By: Marilyn L. Davis
What are the Facts, Joe?
“Just the facts, ma’am.”
While that statement appears to sum up the responsibility of a nonfiction piece, just as Detective Joe Friday never said it exactly like that, many nonfiction writers embellish their posts using fictional devices to enhance their writing.
So, are they fiction writers?
Not necessarily. These writers are using literary devices and conventions in ways that expand their nonfiction posts.
Creative Nonfiction: Real and Here to Stay
We can thank David Madden, scholar, writer, and professor for coining the term to describe what now defines a genre. He also used the term imaginative non-fiction and ultimately created an undergraduate program at LSU for Creative Nonfiction.
Whatever we call it, we know it when we read it. It’s Joe’s directive to have the facts. But it’s also the desire to create human connections in our posts.
So, what can you add to your facts to make them memorable?
- Add vibrant scenes: Use similes, metaphors, or analogies, to create your environment
- Details: Look for numbers, sizes, shapes, compare and contrast, or bring in a secondary character or event
- Unexpected additions: characters, occurrences, or coincidences
- Other devices include: Allegory, Symbolism, Irony, and Imagery
Defining Nonfiction for the Rest of Us
Nonfiction writing should be the facts, based on truth. But let’s look at the three major genres in nonfiction writing:
In all of these categories, we see that there is a risk of distorting the facts and influencing the truth based on the author’s perceptions and feelings.
Toni Morrison writes in The Anatomy of Memory, “…remembering is a form of willed creation. It is not an effort to find out the way it really was-that is research. The point is to dwell on how it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way.”
Whether we are writing about the economy, the war on drugs, politics, or even puppies, we’re going to either minimize or embellish the facts and the truth, because we’ve got a vested interest in the subject.
Who is the Accurate Historian?
I’ve worked with the addicted population for over 25 years, and rather than label someone a liar; I’ll tell them that they aren’t an accurate historian, which is especially helpful if I’m working with the entire family, all of whom have their ‘truths,’ agendas, and perceptions. There will be at least the same number of stories of the events as there are people in the room.
These sessions are like the four people who watched the car wreck, all from a slightly different vantage point. Because of those seemingly minor adjustments in viewing the accident, we’re left wondering why they all saw something slightly different.
They didn’t see the same thing because their perspectives were different.
Compare, Contrast, and Include
When I work with families and the addicted person, I’ve used a Venn Diagram. But it works well when writing, also. Look at the various sections:
- ‘A’ would be the facts I know.
- ‘B’ would be the researched facts.
- ‘C’ is the overlapping of those.
I can add a ‘D’ to include my opinions, feelings, and attitudes, to see where there is some overlapping information that may be closer to the truth than any one section provides.
It is within the overlapping areas where I can use some creativity to make the facts more attractive to the reader.
Point of View Facilitates Nonfiction
Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, said, “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three – storyteller, teacher, enchanter, but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”
We usually think of stories as fiction, but a memorable human-interest story transcends that and can enrich nonfiction.
Start with the Facts and Build on Them
Maybe I’m fortunate working with addicts and their families; I’ve always got an inspirational tale that often works in my nonfiction writing at Two Drops of Ink.
For instance, we can look at the data on drug overdoses and determine the facts: Drugs Involved in U.S. Overdose Deaths – Among the more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths estimated in 2016, the sharpest increase occurred among deaths related to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids) with over 20,000 overdose deaths.
These are grim statistics, but impersonal unless the reader has experienced it. Other common reactions might be to label all users as idiots, uncaring, irresponsible, and get smug because the reader doesn’t know anyone with that problem.
While presenting to a group of businessmen about the women’s recovery home that I opened, a prominent businessman raised his hand to ask questions. I knew that he contributed to several excellent social services and was initially pleased that he was participating.
Instead of an endorsement, he challenged me, saying, “Why should I invest in these women? They’re bad mothers, probably prostitutes, uneducated, and are a drain on society.”
Find an Appeal that Corroborates the Facts
I wasn’t going to argue the merits of his assessment of their character in their addiction, but I came prepared with some facts that I knew would appeal to his pocketbook and personal security.
According to several conservative estimates, every dollar invested in addiction treatment programs yields a return of between $4 and $7 in reduced drug-related crime, criminal justice costs, theft, and financial aid to dependent children.
After I presented the facts and research, I appealed to his pocketbook and personal security. I walked out with a check and a new board member.
Use Emotional Words
Feelings fall into five main categories:
Become familiar with the degrees of these feeling words, and you can find the emotional component to add to the facts that will resonate with your reader.
Some of you argue that an emotional appeal would work for specific causes or puppies, but won’t help in describing products, services, or events.
Yes, it will, if you elaborate and use words that generate an emotional response in your readers.
- “I networked with more than 300 potential clients at this event.”
- “I gained 2 hours daily when I stopped doing this in the morning.”
- “My productivity improved when I started my day with this.”
- “My writing got stronger when I read this book.”
- “The city plans on annexing the old high school football field. Just seeing the drawings, I was taken back in time to ‘Old Sam,’ the hot dog vendor to four generations of people in Mayberry.”
Nonfiction with Feelings Equals Focused Readers
You’ve described benefits, give us a personal endorsement, and set up your story, while still writing a nonfiction piece about the product, services, person, or events.
Were these deviations from nonfiction your initial focus? Probably not, but each of these will elicit a feeling from a reader, and emotions keep them focused on your post.
If Hum-Drum Facts, Create Some Excitement
Nonfiction must be accurate, but also interesting or the reader skims the subheadings if they made it past the title. How can you make it worth the readers’ time? By providing them with information, facts, or data that are:
- Relevant to your readers
- Out of the ordinary
Let the Drama Begin
As defined by Merriam-Webster, Drama is more than a play; it’s a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces.
Early authors that ultimately fell into the category of creative nonfiction writers did incorporate drama. Frank Conroy, Truman Capote, Jean Stafford, and Norman Mailer used literary devices to enhance their nonfiction.
When you pay as much attention to other elements that you can add to your nonfiction piece, you generate interest in your reader that transcends the nonfiction focal point.
And isn’t interest what we want from our readers?
Yes, ma’am, that is a fact.
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