Writers Talk About Writing
The Grammar of Stories
Jon Franklin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning writer and distinguished journalism professor at the University of Maryland, and the author of the classic writing book Writing for Story. He's a pioneer in applying the literary techniques of fiction to nonfiction stories. We had a fascinating conversation with Jon about writing creative nonfiction.
VT: First, how important are words to writers?
Jon: You know, most of the time writers are not word fanatics. They just want to know what the words mean. My mother, now, does crossword puzzles -- there's a word fanatic for you. I don't dare play Scrabble with her. When I ask my students why they want to write they often say because they love words. I say, basically, no you don't. If I were in an art school and asked art students why they wanted to paint, they'd never say because they love paintbrushes. Storytelling is a higher grammar.
VT: Storytelling as grammar?
Jon: This is not something I'm just saying. I mean, grammarians understand this. Storytelling, or story grammar as the anthropologists sometimes call it, is a specific sort of unfolding way in which stories happen. It turns out that the reason for this is that we've evolved to think in narrative. We live in narrative. We live in a sequential unfolding of events.
VT: How do you turn this sequence into a story?
Jon: You select from these events those which, when put together, yield some meaning. Then you have a story. If you go through your life, you are many things. Maybe you're a parent, maybe you're a student, maybe you're a gardener, maybe you're a writer. But maybe you fall in love and you screw it up. Now that in itself is a story. It has nothing to do with the other events, necessarily.
Basically, most books about writing have to do primarily with what I like to think of as the paint on the structure. I'm dealing with the structure -- how one tells a compelling story.
Jon: This isn't my invention. Homer knew it. Shakespeare knew it. Chekov actually came up with the language that's best used for it. It's just that it was lost for a long time.
VT: How do you create story structure?
Jon: I'm going to make this sound simple. It's simple in concept, but it's much more complicated in depth, as my students could tell you. A story occurs when a protagonist confronts a complication. Now, I didn't say a conflict. It's a complication or struggle to deal with or overcome. When you reach some point of insight or higher level of maturity, then you take the steps that are dictated by that, which may be to solve the problem or abandon it.
To give you an example, consider a story about someone with terminal cancer. If the complication is that they have cancer then there really is no point of insight. I mean it's something beyond their control. However, one of the things they also have to do is confront their own fear. So the story can be about them dealing with what's happening to them and reaching some moment of peace with it, which most people actually do. The complication is not the cancer but the fear.
VT: So you're teaching your students how to recognize that complication?
Jon: That's right. The idea of fiction came about for a number of reasons but one of the reasons was that if you said certain things as fact, you just might well lose your head, in literal terms. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century people started finding power in making these stories as real as possible up until you get to the point of Hemingway, where the stories are almost journalistic. The next step is to tell the stories that really happened. That's what I'm known for, and there are a number of people who do that.
VT: So there's no real difference in the storytelling aspect of fiction or non-fiction?
Jon: People think of fiction and non-fiction as being this dichotomy, but it's not. They think of fiction as being something that's fun to read but it's going to rot your teeth. Whereas, non-fiction is good for you but it's boring. Basically, I'm telling a story about something that I witnessed or documented. It's just like telling a historical story only I have the person right in front of me. You're like an anthropologist. I have a background in anthropology, in fact, and I use it all the time.