“Show, Don’t Tell,” Unless You Want A Pulitzer (Advice for Non-Fiction Authors, and Some Dick Jokes)

Resultant hair-pulling and an equally crippling lack of Xanax forced me to temporarily abandon my months long binge of hoarding colonial period source materials (diaries, letters, minutes) for the comforts of David McCullough’s fully composed, Pulitzer Prize snatching, 1776.¬†And though I didn’t gleam much more from McCullough’s over the hill prose than I had from piles of colonial chicken scratch, it was evident how different his telling of those events is fundamentally different from how I anticipate mine. No Pulitzer for me, I guess.

McCullough might be God, and in any event, he writes like a god. The god-writer writes from above. God sees everything, from the big picture to the individual, even the microscopic. A lot of historians write this way, with transparent love for the goings-on of his or her subjects, but little real empathy.

It’s no “show” and all “tell.” A good fiction writer will never say how a character feels, and the common non-fiction writer will never admit that his subjects are actually characters. The fiction writer knows that that type of exposition is weak storytelling. When a god-writer wants to convey something like emotion or subtext, he or she directly quotes the source material.


Fiction author: “The acrid stench of gun-powder put a three inch bulge against the inside of his trousers.”


God-writer: “Look, see, it says right in his diary! War made him feel horny!”

It’s as if the god-writer is afraid of being proved incorrect. The primary goal of non-fiction authors is, all too commonly, the reporting of facts rather than narrative. All facts have their level of importance to the narrative. But the idea that a non-fiction narrative must be black, white, and gray without color, is farce.

Look at how much we let documentary filmmakers get away with. Even Ken Burns uses music, b-roll, reenactments, celebrity/expert commentary, voice actors, camera panning techniques, and all things possible to color what remains completely based on fact. None of those (except commentary) can be used in books the way they are used in films.

So how does one color non-fiction writing? Presumably the hardest for most is to expose only those facts which make a difference to the reader.. Fiction writers know that they cannot have one extraneous detail. Every detail must have meaning. Yet it seems that every author of revolutionary war history makes explicit from which state each rebel commander comes from. This usually makes no difference to the story–they’re all rebels. So treat them as such.

The next step, perhaps the most important, is to recognize that your subjects, though real people with real human histories, are now only characters. It’s up to you to round them out as best you can, but you don’t get to expose every known thing about them. You only get to use them for whatever purpose they serve in this thin narrative of history, so focus on what matters. Don’t tell me what kind of person they are (brave, noble, evil, complicated, etc.) Show me the character jumping into battle against their will. Show me someone who acts respectful in response to disrespect. But don’t fucking tell me that they are “brave and noble.” This means, again, not bogging down your story with factoid after factoid. Otherwise, the subject’s actions will get lost on the reader.

I’ll concede that quoting source material and heaping on the facts can also be used to color non-fiction writing. For one, it can make things more dramatic. But this only works if you use it to show, not tell. When using source material in this fashion, the source (character) is every bit as on display as the material they wrote. To picture someone sitting down (or crouching in a field, or the side of a courtroom) and writing about something makes the source material a scene in itself. Yes, I am equating writing to filmmaking. Yes, you have to write scenes. Different medium, same goal.

It’s also comforting to know that when a source is quoted, it promotes the longevity of the source.

While the god-writer sees everything from above, the narrative takes place astride the characters. Not every non-fiction piece has to create a narrative; some exist simply to inform. But the moment you commit to a narrative, all of your subjects become characters, all of your facts become character exposition, and all of your events become scenes. McCullough does a good job of figuring both the informative and the narrative into 1776, and I am grateful for the amount of research on his part. Still, as a reader, I am consistently thrown from his narrative by the sheer density of information. Perhaps he includes all of this out of respect for his subjects; that, I can understand. But unless you include everything, why not instead include what is just enough?

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