Do you know the difference between a novel and a non-fiction book? A non-fiction book is based in truth. However, the biggest mistake that non-fiction authors make is equating truth with a dry recitation of facts rather than the telling of a story. Despite your history teacher’s attempts to bore you with lists of dates and tables of facts, history can (and is) actually interesting. People want to know why something happened or why someone acted or reacted as they did. They want to understand the reason for events, and that’s where your story telling ability comes in. You need to show them why; you need to give them the story surrounding the event.
All stories, both fiction and non-fiction, are just that—stories. When writing a memoir, biography, or other bit of non-fiction, you still need to follow the same guidelines as an author writing a novel; however, you have a major advantage. Your story is already loosely defined for you. You have the timeline, timeframe, characters, major conflicts, and key dramatic elements, all you need to do is add the story components.
You need to develop your characters so that your readers can see them the way you do—are they shy, dynamic, geeky, or ne’er do well? The characters need depth, life, purpose, and motivation to go along with that dramatic moment. Does the moment you’re recording have to do with star-crossed lovers, a robbery gone wrong, a heroic deed, or just a crazy moment that changed the character’s life? You also need to build up the environment. What was the time period like, the culture, and the society? Help your readers understand your character’s perspectives, actions, and reactions. (For instance, the American culture and societal mores are much different today than they were in the 1970’s and understanding that can help the reader connect with the character and their plight.)
Also, just as a fictional character has wants, needs, fears, and motivations, so do your non-fictional characters. By using a first- or third-person point of view, action verbs, and a show-not-tell writing style you can catapult your readers into the story and help them appreciate the little slice of true life that you are sharing with them.
Here’s an example of a memoir that, while historically accurate, is rather dry:
In 1973, Terry got a job for the local newspaper. She did many jobs while there, such as typesetting, layout and design, and bundling (which is the bundling of flyers, ads, and other inserts with the paper). However, her favorite job was junior reporter.
Her first really major story involved the murder of a local schoolteacher. When the body was discovered, Terry was at the school to cover the latest protests.
Here is that same example, but written in a more story-like way:
1973 was a tumultuous year. It was the time of flower power, (Viet Nam) war protests, hippies dropping out, dropping in, and dropping acid, flag and bra burnings, and it was the year that Terry saw her first murder victim.
As a junior reporter for the local paper, she was at the school covering the latest protest when the screams ripped through the air.
Now, which memoir would you rather read?