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Aug 6 2013
By Dave Hood
Instead of writing a personal essay or memoir, creative nonfiction writers often craft literary journalism essays and reviews about popular culture, including film, art, photography, famous people, fashion, and music. For instance, the popular magazine, “The New Yorker,” publishes literary journalism essays as profiles of public figures, perspectives on current events, essays on topics in the news, as well as film, music, and book reviews. “Harper’s” and “The Atlantic” are other magazine that publishes literary journalism essays. As well, many literary journals publish literary journalism essays, including Tin House, Epiphany, Witness.
The literary journalistic essay, as it applies to writing about popular culture, involves writing true stories about people, places, events, film, books, music, photography, art, and so forth. Writers craft this category of essay by completing research and then writing the narrative using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. Writers usually narrate the story from the third person POV (“he/she”) and include scene, summary, and personal reflection.
Sometimes a creative nonfiction writer will play the part of a reviewer or critic, reviewing a film, concert, painting, or book. This review will include a description or summary, share the pros and cons, provide opinion and recommendation. For instance, a writer might write a literary review of a book that’s just been published, and the reader will use the review to decide whether to purchase the book.
The purpose of the literary journalistic essay and review of pop culture are always to inform, educate, and entertain readers.
In this article, I’ll discuss popular culture as it applies to writing literary journalism essays and reviews. The following will be covered:
• Defining popular culture
• Perspectives for writing about popular culture
• The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
• Gathering material by completing research
• Writing a review
• Writing a literary journalistic essay
• Tips for writing about popular culture
• Additional reading
Defining Popular Culture
There are many definitions of popular culture. Essentially, popular culture refers to the contemporary popular culture of a particular society, such as Western pop culture. It deals with the contemporary aspects of film, photography, art, sculpture, painting, cuisine, genre fiction, poetry, music, fashion, trends, fads, influential people, such as political leaders, rock stars, sports heroes, Hollywood starlets, video games, anything to do with the current popular culture.
From pop culture, we define our tastes, likes and dislikes, identities, fashion, leisure time, beliefs, values, norms, and much more. Pop culture includes many institutions, such as Hollywood, where many motion pictures are produced. An important element of pop culture is the mass media: television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, film, Internet. These institutions create brands that people can embrace and relate to. A particular “brand” can become an emblem of pop culture. For instance, anything Apple is now part of the pop culture of contemporary society in 2013. These institutions also shape our values, views, opinions, beliefs, and behaviour.
The physical artifacts of an era are an aspect of popular culture. Digital technologies play an important role in defining our current popular culture. Most people own either a smart phone, tablet, such as iPad, or digital music play, like the iTouch. Most people surf the Internet for work, or entertainment, or leisure. Many people use the computer to access social media, such as Facebook, to connect with friends and share their lives. Many use the computer to access YouTube to watch and post videos and Flickr to view and post photographs. It seems that young people now spend more leisure time surfing the web, text messaging, visiting Facebook than watching television. The masses have embraced digital photography, capturing an endless stream of snapshots with their smart phones or point-and-shoot digital cameras. Everyone is now a digital photographer. Digital technologies pervade the popular culture of 2013.
Serendipity often creates pop culture. Fads and trends happen by accident or chance. For instance, in the late 60s and 70s, long hair was fashionable for men. Now many men “crop” their hair as though they are enrolled in the army. Men and women adorn their bodies with a coloured tattoos. These trends arrived by accident, pure chance. At some point, the trends will depart, and be replaced by something new.
Influential people, such as Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, or Bono of U2 also create popular culture, and shape how we dress, think, and act. For instance, Steve Jobs was the “mastermind” of the digital technologies which pervade contemporary life, such as iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.
Any definition of popular culture most include Zeitgeist. It is a German word, which means “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time”, and refers to the cultural, political, ethical, intellectual, spiritual climate of a culture during a specific era or time frame. The spirit of a particular era will include the shared views, shared attitudes, shared feelings, shared tastes, shared morality, and shared preferences toward war and technology, political movements and religion, economic conditions and types of work, new scientific discovers, or anything that is part of society.
Think of zeitgeist as the “collective consciousness” of a particular generation. To understand it, you’ll have to conduct research on the Internet and in the library, uncovering the significant events and people and artifacts. Then you’ll have to analyze this popular culture and write the essay, providing examples, which illustrate the idea of collective consciousness. For instance, a decade from now, people will look back and see that digital technologies, such as the iPhone, iPad, Internet, social media, were important aspects of our collective consciousness.
