The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2011. Print.
Reviewed by Raymond M. Wong
Jack Hart, former managing editor of the Oregonian, is now a writing coach. He has a journalistic background, but his book isn’t about journalism. It’s a compendium of advice about writing narrative nonfiction—from defining the word narrative, to showing the reader how to chart a narrative arc, to covering basic principles of writing and storytelling such as point of view, character, scene, dialogue, and theme.
Hart’s approach is no-nonsense: “In any story, principal characters do one thing, then another, then another, and the writer’s recounting of that sequence creates the narrative.” He goes on to distinguish between simple narrative and plot: “A plot emerges when a storyteller carefully selects and arranges material so that larger meanings can emerge.” Ultimately, this leads to a conclusion: “Narrative plus plot, according to this view, equals story.”
As a former journalist, Hart knows the newsroom, but he’s not teaching Journalism 101. He expands the reporter’s basic toolkit to delve into the elements of effective narrative nonfiction storytelling. He encourages writers to go beyond reporting the facts to uncover the elements of story: exposition, rising action, crisis, resolution, and falling action. In his chapter on structure, Hart gives sage advice to writers culled from years of experience. He suggests mapping out the structure of a story on first draft because it saves the time of gathering a lot of material that will later be discarded because the information doesn’t apply to the story’s basic foundation. The story structure is analogous to the construction contractor’s blueprint for building a house.
Hart differentiates between news reporting, which is about providing factual data, and narrative storytelling: “Stories convey experience. […] stories offer rewards beyond raw information, the kind that yield meaning by recreating life as it’s lived. Stories emphasize process, rather than outcomes.”
Hart entertains while pointing jagged criticism at the way journalism pounds individuality out of its writers:
Newspapers are going down to their graves filled with a stuffy institutional tone that strips humanity from content. Journalese drowns individual voice in an institutional swamp of passive voice, stilted vocabulary, indirect syntax, and weak verbs. Cops don’t catch crooks breaking into a house. Instead, “Police were summoned by a security device early Tuesday and apprehended two suspects attempting to gain entry to a Westside residence.”
In the book’s most compelling chapter, Hart takes on the controversy regarding stretching the truth in nonfiction and argues for a standard of ethics which is unambiguous. “My fundamental principles are simple enough: Be honest, get it right, keep everything transparent. Don’t fudge, ever, even if a tiny departure from reality produces a huge payoff in drama, clarity, or style.”
Hart’s perspective is clear from a journalist’s vantage point. However, he is equally adamant his ethics apply to other forms of nonfiction, including memoir. He disparages James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, and raises questions of truth concerning Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer- winning Angela’s Ashes:
Nobody claimed McCourt’s memoir was invented from the ground up, but much of his dialogue was obviously invented and he clearly didn’t apply Walt Harrington’s standards to verify historical accuracy. Still, McCourt won his Pulitzer for nonfiction. Did it deserve the label?
Many of my journalistic colleagues would take issue with McCourt’s prize. Many writers who teach and practice creative nonfiction would have a hard time understanding their objections. And that ethical divide shows itself most clearly in the practice of memoir.
It’s a shame that Hart’s book came out before John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s Lifespan of a Fact, because a debate between Hart and D’Agata would be a ticket worth the price of admission. Some might argue that Hart’s stance is too rigid. Agree or disagree with him, he leaves no doubt where he stands. ■
Raymond M. Wong earned the Eloise Klein Healy scholarship and the MFA in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles. His stories have appeared in three Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, USA Today, U-T San Diego, and San Diego Family magazine. He is an assistant editor at Lunch Ticket, Antioch’s online literary journal.