Monday, February 27, 2012

Storycraft: Nonfiction genres

Storycraft is a superb writing book and I recommend it very highly. Two thumbs up!

Jack Hart, the former writing coach for the Oregonian, is widely regarded as one of the best nonfiction editors ever. In his book Storycraft he describes several nonfiction genres.

They include: story narrative, exploratory narrative, narrative profile, tick-tock, vignette, bookend, personal essay, columns, first person narrative issue, travel and straight informational. For my own reference I've added cookbook, how-to and technical manual. (I need an acronym to remember these formats.)

Each of these genres has specific needs and requirements when it comes to research and preparation. The narrative nonfiction (story narrative) piece needs close observation in the field, lots of details, lots of anecdotes, a sympathetic protagonist, a story, and a narrative arc with a beginning a middle and an end.

Story narrative

Also known as creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and telling true stories. Protagonist with a story. Dramatic tension. Unfolds in three acts. Has a resolution. Lots of color, emotion, and drama. Lots of specific details. Lots of anecdotes and quotes. Strong narrative arc.

Exploratory Narrative

A description that follows a series of actions. It’s based on careful observation. Close to the ground. Lots of specific detail and movement. Strong digressions. No narrative arc.

Narrative profile

Portrait an individual. See subject in action. A picture of his or her world. Strong digressions. No narrative arc.

Tick Tock

Follow event from beginning to end, often from several different perspectives. No narrative arc.


Also known as “Journalistic Haiku” or “tone poems” Hart says, “A vignette is a single scene, standing alone. (The techniques of scenic construction described in Storycraft) offer guidelines that also apply to writing vignettes. Like all scenes, a vignette includes an action line running through a geographical place.” Often around 1000 words in length.

Bookend narrative

Hart opens with the image of two marble elephants holding up a row of books to represent the “structure of a bookend narrative. . . . To write one, you bracket a stretch of expository material with two pieces of more engaging scenic action, opening and closing with narrative that has the power to hold the longer, duller content in the center.” Jack Hart, Storycraft page 207. The opening may be followed by a ‘turn,’ or a step up in abstraction.

Personal essay

The personal essay, with “experiences offered lessons for the rest of humanity. To teach those lessons, of course, you must first re-create your own experience so that others can share in it.” Hart, Jack. Storycraft (p. 208). Usually around 1000 words.

Hart calls this “One of the most useful and adaptive varieties of modern narrative forms.” It includes “a narrative, a turn, and a conclusion. They’re inductive, in other words, moving from the particular (a deformed child), then rising on the ladder of abstraction.” Hart, Jack. Storycraft (P 210).

Useful when something affects you emotionally and you don’t know why.

He recommends this structure for a personal essay of 1000 words:

“Part 1, The Narrative. Quite detailed, 650 words.

Part 2, The Turn 150 words specific to general.

Part 3, 200 words, quite abstract.”

When the reader follows the writer from detailed to abstract, it’s called a “crossover.” Hart, Jack. Storycraft (p. 213).


“Newspaper, magazine, and online columns usually run about eight hundred words. Most are think pieces, commenting on some recent event and including standard report-writing devices such as statistics and direct quotations. But eight hundred words provide plenty of room for a little narrative. And, in fact, some of the most successful columns attract loyal readers with storytelling skills, rather than table-pounding opinion. Mike Royko, a syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist who for years was one of the country’s most popular, often took a storytelling tack, frequently featuring his mythical alter ego, Slats Grobnik.” Hart, Jack (2011-06-15). Storycraft (p. 214).

First Person Narrative Issue Essays

“An essay, it’s been said, is a way of “taking an idea for a walk.” In the case of narrative issue essays, the metaphor’s literally true. The essay writer’s legwork carries her from source to source, exploring issues, poking and probing, looking for information that will help expand the idea. Such quests are a magazine mainstay, and serious publications such as Harper’s and the New Yorker feature first-person essays that explore issues in narrative form. " Hart, Jack (2011-06-15). Storycraft

Straight Informational

Standard telegraphic newspaper article. Starts with the most important information first. And covers the 5 W’s. Who, what, where, when, why.


Narrative chunks are useful to give character to otherwise bland informational writing.

And two more...

Two more structures, from my own experience.

Cookbook and How To

My book, Digital Video Secrets is in this genre. I used narrative snippets to spice up a series of How-To procedures. No narrative arc.

Technical manual

A reference book, a compendium of useful and accurate information written for a specific audience in a specific situation.

A technical manual is close to a phone book in tone: it has no narrative arc, no personality, no humor, no anecdotes, and no details.

The voice is declarative and flat with no ambiguity. “Turn the power on.” The technical manual is unreadable as literature.

Good technical manuals have hidden qualities that are invisible to outsiders. The technical writer must: define the audience accurately, understand the device or program exhaustively, review customer service calls, do a task analysis, write clearly and simply, write for an international audience, test various drafts and revise them accordingly, and use illustrations and photographs to explain things.

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