To assist you understanding the “spirit of the time,” use the Google Search called Google Zeitgeist . It will tell you what is on the minds of people. For instance, in 2010, according to Google Zeitgeist, the iPad, Master Chef, Justin Bieber, were some of the most popular searches, and on the minds of millions of people around the world. You might then ask: Is there a spirit of hope or hopelessness, progress or regression, optimism or cynicism, alienation or inclusion?
Perspectives for Writing about Popular Culture
When writing a literary journalistic essay, writers use popular culture in several ways: They use popular culture to provide context to a story. They write as subject matter experts on some feature of popular culture, or as a witnesses to some aspect of popular culture, such as film, art, photography. Play the role of reviewer and write reviews on books, film, music, art, theatre, and more.
Pop culture can provide context to personal narrative or literary journalism essay. Often when writers craft essays that include setting, they allude to the music, film, fashion, values, beliefs of the time period. This provides context to the story. How does a writer find out what happened twenty or thirty years ago? Writers can use a timeline, which shows the significant events, popular culture, and influential people for a particular year. A good website to find context for a true story is http://www.history central.com
The writer, often a subject matter expert, writes a commentary or opinion on some an entertainment personality, film, music concert, event, issue.
The writer might write as a witness. For instance, the writer might craft a personal narrative about a visiting to the Art Gallery, such as the Museum of Modern Art or attending the Bruce Springsteen concert, or what it feels like to cheer for a losing football team, such as the Buffalo Bills.
The writer can play the role of reviewer or critic. For instance, experts in film write film reviews, ,experts in music write music reviews, experts on art write literary journalistic essays about painting, sculpture, photography. To review some “art form,” the reviewer must experience the art. For instance, if the writer is writing a book review, the writer must first read the book. If the writer is writing a film review, the writer must first watch the film. If the writer is writing a review on some painting or sculpture or installation or photograph, the writer must first attend the exhibition.
The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
Writing about pop culture requires that you follow the advice of Lee Gutkind’s “Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction:” He suggests the following:
• Write about real life, real people, actual events, real art forms, and actual places.
• Complete research, collecting facts from the library, interviewing experts, reading essays on the Internet, watching television or film, listening to music, immersing yourself in the “art form.”
• Write an essay or review about some feature of popular culture. Use immersion and other tools of research, facts, and fact checking to write the essay or review.
• Include personal reflection. Share your personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives about popular culture.
• Read widely and deeply. Read books, magazines, articles, essays, commentary, Internet blogs to understand to the topic, issue, event, or person.
Gathering Material to Write the Literary Journalistic Essay
If you intend to write about pop culture, you must stay informed and conduct research whenever you have a topic to write about.
Here are a few publications that will help you learn about pop culture and stay informed:
• Music. If you intend to write about the music scene, including singers, song writers, artists, bands, rock, pop, soul, rap, jazz, begin by reading “Rolling Stone” magazine.
• Art. If you desire to learn about modern or contemporary art and artists, read “Canadian Art”, “Art in America,” and “Artnews.”
• Film. If you want to learn and write about film, turn the pages of “Sight and Sound” magazine.
• Fashion. If you desire to become an expert on fashion, read “Vogue” magazine (for women) or “GQ” magazine (for men).
• General entertainment news. Stay informed by reading “Entertainment Weekly” and “The New Yorker” magazine, and by reading the entertainment section of your newspaper.
• Literary journals. These are specialized publications, illustrating the best of some an art form. For instance, to read short fiction and poetry, read the journals Granta, Epiphany, Witness, Tin House.
A literary journalism essay is based on facts, gathered from research. Writers can use different methods of research, including:
1. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
2. Immerse yourself in the story. Attend a music concert, or watch the film, visit the art gallery, and then make notes.
3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what has been written on the subject and where there are books, magazines, journals, subject matter experts.
5. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.
Writing a Review
Before writing a review, you should first experience the art form, such as viewing the painting or seeing the film. You should also have a good understanding of the genre. For instance, if you`re going to write a film review, you should have a good understanding of movie terms, concepts, film making techniques, movie stars, and history of film. Writer William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” provides some suggestions for completing a review:
1. Love the art form or medium you are reviewing. In other words, if you don`t like film, be sure not to write a review. It will be tainted.
