[Podcast] Jordan Rosenfeld on Storytelling Techniques to Use in Nonfiction WritingJan 16, 2024
Remember those college lectures where you struggled to stay awake?
Maybe your professor spoke in a monotonous voice. Or maybe the professor relied on text-heavy slides that made their point convoluted and too difficult to understand. Whatever the reason, you never wanted to go to class because it was…well, boring.
Nonfiction writing can fall into the same trap. Writers inflate their book with too many logistical details, boring verbiage, and lecture-type paragraphs. These types of nonfiction books fail to captivate readers. And they fail to sell copies, too.
Readers want to feel engaged by a book. They want to feel awake and excited to dive into your ideas. In order to do this, you need to 1) include stories in your nonfiction book, and 2) improve your storytelling skills.
Jordan Rosenfeld, author of How to Write a Page Turner, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, and other books, offers storytelling techniques to use in nonfiction writing.
Where does she recommend you start?
With emotional resonance.
The Need for Emotional Resonance in ALL Books
We read books because we want something from them: to learn something new, to change our lives, to connect to someone’s story, to improve our business, etc. Our desire to read is underpinned by emotions.
When writing nonfiction, it’s important to remember that your reader is human. And your book isn’t an attempt to load dry data into your reader’s brain. As Jordan argues, “information is not the problem you’re solving with your book.”
So, if you’re trying to instruct, guide, or educate a reader, then you must connect to their emotions.
Connecting to a reader’s emotions can seem tricky. Impossible, even.
Jordan argues it’s not as hard as you might think. You can communicate emotional resonance through blunt statements. For example, you can say, “Making a transition in your career is a scary time in your life.” Or, “Succession planning in family businesses is challenging. You’re not alone in your frustrations.”
These statements, while simple, acknowledge your reader’s emotion. And they allow your reader to connect to your book’s message.
How else can you evoke emotion in your writing?
How to Make Your Nonfiction Connect with Your Reader
Scene Writing: Scene writing is key to writing a successful book—nonfiction, fiction, and memoir alike. And yet many nonfiction writers fail to include scenes in their books.
They think, because they’re writing a book about taxes, business planning, or career moves, for instance, that they can’t include scene writing. This isn’t true!
All nonfiction books can be awakened with scenes, according to Jordan. All you have to do is tell a story that illustrates the point you’re trying to make.
When you break up paragraphs of information with a story, you’re reminding your reader that your arguments are relatable to real life. A scene will engage your reader. And it will help the reader better apply your lesson to their life.
Figures of Speech: Another way to scene write: lighten dense topics with metaphors, similes, or imagery. A little pop can make something go a long way. (Just make sure you don’t overuse these figures of speech! Listen to the full podcast episode to learn how to avoid overwriting.)
Maintaining Integrity in Storytelling: For some nonfiction writers, scene writing can be daunting. They either lack real-life examples to use as stories, or they’re afraid their story’s retelling will be “untruthful.” Jordan claims there are easy fixes to both.
If you don’t have a real-life example to use, you can make up a story. Simply alert the reader that your example is fictionalized. All you have to say: “Here’s a case example of what this might have looked like.”
If you’re afraid your story’s retelling will be inaccurate, Jordan reminds writers that their stories don’t have to be exact. The reader trusts your memories are your memories to the best of your abilities and experiences.
Still concerned? You can tell the reader you don’t remember the exact details of the experience while maintaining the story’s purpose. Simply say: “The following story is in spirit of capturing the truth of the message being conveyed.”
Incorporating storytelling techniques into your nonfiction writing can be the bridge to engagement. Remember: the best way to evoke emotion in your nonfiction book is through scene writing. To uncover more storytelling techniques to use in nonfiction writing, check out this blog post.