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If you’re reading a novel and someone who has already read it talks about it, you might say, “Stop! I haven’t finished it! Don’t spoil it for me!”

You stay away from Goodreads and Amazon reviews until you’ve finished a novel.

You are soooo tempted to read the last few pages first, but you don’t. You want to be surprised.

So then, why do we flock to narrative nonfiction when we already know the ending? Nonfiction books are based on stories that have actually happened, with endings sometimes tragic.

How does an author create a compelling narrative arc for a story whose ending is known? This is something I’m struggling with in my own writing.

I think the key is revealing obscure facts and delving into the background of the story. That shows the complexity of the story and perhaps makes us see it in a new light. It puts the reader in the position of “being there.” We can make our own judgments and think about the decisions we would have made if we were in that situation.

My favorite books that fall into this category are Into the Wild and The Perfect Storm.

Into the Wild

perfect storm

We know that Chris McCandless dies in the wilderness, and we know that the six fishermen die in the North Atlantic. But these books are compelling because we get that deep background. We learn about McCandless’ values, his strained family relationships, and his desire to chuck it all and try to live off the land. He’s living out a fantasy that many of us dream of. In The Perfect Storm, we have a story not only of man vs. nature, but also greed, impatience, and risk-taking. We’ll read a story if we can identify with larger themes and character traits.

Also (I think I’m weird this way), I continue to read and watch these stories because I hope for a different ending. That if I read or watch just one more time, maybe the story has changed and they all make it out alive. Am I the only one who thinks this way?

What are your favorite narrative nonfiction books that you’ll read even though you already know the tragic ending? What is it about them that makes you want to read?