2. Don`t tell the readers everything. For instance, if you`re writing a book review, don`t tell the readers the ending. Provide them with only enough detail to convince them to read or ignore the book.
3. Don`t use adjectives to exaggerate your impression of the art form
4. Use a minimal writing style to express what you think and observe.
As well, when writing a review, do the following:
• Summarize what you observed, heard, or experienced with your senses.
• Share pros and cons.
• Give you opinion. Tell readers whether you like it.
• Make a recommendation. Should the audience see the film or read the book or visit the art exhibition.
Writing a Book Review
There are many ways to write a book review. Just check out the Globe & Mail or The New York Times, and you will see that each newspaper includes them. Lovers of books desire to read them. All book reviews should include a summary of the book, identify the book’s strengths and weaknesses, specify the publishing information (title, author, page count, price), and determine whether the reader ought to read the book. Here is one method you can use to write a book review:
Before Reading the Book
Before reading, scan the book and make notes of the following:
• Title. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Preface. Does it tell you the purpose of the book?
• Table of Contents. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Glossary. Does the book include a glossary? Does it appear useful?
• Index. Does the book include an index? Is it useful?
After scanning through the book, jot down your impressions. Next, research the author to find out what his/her biases, views, expertise, and other books he/she has written.
Reading the Book
While reading the book, make notes on the following:
• Your impressions
• Author’s argument
• Author’s main points
• Facts and evidence
• Topics covered
• Strengths and weaknesses
Writing the Book Review
Your first paragraph needs a hook, which grabs your reader’s attention. You should also include the name of the author and title of the book. The body of your review requires a summary and should identify some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of the book. You should conclude with a recommendation.
Your book review also requires the following publishing information:
• Title of the book
• Name of the author
• Name of the publisher
• Page count
• Price of the book
Most book reviews include information about the author, such as the author’s views and biases, the author’s expertise on the subject, other books that the author has written. A good book review identifies the types of readers who will enjoy reading the book, and it indicates whether the information in the book is useful to the reader. Many good book reviews also state whether the book expands on the existing body of knowledge.
Writing the Literary Journalistic Essay
Writing about popular culture requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a witness? Are you writing as an expert? Or do you only want to use popular culture to provide context to a personal narrative essay or literary journalistic essay? Or are you writing about popular culture as a reviewer? Follow these suggestions:
Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.
Elements of Fiction
All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.
When you narrate a true story, use a narrative arc. It includes:
• Inciting incident
• Conflict, either internal or external
• Turning point or climax
• Resolution. End of the story.
If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue. Always answer the question: Who is this person?
Point of View
Write the literary journalistic essay on popular culture using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).
Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
If you’re writing a narrative, write one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happens. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain and tell readers background information. As well, use personal reflection to share your impressions and emotional truth (How does it feel to you?).
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
To reconstruct setting and events and impressions of people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.
Facts not Fiction
When writing true stories of popular culture or people of popular culture, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
Tips for Writing about Popular Culture
Popular culture is never static. It is always evolving. New things are continuously being introduced, such as film, music, art, and technologies. And so, to write about popular culture, you must stay informed. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule a “Creative Date” each month. Examples: Visit the art gallery, go to a concert, buy tickets to watch a movie.
2. Stay informed. Read the entertainment section of the newspaper to find out what is going on in your city or town; read pop-culture magazines, such as “Entertainment Weekly”; watch the news and listen to the radio; read articles on the Internet, including the blogs and websites; watch YouTube videos and connect to Facebook and other social media.
3. Keep a writing journal. Make regular entries about pop culture in a writing journal.
4. Become and expert. Enroll in a photography, art, poetry, film study, music course.
5. Consider writing a speculative narrative. For instance, you might see a piece of art in a gallery, and then write a description using sensory details, and then rely on your imagination to determine the meaning of the art.
6. Remain aware of the fads and trends. Regularly, Ask yourself: What are the fads? Trends? What’s popular in your culture? How does film, fashion, music, art influence you? How have books influenced your life? How has the smartphone, tablet, digital music player, or digital camera altered your lifestyle?
7. Make popular culture part of your life. Immerse yourself in film, art, literature, photography, music, and you will see view the world from a different perspective, a viewpoint that will enable you to write about popular culture.
