Narrative Nonfiction Storytelling

Next week, Tim Grahl and I get back to his novel.  He’s written the first eleven scenes.

The bottom line is that these scenes (while problematic and in need of intense work) are a major leap forward for him.  He’s getting a real feel for his narrative fastball and is finding his own particular voice.

What we’ll be doing is going through his work scene by scene.  It will take a few weeks at least.

At the end of the extensive dialogue, I’ll post my Story Grid Spreadsheet of his beginning hook in progress as well as copious editorial notes about each and every scene.  And Tim will share the rough work too. So stayed tuned for that.  I think you’ll get a lot out of it.  Remember that Tim’s novel (even though it’s categorized as Young Adult/Action/Dystopian Science Fiction) is globally a Internal Maturation Plot, also known as coming of age.  So even if you’re not a 100% fan of the other sub-genres he’s adding to his narrative stew, if you want to learn how to keep the core movement of coming of age progressing in your particular story, I highly recommend following this process.

This week, Tim and I discuss how to use the techniques of fiction while writing nonfiction.  In particular I use a book I worked on a few years ago, the brilliant The Billionaire’s Apprentice by Anita Raghavan as an example of how to apply the principles of fiction to hard core investigative journalism.

Anita is a consummate journalist and working with her on the project from pooh-poohing her initial idea (this is a woman who refuses to take “no” for an answer) to the front page rave review in The New York Times Book Review was an honor.

It’s an example of an Epic Punitive Plot/Social Drama/Business Performance/Crime Story all rolled into one.  There’s a lot of comedy in it as well, but the tragic fall of Rajat Gupta serves as a cautionary tale for all of us.

If I were teaching Narrative Nonfiction at Harvard, or Point Park University for that matter, this is the book I would require all of my students to read and analyze.  It’s got it all, one of those books I can throw at someone who questions my editorial bona fides. I represented the book as Anita’s agent and edited the book from global to line by line prior to delivery to the publisher.

To listen click the play button below or read the transcript that follows.

[0:00:00.4] TG: Hello and welcome to the Story Grid Podcast. This is a show dedicated to helping you become a better writer. I’m your host Tim Grahl and I am a struggling writer trying to figure out how to tell a story that works. Joining me shortly is Shawn Coyne, he is the author of the book, The Story Grid and he is an editor with over 25 years’ experience.


In this episode, we are diving into story grid and nonfiction. Shawn talks about the four categories of nonfiction and how story grid applies to each of them and we really dive into narrative nonfiction and how it is similar and dissimilar to writing fiction. If you’ve ever thought about writing nonfiction and you want to make sure that you tell a great story that works while doing that, this is the episode for you.


Let’s jump in and get started.




[0:00:54.4] TG: So Shawn, as part of this kind of hiatus is I struggled to get my beginning hook written, actually, you’ve gotten an email, I’ve actually gotten a couple of questions about this myself to talk some about how story grid applies to nonfiction and so I wanted to start out because the question you got was specifically about narrative nonfiction. I want to just start by asking, how do you kind of section off nonfiction when it comes from this standpoint of how you structure this thing?


Because you have books that seem to be more like a collection of ideas, like The 48 Laws of Power or something like that and then you have of course clearly narrative nonfiction, which is a lot of Devil in the White City or something like that. Who is the guy that wrote that?


[0:01:48.6] SC: He’s great too, yeah he’s written a lot of really great books.


[0:01:52.7] TG: Yeah, that one I read the Hitler one. This is horrible, I’ll look it up here in a sec but…


[0:01:57.6] SC: Thunder Struck too, yeah.


[0:02:01.0] TG: Larson, Eric Larson.


[0:02:01.6] SC: Yes, that’s it.


[0:02:04.9] TG: Where his is like obviously, it reads like a novel almost. So how do you think through like the different types and the different types of nonfiction?


[0:02:17.1] SC: This is funny because in the car yesterday, my 12-year-old son asked me the same question and it was kind of fun because I never really think he’s paying attention. But I think obviously he overhears some of the podcast material and he asked me, “Dad, you write about — you talk about fiction all the time, do you have any ideas about nonfiction?” And I’m like, “Well let me tell you, son,” and I bored the hell out of him on the whole way ride home.


[0:02:44.0] TG: Yeah, my son does like, he’ll ask me a question and I’m like, I’m 10 minutes into a response, he’s like, “Dad, I don’t care. I didn’t understand what I was committing to when I asked you this question.” I’m like, “No, now you have to listen as I finish.”


