Characters’ Arcs in Non-Fiction, and Going Beyond Mere Facts

When growing up (I can’t really pinpoint when that all changed), I didn’t really enjoy non-fiction as a piece of writing. To me, non-fiction was textbooks, informative, neutral, useable… or not. They needed to convey information to me, which they did more or less clearly, more or less completely, and that was all.

How naive I was!

I never even questioned the way a non-fiction could be written, all that mattered was content. I was very bad at figuring out the writer’s angle, what he deliberately kept out of his narrative, where he fibbed and where he just got it wrong. What I managed to see in fiction after I learnt the basics of literary analysis, I completely ignored it in non-fiction, even in memoirs.

As you can imagine, that led me to a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of mediocre grades in essays (and ah-ah moments later in life when that perspective changed). I just recently realized how skewed my view was as I reread some books I’d loved as a high-school student.

I would never have dreamt of a world where I could find a piece of non-fiction riveting per se, and where I would enjoy a non-fiction writer’s writing, like I do for Janet Malcolm’s for example.

I remembered being totally clueless about the concept of “creative non-fiction” a few years ago. Only recently did I got aware of the idea of creating your life story and how important the structure of the narrative itself is for making sense of it all (although I was drilled at university about the art of writing French-style essays, that have a very rigid and uniform structure).

When I got started on podcasts two years ago, this awareness increased tenfold. I started to get interested in story arks, because nowhere but in a “This American Life” story is more evident that those pieces of non-fiction are carefully constructed to move us listeners, to make us react and want some more. Needless to say, I was addicted to Serial from the first episode!

Today, I followed a link on the The Longest Shortest time podcast website, and it took me to “Howsound”, a podcast about radio apparently. There’s a lot of technical stuff I don’t understand and don’t care about in radio, but this audio analysis about story arc and character change in a non-fiction piece of radio is really fascinating.

As is the picture of the arc that Hillary Frank drew about a book she wrote at the planning stage (she’s a YA writer on top of her podcasting activities):

I can only dream of the day I’ll be able to draw such a chart about one of my (fiction) stories, but this is clearly a great inspiration. Have you ever tried such a chart?

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3 thoughts on “Characters’ Arcs in Non-Fiction, and Going Beyond Mere Facts

  1. Oh, this chart is very interesting. In many aspects I see it helping me with my work-work more than my writing work (part of my job is to tell patient stories fairly regularly) – in terms of my fiction I’ve never been one to work with visual charts although I could see how they might be helpful! And they would definitely be helpful with playwriting, I think. You should move to the states and study creative nonfiction writing in Pittsburgh – our program is wonderful!

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