For addition information about learning creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
• Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
• Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
• You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
• The Best American Essays Series 2012, edited by David Brooks and Robert Atwan
• The New Yorker magazine
One way to write a personal narrative in creative nonfiction is to tell a story about a journey. All journeys have a starting point and destination. The journey usually begins with some question, which the central character desires to learn from the journey. Along the path, the character is a participant in a series of events, which impact his/her psyche. The character also faces setbacks and obstacles, encounters a crisis, participates in story that has climax, and ends with a resolution. The journey also provides the character with new insights or illuminations, which help to answer a nagging question. Often the central character experiences an epiphany or a lesson that you learned.
This is certainly true for the creative nonfiction book, ” Into the Wild,” a true story written by Jon Krakauer, about a young, idealistic man who abandons his possessions, gives away all of his $24,000 in a savings account, and then journeys across the United States, then to Alaska, where he dies by misadventure. It is a sad, true story of a journey about a naive man. Near death, dying from unintentional poisoning (He eat poison berries in an effort to prevent starvation), Christopher McCandless, the central character, realizes that “man cannot be an island unto himself.” Happiness must be shared.
Writing about a journey, a quest, or a pilgrimage is a popular form of creative nonfiction. Esteemed writer, E.B White, in his narrative a journey called “Walden”, shares a story about his trip to pay homage to Henry David Thoreau. (You can read it in Creative Nonfiction by Eileen Pollack) He writes about the trip by car, the surroundings at Walden pond, and personal reflections at Walden.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a bestselling book called “Eat, Pray, Love” in which she shares her journey to find herself after her marriage ends. She shares her reflections and describes the surroundings, adventures, new experiences, people she meets, cuisine, and culture while traveling to Italy, India, Indonesia.
Not only can a writer craft essays about a journey, the writer can also write entire books about a journey. Author Michael Krasny wrote about a spiritual quest in “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” Krasny narrates a life story about his struggles with faith, his ambivalence toward religious doctrine, and his desire to answer a variety of metaphysical questions, such as Does God exist?
In this article, I’ll explain how write a personal essay or literary journalism essay about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage from a creative nonfiction perspective. First, I’ll define the difference between a journey, quest, and pilgrimage. Then I’ll explain the elements of a story, followed by an explanation of the narrative arc or story structure. Finally, I’ll identify a few tools and tips for writing about a journey, quest, or narrative.
There are three ways to write about an adventure. First, you can write about a journey. A journey involves traveling to some place and experiencing some epiphany or a lesson that you learn.
Secondly, you can write about a quest. It is a journey in which you seek to find or discover something of value.
Finally, you can write about a pilgrimage. In this type of journey, you travel to some place to pay homage or show your respects to a religious place or religious person, or to uncover something of spiritual or moral significance.
A journey, quest, pilgrimage also includes setbacks and obstacles. For instance, if you are writing about a bike trip, you’d include the significant obstacles you faced, such as the horrendous traffic, rainy weather, bumpy roads. You’d also write about the setbacks you faced. Perhaps you got lost. Perhaps someone stole your wallet. Perhaps you fell off your bike and were injured. Perhaps you were forced to repair a flat tire in the rain.
A journey, quest, or pilgrimage also has a climax or turning point. For instance, the turning point in your bike trip could be achieving the destination and realizing you’d wasted your time. There is also a resolution to your journey. All unanswered questions are answered, and loose ends are tied up.
A journey, quest, or pilgrimage should also include some insight, illumination, or epiphany. Otherwise, readers will say to themselves: So what? What is the point of your story?
In Creative Nonfiction, author Eileen Pollack suggests that a journey, quest, or pilgrimage requires several elements:
- A question that the writer has a desire to answer
- A destination-where are you going?
- Motives for taking the journey.
- Observations and experiences as you journey
- Personal reflections, insights, illuminations, or an epiphany.
What is a Story?
Whether you are composing a narrative poem, short fiction, or some sort of journey based on real-life experience, the elements of a story are the same. A good story includes the following elements:
- Central character or protagonist. If you are writing a journey about yourself, you are the protagonist. Every central character has desires, wants, needs, goals to achieve.
- Conflict. The conflict can be within the character’s psyche or external, such as a conflict with another family member, a religious group, society.