[0:02:58.9] SC: It’s exactly true, that’s the role of the son. He has to listen to the father blabber  on. After I finished the book, The Story Grid and it was my sort of methodology dealing with fiction, I said to myself, “What’s the next thing that people are going to want to know from me?” And that is how I deal with nonfiction. Because in my career as an editor, I didn’t just edit fiction, I edited a lot of nonfiction too.


A lot of nonfiction that were bestselling guides to how to’s and things like that. I thought to myself, “How do I divide all of nonfiction?” I have four categories and other people probably have their own methodology but these worked for me. The first category is academic nonfiction which is all the stuff that scientists write for each other, it assumes a real understanding of everything in a particular field, the writing isn’t story driven, it’s really just about laying out what happened in a particular experiment or a particular paper, it’s testing data stuff.


So the academic section is university presses, medical schools, all that kind of stuff. That’s one, that doesn’t really go into the trade meaning the normal everyday reader. The second category I have is what I call “the how to”. The how to book is exactly what you would think it is, how to hit a golf ball the right way, how to garden, how to cook, how to market your book to your first thousand readers, that kind of stuff.


[0:04:33.0] TG: These are like all the for dummies books?


[0:04:35.2] SC: Yeah, exactly. They’re very prescriptive, they’re all about empowering the reader to learn a particular set of skills so that they can actually put those skills to work for themselves. So if you don’t know how to bake a cake, you buy a cookbook that teaches you how to bake a cake and if it’s a good book and it’s a good recipe at the end of the process, you have a very nice cake to eat.


Same thing with marketing or business strategies or anything like that. So these are really important books that aren’t necessarily story driven. They’re not about — they do have beginnings, middles and ends but they’re all process driven, they’re prescriptive and just as a tiny little aside here, this is kind of the arena that the major publishers have abandoned in a way.


If you have an expertise in a skill, that you can write your own how-to book, the last thing I recommend is that you sell it to a major publisher for a $5,000 advance. Instead, you should do what you recommend and Jeff Goins and Steve Pressfield and Seth Godin and everybody else recommends today is to build your own tribe and build your own following and sell your book to that following. That’s what I did with The Story Grid and no small amount to your efforts and I read your book and I said, “Jeez, this guy knows what he’s talking about,” and that’s why I started the story grid website.


The third category I described is narrative nonfiction. A narrative nonfiction is what we’ll probably segue into in a minute, that is using the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, it doesn’t mean making things up. What it does mean is collecting and gathering all of the data of a particular story like Eric Larson did with Devil in the White City and a number of his other books. Also, there’s a great book on the real-life Moby Dick that was called. The subtitle was Tales of the Whale Ship Called Essex, I’ll get the name of the writer.


It’s another great book that told the true story behind this whaling vessel that became the inspiration for Moby Dick, great book. Nathaniel Philbrick is the author. That narrative nonfiction is using the fictional techniques that I described in The Story Grid and bringing to bear a nonfiction and we’ll talk about that more in a minute. The last category I have of nonfiction is called the big idea book. The big idea book is sort of, it combines pretty much all three of the other categories and this is something that has become more and more popular in major publishing.


Malcolm Gladwell was the best example right now, somebody who mastered the form and is able to repeat it over and over again. What the big idea book is, is it tells — instead of taking the kind of pedantic I know everything approach of a scientist does and an academic paper, Gladwell, what he does is he tells a story of the search for a truth and I’ve got a massive manuscript sitting in my computer that does for The Tipping Point what I did for The Silence of the Lambs that I really have to get off my bottom and finish editing and get out there because it explains what I mean by combining all three of the previous ones.


But anyway, just to recap here. I define nonfiction into four categories. Academic, how to, narrative nonfiction, and big idea. Now, I’m going to ask a question that my son asked me to explain my theory and my son said, “Yeah, that’s really interesting dad but how do you define a biography? Where does that go? That’s nonfiction, right? What about autobiography?” And I’m like, “Ah, very smart young man.”


Well, what I would say is that the approach of the author, writing a biography or autobiography, he or she is going to choose of the methodology of those four categories that I just described. They can approach the autobiography or the biography academically and report, the new findings of the life of Benjamin Franklin to an academic audience or they could look at it as a how to like, and I mentioned this to my son, there was a very successful book and it’s still very successful called How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, which it takes the approach of telling an autobiography, biography in the guise of a how to, which is really interesting idea.


The third way would be to do it as a narrative nonfiction whereby you tell the story of a particular figure but you use the notion of the fictional storytelling universe and you pick a particular genre. For example, say you tell the story of Benjamin Franklin as a coming of age. Then you would sort of highlight a particular moment in Franklin’s life when he became the person that we all think of as Benjamin Franklin. If you were doing the research and you discovered this amazing idea that Benjamin Franklin as a young man had this epiphany that showed him the direction of his life and what he should dedicate himself to and you chose to tell that story in terms of narrative nonfiction, you would focus on that one particular time of life and you would use the rules of the coming of age story genre to tell that story.


