how to tell a story | virtual book

how to tell a story

(This is a slightly edited excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #writing #new-journalism #tom-wolfe #hunter-thompson #hells-angels Mentioned in Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2014), how to show instead of telling

Decades ago, The New Yorker and other magazines experimented with the journalistic form by introducing literary techniques into it. Writers aspired not just to document scenes but to recreate them for readers to witness. Though some criticized this practice for warping truth through interpretation, some writers flourished in it. Tom Wolfe, a practitioner and evangelist of the method, compiled exemplary articles in his book The New Journalism. According to Wolfe, using techniques of literary realism was like

adding electricity

how to show instead of telling

(This is an excerpt from my piece The Virtual Book.)

#essays #mediums #story-telling #education #interfaces Mentioned in how to tell a story #2, how to tell a story

A modern torchbearer of

Thompson’s immersion journalism

is comedian-journalist Andrew Callaghan. He roams America in his RV interviewing the country’s kookiest characters and recording their antics. Like Thompson, Callaghan throws himself into the action. With false innocence, he encourages his subjects to rant and reveal their quirks and delusions. In Return to Tallega, Callaghan shows the unhinged debauchery of beer-soaked racing festivals of the American South much like Thompson did with The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved. Tom Wolfe compared the techniques of literary realism

to electricity

in the otherwise mechanical machine of journalism; he might’ve enjoyed seeing Callaghan modernize the practice with literal electricity.

Ironically, the old writing principle show don’t tell can lead us

beyond words

as it has The Pudding: a digital publication specializing in ‘visual essays’ developed by ‘Journalist-Engineers’ that write both prose and source code to create their articles. Their piece How Music Taste Evolved, more app than article, lets the user click through pop music history to hear snippets of songs that topped the charts from 1958 until 2016. Instead of forcing you to read about the contrast between the swaying, dreamy sound of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and the youthful pep of Stagger Lee, it lets you hear it. And if you’re not interested in pop music from early 1959, then you can leap forward to whatever decade interests you. The involvement of the reader is literal.

As refreshing as it is, the piece is far from fulfilling its potential. The first improvement is obvious: automatically update every day with the newest song at the top the charts. (The equivalent for printed books, publishing new editions, is pathetic in comparison.) The piece could take its interactivity to the next level by letting you save songs to your music library or dive into specific artists by linking to their Wikipedia articles, which also update with new information and themselves lead to other articles. Or it could browse the internet on your behalf to find live performances and interesting articles, showing new things every time you visit.

Using technology, we can bring information alive and make our interactions with it more meaningful. As Michael Scott puts it:

You don’t go to the science museum and get handed a pamphlet on electricity…you put your hand on a metal ball and your hair sticks up straight. And you know science.

The benefit of combining mediums is clearest in education, where you want to build both analytical and intuitive understanding. A musician trying to teach music theory should think twice about writing a traditional book. Alongside their theoretical explanations, they could offer an interface that lets the user add notes to a music staff and hear what they sound like; or listens to the user play their instrument and transcribes it in real time. A writer passionate about Hemingway’s writing principles and bent on teaching them may feel the urge to write a book; and, although it would educate aspiring writers, it would lack the interactive experience offered by Hemingway App, which shows a writer in real time what rules they are breaching. (To what extent the rules can be codified is a different question.)

As one of the architects responsible for the daring design of the Seattle Central Library said:

Books are technology; that’s something people forget. But it’s a form of technology that will have to share its dominance with any other form of truly potent technology or media.

What if a memoirist publishes a piece overlaid with their revisions to show the process of expression and expose the artifice of memoir? Or what if an English professor does the same to compare writing styles and the emotions they convey? What if a novelist publishes a first-person novel in real time to make it feel like the character really exists and is experiencing events alongside the reader? What if the author then goes back and rewrites previous parts of the novel to show the decay of memory and its corruption in the construction of personal narratives?