- Plot. All stories require a series of related events in which the central character participates. As the character moves forward, attempting to achieve a particular goal, want, need, a series of related events unfold.
- Complication. A good story includes one or more setbacks or obstacles that prevent the central character from achieving a desired goal, need, want.
- Resolution. A good story requires that all unanswered questions are answered, the conflict is resolved, some sort of epiphany or lesson that is learned from the journey.
And so, when you write about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage, make sure to include character, plot, conflict, complication, and a resolution.
Narrative Arc or Story Structure
How do you organize or structure your story about a journey, quest, pilgrimage? Use the fictional technique of a “narrative arc” to structure you adventure. Writer Jack Hart, author of “Story Craft”, explains the narrative arc in his chapter on “Structure.” This narrative arc has five phases:
- Exposition. It is the first phase of the story. The writer provides a backdrop to the story, such as the setting. He introduces the background details of the story, main character, and inciting incident that starts the character on a journey. Sometimes the writer begins with a crisis instead of the inciting incident.
- Rising Action. It is the second phase of the story. A series of related events unfold in which the central character is a participant. These related events create dramatic tension. Often there is mystery and suspense. As the character takes the journey, he experiences one or more setbacks or obstacles, which make it more difficult to complete the journey. Sometimes, the writer shares background information as one or more flashbacks.
- Crisis. It resolves the complication. It includes the event just before the climax. The crisis takes the story to its main event or climax. It is the point in the story in which everything hangs in the balance. For instance, suppose you are writing about a journey to take a trip. You are at the airport, experiencing conflict about whether to hop on the plane or remain behind. This conflict creates a crisis, whether to begin the journey or not.
- Climax. (resolution) It is the main event of the story, and turning point in the story. It is the event with the most tension and drama. It leads to a resolution of conflict and crisis.
- Falling action (denouncement) The pace of the story slows, the drama subsides, unanswered questions are answered. Often the writer shares an epiphany or lesson that he has learned from the journey. Sometimes, the writer ends with a quote or final point. The reader knows that the story has reached its end.
Other Techniques of Creative Nonfiction
Your personal narrative about a journey should be written in scenes, summary, and personal reflection. When writing about significant events, write in scenes. A scene shows the reader what happened. It includes action, dialogue, setting, characterization, point of view, imagery.
To explain, use summary. It tells the reader what happened. Your true story about a journey also requires personal reflections. How did you feel? What did you learn? What insights came to you about the people and surroundings and the experience?
Include intimate Details. These are images and ideas only you know. They are images and ideas that reveal a truth about a person, place, event. Readers will not be able to imagine them unless you share them in your writing. In short, you are writing about the intimate details that capture the essence of the story or heart of the story. Intimate details are those that readers will not imagine without you writing the details in your story.
Use the inner point of view. You share what you see, feel, experience as you take the journey, quest, or pilgrimage. If you are writing about your own journey, use the first person point of view (“I”). If you are writing about someone else, use the third-person point of view (“he/she”).
Also include concrete and specific description, poetic devices of simile, metaphor, imagery.
If you are writing about someone else, you’ll be required to conduct research, such as interviewing, immersion, and fact-collection from the Library or Internet.
Your journey requires a theme. What does this mean? You’ll have to determine the meaning of your journey, quest, pilgrimage, and share it with readers.
Tips for Writing about a Spiritual Quest, Journey, Pilgrimage
Here are a few tips for writing about a journey, quest, or pilgrimage:
- Avoid using clichés and jargon. Write with fresh and original language.
- Begin with a question you want to answer, then take a journey to answer your question.
- Engage the reader by telling a true story or narrative about a spiritual journey, quest, pilgrimage. A story includes a beginning, middle, and end. A narrative includes elements of an inciting incident, setbacks or obstacles, climax or turning point, resolution, some insight or epiphany, a universal truth about the human condition.
- The best way to structure your story is to use the narrative arc. A story begins with an inciting incident, includes a personal motivation or desire to achieve some purpose, requires setbacks or obstacles, has a climax, turning point, and insight, lesson learned, or epiphany.
- Don’t proselytize, which means to attempt to convert others to your religious views and beliefs.
- Write with the purpose of informing, educating, entertaining the reader.
