✏️🛠️ How to Build Momentum and Suspense in Nonfiction Storytelling
The best nonfiction storytelling feels just as exciting as a fictional book or movie. Here’s how to heighten the pace and keep things moving when telling true stories.
Today’s special StoryCraft post is from Audrey Clare Farley, acclaimed nonfiction author and instructor of the upcoming Narratively Academy class, The Art of Writing a Nonfiction Book That Reads Like a Novel. (Just 4 seats left — sign up now!)
In his craft book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, the acclaimed novelist and short story writeroffers this advice: “Always be escalating.” He goes on, “That’s all a story is, really: a continual system of escalation. A swath of prose earns its place in the story to the extent that it contributes to our sense that the story is (still) escalating.”
Saunders is writing for fellow make-believers, and this insight comes from studying a particularly narrow genre of fiction, the Russian short story. Nevertheless, his words are instructive for many of us who write narrative nonfiction. We, too, have to craft compelling storylines. We, too, know that we’re competing against social media for readers’ attention — and that many literary agents and editors are on the hunt for the most page-turning projects.
But how exactly does one “escalate” in nonfiction? What literary devices help to build momentum in a story that’s also, or even primarily, meant to inform or persuade?
These are questions I think about a lot in my own writing, and that I cover in my classes. I tend to tell fellow nonfiction writers that we can draw on almost anything from the playbooks of novelists, including devices like foreshadowing and dramatic irony. Further, even our takeaways or “morals of the story,” can benefit from Saunders’s “always be escalating” rule. There are so many ways to do this. Here’s a brief look at some of my favorite approaches — and some nonfiction books that use these devices to great effect.