The fourth thing would be to use the life of Benjamin Franklin to present a big idea. Then, you would probably approach the storytelling as almost in a meadow way. You would put yourself as almost in the third person and you would say Shawn Coyne decided to write a book about Benjamin Franklin and this is what he discovered about Franklin’s life and the times in which he lived and the things that he discovered have a lot of applications to what we know today et cetera. So it’s those four kinds of major approaches, it’s sort of picking a silo of grain that you want to jump into and feed yourself as you’re writing your book.


[0:10:46.2] TG: So like The War of Art, would that be a big idea book?


[0:10:50.3] SC: Yes.


[0:10:50.3] TG: Okay. Then, trying to think…


[0:10:54.2] SC: That’s also a great example of a combo genre because this is kind of interesting to explain this in this way. When Steve Pressfield sent me the original document that became The War of Art, it was an autobiography and it did not focus on one particular big idea. But after we started working together on it, we edited it to a point where it became a big idea/self-help book for creative people. So it was a combination of the big idea with autobiography and narrative nonfiction in a way that created The War of Art.


I think that’s why it has such resonance to so many different people because you can read it from any number of points of view. If you are 16 years old and you want to be a writer and you want to know what kind of hurdles you’re going to have to get over when you began work, you read The War of Art and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to steal myself against resistance.” If you’re reading it as a business person, you would say to yourself, “I have to steal myself against being an amateur. I need to look at my world as a professional.”


So there’s any number of things that you can pull out of the book that’s a bit idea. But the overarching big idea of The War of Art is, “Hey guys, life is an internal struggle, it’s a war inside yourself.” I think that resonates with everyone because once they hear that, they go, “Oh my god, why didn’t I think of that? That’s absolutely true. I have a war with myself every time I wake up in the morning. Do I go down and skip the shower and go get some coffee? Or do I do my usual routine?” Or as you do Tim, you get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’m sure the last thing you want to do is get up at 4 o’clock in the morning.


This is the really fun part of nonfiction after you start thinking about it in creative terms. A lot of people think of nonfiction as, “Oh I just blow out all my research into some words and I’ve got a nonfiction book.” Our friend Jeff Goins, he’s sort of, he has learned the approach that we’re talking about now in a way that is helping you on nonfiction in the same way I’m helping you with fiction. So I think that’s kind of cool too.


[0:13:28.7] TG: yeah, I found when I wrote my first one, I thought, just like I bring to every project, I think it will be easy and I remember like I knew everything that needed to go in the book but I had never had to arrange it into a proper order that brings people down a path without me explaining it and they can stop me to ask questions. That’s how I’d always talked about it. So it ended up being really a lot harder than I thought it would be and then even now as I’m working on another one, it’s like, it’s still harder.


So with the “how to” book, when you approach that, do you still bring in some story grid principles to that? How do you kind of think through the middle, beginning, and end for a book that’s not narrative as kind of its base?


[0:14:20.7] SC: That’s a great question and it’s something that I did confront when I was writing The Story Grid and not ironically, I think with poetic justice, the person who told me that I was boring the shit out of them was Steven Pressfield, because I shared with him a draft of The Story Grid and what he said to me was so important and it’s something that I forgot and he said, “Look, you can’t just drop your reader into the boiling water. You have to slowly bring them into the how-to situation so that they are prepared for all of the deep work that they’re going to have to do.”


So what he said to me is, “What you need to do at the very beginning of this book is explain who the hell you are, how you came up with this idea, and why it’s important.” Once he told me that, he essentially gave me the storytelling tool to kind of nail the beginning hook of my book so that people, I could reach out to the people and I can explain to them what my problem was before I knew the story grid and how I solved it and how I’m going to tell them all of the things that I discovered and why it’s important.


So that’s a way to approach how to that I always recommend, is that if you’re just sort of jumping in, if you had begun your book, your how to book with just all the principles that you knew about marketing, without setting the context and the stage, by using personal elements of your own life and how you discovered the things that you discovered then people will be like, “Who is this guy? What does he know? I don’t know this Grahl guy.” But when you explain where you’re coming from then you bring the reader into your world, you explain your world view and then they’re like, “Okay, this is somebody I can trust. This is somebody I can listen to.”


