Several months ago, I wrote an article sharing twelve of my favorite writing craft books. These books focus specifically on teaching you how to strengthen your skills as a writer and storyteller.
They get into the nuts and bolts of how to structure and edit your writing so it will captivate your readers.
Recently, I enjoyed re-reading one of the books on the list: Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart.
Hart served for many years as managing editor at The Oregonian, the Pacific Northwest’s largest newspaper. He also guided several Pulitzer-prize winning articles to publication.
In this book, he teaches everything that he learned from his many years as a journalist. Using examples from books and newspaper articles, he shows how to tell a captivating story. He covers everything from how to develop characters to choosing point of view to bringing scenes to life.
Even though his book is aimed at writers of nonfiction, I believe there is much that writers of fiction can glean from its pages as well.
In today’s post, I’ve written up my top five takeaways from my most recent read.
1. Master This Skill to Become a Successful Writer
Hart observes that “when we talk about writing, we spend most of our time fussing over word choice, syntax, style, usage, and the myriad concerns that come into play when we’re polishing our work.”
While he agrees that these are all important, he believes that there is one element that is far more important and more critical to crafting a successful piece of writing.
What is that element?
Hart believes its “structure”.
Structure differs depending on what type of story you’re telling, but, in general, it means that your story must follow a narrative arc with exposition, rising action, crisis, climax, and denouement.
Stories tend to certain shapes and if you stray too far from them, you’ll end up with no story at all…Successful nonfiction storytelling requires a basic understanding of fundamental story theory and the story structures the theory suggests. Ignore them, and you’ll fight a losing battle with human nature. Master them, and you’re on your way to reaching a large and enthusiastic audience in just about any medium.
Since successful storytelling doesn’t depend on how brilliantly you can craft a sentence, it means that anyone can write a compelling piece.
…Successful popular storytelling demands neither blinding talent nor decades in a writer’s garret…Time and again I’ve seen writers with absolutely no narrative experience grasp a few core principles, find appropriate story structures, and draft dramatic tales that moved readers.
Notice that Hart says you need to find the appropriate story structure for your piece of writing. A personal essay will have a different structure than an informative blog post. A sales letter will obviously have a different structure than a short story.
How can you learn the structure you should use for your piece of writing?
Well, books like Storycraft are excellent teachers to help you master story structure. Check out the article I mentioned in my introduction for twelve books that will help you become an expert at the types of structure to use for different types of writing: memoir, short story, novel, sales pages, and more.
2. This One Sentence Will Make Your Writing Focused and Memorable
A few months back, I wrote an article about the importance of crafting a one-sentence synopsis when you start a new writing project.
The sentence gives you a clear understanding of what your piece will be about and the message you’re trying to express to your readers. It acts as a guide so you don’t end up running off on tangents and going down rabbit trails.
Hart uses this method as well. He calls it the theme statement and uses the formula “noun-verb-noun”.
For example, a journalist from Hart’s paper used the theme statement “action creates identity” when writing a piece about a man who experienced a traumatic brain injury, lost his memory, and had to rebuild his life.
Hart emphasizes that every paragraph in your piece should connect back to that theme. He explains,
In a fully realized story, the action line — what we call ‘plot’ in fiction — exists to serve the theme. Theme gives the audience a sense of time well invested. (What’s the point of reading unless reading has a point?) But it also focuses the reporting and writing.
…So the theme statement suggests your structure. It guides your reporting. It helps you find a title. If you have to cut, it tells you what can go and what must stay. In one way or another, it affects every phase of the writing and reporting process.
If you’re writing a personal essay, a theme elevates your piece from being a story just about you. A universal and uplifting theme makes it relevant to your readers as well.
When you think about it, every theme incorporates a lesson. That’s the value added that draws an audience to a story in the first place. The bigger the lesson, the more value added. The biggest have the enduring quality we associate with great literature.
3. How to Write Effective Exposition
Exposition is the background information your readers need in order to understand the context of your story.
For example, your story might open with a scene at a dinner table. Two characters are in the middle of a heated argument. You have to subtly insert who they are and why they are fighting without jarring the narrative pace of the scene.
When exposition is done poorly in fiction writing, it’s labeled info-dumping. Characters might explain something in dialogue that they’d never say in real life. For example:
“Have you seen Diane, who I haven’t talked to in three days and who I’ve been friends with since fourth grade?” Jenny asked.
Obviously, that sentence is a bit over the top. You’d probably never write one that long and loaded with information, but even shorter ones can be guilty of info-dumping.
