I draw a line on a sheet of paper. On one side I write the heading ‘Fiction’, the other ‘Non-fiction’. I conjure up elements of writing to categorise into each. But I find that most of the elements are transferable. A poem, for example, can cross both categories, an essay need not be entirely linear. A lot of fiction is built on the foundations of truth and a lot of non-fiction is improved with the tools of fiction. But where the two clearly diverge is in the content of the story. Fiction can be entirely made-up (or based on a mix of truth and made-up). Non-fiction must be drawn from the events of real life. A fiction writer ready to start a new story need only sit down and muse. (I don’t mean to underestimate this act. I know it takes skill.) By contrast a non-fiction writer has to find their story and the elements within it. As Lee Gutkind says, ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’
So where do we find these stories? And how do we know when we have a good story? Bill Birnbauer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Monash University has worked as a journalist and editor for over 30 years. He says that how you find stories will depend on your genre but that ultimately, ‘You need to be curious and you need to be questioning.’
As Birnbauer notes, some writers find stories by watching the rhythms of their local neighbourhood. We can also look at local council websites, and do things like Internet searches for interesting clubs and associations. (One of my favourite stories in this category is Susan Orlean’s 2006 New Yorker piece on Pigeon Fanciers). We can also look at media reports, which Birnbauer says, ‘are not an end point but can be a starting point.’
Writers who are more prolific (journalists in newsrooms for example, or those seeking meatier, potentially long-form topics) widen their story-sourcing nets. Birnbauer says many writers check lists and hearings at Courts, and Civil and Administrative Tribunals. There are also parliamentary inquiries and committees. ‘There are squillions of lesser-attractive-to-the-media decisions that are really good stories [in these sources],’ says Birnbauer. Don’t just look at the outcomes of policy decisions or court cases like these, he says. ‘What veteran reporters and feature writers do is take those decisions, go backwards and ask, “Well how did it come to this?”’
Potential stories need multiple layers. When Birnbauer qualifies a story he considers a number of elements, ‘I start off looking at what information is realistically obtainable, what I would like to get, what I will get and what won’t I get,’ he says. ‘I’m looking for a human face, for an opportunity of observational writing (where I can be descriptive), for tertiary or secondary characters or witnesses [as well as links to] news and opinion.’ He also establishes what’s available in background documents to help better understand the person, people or issue and its history. For example documentation relating to court cases, transcripts, witness statements, company records and speeches made in parliament or elsewhere can all flesh out a story.
‘You have to start out doing pre-research research,’ says Birnbauer. ‘You have to be tough and ask, “Is this a story that I’m going to be happy spending a few weeks pursuing? Is this story worth doing?”’ In the context of long form your ‘pre-investigation’ needs to be particularly rigorous. You need to make sure that you have enough elements to make the story engaging.
Birnbauer refers to parallels made between long form pieces and a river, ‘You have deep, still waters – which is your background,’ he says. ‘Then you’ve got something that’s like rapids where the action, or the tension increases, leading to a kind of climax or highlight. And then it drops away again,’ he says. ‘You’re looking for elements that make up that flow.’
In drawing this parallel Birnbauer calls on Jon Franklin whose section on narrative in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction bolsters this metaphor (by encouraging us to choose more complex rivers):
‘If you’re going to compare your narrative to a river, then let it be a river that rises high in the thin air of glacier-carved peaks, collecting its strengths from springs and freshets and flowing, murmuring, down mountainsides… a river that pauses there and then moves again, slowly at first and then gathering speed and broadening into shallow rapids… moving now in the company of piranhas through a noisy jungle full of brightly colored birds, monkeys chattering in the overhanging trees...
If your story is to be like a river, for heaven’s sake don’t let that river be the Mississippi. Let it be the Amazon.’ (p137*)
Sometimes a good story idea takes years to come into being. In an interview on ICIJC.org Birnbauer advises new writers to, ‘Be annoying and don’t give up.’ Knowing whether or not you have a good idea, ‘really comes down to the determination of the individual,’ Birnbauer tells me. ‘There are stories that just won’t go away in one’s mind – even if you’ve pursued an interview for a long time and been rejected,’ he says. It’s just a niggling in the back of your head.
‘A compelling story with a message that would help a lot of readers understand something is hard to let go of,’ Birnbauer says. In some ways finding stories, ‘is an intuitive feel, [a sense] that there is a story there, that’s probably in the public interest and needs to be told,’ he says.
Both fiction and non-fiction rely on plot devices to keep their readers reading. Many non-fiction writers are captured by the plot-like serendipity behind real life events – just like a trip on the Amazon river these stories can be surprising, terrifying, delightful, mysterious and more. But no matter what you choose to write about, or how you find your story, central to it all says Birnbauer, ‘is that it’s just a great yarn.’
* It’s well worth sourcing
and reading the whole passage.