Good Prose: Narrative

that’s me and my sibs–the characters of my life
For me, finding a story that I want to tell has always depended less on effort and method than on what my college teacher the poet and great translator Robert Fitzgerald called “the luck of the conception.” Luck of this type may begin with a chance encounter, a suggestion from a stranger, a sudden notion that seems like grace descending…–Tracy Kidder, Good Prose

This is a chunky chapter, covering story, point of view, characters, and structure. I found each discussion insightful and packed with helpful pointers. The section on story gives sage advice about conceptualizing your story, the importance of conflict, and discovering a deeper revelation in the telling.

The discussion on point of view gives wisdom in choosing which voice to use, offering tried and true rules (…the smaller the canvas, the more intrusive the first person is likely to be. pp. 21) as well as thoughts on more unique POVs such as first-person minor and the unreliable narrative. I think it’s the most complete discussion on point of view I’ve ever read—chock full of examples. If you’ve ever struggled with this issue, Good Prosegives guidance.
And the discussion on structure is extremely helpful in planning and persevering with a project. But it was the discussion on character that really drew me in. Perhaps this is because I’m a lover of reading and writing fiction—which is only as strong as the characters the story gives to us. I found Kidder and Todd’s discussion on character development as it pertains to nonfiction so refreshing—at one point they encourage the writer to borrow techniques from fiction.
The attempt to render characters in a piece of writing, to create the illusion that people are alive on a page, is so essential to storytelling, and so dependent on every other aspect of the art, that it can’t help but seem diminished by the standard term “characterization”…Great writers remind us that more is possible. (pp. 29)
Just because the story is a true one does not mean the writer should be contained by obvious facts. The authors encourage us to ignite the reader’s imagination—to dig deeper into our characters and capture the essence of who they are.
When we read fictional and factual narratives, we conjure up characters through their deeds: characteristic actions and contradictory actions, behavior in moments of stress, of mastery, of weakness. Suggestions of a character’s motives may be implicit in the deeds, but many readers want more. We want to imagine that we know why characters do what they do and feel as they do. We want to understand characters in a story better than we understand ourselves…(pp.35)
In this section, the authors also give practical advice about unfolding a story and developing setting. These things are what bring a character to life on the page. Kidder and Todd have left no stone unturned in this chapter. Astute attention to these components of a narrative can only strengthen the storytelling. Carefully considering these elements will make one less dependent—Kidder says in the opening quote—on that fickle occurrence of grace descending.
Second Draft:
Look back at your latest story–blog post, poem, novel, memoir–who is the main character? What is one detail you can add to that person’s development (even if it’s you) that gives depth? Does the character have a bad habit you can introduce? (does she twist her hair when she’s bored? is she a picky eater?) Try to introduce at least one more detail that helps us see that person in our mind’s eye. 
On Wednesdays, we’re discussing Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd’s book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Next week we’ll discuss chapter three: Memoirs.
Other posts in this series: 


  1. Lane Arnold says

    You sold me on this book. will send you a thank you note! I’ll jump in quickly so I can join the discussion for Memoir. Thanks for the enticement.

  2. says

    Are you trying to get me in trouble with your man again? And, you’re taking a memoir class? Do tell! How fun and exciting. Is Mick in your neighborhood? I’m so enjoying this book, Sandy. It is beautiful but not as artsy as some of my favorite writing books. Which–I’m finding–is giving me a good balance.


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