- Use both scene and summary. Craft scenes when writing about setbacks or obstacles and a climax. A scenes is like a scene in a movie. It includes setting (time, place, social context), dramatic action (something happens), dialogue (spoken words of significant people), intimate details (including details that the reader would not be able to visualize or expect to imagine), inner point of view( experiencing the word through the eyes of the person you are writing about) Use summary to explain, to condense, to compress. Summary means “to tell” or “to explain.”
- Use personal reflection-share your emotional truth. Share how the spiritual journey felt to you.
- Avoid self-centred writing, focusing on yourself. Unless you’re writing in a personal journal, creative nonfiction writing must be an unselfish activity. Otherwise, readers will stop reading. And so, seek to engage readers with the outside world—the journey itself, the quest itself, the pilgrimage itself.
- If you are serious about writing about a spiritual journey, read “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostics Quest by Michael Krasny.” His book illustrates how to write about the spiritual from a creative nonfiction perspective—with scene, summary, personal reflection. His memoir is a personal and philosophical journey in search of God, in search of spiritual meaning and purpose, in search of faith, religion, spirituality, supreme being he could believe in.
In writing about a journey, quest, pilgrimage, always keep in mind that you are telling a true story. As well, you purpose is to inform and educate readers about the journey itself. You must entertain your readers by using the fictional techniques of storytelling, such as character development, narrative, setting, and use poetic devices, such as simile and metaphor. You`ll also create scene, summary, and share personal reflection. Structure your story as a narrative arc. The journey, quest, pilgrimage should end with an epiphany or lesson learned.
For additional information on writing a personal narrative about a journey, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest by Michael Krasny
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.
There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.
Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.
In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.
Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?
Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:
- Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
- Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
- Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
- Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
- Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.
As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure, resulting in a new structure or shape.
Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.
Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.
Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.
Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:
- Setting-time and place of the story
- Action-something happens.
- Dialogue-someone something not always
- Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
- Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
- Point of View-first, second, third person.
- Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
- Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end
Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.
You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.
Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.
Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:
- Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
- Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
- Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
- Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
- Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
- Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
- Theme-the meaning of the story
The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.
Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:
- Assonance and alliteration
Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.
Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:
- Personal thoughts and feelings
- Personal perspective
- stream of consciousness
Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.
Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction. Avoid using clichés and jargon.
Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:
- Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation. A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
- Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
- Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind, to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
- Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
- Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
- Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.
Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:
- Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
- Parallel Structure
- Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
- Alliteration and Assonance
- Sensory Imagery
For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
By Dave Hood
Jane Burroway in “Writing Fiction” writes that “summary can be called the mortar of the story, but scenes are the building blocks.” When writing a short story, the writer needs to use both scene and summary to craft the story.
In crafting scenes, the writer “shows” the reader what happens by including time and place details, dialogue, action, imagery. The writer crafts scenes to dramatize the story, helping to create a vivid and continuous dream inside the mind of the reader.
The writer also uses summary to” tell” the story. A summary is the material between scenes. It covers a long period of time by compressing time. The writer “tells” the reader what happens in the story. He/she doesn’t show the reader what is happening.
A summary is often a necessary device used by writers to do the following:
- Provide background information
- Description that doesn’t occur in a specific scene
- Compress time
- Provide character reflection, such as interior monologue or stream of consciousness
- Provide narrative commentary
A well written summary can be as good as a scene. You can use concrete and specific details and sensory details to create a memorable summary. The summary doesn’t include spoken dialogue, but you can tell the reader what was spoken.
You can also use metaphor, simile to create vivid summaries.
The summary is most often used to set up the scene, such as important events that happened in the past or character details that are useful for understanding the protagonist or secondary characters.
The summary can also be used to create tension before the scene.
You can insert a summary into a scene, such as to share background information, to show a transformation in character through reflection, to provide background information to help the reader understand the character, to understand a transformation in the character, or to control the pace of the scene.
Summary can also be used to change the pace of the story. For instance, to cover a long span of time in which insignificant events occurred or repeating events, the writer often uses a summary, which tells the reader what happened.
A summary needs to be entertaining and enjoyable to read. That is why you must use sensory details and concrete and specific details, and figurative language.
It is possible to write a short story without summary narrative. But this is not common.
You can use a summary to set up the conflict or confrontation—some important event in the plot structure or three act structure.
You should move seamlessly between scene and summary when writing the story. Short bits of summary can often be added in a scene or used to set up a scene.
Many beginning writers summarize too much of the story, telling the reader too many events and compressing too much time. So the story results in a lack of depth. Many beginning writers don’t summarize enough of the story, creating scenes of insignificant events.
