Dramatic Non-Fiction

Even if you have the most profound truths, you can still be profoundly boring. I was once on the pastoral search committee for our church and heard a sermon from a prospective candidate who delivered fourteen points. Yes, count ‘em, fourteen points! There has to be a better way, and there is.

Writing non-fiction (or speaking, teaching or preaching) doesn’t mean you can’t build in drama. Including stories as illustrations is always good, but there’s more to it than just telling the tale.

Here are a few options to keep your audience with you every word of the way.

Start with the first half of a story and leave it hanging. Then transition to your main points. At the end of the chapter, article or talk, tell the rest of the story you began with. Holding the end of the story in suspense builds drama and keeps interest.

Loop back to the beginning. Even if you tell all or most of a story at the beginning, go back to that story you opened with and tie it together as part of your conclusion.

Use in medias res. This Latin phrase (“into the middle of things”) refers to starting in the middle of a story–often a very dramatic moment, such as right before a championship game or when the doctor is about to give a diagnosis. But at this point in the tale, the key is to not give the resolution. Rather, stop and go back to the beginning of the story to explain how things got to this midpoint. When you get back to that part of the story (where you started), you can finish it from that point or do so later.

Tell a story within a story. I once went to the funeral of a Jewish friend (the story) at which the Cantor told a story from the Talmud about a man going to meet the king (the story within the story). It was a very interesting parable in itself, but explaining the context of the story and my reaction to it has made for heightened interest for my audience.

Tell the story of how you learned something. Rather than just relate flat information, ideas or tips to your audience, tell them the story of how you learned this material. Discuss the questions you had, how you searched, the problems you faced in coming to these conclusions, the mentor you had, the mistakes you made, the conversation that opened your eyes, and so forth. Lee Strobel has used this technique to good effect in The Case for Christ.

Raise a problem. Make people feel the problem. Don’t build a straw man that’s easy to knock down. Don’t telegraph the solution. Instead show the real difficulties involved. This makes your audience feel the tension, yearn for an answer and keeps them reading (or listening) till you offer it. Each chapter of Deep Church by Jim Belcher does this effectively.

Needless to say, we didn’t hire our fourteen-point candidate. We hired the one who had solid content and told a story, simple and personal. That made all the difference.

8 responses to “Dramatic Non-Fiction”

  1. This is excellent. I didn’t know the theory behind this, until you just laid it out, but now I see the how and why some of my newspaper columns, funeral messages, men’s talks and Sunday School lessons connect, while others did not.

  2. Andy, thank you for this helpful reminder on the craft of communication!

    Your fifth point (Tell the story of how you learned something) got me thinking – has this always been expected of speakers and writers?

    I am no expert in ancient rhetoric, but I’ve read that Augustine’s “Confessions” is considered by many to be the first autobiography; maybe much of what made it special is that he goes into _how_ he learned…

    Now I’m eager to return to Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching” to see if he discusses this point.

  3. Good, clear thoughts on preaching and writing. I really appreciate this as I am currently evaluating my own preaching to see how I might be more effective in communicating the gospel. I think that preaching is of course the communication of true propositions, but I think being a good story-teller can make it %100 more effective. Thank you for your poignant, concise thoughts! Blessings!

  4. Brad–Thanks. You raise an interesting point about seeing preaching as the communication of true propositions. Jesus’ preaching of course contained a lot of stories–sometimes without explanation. And much of the rest of his preaching was call to action (e.g., “Follow me.”). And then another part was what we’d call propositional. I think Jesus wanted to touch the whole person, so he sought to touch mind, heart, emotions and will. Propositions in and of themselves may only do one part. So it’s a good question and I’m not coming down hard or fast on this. Worth thinking about, though.

  5. Andy–Last weekend, while rereading a piece I’d just written, the word “boring” appeared on my brain’s marquee. Thanks for your insight and encouragement. Great timing!

  6. Hi, Andy. It’s been awhile since I’ve read your blog, largely because I’ve spent four months without TV or home internet access, which has done me a world of good. And so has this return to your blog. Just what I needed: simple, constructive. Thanks.