Structure in narrative (non-fiction) text

With narrative being such a human universal, it is not surprising that a great deal of non-fiction is written as narrative: so much that some authors have proclaimed it a (relatively new) form of non-fiction, and dubbed it variously creative, narrative, or literary non-fiction.

History and nature

One of the benefits of a classical education is that, when trudging painfully through Latin and Greek set books, you learn that much of what we like to think of as being recent innovation was not only present in the ancient world, but the scholars of the day analysed it very extensively. The full history of narrative non-fiction writing extends back even further, to the dawn of writing and tablets written in cuneiform: on those it was quite usual for instructional texts, perhaps about agriculture, to be cast in the form of narrative.

Great journalist-authors of the Victorian era, such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, were particularly adept and prolific in narrative non-fiction. There was a torrent of biography which, almost by definition, is narrative non-fiction. The great books of the major religious faiths contain large amounts of narrative non-fiction. Indeed, its opposite of academic and pedagogic non-fiction only really became a significant sector in publishing with the rise in scientific method during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I also feel that it is unhelpful to try to claim narrative non-fiction as a genre or even special type of literature. There is a continuum, from imaginative works of pure fiction, through a very popular field of what is often termed historical fiction, to accurate fact presented in narrative form, and formal chronological history. It is relatively easy to distinguish narrative, but often harder to determine how fictional is its content.

Structural basis

Inevitably, narrative non-fiction, as with all forms of narrative, has a multi-layered and sometimes even fractal structure. Jon Franklin (in Kramer & Call, pp 109-110) is clearest in stating that “all stories have three layers. The top layer is what actually happens – the narrative.” “Narrative is chronology: This happens, that happens, the other thing happens, and then something else happens.”

Lee Gutkind (p 218) uses different terminology but reaches a similar conclusion: “Scenes require some sort of order. One scene must follow another in a logical progression or pattern. That pattern, a story in itself, is called a frame.” “The frame or overall narrative is almost always a story. It is a bigger and more general story, whereas scenes are smaller and more specific stories. So a frame can also be referred to as an overall narrative or “story structure.””

It is that top-level structure which was the concern of my previous article. Using its terminology, narrative non-fiction is the primary instance of the sequence and order type, chronology subtype. This is not mandatory, though: narrative can be built from a sequence of locations, and sometimes using different structures detailed in my previous article. Whether this meets your concept or definition of narrative is, of course, determined by that definition.

Diagramming structure

It is easy to illustrate variants in chronological structure using Storyspace or Tinderbox.

Consider a narrative in which a series of events occurs each summer, between the years 2001 and 2004, with a crisis building during the summer of 2003, which forms the crux of its storyline. This could be a series of experiments in a seabird colony or particle collider, seasons of plein air painting on the coast, or pure fiction. These could be represented in Storyspace’s Timeline as below.

narratnftline

The most common structure derived from that is simple synchrony. Jack Hart (p 25) writes that “a true narrative sweeps forward across time”. Lee Gutkind agrees that books are “often ordered chronologically”, and that “many frames are not only chronological but compressed.” (p 219.) Seen in Storyspace’s Map view, this is a simple linear chain.

narratnfstraight

That is by no means universal, though. Jack Hart writes (p 35): “But in nonfiction or fiction, no law says that you have to tell the story in precise chronological order. You can jump around the arc in any number of ways, using flashbacks or flash-forwards. Your plot, in other words, need not follow the narrative arc.” One common variant, which he refers to as an in media res opening (as originally coined by Horace in his Ars Poetica), is to pull the most exciting event, the crux, to the front, in asychrony.

narratnfhook

More general forms of asynchrony are also common. Jack Hart (p 34) states that “nonfiction narratives usually move forward through time chronologically but often include a flashback or two that fills readers in on necessary background.” Lee Gutkind (p 220) writes that “frames need not advance in a beginning-to-end chronology. Writers can start a frame in the middle”. The use of a single flashback in the body of the narrative is shown below, followed by a ‘flash-forward’.

narratnfflashback

narratnfflashfwd

Movies often employ more complex asynchrony, such as cross-cutting between two (or more) simultaneous narrative threads. Commenting on writing by Lauren Slater, Lee Gutkind (pp 222-3) states: “So Slater has an essay with a parallel narrative – two primary stories, vying for the reader’s attention simultaneously. This is good. The more tension and suspense, the more likely it is the reader will keep reading. In a long-form essay, there can be three or four narratives going on at the same time.” In the Timeline view they might be shown as:

narratnftline2

This might be reflected in the Map view as shown below.

narratnfcrosscut

This structure works rather better in movies, with their highly explicit visual and sound cues. Text narrative, heavily reliant on the implicit, tends to depart relatively little from synchrony, even more so in non-fiction. As Jack Hart puts it (p 36): “The storyteller’s usual aim is to keep readers happily lost in story, and jumping out of the chronology threatens that.”

A comment on tools

All three books on writing narrative non-fiction stress the importance of structure and planning in writing. Putting together the diagrams above using Storyspace or, if you prefer, Tinderbox is an excellent lesson in how readily they can be used to develop the structure of plain text writing. With summary outlines in each of the writing spaces or notes, it is consummately easy to experiment with different linear structures, as you would expect from tools designed for the challenges posed by hypertext.

References

Lee Gutkind (2012) You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Lifelong Books. ISBN 978 0 7382 1554 9.
Jack Hart (2011) Storycraft. The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978 0 226 31816 5.
Mark Kramer & Wendy Call (eds) (2007) Telling True Stories, Plume. ISBN 978 0 452 28755 6.

I am grateful to Mark Anderson and naupaka for pointing out that I needed to address narrative in non-fiction.