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"The Hulk" -- a movie with a lot of crazy, dramatic action, but not much story. Movies that jump from one action-packed scene to another are like nonfiction books that have a lot of anecdotes but provide little commentary on the action.

“The Hulk” — a movie with a lot of crazy, dramatic action, but not much story. Movies that jump from one action-packed scene to another are like nonfiction books that have a lot of anecdotes but provide little commentary on the action.

I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of nonfiction lately. It’s been a great exercise in what works and what doesn’t work for me, as a reader. And because I’m hard at work on a new project, the reading is also helping to inform my own writing. What I’ve culled so far:

What doesn’t work in nonfiction:

* A long, drawn-out anecdote to start the book, full of tangential information that is obscuring what otherwise would be a fine and intriguing story.

* Lots of telling with no action.

* Lots of action with no telling. There must be a blend! The old “show, don’t tell” adage should be banned from all writing workshops and writing instruction. Good nonfiction needs BOTH showing and telling. Put the “showing” into context by telling us what it means.

But…

* But not too much context! Don't hit readers over the head with morals and platitudes. Let the audience read between the lines. Think of your work as a mosaic. The tiles by themselves don't tell a story. But put them together in an organized fashion, let the audience step back, and a complete story emerges. Photo Credit: qthomasbower via Compfight cc

* Not too much context! Don’t hit readers over the head with morals and platitudes. Let the audience read between the lines. Think of your work as a mosaic. The tiles by themselves don’t tell a story. But put them together in an organized fashion, let the audience step back, and a complete story emerges.
Photo Credit: qthomasbower via Compfight cc

What works in nonfiction:

* A unique story. Almost any story can be unique. So even if you’ve been through an experience that many people share at a broad level, your experience is different. Dig deeper to find what sets your story apart.

* Yet, identify the universal. Readers should be able to put themselves in your shoes. Your book should make them think about their own lives and the choices they’ve made (or didn’t make).

* Lyrical writing. I will read almost anything if I can tell the writer has invested time and energy into making the prose as creative as possible. In other words, I don’t want to read a first draft. But the writing has to be accessible and not obscure the meaning. I don’t want to get the sense the writer sat down with a thesaurus at his or her side. The language should be naturally beautiful, not forced.

* Insight into a way of life that I don’t know about. I love learning new things. I love learning about the ways in which people live that differ from me. Give me a story, but also satisfy my need to learn obscure facts. I want to go to a dinner party after I read a book and say, “You’ll never believe what I just read. Did you know…”

Now, for all you fiction writers, here’s my friend Sonya Huber’s post on what doesn’t work for her in fiction.

Anything you would add to my list?

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