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.”