Narrative nonfiction is the new way of writing news

Writing Narrative Nonfiction that Tugs at the Heart

There’s no hard news anymore. At least not the way I was taught in journalism school and how I wrote up the news as a business reporter back in the day.

Even the newsiest of newspapers like The New York Times now report in a style that’s known as “narrative nonfiction.”

Reporting the what, when, where, why and how that I learned in journalism school still lurks within the lines of a breaking news story. But if you’re a writer, you’ll need to adapt to the growing popularity of narrative nonfiction that appeals to the emotions of your readers as well as their intellects.

The Pulitzer-prize winning New York columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who died a few weeks ago, practically invented this new style of writing. He was legendary for telling stories that tugged at the reader’s heart.

Talk to the Grave Digger

Here’s how The New York Times obituary remembered Breslin’s writing:

“Love or loathe him, none could deny Mr. Breslin’s enduring impact on the craft of narrative nonfiction. He often explained that he merely applied a sportswriter’s visual sensibility to the news columns. Avoid the scrum of journalists gathered around the winner, he would advise, and go directly to the loser’s locker.”

The obit continues, “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers. Here, for example, is how he described Clifton Pollard, the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave, in a celebrated column from 1963 that sent legions of journalists to find their “gravedigger”:

“Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”

In an extended interview with The New York Times in 2006, Breslin said, “Well, you’re looking for the dressing room, that’s all. And I did. I went there automatic.”

According to journalist and author Pete Hamill, “It seemed so new and original. It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism, and in national journalism.”

The Facts Don’t Change

The danger in writing narrative nonfiction – whether for a blog, a newspaper, or magazine – is the temptation to fudge the facts in order to pump up the excitement. We often see that in personal memoirs.

But as Lee Gutkind, founder of the website Creative Nonfiction, cautions, “Creative doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Here is a recent story about Uber trying to dupe Apple that could have been reported as straight news. Instead, this is how the New York Times writer Mike Isaac began:

“Travis Kalanick, the chief executive of Uber, visited Apple’s headquarters in early 2015 to meet with Timothy D. Cook, who runs the iPhone maker. It was a session that Mr. Kalanick was dreading.

“For months, Mr. Kalanick had pulled a fast one on Apple by directing his employees to help camouflage the ride-hailing app from Apple’s engineers. The reason? So Apple would not find out that Uber had been secretly identifying and tagging iPhones even after its app had been deleted and the devices erased — a fraud detection maneuver that violated Apple’s privacy guidelines.

“But Apple was onto the deception, and when Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.”

By the second sentence you’re hooked. You want to know why Mr. Kalanick was full of dread.

I personally like writing narrative nonfiction. It’s more fun for me, frankly, and I hope my readers enjoy the stories I tell. Oh, how I wish, though, that I could write like Jimmy Breslin. He was a larger than life character. Sort of the cliché of a typical New Yorker: brash, fast-talking, and in your face. But he wrote like a poet.

What about you? Do you write to simply inform or do you consciously try to touch the emotions of your readers by writing narrative nonfiction?

Leave a Reply

Comments

  1. Hi Jeannette, what an interesting article. I’ve never heard of narrative nonfiction but can understand its attraction. Love the story of the grave digger, a person someone less intuitive would have completely overlooked.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Lenie — yes, the grave digger story was unique and Breslin understood that it would touch the hearts of readers at a tragic time in our history. His story is often quoted even to this day.

  2. I like to think I combine research and personal anecdotes which others can relate to in SOME way. Not sure what that makes my writing. I always enjoy your writing Jeannette.

    • Patricia — Lee Gutkind, whom I quoted, also says that you need to do more research with narrative writing than straight reporting. So I think you can safely say you are doing narrative nonfiction.

  3. Particular tabloids add “salt and pepper” to their stories as their readers like to be entertained. News sells – the more sensational the better!

    I no longer buy women’s magazines but I scan the headlines while in a store. It always amazes me that unknown sources are able to tell all on celebrities. You wonder who is revealing this misleading information?

    My blog exists to inform and provoke but it does so lightheartedly.

    • Phoenicia — at the heart of narrative nonfiction is that it has to be factual. The problem with the tabloids and a lot of women’s magazines is that they forgo the facts in order to entertain.

  4. Good one, Jeannette and ties in with a book I’ve been reading: 100 True Stories of World War II. It was published in 1945, so some of the stories are pure PR and read like old-school journalism. But the ones I am drawn to, that evoke emotion that sometimes startles me, are the ones written in the narrative format. A for instance would be the two stories by Ernie Pyle. I’d never read anything by him before, but by story two I was fully addicted. All his style.

    • RoseMary — I think we all like to read or hear stories. Some of the WW II correspondents were famous for their story telling. Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow are two examples.

  5. I’m not familiar with Mr. Breslin’s work but after reading your article I think I’m going to search for some of his writing online. I have always tended to be a “get to the point” communicator and since my writing is meant to help people learn how to build their personal capacity it needs to lean in that direction to be meaningful. Nevertheless, I’ve been working to incorporate more stories and took a narrative nonfiction course a few months ago. I certainly agree that we all relate to stories more than simple checklists. Thanks so much Jeannette!

    • Marquita — I find your posts very meaningful and interesting. You always approach a topic from an angle I’ve never thought of. Just keep doing what you’re doing!

  6. Hi Jeannette. I enjoyed this post. I always try to touch the emotions of my readers. I try to write in a conversational style that bring my readers into the story.

    I remember when I took journalism in college, I was struggling to get a B- or C+. But I could easily get A’s in magazine writing, as there, I could confuse my personality into my writing. I’m no good at “Just the facts, M’am.”

  7. Wow, Jeannette, that’s an amazing as well as a thought-provoking post! I want to bring the suggestions mentioned above into practice and check out the outcome which comes 😀 Love narrative writing it has a charm of its own 🙂

    • Sushmita — narrative nonfiction has become the norm rather than the exception in writing nowadays so I’m glad that you’re going to weave stories into your posts.

  8. I’ve always known my calling is to write narrative nonfiction, but only have recent medical events solidified that. I don’t mind writing to inform when it’s a topic I know well, but I prefer the human factor of touching on emotions. I’m also a big fan of literary journalism, which is a cousin of narrative nonfiction, but maintains a more journalistic vein in that it tends to incorporate more research.

    • Jeri — I’m sorry about your medical issues but glad that this crisis in your life helped you to solidify your life passion. We should all do what makes us truly happy.