This year during Camp NaNoWriMo, writers of all sorts are sharing what they love to pen, and why you should join them. Today, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, who adapted Slavery By Another Name, tells us how creative nonfiction can take you into people’s minds and hearts:
“Nonfiction” is a word that has always paralyzed me. It implies no flexibility to write outside-of-the-box. Fact is fact. How can a writer mold and shape their story when the historical elements are set in stone?
When I set out to write the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from The Civil War to World War II, I was worried regurgitating facts would suck the joy out of storytelling. My challenge was to honor the truth of history while focusing on telling an emotionally moving, dramatic story.
In my writing process, everything begins with two outlines: one for plot and one for character development. With the adaptation, I chose the most emotionally moving, real-life events to put into the plot portion of the outline. After all, the whole point of storytelling is to make people feel something. The greatest danger of Creative Nonfiction is simply transcribing a history lesson and boring your audience.
My job was to merge events, even merge multiple characters into one, in order to drive the story at a compelling pace. Ask yourself which facts interested you when you first discovered this nonfiction story. If it interested you, it will probably interest your reader. Cut everything else.
Grabbing your audience’s attention is even more difficult when the nonfiction story is well known. How can you keep them interested when they already know the outcome?
Characters. They are the sweet spot for every story. All I knew of my characters were their actions of over 100 years ago. There were no interviews beyond court testimony. There was no way to know what their wounds were, what their conversations were like, or what their relationships really were with the other players involved.
I did the only thing I knew how – I put them on my therapist’s couch. I scanned all the information, making notes on what the actions of my main characters were, and then analyzed them, as if they were patients.
For example, the plantation owner, John Pace, the first white man to be brought to trial for holding slaves, was not a simply-villainous Southern slaveholder from Alabama. I discovered that Pace had a black female servant with him from his childhood until death. He even took her with him when he left his father’s farm. That relationship gave another complicated layer to his story and gave me a subplot to delve into.
Look at every fact and ask if it’s interesting enough, if it moves the plot forward or stalls it, if it has potential to be a subplot, or if it says something about your characters’ inner lives. Don’t be afraid to work with the narrative to make it more interesting without altering the basic facts of events. Whatever you decide to keep in your version of Creative Nonfiction must move the audience emotionally.
Bottom-line: in order to write Creative Nonfiction, you need to get creative in how you approach the overall story. Rip it apart to find the story’s heart, which lies in the characters. Put them on the couch and see what their actions say about their true selves. Take your readers to a place traditional nonfiction can’t go… inside people’s heads and hearts.
Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the editor and online community manager of Script Magazine. She is co-founder of the weekly Twitter screenwriters’ chat, #Scriptchat, and wrote the narrative film adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, with its author, Douglas A. Blackmon. Follow @jeannevb on Twitter.