cover for Tanaka's Earthquake!


So far this week, we’ve been talking about how to create empathy in narrative non-fiction through well chosen sensory details. But there’s more to the story. In non-fiction, just as in fiction, you have to find a through line. Through line comes from the frame you set for the character’s story, is augmented by the balance of summary and event, and builds on hope and disappointment toward the character’s goal.


Framing Your Narrative

I was lucky enough this January to be in the audience at Vermont College of Fine Arts, when author Shelley Tanaka unveiled photos from her book A Day that Changed America, Earthquake! With each photo came a heart wrenching tale about the individuals whose lives were turned upside down that April day. And it reminded me that a well crafted non-fiction book can make true story as gripping as any piece of fiction.

Like the sinking of the Titanic, this historical event especially captures our imaginations. And while there might be many reasons, including what was happening historically, socially and culturally at the time, the bottom line is, it’s the humanness of the tragedy that lingers. We all yearn to be safe, to have our dreams fulfilled. And it’s the dashing of these dreams and the struggle to reclaim them, which creates great narrative.

As Robert Owen Butler writes in From Where You Dream, “We are the yearning creatures of this planet.” Find what your character yearns for, even in non-fiction, and you have your story. To bring the idea of empathy back in, yearning ties us empathically to others, as author Jeremy Rifkin finds in The Empathic Civilization, because our human capacity to empathize is not only emotional, but an ability that is hard wired into our neurological pathways. You might say we feel empathy (and thus yearning) in our very bones.

The writer’s task, then, is to tap into this yearning to frame his story. In books such as Tanaka’s, and those mentioned earlier by Levinson and Barton, the author’s stories, and thus the through line, were framed by events, the events offering a beginning, middle and end to the human journey set within its borders. But if you’re writing a book larger in scope, such as a biography, the challenge is to unearth a through line that creates its own frame. And that’s a matter of carefully sluicing through, and summarizing, your research, then balancing your findings with your character’s emotions.


Research Rollercoaster

It’s tempting when you research non-fiction to want to use every bit. You may end up with fabulous first hand interviews, letters, diaries, other biographies, newspaper articles, and historical accounts of the times. But you have to then carve away at your findings to reveal those points that relate to the story happening to your character.


Picture of Rising Action

Emotional Though Line

When I was writing the Scholastic biography Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia I had my story when I found this through line. Catherine was born Sophie in a small German principality. She wanted to please her mother, who raised her to marry well. Marrying well, which meant marrying into a ruling class, became her own goal (her yearning) as she grew.

But Sophie’s hopes were dashed early in life when she was disfigured by a long illness. What future husband would want a disfigured woman? Worse, her panicked mother summoned the executioner, the only one who could fashion Sophie a body cast to help straighten her crooked spine. The active girl had to wear this disabling cast for months, if not years. But it was during this time that she studied and read, and built the intellect that would later help her rule Russia.

And so it went. When, at age 15, a now straight-backed Sophie was summoned to Russia as a possible bride for heir to the throne, her cousin Peter, she made sure she pleased Empress Elizabeth and the Russian people. Sophie’s plain looks were a downfall, but her intelligence a plus. Later, after she’d pleased the Empress, been christened Catherine, and married Peter, her two children—born from liaisons with other men—nearly did her in. (Catherine’s internal struggle also played a huge role in her story since, as she struggled to understand herself, she could be her own worst enemy.)

The list of ups and downs grew. Catherine was locked away after childbirth and feared imprisonment. She seized the throne from her husband and perhaps arranged for his murder. Later, as Empress, she gave up a desire to be an enlightened ruler when a peasant uprising threatened her power. So, while her short term goals changed, Sophie, now Catherine the Great, never lost sight of her yearning to rule. And each of these elements was important to the overall thread of her story goal. In writing her biography, what didn’t fit in moving her to this goal, had to be left out.


High Tide photo sand and tide

Find what your character yearns for in your non-fiction narrative. Frame you story through events or by using your character’s emotional through line. Imagine your through line as an incoming tide, each wave cresting and falling like your character’s inner waves of hope and disappointment, hope and disappointment. These waves—in ever increasing intensity—will create your story. Until finally, at high tide, your character faces her crisis moment. Crisis leading, as we know, to resolution, and the smooth sand as the tide pulls back.

–zu vincent