Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Let the Facts Speak for Themselves

"Let the facts speak for themselves" — for writing non-fiction, that's as good a single rule as any I know. If Bobby did ride his bicycle to the store, the strongest, clearest, and plainest way to put that fact into words is:

Bobby rode his bicycle to the store.

Yet, like so many things in writing and life, the matter is not quite so simple. Before facts can speak for themselves, they must be put into words, and any number of words can speak the same basic facts. Bobby could have "hopped on his two-wheeler and pedaled his way to the emporium," or he could have "zoomed on his Schwinn down to Acme Sporting Goods." Every variation introduces new details, points of view, and emotions. Fiction writers deal with imaginary facts (Othello strangling Desdamona, Ahab pursuing a white whale) and may create and color their facts as they please, but non-fiction writers need some verifiable source for every factual assertion or run the danger of "fictionalizing" their work.

When, for example, I wrote the end of Chapter Four of my biography, Ray Charles: Man and Music, I described the sixteen year-old Ray riding from Jacksonville to Orlando, Florida, in a van full of musicians in the fall of 1946, arriving at nightfall. Now I'll confess: the existence of that cramped van and its arrival in Orlando is no more than my educated guess. I don't know what time of day it arrived, if it did, and the date could have been anytime between summer of '46 and spring '47. A reliable source gave me one colorful detail: the other musicians made Ray, a newcomer to the band, ride the whole way on a rickety soda crate; the source, however, didn't know on which road trip this had happened, so I tacked it on there, as good a place for it as any.

After reading that chapter, my editor warned me against fictionalizing. In response I shortened the passage and from then on hewed closer to the documentary record. Yet I never stopped yearning to paint scenes that my imagination conjured up from my research, never stopped feeling hemmed in by a slavish devotion to footnote-able facts. When the movie Ray came out, I envied the script writers who could invent dialog for the characters, the costumers who could put a red tie on one character, a blue tie on another, when truly they had no more idea of who wore what tie than I had of exactly when and how Ray arrived in Orlando.

This fact-fiction question has come to mind as I've been reading Laura Hillenbrand's superb bestseller, Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived crashing into the Pacific during World War II, drifting for weeks in a rubber raft, and then being imprisoned by the Japanese military. With millions of other readers, I've eagerly turned the book's four hundred-plus pages, horrified one moment, cheering the next. Zamperini's courage and inventive optimism provide much of the book's magnetic appeal, yet when I've turned back to re-read powerful scenes, I've noted and enjoyed the self-effacing modesty of Hillenbrand's narrative voice.

Unbroken 's "just the facts, ma'am" style impressed me in part because a decade ago when I read Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand's first blockbuster, I didn't like how she hyped her prose to a level of emotional exaggeration that, to my taste, pushed her storytelling over the line from fact to fiction.

Look, for example, at Hillenbrand's opening portrait of Johnny "Red" Pollard, Seabiscuit's best-known jockey. With a fortune built on manufacturing bricks, Pollard's Canadian father bought "a huge portion" of Edmonton and built a "vast home" for his "teeming…boisterous" family that remained rich until a flood on the North Saskatchewan River "boiled up…ripping over the shoreline" and destroyed the factory. Johnny, the "liveliest" member of the clan, grew up "devouring great literature," but "the classroom smothered him," and he "desperately wanted to explore the wider world":

He was impatient with his lessons, mouthed off at teachers, got poor grades, spent hours coining witticisms and engineering elaborate practical jokes. His emotions were liquid; his anger was a wild rage, his pleasure jubilation, his humor biting, his sorrow and empathy a bottomless abyss.

When Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard pulls Seabiscuit from a race because of an injury. the crowd boos the decision:

Howard listened to the hooting and was horrified. He rushed to the press box…but met a hostile audience. Chief Steward Thorpe was venting his rage….The crowd was howling epithets, the stewards were infuriated, the reporters were unsympathetic.

Elsewhere horses go "screaming around the track. " When Seabiscuit became famous, reporters "infested" his stall, "buzzing" in his trainer's ear. The horse became so celebrated that "the earth seemed to dip under Seabiscuit's hoof-falls, pulling the world in toward him."

Similar passages crowd Seabiscuit's pages. Thousands of readers embraced them as vigorous and colorful prose, yet I found myself tiring of Hillenbrand's breathless enthusiasm, her rush-rush pace, her parade of superlatives: "the greatest display of raw speed," "the most extraordinary feat," "the largest crowd." No, I thought, life is not always so adrenalized. Instead of letting the facts speak for themselves, Hillenbrand is goosing her facts, making them squeak with goggle-eyed excitement.

In contrast, Hillenbrand keeps her emotional tone in Unbroken calmly unemphatic. She makes active verbs, often used in imaginative and unusual ways, a mark of her style:

a convertible fringed with blondes
Japan galloped over the globe
a smudge on the horizon lidded the sun
hunger bleated inside them
the sea began to arch its back

—but she reins in Seabiscuit's wow-wow modifiers that left me both panting and skeptical. Instead she pulls off the far more difficult task of making detailed facts both persuasive and dramatic. Zamperini, for example, was watching a movie in Texas when a man ran on stage and told the audience the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor:

Louie would long remember sitting there with his eyes wide, his mind floundering. America was at war. He grabbed his hat and ran from the building.

In early 1943 Zamperini started flying bombing missions over the Pacific's Gilbert Islands. The casualties among his mates mounted up:

…every man dealt with the losses in a different way. [In time} a ritual sprang up. If a man didn't return, the others would open his footlocker, take out his liquor, and have a drink in his honor. In a war without funerals, it was the best they could do.

Sergeant Harold Brooks died one week before his twenty-third birthday….On Harley Road [in Clarksville, Michigan], the news reached his fiancée, Jeannette Burtscher, nine days before the wedding date that they had set before he left for the war.

In May Zamperini's B-24 crashed into the ocean. He blacked out until a nauseating gulp of salt water, gasoline, and blood woke him up:

He was at the open right waist window. He swam into the window, put his feel on the frame, and pushed off….His back struck the top of the window, and the skin under his shirt scraped off. The plane sank away….

He burst into dazzling daylight. He gasped in a breath and immediately vomited up the salt water and fuel he had swallowed. He had survived.

Reading these and many similar passages describing terror, pain, and death often brought tears to my eyes, all the more so because Hillenbrand doesn't tell me what to feel as she did in Seabiscuit. Instead she holds back and, by letting the facts speak for themselves, lets me paint the scene from my own heart and mind. On the rare occasions, however, when she does step forward to speak her mind, she writes with stirring eloquence:

[Dignity], the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from and cast below mankind.

…{In prison] Louie learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler's death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen.

When I read those facts, first I cried, then I cheered.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday May 14th 2015, 3:58 AM
Comment by: Daniel B.
Hum- insightful; I’ll hold and use this information as little gold nugget of style. It not about my emotions or passions, but it’s about the reader ability to attach feelings to my written proses.
Thursday May 14th 2015, 10:42 AM
Comment by: WordyGerty's girl
I find it difficult also to separate a good detailed story from few known facts…in life and in writing.
Thursday May 14th 2015, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I've been reading Alison Weir's history of the wives of Henry VIII, and many times while reading I've wondered how well-founded some of her more descriptive passages are. She does sometimes use verbiage like "she must have felt as if ...", thus marking a passage as speculative. But not always.

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