Joseph Conrad once said, “My task…is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see.”
Well, how do you do this? I find that the more I write, the more I try to pay attention to why other people’s writing moves and delights me. I do it when I’m reading, whether I’m reading a piece of fiction, a novel or short story; whether I’m reading a nonfiction book or an article; whether I’m watching a film that really succeeds in holding my attention. Always, after all these things, I try to take them apart, draw diagrams of them, figure out how did the writer of this novel, of this article, this magazine piece, this book, how did he or she manage to hold my attention? What can I learn from this?
I find almost always that what really succeeds in holding my attention is not the beauty or elegance or eloquence of language, even though I love good language as much as any of us do. It’s rather the old-fashioned basics of narration, which for me come down to three basic things: scenes, suspense and character. Everything really boils down to one or another of those three things.
When I’m writing, I find it very helpful in thinking about trying to keep the idea of scenes in my mind all the time, to think as if I were a filmmaker and that I’m constantly making the decision about when I’m sort of panning the camera across the landscape in a very sweeping way and when I’m zeroing in for a close up on somebody or something or some episode.
Of course, it’s also helpful if you can have some sense when you’re actually doing the reporting as to whether the particular episode, encounter, conversation, visit that you’re observing at a given point in time is going to be one of those close-up scenes. And if I sense that it is, I really, at that moment, turn into a kind of literary vacuum cleaner, where I’m just trying to gather up every scrap of information I can about the scene that I’m witnessing so that I’ll have abundance of ammunition with which I can put it together on the printed page.
I’m deeply grateful for the invention of the pocket tape recorder. It was much harder before they came along. The reason I love working with the tape recorder is because you can leave it on to record the conversation while you are frantically scribbling away in your notebook about all sorts of details other than the sound. What the person you’re talking to is wearing, what are the books on his shelf, what are the paintings on her wall, what are the surroundings, what are the expressions on other people’s faces as the person you’re concentrating on is talking.
When I sense that I have stumbled on something that’s going to be a scene in an article or a book that I’m writing, I just try to become very greedy in terms of gathering all the information in every possible way I can about it. Even by calling up other people who were participants or observers there, asking them what they noticed. Just trying to get everything down.
On the second great ingredient, suspense, my latest tutor in suspense is the novelist Patrick O’Brian. He writes these wonderful, wonderful stories about British naval officers in the Napoleonic Wars. But they are not sea stories, they are literature, and they’re some of the most suspenseful tales ever written. They are always about the three or four clocks ticking in the background having to do with suspense. And that’s really what keeps you reading.
Now, how do you do this in nonfiction? Especially when it is harder because most of us don’t have romance to work with. We don’t have naval battles and storms at sea to work with, but you’ve got other techniques, and you have to find techniques of generating some sort of suspense in the story, whether it’s a long article or whether it’s a book, because if you don’t, people are not going to read it.
I see a couple of different, familiar devices through which one can generate suspense effectively in nonfiction. One is by strategic withholding of information. I’m a great admirer of John McPhee, who I think is really one of the great reporters alive.
Sometimes another very useful, suspense-building device I think that is an ancient one, it goes back to the “Odyssey,” is the device of a journey. When we follow a character or a set of characters on a journey, we always want to know how the journey is going to end. Are we going to get to the place where we think we’re going to get to? And also with the journey, there’s always the assumption, in a good piece of writing, that an external journey, a geographical journey, is in one way or another paralleling some kind of internal journey of discovery.
Characters are the stuff of good nonfiction just as much as they are the stuff of fiction. You need to bring characters alive. You need to make readers hear the sound of their voices. You need to listen to the distinctive phrases that they use and the distinctive ways of talking that they have. Without good, lively characters, very few people are going to read a book or even read a long magazine article. This is what makes people read. People want to read about people, and they want to read about people whose voices they can hear, who are alive, who live and breathe and practically walk off the page.
I want to say one word about problems that I think nonfiction writers get into when writing about characters, particularly at book length, although it can also happen in the length of a long article. One is having too many characters, and the other is forgetting that in writing, as in creating a play on the stage, you need to have major characters and minor characters. The major characters are the ones who you want your readers to remember and have fixed in their heads from near the beginning of the book or the article until near the end. The minor characters are the people that the reader doesn’t have to remember. They can be lively and vivid; they should be lively and vivid, too. But they just come on stage briefly and then go off again.
Readers have only a limited capacity to hold a certain number of characters in their head. My rule of thumb is that in a long article, you should have really only one major character or perhaps two if there is some close relationship between them. Rivals having a feud, a husband and wife, a mother and daughter. Some kind of connection between them, and you can play them off against each other.