Long before the birth of the digital world, writers like Hunter S. Thompson breached conventional forms to create new experiences for readers. And writers can continue to experiment within the book-bound format without intervention from outer disciplines. But they could also work with designers and engineers to create literature’s equivalent to musical technology like synthesizers and drum machines — the tools that Herbie Hancock used to

reinvent his art

time and time again. If we give artists creative technology, we’ll get back experiences we didn’t even know we were missing.

into the otherwise mechanical machine of journalism. By using dialogue,


how to narrate transparently

#essays #writing #narration #point-of-view #norman-mailer #new-journalism Mentioned in how to tell a story, The Executioner's Song (1979), Infinite Jest (1996)

I read half of The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer’s gargantuan, Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction novel about Gary Gilmore – and figured I could put it down and move on. I knew how the story would end and had read enough of the book to appreciate Mailer as a writer. And yet, despite my skepticism of the value of finishing books, a few months on I found myself drawn back in. And in my second session with the book I noticed a technique that Mailer uses throughout it.

I don’t know if the technique has a name. A good name might be transparent narrator. Its purpose is to convey a character’s point of view without quoting them or otherwise indicating that you are speaking for them.

Here’s a passage from Mailer’s book, concerning Tamera, a cub reporter who began working on Gary’s story before it became world-famous:

Tamera had gone to work at 5 A.M. and spent six hours Xeroxing Gary’s letters. She knew some of the reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff, but Tamera didn’t want anyone reading over her shoulder, and making the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make. Still, nobody seemed that excited.

In fact, at the Friday afternoon meeting, the Executive Editor said, “I don’t think we’re interested in love letters.” Just brushed it off like that.

The narrator gives us a sense of Tamera’s personality and attitude towards the situation without quoting her or breaking the third person narrative. The narrator is not pretending to be Tamera, and yet we hear her through him, most clearly in the brief sentences that punctuate both paragraphs:

Still, nobody seemed that excited.

Just brushed it off like that.

These phrases are said by the narrator in Tamera’s voice. We feel like she is telling us her part of the story over a cup of coffee.

Mailer achieves this effect by embedding many little phrases along the away. Notice the casualness of this phrase:

reporters were raising their eyebrows at how she protected the stuff

The stuff, in particular.

Notice the casualness here too:

the sort of cynical nonchalant comments newspaper people could make

Newspaper people.

These are consistent, subtle choices that change how the reader perceives the story. This technique is crucial to keeping Mailer’s 1,000+ page book fresh. If the whole thing was written from his perspective, it would be much harder to get through. Instead, he narrates transparently, allowing us to hear the story from the perspective of the many people who lived it.

, and symbolism, writers could achieve “absolute involvement of the reader”.

The anthology includes a passage from Hunter S. Thompson’s nonfiction novel on the Hell’s Angels, which he wrote after a year of living with the outlaws. Thompson depicts a tense confrontation between the notorious motorcyclists and locals of Bass Lake, a favourite destination for the gang’s Labor Day tradition of binge-drinking and mayhem-making.

“If you play straight with us, Sonny, we’ll play straight with you. We don’t want any trouble and we know you guys have as much right to camp on this lake as anybody else. But the minute you cause trouble for us or anyone else, we’re gonna come down on you hard, it’s gonna be powder valley for your whole gang.”

On the day, Thompson’s newspaper editor requested “no more than an arty variation of the standard wire-service news blurb: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.” But, in his book, Thompson gives us much more. He doesn’t report the events in the cold, detached voice of the typical journalist observing from the sidelines. Nor does he simply list the facts and state the outcome. He recounts, in first person, the experience of being caught in a stand-off between outlaws known for their brutality and a makeshift militia of locals determined to defend their town:

“The first one of these sonsofbitches that gives me any lip I’m gonna shoot right in the belly. That’s the only language they understand.”

The reader leaves not with memorizable facts, but a secondhand experience:

I was standing in the midst of about a hundred vigilantes…as I looked around I saw that many carried wooden clubs and others had hunting knives on their belts. They didn’t seem mean, but they were obviously keyed up and ready to bust some heads…under these circumstances the only neutrals were the tourists, who were easily identifiable. On my way out of town I wondered if anybody in Bass Lake might take one of my aspen-leaf checks for a fluorescent Hawaiian beach suit and some stylish sandals.