You should not use summary to tell the reader about an important conflict, confrontation, turning point. Instead you need to craft a scene. The scene is used to dramatize the story, create a believable story, and show how the story unfolds. Showing through scene is dramatizing the story.
You should not write general and abstract summary narratives. The summary needs to provide the reader with concrete and specific details.
The task of the writer is to balance scene and summary. The writer uses scene to dramatize important events, such as the inciting incident, conflict, setbacks, obstacles, climax of the story.
The write creates a scene by showing the reader what happened. The writer writes a summary by telling the reader what happened, such as a narrative summary or to setup a scene or to provide background information to the story.
For more information on how to write scene and summaries, read the following:
- Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
- Showing and Telling by Laurie Alberts
When writing fiction, the writer needs to show and tell the reader what happens in the story.
The writer can show the reader what happens by crafting scenes. A scene in a short story is like a scene in a film. Something happens. A scene expands time. It takes place in a particular time and location, includes action, and dialogue. In short, something happens in a scene. Events are dramatized.
In a summary, the writer tells the reader what happened by reporting or summarizing. Summaries compress time. Summaries are the content between scenes in a short story or novel. The writer crafts a summary with background information, interior thoughts, and descriptions not in scenes, reflection, or narrative commentary.
When writing a short story or novel, the writer must include both scenes and summaries.
In the next three posts, I’ll discuss summary and scene. In this article, I will explain how to write a scene. The following will be covered:
- Definition of a scene
- Purpose of a scene
- Structure of a scene
- Types of scenes
Definition of a Scene
A scene in a short story or novel is like a scene in a film. A scene brings the story to life, makes the story seem real in the mind of the reader.
When a writer crafts a scene, he is show the reader what is happening in the story. He is dramatizing what is happening. A scene must include the following:
- Setting details. The writer must include a time and location.
- Action. Something must happen in a scene. So, a scene includes some event or conflict. Characters engage in some sort of action.
- Description. A writer must include concrete and specific details and sensory details.
As well, a scene can include the following:
- Thoughts of the character, such as an interior monologue.
You should be aware that scenes usually include dialogue, the spoken conversation between characters in the story.
Purpose of Scenes
The writer crafts a scene to make the story believable. The writer dramatizes one or more events. In short, the writer shows the reader what is happening in the story. A scene has a number of purposes:
- Dramatize events
- Move action or plot forward
- Introduce or intensify conflict
- Develop character
- Introduce theme
- Establish mood
- Provide resolution to the story
Structure of a Scene
A scene dramatizes one or more events in a story. All scenes have a particular structure. A scene includes the following:
There are no rules for beginning a scene. The writer can introduce a scene in several ways. For instance, the writer can introduce a character, action, setting details. The writer can begin in the midst of action or dialogue.
In the middle of the scene, the writer intensifies conflict, develops character describes the action.
In the scene ending, the writer can leave the scene unresolved to create suspense, tension, conflict. Or the writer end the scene with resolution, draw it to a close. Sometimes the writer ends a scene with action or dialogue. It all depends on the type of scene.
Types of Scenes
There are many types of scenes that you can write. Here are a few:
- Scenes that provide background details for future scenes
- Scene that introduces or develops conflict
- Scene that introduces or develops character
- Scene that shows action
- Suspense scene
- Flashback scene
- Resolution scene
The writer crafts a scene to develop conflict, reveal the character, describe the action, show conflict, create suspense.
A flashback scene is a scene within a scene. The writes shows the reader what happened in the past. It allows the reader to understand what is happening in the current scene.
Learning how to Write Scenes
To learn how to craft a scene, read and analyze short stories. A good place to start is by reading The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Discover how the writer creates a scene by analyzing the short story, paying attention to the way the writer creates the scene, paying attention to the elements of the scene–action, dialogue, vivid description, time and location details.
For more information on how to write a scene, read the following:
- Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts
- Writing Fiction by Jane Burroway
Remember, you will construct scenes to make your story believable, to dramatize your story, and to create an entertaining story.
A scene occurs in a specific time and location. Something happens, some sort of event takes place.
To write a scene, the writer shows the reader what happens by using concrete and specific descriptions, dialogue, action, setting details.
In the next post, I’ll explain some of the techniques that writers use to craft short stories and novels.