The Power of Story

by Sharleen Jonsson

It’s obvious the ability to tell a great story will get you far in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. But literary devices—the use of scenes, specific detail and suspense and more—can turn informational nonfiction into a riveting read, too. By “informational,” I mean the sort of book you read mainly to find out about a topic, not to be (necessarily) entertained and/or drawn into another world. I got to thinking about the broad powers of story when I was reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It, by Charles Duhigg.

As you can tell by the title, this is a book about psychology. Duhigg gives us social science explanations for why we do what we do, and this is interesting enough, and if you have any habits you want to change you’ll probably find his description of the “habit loop” very useful. It’s not self-help, though you could certainly use some of the information in it to help change your own habits. It’s well-organized – this is a big topic and the author makes his material easier to follow by presenting it in three sections: the habits of individuals, organizations and societies. This is also a weakness, in that calling these behaviors of organizations and societies “habits” is a stretch.

Where New York Times reporter Duhigg excels is storytelling. I couldn’t put this book down when I was reading about coach Tony Dungy even though I am not remotely interested in football. Dungy is not the only fascinating character in this book—and yes, I mean “character” in the literary sense of the word. Without devoting a lot of word count to the people he introduces us to (after all, this is supposed to be a book about social science), Duhigg manages to give us just enough detail to make each of the main players compelling.

If you’re writing nonfiction and want to see how great storytelling can enliven a topic, I recommend you check this book out.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Fran June 18, 2012 at 5:28 pm

It’s true that characters make nonfiction more interesting. Some magazine articles tell you what so-and-so’s problem is, but if they tell it in a way that creates suspense (ie, so that you wonder, what happened to their problem?) then I want to read on.

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Sharleen Jonsson June 27, 2012 at 7:44 am

Exactly. When writing journalism, one of the best ways to introduce a topic is to tell it through the eyes of a person — ie., an anecdote that functions as the beginning of a story. Thanks for commenting.

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