Friday, February 10, 2012

Where’s the Story? Everywhere!

I’m teaching a course this semester on writing nonfiction in the field of psychology. That is, term papers, literature reviews, proposals, journal articles, etc. That might seem pretty far away from what fiction writers do, but there are commonalities. In both, for example, you have to focus first on clarity, so that the reader can connect with what you’re writing. Otherwise you’ll accomplish none of your goals.

Another aspect important to both types of writing is “story.” Certainly, people recognize that story is critical for fiction, but they may think that story is unnecessary, or even detrimental, to formal nonfiction writing. Not true.

People learn best through stories, and what else are we trying to do in formal, scientific writing but get people to learn something about a particular topic. To be clear, story doesn’t play as big a role in scientific writing as in fiction, and it isn’t conveyed in exactly the same way. But it is important.

Story in fiction is often about the writer withholding information until a big reveal, and about the element of surprise. This is less true of scientific nonfiction. Scientists are busy folks and do not want to be ‘slowed’ down in acquiring the information they need from a piece of writing. That’s why scientists often read just the “abstract” of an article, which is essentially a synopsis of the piece laid out in about 100 words. In contrast, the fiction reader willingly allows the author to lead them along the garden path, and delights in the thought that there are mysteries still to be revealed. The fiction reader doesn’t want the synopsis; that takes all the fun out of the journey through a story.

So how does story play a role in scientific nonfiction? It does so in two ways. First, scientific writing often includes case studies and examples to illustrate specific points. A case study is the “story” of a particular person in relationship to an experience, such as a disease process or a brain injury. An “example” is a concise story to illustrate a point, and the best ones have a beginning, middle, and end.

Second, a term paper, or the introduction to a research article, can be thought of as the story of a specific topic. The beginning introduces the topic, say a particular disorder such as Schizophrenia, in much the same way a fictional story introduces the characters and situation. Next, the scientific article raises a question or questions, a mystery if you will. A term paper explores that mystery and either gives an answer or suggests how the answer can be found. The introduction to a research article says exactly how the mystery is to be solved, and the results and discussion sections of such articles either provide the answer, or part of the answer, or reasons why the answer cannot be found at this particular moment in this particular way.

Some scientific articles bring the reader to a conclusion that is just as satisfying as any well-constructed thriller. Others leave the ending much more open ended, but isn’t that something that defines the genre we call “literary” fiction?

There’s no escaping story if you intend to write the kind of material that people want to read and willingly spend their time and money on. Even in poetry, the pieces that people remember best and pass along to others are rife with story. Anyone for Poe and “The Raven,” or Frost and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”


Merisi said...

Thank you, Charles,
I enjoyed reading this, very much so.
I hope your students know what a privilege it is to have a teacher like you!

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, great comparison between scientific writing and fiction. I've been in situations in the lab where I have had lots of data but my PI would say, we don't have a story. Even in science, the data must gel to tell a story or else it would never be published.

I also recall when I wrote my first paper for publication in a peer reviewed journal in graduate school I wrote it like I wrote fiction, unveiling a little piece at a time. My mentor's advice to me was "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them."
It certainly helped.

Charles Gramlich said...

Merisi, hum, I'm not sure they do. :)

Jewel, yes, it's a difference but the story is there, hidden under the layers. As you found out.

KeVin K. said...

When I was a QP in mental health, I reformatted Plans and reports (PCPs & ITRs)because in their natural state there wasn't room to write more than a few sentences for the 'precipitating event'. We weren't allowed to reformat forms, but I never got a complaint. And where other Qs had to rewrite, resubmit, and beg Value Options (don't ask) over the phone to get their funding approved, I never had a hiccup - and I often got funding for people other agencies had given up on. The difference was I filled the space I'd created with the story of why the services were needed.
With the possible exception of a shopping list, everything you write to communicate depends on story.

Cloudia said...

Well said!

Warm Aloha from Waikiki
Comfort Spiral

> < } } ( ° >


Golden Eagle said...

Interesting comparison between fiction and non-fiction!

Charles Gramlich said...

Kevin K, Exactly so, man!

Cloudia, I appreciate you dropping by.

Golden Eagle, thanks. I appreciate your visit.

Ron Scheer said...

Well put, Charles. Given the long, long oral tradition of passing on information from one generation to the next, I think we are hard-wired to learn through story. I'm always struck by how you can get the attention of everyone in a classroom by pausing in the middle of something and saying, "Let me tell you a story about that."

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, I've noticed that too. And on evaluations I've had students say repeatedly that they remember the stories.

Angie said...

I remember stories instructors told too, often more readily than I remember what they just lectured about. That was the fun part of taking geography classes -- geography professors do awesome stuff on their breaks and sabaticals, and come back with pictures. :) It wasn't my major, but I took three geography classes in college, and didn't regret one of them. The stories they told about their travels were the best part.


BernardL said...

I'm sure the art of outlining made it into your course. It's the one thing about papers that makes the eyes glaze over, but is absolutely essential for a coherent subject themed paper. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, that's one of the reasons I always liked history. there were so many encapsulated stories within the bigger story.

Bernardl, our chapter next week is on outlining. we first discuss general issues, then getting and idea and finding sources, then outlining and headers.

Angie said...

Bernardl -- I'll dispute you there. :) I'm a pantser through and through; I never outlined anything in high school or university unless the instructor wanted an outline turned in, and even then I wrote the paper first and then the outline, just for the points. And I got As on most of those papers, too, so obviously something was working right.

As with fiction, it depends how you write and how your brain works. Some people need to outline and some people don't.


Anonymous said...

Charles a great post. Narratives feature in all texts. Thinking of your recent post about Charles Darwin have you read Beer's Darwin's Plots? A really great book.

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I don't use outlines for my fiction. I do use them at times for nonfiction, especially long nonfiction. I give it to the students as a way to organize thoughts and if someone has difficulty organizing an outline can definitely help. Not for everyone, though, of course.

Richard, I haven't. I didn't even know of that. I will check it out.

Jessica Ferguson said...

Good post. You always make me think!

Chris said...

I think I probably prefer good narrative nonfiction to straight fiction. The harrowing details in a book like The Tiger, one example among many, written well, make it an utter page turner. I live to read that kind of thing.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jess, thanks. I appreciate that.

Chris, I've come to appreciate narrative nonfiction more over the years and there is some great stuff there. My favorite book of all time, The snow Leopard, fits into that category