So using the technique of, and what some people do, they present their bona fides, right? They’ll say things like, “I went to Cal Berkley and I majored in microbiology and I got my Ph.D. from Oxford and then I was given a Rhodes scholarship in this arena and therefore you should listen to me. Here we go.” Then they launch into it and they speak as if they’re giving the Sermon on the Mount and it’s my personal opinion that that approach is antiquated. It’s something that people aren’t that enthralled by anymore because, in our day and age, we all understand that the last thing any of us really fully trust are institutions.


Just because somebody got a Ph.D. from Oxford, they could be as big of a blowhard as anybody else. If they explain the self-taught element, I think that’s what engages people. When somebody teaches themselves, they become their own autodidactic and they teach themselves a particular skill, that says to the reader, “Oh, if Coyne taught himself how this stuff works, I certainly can. He’s going to teach me the way he taught himself.” That way I can apply that in a way that is less likely to be applied if some blowhard from Oxford is like, “Well, we at Oxford learn this,” and I think that’s the approach I always recommend even if you did get a Nobel prize and you did go to Oxford, show your humanity, don’t be a blowhard.


[0:17:55.8] TG: Okay. Because it was interesting because I was talking to Ryan Holiday who we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to him yesterday and he was — one of the exercises he gave me was to write three descriptions of my book. A once sentence description, a one paragraph description, and a one-page description. He’s like, “That will help you know, that will be kind of your center point of bringing everything back to that one thing,” and it was funny because it made me think of two things.


First, of course, it made me think of how much we’ve talked about theme. How theme becomes the guiding light of the book and it also reminded me a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a guy Srinivas who wrote this new book called Unmistakable and he said every time he would turn in something to his editor, the editor would say, “Well how does this make the reader unmistakable? Because if it’s not doing that, it’s going to get cut out.”


I was like, “Oh that’s really interesting about how every single idea in the book had to come back to this one main idea and that became kind of the guiding light.” So it was just interesting how even though, even in a modularized book where it’s a set of how to’s to get you from point A to point B, it still has to have this guiding theme that it always comes back to even in something that’s not narrative driven.


[0:19:22.2] SC: Well, I’d agree and I also think that those three exercises that he gave you, the one sentence is your controlling idea/theme of your book, the paragraph is your three sentences that define your beginning hook, middle build and ending pay off. The one pager is your foolscap global story grid. Just saying.


[0:19:43.1] TG: That’s a great point. Oh man. Okay, so I want to make sure we get into narrative nonfiction and have enough time to talk about it. My first question is, because, on the face of it, I feel like having never done it before, my assumption would be, it’s basically the same as writing fiction. You’re just editing the true story to fit a narrative. What are the differences between writing fiction or writing narrative nonfiction?


[0:20:16.2] SC: Well, it’s probably best that I use a book that I worked on as an example to kind of explain this concept. So I’m going to talk about a book that I worked on with a wonderful journalist, just impeccably hard working, amazing writer. She worked at the Wall Street Journal for years and Forbes, her name is Anita Raghavan. The book that I worked with her on was called The Billionaire’s Apprentice.


Now this was a big story and the story was this, there was a man named Raj Rajaratnam who was a big Sri Lankan hedge fund leader and he had a hedge fund called the Galleon Hedge Fund which was notorious, it’s hugely successful, he was making billions of dollars and guess what happened? It got in a lot of trouble and he ended up being indicted for insider trading and he was convicted and he is now in prison.


So Anita was born in India and her parents are Indian. Maybe she was — I don’t think she was born in India but it doesn’t matter. She has Indian ancestry and so a lot of her friends are Indians and one of the things that was so interesting to them was that there was a very famous Indian businessman named Rajat Gupta who was a friend of this character Raj Rajaratnam and Gupta was sort of, he was the superman of India. He was a man who came from nothing and his father was this great freedom fighter during India’s trying to become independent and his father sacrificed day and night in order for the country to finally get its independence from Great Britain in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, I forget the exact date.


Anyway, Rajat Gupta came from nothing and he got a scholarship to Harvard Business School, which was an amazing thing at the time because believe it or not, they had quotas back then on how many immigrants would come in. If that sounds like one of the presidential candidates wants to do, it’s a terrible idea. Anyway, so Rajat Gupta, he goes to Harvard Business School, he graduates on top of his class and he ends up McKenzie Consulting and not only does he end up there, over a period of years, he rises to the top rank of McKenzie, he becomes the first Indian national born to run McKenzie and Company.


