mother twenty years ago.  However, reconstructed dialogue should be authentic in its depiction of memories, the available facts and the manner of speech used by the people involved.  In some cases you may be able to interview others to check their recollections, though people can remember the same events differently.  Melanie Faith provides a great rule of thumb for recreated dialogue: “some compression or restructuring is fine as long as the general gist contains literal and/or emotional truth, but outright making up or deceiving to flatter the self is never okay and takes an essay from the realm of nonfiction to fiction”.

Even when you do have a recording of a conversation, you can’t just plonk the transcript on paper and expect it to grab your readers.  Macabe notes that you still have to summarise, add dialogue tags or actions, cut filler words such as "um” and “ah”, and break it up with other relevant information.  Remember it’s all about story.  Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it has to be boring.

Can you recommend any nonfiction articles or books that make good use of scenes and/or dialogue?  Do you have a perspective on ethical issues in reconstructing events and conversations?  I’d be interested in your comments.

Sources:

Elkins, A.  Of Danger and Beauty.  Retrieved from http://travelerstales.com/carpet/002852.shtml


Gutkind, L.  (2012).  You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between.  Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Macabe, C.  Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue.  Retrieved from http://thisnewmountain.com/2013/04/12/writing-a-memoir-like-a-novel-dialogue/


Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her weekly writing tips blog at their website: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au

11 comments:

  1. So interesting, Nola. It backs up what a friend of mine said, who happens to be a missionary. She teaches literature in an Ghanian college and encourages African Christians to write their stories.
    When I was introducing her at a women's conference, I asked how do you make nonfiction interesting enough to hold your readers? In fiction you have heroes, villains, confrontations, etc...and romance. She answered without batting an eye, 'Because in nonfiction you can have villains and heroes, confrontations, etc...and even romance.'

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    1. Hi Rita - Thanks for that example. Your friend is absolutely right, but it's easy to forget. I know I sometimes forget that myself and start just reporting the facts about a nonfiction event, but there's no reason we can't make it interesting with all the drama of real life. I think it's a crime to tell an interesting story in a boring way. I've read a few biographies like that. But when they're well-written, they can really bring the story to life in much the same way as a novel does. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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  2. Thanks for your insights here, Nola. To comment on your question re ethical issues in reconstructing events and conversations, I would have difficulty with making up events that didn't happen at all, although, after writing two memoirs, I can see how easily my memory might fail me re what actually happened on any occasion. That, to me, is why it's important to have manuscript readers who know what really happened and can give their perspective on things as well. As for recreating dialogue in my memoirs, I relied on memory, on journal entries and on knowing the person who originally said the words well enough to be able to reproduce a conversation that hopefully at least honoured the way he or she might have spoken, even if it might not include the exact words spoken at the time. Then, where I could, I ran the dialogue by the person involved. On top of that, I found I needed to be comfortable within myself and before God that there was integrity about the way I portrayed any conversation--I would not want to make up an entire dialogue that did not really happen in some shape or form. Hope all that makes sense!

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    1. Thanks Jo - I'm so glad you shared some of your insights. I was thinking of Soul Friend when I was writing the bit about reconstructed dialogue. I agree that conversations and events that never happened shouldn't be made up and called nonfiction (though some people have done just that and been caught out). But memories can be tricky things, especially if it's a distant memory. I like your idea of going back to the person involved where possible. I guess it can be trickier if you're writing about more sensitive issues and there's a good reason not to go back to that person (e.g. if writing about abuse, you probably wouldn't go to the perpetrator), but integrity is so important. I like your guideline of being comfortable within yourself and before God. That's a great suggestion. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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  3. Hi Nola - some great tips. As part of my course, I've had a couple of goes at memoir and one of turning a very fact laden memoir into a script for a film (using family memory as well as newspaper articles etc to help). I agree that we shouldn't invent scenes and be honest to what happened (even when that's not flattering) but it certainly can be hard to remember exactly what happened or the exact words that were used. And sometimes even the people were that were there remember it differently, or don't remember it at all. Research, checking with others all helps - but whatever we write is always our reconstruction of the past, not the past itself.

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  4. Thanks Jenny. That's a really good point. There are some facts that can be verified (e.g. the date and venue for that party where everything went pear-shaped), but different people do remember things differently or focus on different aspects. There comes a point where we have to be true to ourselves and seek God's direction as to how to present the information (as Jo suggested). Can be tricky though. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good luck with those memoir pieces. Are you going to try publishing them?

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  5. Nola, excellent post! It's fascinating how fiction writing techniques can be useful for non-fiction writers. I agree, there's no reason why non-fiction needs to be boring :)

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    1. Thanks for that Narelle. It's frustrating sometimes to see an interesting story dealt with in a boring way - I've begun and ditched a couple of biographies that were like that. Now I just need to remember to do it in my own writing. Thanks for your comment :)

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  6. Some very sound advice, Nola, and scenes are a great way to structure a story, and as you demonstrated, including non-fiction works. (But my, that clapboard looks familiar ... ;-) Now there's a non-fiction story we could work on.)

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    1. LOL - Thought you'd like the clapboard. I was going to put an action shot from your trailer, but thought I'd leave that til the launch! It's amazing how scenes are natural to fiction and screenwriters, but people often don't tend to think of that when writing nonfiction. Am hoping to incorporate that into more of my writing. And we do have a lot of nonfiction stories we could work on together ;) Thanks for your feedback.

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