From Story to Theme to Arc

Is narrative different from story? A narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events. A story is an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. A narrative sounds more like a list of events. A story is events told in a way as to entertain. All fiction is a combination of connected events told for entertainment, a combination of the narrative and the story.

In nonfiction is there a difference between just plain old nonfiction and narrative nonfiction? Carolyn Yoder, Senior Editor, History and World Cultures at Highlights for Children, says, “The difference between straight nonfiction and creative nonfiction has to do with structure. Straight nonfiction relies solely on the parts–the facts for the most part–and not on the whole. Creative nonfiction is all about the whole–how the parts make it up. Creative nonfiction, like fiction, is all about story or theme. Creative nonfiction tends to have strong characters, strong sense of place, rich details, obvious themes, conflicts, arcs–everything.”

I’m not a fan of creative nonfiction because of the word creative,  it sounds like you could be making the story up or part of it. And you can’t, nonfiction must be true, all of it. If it is not, it is not nonfiction. I personally prefer the term narrative nonfiction. But then…whoa, am I contradicting my first paragraph? Okay I like story nonfiction.

I’m not sure there was story nonfiction when I was a kid. What we had was famous person is born, does stuff and dies that is out today. Today it is about writing to illuminate that person’s life, making that more valued while still sticking totally to the facts.

One of the most popular for kids is the Who Was series from Penguin Random House. They also have a Where Was series and a Where Is series. These books cover the historical figures, landmarks, popular cultural figures, artists, writers,  celebrities of all kinds…you name it, if it is a famous something, there is probably a book in this series. And the kids eat them up!  Not surprising, kids like to know stuff. The books are about 7K words and include tidbit sidebars that add to not only the kid’s knowledge base, but also to some of the facts surrounding the story. So these series are really stories: accounts told for entertainment and a byproduct is that they inform, they educate, but in many ways they are straight nonfiction, the value,  to me, is in the voice and the tone of the writing.

For me, story nonfiction is nothing without a theme. Because it was theme that gave me my story arc.  Themes are pretty much the same in nonfiction as in fiction–love and hate, war and peace. If the story is about a figure in the civil war, whether fiction or nonfiction, it can be about racism and tolerance. If it is in medieval Europe it can be about equality of man.

Once I decided the them, the story arc meant that I could write less about the person as a straight biography, and more about the person as he portrayed the theme, how his own native values and innate characteristics informed his life. And for me this was a five year journey!








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