He held the company for three terms, was hugely successful and then as they do at McKenzie, he left McKenzie, he sort of retired. When he retired, he felt probably like, “Oh man, my career is over, what am I going to do?” So he kind of became friends with this Raj Rajaratnam who owned this hedge fund and he thought, “Oh maybe I’ll end up being in the private sector in the hedge fund side, et cetera.” Meanwhile, he was also appointed to major boards at major companies and he sat on the board of Goldman Sachs and what happened was, what the government did is they got a phone call, they taped the phone calls of Rajaratnam and what they discovered was Raja Gupta was feeding him insider information. Gupta was trading on its information to making millions of dollars on each of this trades.


The big smoking gun was Gupta, about strangely like three minutes after the Goldman Sachs board had met saying during the financial crisis that they were going to get this big influx of money in to save them, Gupta called Rajaratnam, Rajaratnam bought a whole slew of Goldman Sachs stock. of course, when the news broke the next day, they stock went through the roof, Rajaratnam made $80 million dollars in one trade. This is what sunk Rajaratnam and it’s eventually what sunk Rajat Gupta and Gupta is now I believe serving time too.


So Anita who is this inveterate reporter has all this stuff, right? She’s got incredible information, she’s interviewed everybody at the SEC, she’s got lists and lists of this really fascinating compelling characters, she’s got the biggest insider trading, scandal of all time and she’s got the general bones of the story but she was struggling with how do I tell it in the right way? What we did is we looked at this in terms of narrative nonfiction, we said to ourselves, “Who is the hero of this story?” And Anita suggested to me and she was absolutely right, the hero of the story was Rajat Gupta because Rajat Gupta, what he meant to his country and what he meant to people of Indian nationality that they could come and they could take a bite of the big apple and they could become very powerful figures in business.


They’re not like the jokey Indian guy in the Simpsons. These people are real bona fide geniuses who deserve their time in the limelight and should be taken seriously. Gupta was that character, he was the superman that anybody had the greatest respect for. He’s kind of the hero of our story and the villain of our story, we made Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam was sort of a child of privilege who grew up quite wealthy and never sort of had to struggle all that much and cheated a little bit, he cheated his way through the University of Pennsylvania. I’m sort of fudging the facts here so I don’t want to get indicted for the things that I’m saying, I’m just telling this in story concepts as opposed to direct investigative reporting. So when I say things, “he cheated along the way”, that’s a story point, not necessarily a legal point so I don’t want to get sued. I doubt anybody would sue me, he’s in prison but you never know.


So anyway, Rajaratnam I said, “Now he’s kind of our villain of the story.” The story that we want to tell is the story, it’s a punitive story and what I mean by punitive story, means, somebody who is good, ends up morally compromised, trades their moral values for material gain and is punished. This is a classic punitive tale that is part of the internal genres that I talk about in The Story Grid. It’s part of the morality genre of the internal genres at story grid. It’s one of the three or four. There’s the redemption plot, there’s the punitive plot and then there’s the education plot and the disillusionment plot. Those are all part of the morality section of the internal genres in Story Grid.


So I suggested to Anita, “Why don’t we look at this and all this information that you have put together and structure it using the arc of a punitive plot? So we want to tell the story of Gupta, we want the reader to become really, really sympathetic to this guy. Because Rajat Gupta was a hero, there is no doubt about it. No matter what he did, that man was an extremely influential part of Indian society who should get his due. We should present the facts of what this man went through and how he grew to be such a powerful figure.


So Anita did that. She did the work, she found out all the information that we could construct that showed how Rajat Gupta rose from sort of a penniless intellectual in India to somebody at Harvard Business School and how he parléd that into running McKenzie and Company, the world’s most prestigious consulting firm. That’s one of the first big chunk of The Billionaire’s Apprentice. Then we sort of, on top of that, we told the story of Raj Rajaratnam to present the hero and the villain.


And then we had a confrontation in the middle of the book where we showed how Rajaratnam seduced, intellectually seduced Gupta to sort of do his bidding and then the final ending payoff of the story is the fallout of what happened to this two men and why things went downhill for them. Meanwhile, we did a crime story on top of that and we use the SEC and the characters in the security and exchange commission and also at the attorney general’s office, the southern district run by another Indian, which brought so many Indian flavors into the story that the subtitle is something like “the rise and fall of the intellectual class” and something of that sort.


I forget the exact subtitle but it has to — it positions the book as not just the book about the fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund but the rise of a particular intellectual culture from India. So narrative nonfiction is all about sort of collecting your stuff, right? You go out as an investigative journalist or somebody doing research, and you collect your stuff that surrounds the characters that you want to talk about and you lay it all sort of metaphorically on a big table and I often do it literally.


