Writing Compelling Stories — Insights from Jon Franklin, Master of the Nonfiction Short Story

If you want to write a book that helps people change their behavior, then tell stories about people who succeed at doing that.

My checklist for writing for behavior change notes the power of storytelling. Besides entertaining readers, stories offer inspiration through examples of “experience, strength, and hope” (as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous).

Stories provide relief from long passages of expository text and engage readers emotionally by answering some tough questions: How does this material relate to me? And, Why should I care?

This is especially true when stories are relevant to your readers — grounded in their particular circumstances and challenges.

Ultimately, our challenge as writers is to infuse the anecdotes and extended examples in our work with elements of good fiction: Compelling characters that readers can identify with. Realistic events. Gritty details. Authentic dialogue.

That’s a tall order.

For useful insights into how to do this, we can turn to Jon Franklin. He is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and author of Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction.

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My copy of Jon’s book is heavily underlined. Following are my key take-aways.

The essence of a story

The first step to writing stories is to understand what the word “story” means. Franklin’s definition is this:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.

For Franklin, the whole art of storytelling flows from that single sentence.

What separates literature from life is that many of us live with complications (problems) that go perpetually unsolved. Beyond that, many of us don’t even see the complications that we face with any clarity in the first place.

This is why we love stories. We find it deeply satisfying when a character clearly perceives a complication, faces it squarely, and eventually resolves it. This is especially true when the complication matters greatly to the character and connects to a universal theme.

Stories also offer readers a vicarious learning experience. We learn from stories in the same way that we learn from life — through the power of felt experience rather than lectures full of abstract concepts.

Story-based learning takes place when we identify with a character who exerts sustained and significant effort to resolve a complication. Frequently this involves failed attempts and personal suffering along the way. But in the end, the resolution prevails.

Describing the complication and resolution

Franklin believes that clarity about your story starts with defining the main complication your character faces. He recommends that you describe the complication in three words.

That’s right — just three words:

  1. A noun
  2. An active verb
  3. And another noun (the direct object of the verb)

For example: Company fires Joe.

Keep in mind that these three words can expand into several paragraphs or pages in which you describe Joe, his company, his job, and the details about how he came to lose it.

Even so, the essence of the complication is simply this: Company fires Joe.

Now, do the same thing with the resolution. For example: Joe regains job.

For Franklin, this is the acid test of a story: the character resolves the complication. If you describe a complication that goes unresolved, then you have failed to create a story — even if your prose is brilliant.

Outlining the path from complication to resolution

Once you understand the beginning (complication) and end (resolution) of your story, you can flesh it out. At this stage, your task is to 1) list the actions that your character takes to resolve the complication and 2) put those actions in a credible sequence.

This outline is especially useful if your book allows for extended and recurring examples of people putting your ideas into practice. Depending on the length of your book, you might have space to narrate a whole series actions taken by the main characters in your stories.

In a fully developed story, Franklin says, there are three milestones or major turning points in the sequence of actions from complication to resolution. He refers to these as developments and suggests that you use the same three-word format to describe each of them. For example:

  • Company fires Joe (Complication)
  • Depression paralyzes Joe (Development #1)
  • Joe regains confidence (Development #2)
  • Joe sues company (Development #3)
  • Joe regains job (Resolution)

Behold — the essence of a story. In 15 words.

You might use hundreds or thousands of words to flesh out each item in this outline. That will be much easier to do when the complication, resolution, and developments are clearly defined and firmly fixed in your mind. This is where the 15-word outline excels.

A summary checklist

Following is a checklist for outlining a story that I developed based on Jon’s book:

  • Describe the complication in three words: noun, active verb, noun.
  • Describe the resolution in three words: noun, active verb, noun.
  • Describe three major developments that lead from the complication to the resolution; use the same three-word format for each development.
    • Ask: Do all the above statements include an active verb?
    • Ask: Is the complication basic and significant?
    • Ask: Does the character understand the complication and take it seriously?
    • Ask: Does the resolution resolve the complication?
    • Ask: Is the resolution constructive?
    • Ask: Do the statements involve the main character as the subject or object of action? (Note: In the resolution, the main character always is the subject.)
  • Describe the actions that the character takes to resolve the complication, using three words for each action: noun, active verb, noun.
  • Sequence the list of actions.
    • Ask: Does each action statement involve the main character?
    • Ask: Are all verbs in action statements active?
    • Ask: Can you illustrate each action statement with a scene?
    • Ask: Have you included all relevant actions—enough to “show, not tell”?
    • Ask: Does each action fit with the complication, developments, and resolution?
    • Ask: Have you listed any extraneous actions that you can delete?
    • Ask: Are there relevant actions from the character’s past that help to explain how he or she views the complication?
    • Ask: How does the world respond to these actions?
    • Ask: Could any of these actions become a flashback that follows the complication?
  • Ask: Does the story have a plot point in the third development — the character’s culminating insight into how to resolve the complication?
  • Ask: Do the events of the story leave the character more mature?
  • Ask: Does the story illustrate a basic truth?

To learn more, go directly to the source — Writing for Story.