Sunday, February 03, 2008

Telling True Stories

Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, the editors of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide, have invited more than fifty writers--from investigative reporters and magazine editors to filmmakers and poets--to share their thoughts on telling stories.

So, whether you're trying to tell "true stories" or fiction, you'll find a good deal to admire and study in this book from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Here's a small sampling:

From Nora Ephron, screenwriter, film director, author and journalist, in "What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters":
All the regular questions that face writers also faced us. Where does the story begin, where is the middle, and where is the end? Each of those things is entirely up to the writer. They are the hardest decisions for any writer to make about any story, whether fiction or nonfiction. If you make the right decision about structure, many other things become absolutely clear. On some level, the rest is easy.
From Deneen L. Brown, Washington Post feature writer, in "To Begin the Beginning":
Beginning to read a story should feel like embarking on a journey, starting toward a destination. The writer must decide what larger meaning the story represents and lead the reader to that. Is it about fear? Is it about shame? Pain? Love? Betrayal? Hate? Faith?

As I consider how to begin, I ask myself: What is the story about? What's the theme? What can I use to place a character quickly in a scene? How can I tempt the reader? How can I allow a reader to enter the subject's thoughts, share her feelings?"
From Bruce DeSilva, worldwide writing coach for the Associated Press, in "Endings":
Every story must arrive at a destination; the purpose of a story is to lead your readers to it. The ending is your final chance to nail the point of the story to the readers' memory so it will echo there for days.

Your ending must do four things: signal to the reader that the piece is over, reinforce your central point, resonate in your reader's mind after he or she has turned the page, and arrive on time. The very best endings often do something else: They offer a twist that readers don't see coming but that nevertheless strikes them as exactly right.
In addition to these contributors, you'll find an amazing array of writers and editors--including Katherine Boo, Ted Conover, Jon Franklin, Malcolm Gladwell, David Halberstam, Tracy Kidder, Nicholas Lemann, Philip Lopate, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe--whose insights into the craft of writing and publishing can only help as you seek ways to improve your own writing. Also included is an outstanding list of books and websites for further reading.

As Kramer and Call write in the collection's preface: "Writing well is difficult, even excruciating, and demands courage, patience, humility, erudition, savvy, stubbornness, wisdom, and aesthetic sense--all summoned at your lonely desk."

But I suspect that with this guide on your shelf, you won't feel lonely knowing you can turn to fifty-one of the country's most respected writers for advice on your craft.

For more about Telling True Stories, check out:

For an interview with Wendy Call, visit:

And for more information about Call, take a look at her website:

For information about Mark Kramer, visit:

For essays on craft contained in the archives of the Nieman Narrative Digest, click on over to:


Barbara O'Connor said...

This looks like a terrific book, Bruce. Guess I'll have to add another one to my library!

Barbara W. Klaser said...

Wonderful review, Bruce, and thanks for the tip. I'll have to look up that book.