Hart gives this advice for avoiding info-dumping whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction,
Novice narrative writers often err by dumping in all the background they’ve gathered on key characters, delaying the story line that will grab and hold readers…Good exposition provides just enough backstory to explain how the protagonist happens to be in a particular place, at a particular time, with the wants that will lead to the next phase of the story.
…[S]ift through a vast number of possible background facts to find those absolutely essential…Even the little bit that must be known will block easy entry to the story if it delays the action line. The secret, Hunter Thompson said, is to “blend, blend, blend.” You launch action immediately and then blend the exposition into it, submerging it in modifiers, subordinate clauses, appositives, and the like.
With Hart’s tips, let’s see how we could rewrite that dialogue above:
“Have you seen Diane?” Jenny asked.
“You know, the girl with red hair I introduced you to at the party.”
“No,” he said. “Is something wrong?”
Jenny felt a pain in her stomach again. She didn’t want to tell him that the party three days ago was the last time she had seen Diane too. It was the longest time she’d gone without hearing from her friend since she and Diane had met in the fourth grade.
We could probably trim down the exposition even more, but that is a good first edit.
4. This Technique Keeps Readers Glued to the Page
One of the most powerful ways to capture readers’ interest is to pique their curiosity, enticing them to read further. The best way to do this, Hart advises, is in the very first sentences of your piece.
Readers know full well that when a writer takes pains to tell them a character doesn’t expect the worst, she’s about to get it…You can find other ways to foreshadow without obvious stage whispers, too. Often it’s simply a matter of teasing readers with a pronoun that lacks an antecedent or some other kind of glaring loose end. Joan Didion began one of her best-known pieces of narrative nonfiction by writing, ‘Imagine Banyon Street first, because Banyon is where it happened.’ Spencer Heinz, a feature writer for the Oregonian, launched another of his stories with ‘Pat Yost was in bed when she heard the sound.’
What happened? What sound? …[L]ittle mysteries drive the narrative forward. Bill Blundell, former writing coach at the Wall Street Journal, said, ‘The formula I teach is to tease the folks a little bit in the lead. They don’t mind it. You are simply trying to get them interested.’
Or, as the Charles Dickens formula for success has it: ‘Make them laugh. Make them cry. But, most of all, make them wait.’
5. The Secret to Finding Your Writing Voice
When someone says that they love the way an author writes, they usually are talking about much more than the author’s style. For example, a fan of Ernest Hemingway might love Hemingway’s economy with words but also the way he brings characters and places to life and how he views the world.
A distinct writing voice makes your writing resonate with readers. Even if you’re writing about a topic that has been covered by others a hundred times before you, your unique voice and perspective brings something new to the topic.
Readers who fall in love with your writing voice become your truest fans impatiently awaiting your next work.
Here’s Hart’s tip for making your unique voice come through on the page:
…The ultimate secret to letting your voice sound on the page is simply to relax and be yourself. Writing’s stressful. Sit down at a keyboard, and unconscious waves of tension ripple through your body. You clench your teeth. You tighten your shoulders. You tap your foot. And the words flowing through your fingers grow rigid and formal, stiffened with the frozen formality of an awkward job interview.
When I’m running a writing workshop, I usually stop the participants halfway through their first drafting exercise. ‘Time for a tension check,’ I say, explaining that if their necks, backs, and shoulders are tight their writing will suffer. They loosen up, go back to work, and the clatter of laptop keys ramps up a notch or two.
That change in pace is important. A relaxed writer is a fast writer, and fast writers sound more like themselves. It only makes sense. Writers who agonize over a rough draft, futzing with every word, will submerge their true selves in nondescript formality. When we speak with the natural rhythms of an at-ease conversation with friends, we reveal who we really are. Writing’s not spoken conversation, of course, but the same principle applies.
These five tips are just a small taste of the wonderful guidance you’ll find in Jack Hart’s Storycraft.
If you’re looking to strengthen your writing and storytelling skills, I definitely recommend getting a copy of the book. It’s an in-depth read with lots of fantastic actionable advice.
Hart illustrates all of his tips with example paragraphs from newspaper articles. This helps you see exactly how to implement his strategies in your own writing.
With Hart’s book as your guide, you’ll learn how to take your writing to the next level and inspire your readers.
What was your biggest takeaway from Jack Hart’s tips above? Let me know in the comments.
And If you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend who you think might find it helpful too. Thanks for reading!