So you see, “Oh those are the depositions over there from the people from the Galleon Hedge Fund that are six feet high, showing all the bad stuff that they did. Over there is Rajat Gupta’s curriculum vitae that shows all of the amazing things that he did. Here are the SEC documents, here is the attorney general. Now, what is all this add up to? What is the story behind the story? What do we want the reader to take away at the end of this reading experience?”


I’ll answer that question right now. We wanted the reader to say to themselves, “That is a tragedy. That is a tragedy that befell that man and if I were in the same circumstances, I could understand making that choice and I could understand how I could be seduced by wealth and power and fame to the point where I would disgrace myself and my family generations past.” I got to tell you one little tidbit about this story that really when Anita discovered it, we both sort of shook our heads like we couldn’t believe it.


The tidbit is this, Rajat Gupta’s father, his name was Anil Gupta and he was a freedom fighter, he was a communist and he was trying to help his country break away from the colonial rule of great Britain in the 19th century, and he was a real hero and he went to jail and he suffered terrible, terrible losses for his personal commitment to this particular cause. What’s really even more upsetting is that at one point in his life, he was broke and he had a family he had to take care of and he was offered money to go and take tests for people who couldn’t pass particular board exams for Indian education.


Now, India’s famous for its educational system and it’s very competitive and only the smartest people who do the best on the tests rise in that society. So Gupta, under, you know, he was wearing camouflage was taking tests for other people and being paid and he got caught. He ended up going to prison for this. This particular small little tidbit of information was buried in reports, literal reports from Great Britain’s legal system. On Anita’s intrepid journalistic instincts, she found this information that had never been revealed about Rajat Gupta before.


Anita and I looked at ourselves and we said, “Holy cow. So Rajat disgraced himself and much the same way that his father disgraced himself,” and his father ended up, he ended up redeeming himself because nobody really blamed the guy for this. It turned out that he actually gave the money to the communist part. He felt so guilty about it. So we found this sort of familial link that thematically was exactly the same story that we wanted to tell. So I’m like, “Anita, this is the bookend of your story. You have to present this information in such a way that it’s a real body blow to the reader when they get to the end of the book and they discover that Rajat Gupta was a hero and it was a tragedy but it was almost genetic in a way.”


[0:32:40.6] TG: Yeah, it was like prewritten.


[0:32:42.3] SC: Yeah, I don’t think it’s in his blood. This is what I think. I think stories are so influential in our lives that when our father does something, we almost — that story of what our father did, we love our father so much that subconsciously we bury that story and without us even really knowing it, we make decisions based upon this stories that are buried in our subconscious that almost, they bring us great pain. I think Gupta because there was something about his father that he adored and loved. But he also knew that his father made a mistake, it’s not that he was given permission subconsciously to make a similar mistake, but it played out that way.


This is why I’m so committed to what we’re doing Tim and to story grid stuff and all that, because I think the more we understand about the power of stories in our own lives and our own narratives, the better we’ll be able to avoid making painful mistakes and we’ll make choices that are our own. They’re not somebody else’s story that accidentally got stuck inside of us and we never looked at and we didn’t process it and therefore we’re just going to play it out in our own life.


[0:33:57.5] TG: Okay, I want to back up and kind of pull out of this what I think you’re saying and then you can correct me. So it sounds like what happened was that you kind of looked at the material, based on the material you developed kind of what the arc was going to be, who the protagonist, who the villain was, what kind of genre it was going to be and then you started editing down the material to fit that arc.


[0:34:30.1] SC: That’s correct. We looked at the evidence on the table and we said, “What is the arc of the story?” And it’s a punitive plot. When I was the agent for this book too and when I sold the book to a major publisher, there was no information about Rajat Gupta being in on this problem. I sold it just purely based upon this sort of Wolf of Wall Street baloney kind of story. Not that it’s a baloney story but you know what I mean.


The degradation of Wall Street and isn’t a terrible how these people go and they manipulate the system for their own wealth and they do such ridiculous things. It worked on that level but when Anita presented all this information, and as she was doing her research, investigators at the SeC were like, you might want to hold off a little bit because there’re some things that are going to happen and what we discovered was Gupta — and I said that Anita early on, “Oh man, wouldn’t it be great if Gupta was involved in this? Then we’d have a real story.” She’s like, “You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but we can’t prove that.”


It was just sort of not lucky but what happened was, the investigation by the SEC and the attorney general’s office brought to light all of this information that Anita and I sort of intuitively suspected. So we used that information to tell the story that we intuitively thought was there, which was the punitive internal genre with a whole bunch of other stuff in there. The crime story was already there, right? We already knew how to piece together the investigative story of the amazing Indian guy at the SEC who went through hundreds and hundreds of thousands of documents to find this evidence. So it’s sort of like an all the president’s men kind of narrative there where you had this guy late at night, literally going through all these documents to find the smoking gun that made all this stuff happen.


