The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction
Scenes and stories are the building blocks and anchoring elements of creative nonﬁction. The idea of scenes as building blocks is an easy concept to understand, but it’s not easy to put into practice. The stories or scenes not only must be factual and true, but have to make a point or communicate information–and ﬁt into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book. Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonﬁction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.
But before we discuss the content or construction of a scene, learn the “yellow test.” Here’s how it works: Take a yellow “Hi-Liter” or “Magic Marker” and leaf through your favorite magazines. Or return to favorite books and authors, writers I’ve mentioned here—or the essays on this website. Then highlight the scenes, just the scenes, large and small, from start to finish. Then return to the beginning and review your handiwork. Chances are, anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of each essay, chapter, or book excerpt you selected will be full of yellow marks.
There are different approaches to writing in scenes. Writers can recreate something that might have happened to them—or to someone else — in the recent or distant past. Reading the essays here — and this is critical — notice that something happens, no matter how trivial, in each scene excerpted. The beginning engages a reader, makes a promise. The end of the scene fulfills the promise and makes the audience want to know what will happen next, moving the action forward, ideally to another scene, another block of yellow, until the whole story is told and your point is established.
Since creative nonfiction should read like fiction, then let’s ask ourselves what techniques fiction writers use in creating their scenes and little stories which require dialogue and description. In creative nonfiction people talk to one another. Dialogue represents people expressing themselves and communicating information in an easy-to- understand, realistic manner. Discovering realistic dialogue is one of the reasons why immerse ourselves for long periods of time with their subjects: To discover what people say to one another and about one another—and not in response to prepared questions. To capture people as they are, spontaneously and sometimes unaware, real and authentic. Specific and new or “intimate” details are helpful. By intimate we mean ideas and images readers can’t easily visualize on their own—ideas and images that symbolize a memorable truth about the characters or the situations you’re writing about.
In short: Creative nonfiction is an amalgam of style and substance, information and story. Whether it’s personal information about your own work, or public information about the work of others, you’re using the building blocks, scenes, and/or little stories to communicate ideas and information in as compelling a way as possible.