by Anna Crowley Redding
True stories are powerful. They can spark passion. They can satiate and ignite our curiosity. They can inspire us in ways we never dreamed of. True stories not only help us discover and understand the world around us. But they also help us to discover and better understand ourselves. Powerful.
As writers, our task is to tell the story so powerfully that the effects of our true tale fall like dominoes in someone else’s imagination and life.
That’s a tall order––and a worthy endeavor. I’ve got just the tools to help you get there. Here’s a checklist to help you uncover every opportunity to make your nonfiction pop off the page.
First things, first. Reading your story, chapter, or scene––is it clear? Does it make sense? It’s easy for writers to learn so much about a topic that you accidentally leave out important details because they are so alive in your own head but missing from the page. It’s also easy to include every single fact you found, which can make the writing convoluted as the story veers off-track.
Give It A Try: Read your story with fresh eyes to find out if it is clear and easy to understand.
Dress up time! You have the bones of your book down on the page. But did you include some showcase facts? What’s the difference? In a narrative you need a beginning, middle, and end. Your main facts are your Who, What, Where, How, and Why? But your showcase facts are the cool twists, turns, and tidbits you discovered along the way.
In my nonfiction picture book, The Gravity Tree, my job was to write a biography of a tree. Here are the main facts. The tree started out as a seed. One of its falling apples inspired Isaac Newton. The tree almost died in a storm, but it survived and still lives today.
But along the way, I discovered that Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking visited the tree. Part of the tree was sent to space. Those are my super fun showcase facts, they make the story sparkle with surprise, depth, and delight!
This idea also applies to writing other types of nonfiction. For example, in writing a book about the solar system that is a collection of facts, you have your main facts that might include the names, composition, and location of planets. Showcase facts might be learning that the sunshine hitting your skin right now left the sun a little more than eight minutes ago! Another showcase fact: it rains diamonds on Neptune! What a cool surprise to engage your reader.
Give It A Try: Make a list of showcase facts about your topic. Now, go through your text and see if there are spots where these special twists, turns, and tidbits can liven your book.
Maserati time! Let’s shift gears. No, really, let’s shift gears. Read your story out loud. Make sure the wording and story structure allow for varied pacing, just like shifting gears in a car. Rev up when your story is more intense with shorter sentences that convey the quick pace. Downshift when your heroine has failed. If your story about a narrow escape reads like breaking news on every single page, you will wear out your reader, deplete their emotional well, and miss an opportunity to invite your reader to re-engage. Likewise, if you are explaining microbiomes, make sure your manuscript doesn’t have the pacing of a textbook on every page. You want to feel like you are shifting speeds throughout your work.
Give It A Try: Go through each scene and assign it a number 1-10. Imagine ‘1’ is slow and quiet. Image that ‘10’ is for rip-roaring action of a frantic search or runaway train. Now that you have assigned a pacing “gear” to each scene, chapter, or page, make sure you are shifting gears to tell your story with maximum impact.
I get so emotional, baby! Okay, I’ll stop singing Whitney Houston. But let’s do take her advice. Have you found the emotional heart of every scene? Go back through and make sure. Label each scene by its emotion. In The Gravity Tree, when the tree is struck down by a terrible storm, my language and pacing needed to reflect the sadness of that scene. In our planet example, the sense of discovery, the feeling of a quest, and your own enthusiasm for the topic is a critical ingredient.
Give It A Try: Go through each section and assign it an emotion. Now, make sure that emotion is truly coming through.
Word Choice Now, take each scene, page, or chapter on its own and focus on the words. Have you picked the best verbs? Is there an opportunity for alliteration to make something pop? Would a refrain make the work sing? Would a parallel sentence structure do it?
I can tell you I’m sitting by a fire. Or I can say, “My fingertips tapped the keyboard, setting their own rhythm to the crackle of the fire.” See the difference?
Give It A Try: Examine each small moment of your text and highlights words that could use an upgrade! Then brainstorm or research words that best convey what you are trying to say.
Embrace Tension! Tension is a compelling storytelling tool. When readers wonder what’s going to happen next or feel that they can’t wait to learn more, you are doing a great job! To pull this off, make sure that you stay in each moment of your book and communicate the tension and (when appropriate) the stakes. Emotion, pacing, and showcase facts can help you. Whether you are taking us along for the ride of a narrative or teaching us something fact by fact, you are building a foundation of knowledge.
Give It A Try: Make sure the baton of tension is being passed from page to page.
Can I have a moment? Don’t shortchange your ending. Give us a minute to live one more second in your book. This is like the final wave before a visitor pulls out of the driveway. Make sure your reader walks away from your book with the very purpose with which it was written. For The Gravity Tree it’s this: you may feel as small as the tiny apple seed in this book, but you also have the potential to change the world.
Give It A Try: Write down the purpose of your book, why you are writing it in the first place. Now ask yourself if your book delivers on that promise.
Meet the Author: Anna Crowley Redding is the award-winning author of more than six nonfiction books for kids and teens including The Gravity Tree, a Kirkus Best Book of 2021. Anna’s middle grade nonfiction Black Hole Chasers is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection and was also named a Best Book by New York Public Library. Her next nonfiction picture book, Courage Like Kate: The True Story of a Girl Lighthouse Keeper, is coming out from Random House Studio in August 2022. Want to learn more about Anna’s approach to writing award-winning nonfiction, you can visit her at AnnaCrowleyRedding.com