But yes, you’re correct. You’re correct. You lay out the evidence and then you say to yourself, “What is this evidence telling us? What is the theme? What is the story here?” A lot of people, a lot of journalists, in fact, are afraid of the story. They’re afraid of making that decision of saying, “The evidence here, based upon my investigative journalism is that this is a story about — this is a tragic story about the fall of a very important, honorable man and I’m going to tell that story using all of the facts that I have available to me. This fact fits in my beginning hook. This fact fits in my ending payoff. That fact is the perfect all is lost moment in the middle of my book.” So it’s not making up information. You do not make up information as a journalist. You use the facts to tell a story, a narrative arc, a narrative story that is absolutely in keeping with the facts of your investigation.


[0:37:27.2] TG: So do you go as deep like do you think the genres you have inside of Story Grid match what the narrative nonfiction genres are, or are they different?


[0:37:38.0] SC: Absolutely.


[0:37:38.4] TG: okay. Then you’re always — you can’t write one of this without the protagonist and the antagonist ,without a hero and a villain?


[0:37:47.3] SC: That’s correct.


[0:37:50.1] TG: Okay.


[0:37:50.2] SC: What happens is that there are this really scholarly, incredibly investigated works that come out that have no story to them and they’re just a progression of facts with introductions of characters that don’t seem to connect to anybody else, there doesn’t seem to be any context. What I said to Anita when we’re working on this, I said, “Look, you got to give us the context, what was it like to be Raja Gupta in India in 1946? Because we don’t understand that world today. What was it like to have no food or running water? What was it like to have one pair of shoes, if you were lucky?”


[0:38:29.2] TG: That’s my next question, is like, what do you see when people are writing fictions, particularly narrative nonfiction, what are the kind of common mistakes that people make when they’re approaching this? Because to me, it is different because you want to — with fiction, you can just make up whatever the hell you want. Where with narrative nonfiction you have to…


[0:38:51.2] SC: Choose.


[0:38:52.5] TG: I almost see it as like you have this whole block of marble thing and you kind of have to craft it into, pull out the pieces that are the story and make sure you edit out the boring parts, even more. I don’t’ know. What do see?


[0:39:11.1] SC: Well, here are the problems that happened. Like that thing I just said about establishing the context. Journalists fall in love with their investigative work, right? Just like fiction writers fall in love with a particular sentence or amazing description. But what journalist do is they’ll pile on fact after fact because it took them seven days to track down that fact. When you say to them, “Hey…”


[0:39:36.3] TG: They don’t want it to be wasted.


[0:39:38.3] SC: Exactly. So they’ll pile on a fact that is that seven supporting elements to something that was firmly established with one fact. That’s the problem with journalism and you’re absolutely right about — you have to read the tea leaves at the story based upon the investigative information and then pick out the perfect stuff that tells the story that you want to tell and you have to commit to that story.


You can’t abandon, just like a fiction writer can’t start a story as a coming of age story and end it as a thriller, it’s got to be one thing. You can have thriller elements in the coming of age story but you got to make a choice. It’s either one or the other and like you did, like you’re working on your story, you’re dealing with a young protagonist. So when you’re dealing with a young protagonist, intuitively your reader’s going to say, “Oh this is going to be a coming of age story.”


So if you abandon the obligatory scenes and conventions of a coming of age story, because you want it to be something else, and even if you hit all the other genres stuff, the reader’s not going to react to it in the way that you wish them to. Because intuitively they’re going to say, “This is a 12-year-old character, I want a coming of age story and what he’s given me is a legal thriller and it’s a good legal thriller but I want a coming of age story and he changed it after the beginning hook and he changed it after the beginning hook and I don’t like this and I’m never going to tell any of my friends about reading it again.”


Nobody knows that at the top of their mind, they just say, “Ah, I didn’t get it. It was disappointing,” and it’s the same thing with narrative nonfiction. If Anita were to start this story as a punitive plot and featuring Rajat Gupta, never went back to Gupta after the beginning hook, people would — I mean this book was nominated for all kinds of awards. It was front page New York Times book review, incredible reviews. It was excerpted in New York Times Magazine and the reason why is that it was impeccable investigative journalism, matched with a very sexy subject that had heart and soul of a story inside of it and it’s no coincidence that all those things happened for Anita.


