This month Brevity has an excellent craft essay by Phillip Gerard on truth in nonfiction or, more accurately, backstory in nonfiction. He tells the tale of himself as a cub reporter being sent to the local high school to get a “hero story” about a boy who saved his girlfriend from a burning car. He gets the story and his first front page byline. His career is launched. He is proud.
Years later he discovers quite by accident that he only got part of the story because of questions he failed to ask at the scene of the heroic rescue. It turned out, ironically enough, that the boy had actually locked his girlfriend in the car during a squabble, set the fire to the vehicle, and then, having second thoughts, pulled her to safety. Quite a different story than the first version.
What a great story Gerard tells at his own expense. And what a great reminder to those of us who write nonfiction that the story we perceive is not always the actual truth.
I am in the process of trying to tell a long and incredibly intricate tale of a land-deal-gone-bad in a foreign country. I am all too aware that many of the facts of this case are presented from my point of view and, as such, are inherently flawed. I know Mr. Gerard is right in his main point in this essay: backstory drives present action.
Gerard goes on to say:
Sometimes the facts do indeed point to an obvious story. But more often there is a larger true thing, a Big Fact, behind the Facts of the Case. It is this fact behind the facts that determines the meaning of all the other facts, creates a context for interpreting what our eyes are seeing and what our informants are telling us, and dictates the true syntax of a story.
For every story, like every sentence, has a syntax: a dynamic architectural cohesion that determines meaning, based on three qualities that every word in a sentence has—as does every element of a story:
1. Sequence: in what order the elements are arranged, and where in that sequence any particular element fits.
2. Priority: the importance of any element relative to other elements.
3. Relationship: a special connection to each other element and to the story as a whole.
This, then, is the driving force behind any good narrative, isn’t it? It is the deeper truth we search for and discovering it requires more exploration than simply the surface facts.
He concludes by holding all of us who write nonfiction accountable for knowing the difference. Indeed.