She spent two and a half years writing this book and every decision that she made, she debated and I can vouch for that because I talked to her over pretty much every decision that she made. So my point is, is that some say narrative nonfiction is easier to write than fiction and I think if you were to ask Anita that, she would probably say that’s true. That’s because she’s a journalist. But if you’re a fiction writer and you think you can just walk into the park and write a narrative nonfiction without learning the essential journalistic craft, you’re sadly mistaken. Because what you’ll end up doing is start fudging things.


There’s a writer, I don’t want to give his name but he’s kind of famous for fudging some of his narrative nonfiction in such a way that nobody trusted anymore. Even though his work is adaptive for major movies and he makes a lot of money, people in the industry are kind of like, “Oh I don’t know if I want to do a book by him because he kind of fudges things at the end.” They have to make an ethical decision, “Do I publish the book that could be a million copy best seller based upon suspect information or do I not publish that book and maybe lose my job?” These are the ethical dilemma that some editors have to face and my point is that if you’re a writer, try not to put an editor in that position. Do your job and if you’re writing narrative nonfiction, do the journalism, do the investigative work.


[0:43:29.0] TG: Yeah, it’s interesting because it seems like again, if we’re approaching fiction and once you’ve decided on a genre, you just have to kind of stick to that instead of, it seems like the narrative nonfiction side is basically pulling together all of this research and then finding the threat. So there is a story in there, you’ve just got to find it in all of this stuff. Would you say like, because I know a lot of people that listened are also writing memoirs? Would you say memoirs fall into the same category?


[0:44:01.2] SC: Oh absolutely. Memoirs, here’s the trick with memoir, and we should probably do an hour on memoir. But the trick with memoir is to think about the story and a lot of people make the major mistake of doing things like, “I was born at the muddy brooks of the Mississippi and I remember mama used to bring the corn to us,” and they get so sucked into this baloney story from cradle to grave that it bores the hell out of everybody.


So my advice about memoir is, find a pivotal moment in your life that changed your world view and narrow down the story to that day that week, that month, that whatever. But please spare us the detail about your grandparents coming over from Ireland. We all had grandparents who came over from Ireland or Germany or wherever. We’ve all read that story but we want to know is, what happened in your life that changed you from one person to another person? What was the crisis? What was the conflict, what were those things that drove you to change yourself?


So those are the questions you have to ask yourself. If you were just writing a memoir to get out your whatever, it’s not, nobody cares. What we care about is the story that we can relate to. The stories that we relate to are those stories that show somebody confronting information that makes them change their Weltanschauung, their world view. It makes them change their very being. Those are what will suck us in every single time.


Because all of us go through those moments in our lives and we’re concerned and we’re confused and we want to turn somewhere to learn how other people have confronted similar problems. So that’s what a memoir is for, it’s to explain and to show in story form how to overcome or how to be destroyed by, whichever, tragedy works too. How to deal with a particular conflict or problem. That’s why we see a lot of memoirs about people who’ve lost their wife or their — death or alcoholism or some major conflict in their lives.


[0:46:22.9] TG: Yeah, once again we’re kind of back to the similarities between fiction and nonfiction, which is we’re telling stories to change the way people think. You can do that, we’re back to talking about from a few weeks ago with George Orwell is he always started with a political injustice and that’s how he would find his books. So whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, it’s still, you have to have your theme and you have to have your genre and you have to have your beginning middle and end, and you don’t get to not do that stuff because you’re writing nonfiction.


[0:47:02.7] SC: Yeah, that’s true, that is really true. You can’t fudge it.




[0:47:06.9] TG: Thanks for listening to this episode of the story grid podcast. For everything story grid related, check out Make sure you pick up a copy of the book and sign up for the newsletter so you don’t miss anything happening in the Story Grid universe. If you’d like to check out the show notes for this episode or any past episodes, all of that can be found at If you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on twitter @storygrid.


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3 comments on “Narrative Nonfiction Storytelling

  1. mlibdoyle says:

    I really enjoyed this discussion! While I admire the commitment to meticulous research that quality narrative non-fiction demands, I don’t have the patience for it myself. Shawn’s posts that examined “The Tipping Point” earlier this year illustrated how the Story Grid applies to nonfiction too. “Seabiscuit” also comes to mind as does “Under the Banner of Heaven” – both as compelling as any novel. As always, thanks!

  2. Tim says:

    So pivot point – that became the film Lincoln – the passing of the emancipation act – and the ins and outs of the political allies and enemies in the senate and house … … or you pick the assassination – but you don’t need to day-to-day detail story :))) Good use of story telling – it can be done – but bios of people further back in history – the detail is often needed to give correct back ground and context … … anyway – more next week no doubt :))) Keep the show going.

  3. Anna-Marie says:

    Yes, PLEASE do an hour on memoir.

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