If “well-constructed” plots and characters are the cornerstones of fiction works, what should we find in nonfiction?
In today’s Nonfiction lab, we discussed at length the elements of documentary that tell us we aren’t watching a film or a TV show. Commentary to and.or from the camera, explicit exposition, unscripted behaviour… These are the clues we subconsciously absorb, which tell us we are watching a program that documents an aspect of reality, rather than a fictional story.
From here, I began thinking about the elements of nonfiction writing, in particular memoir, that tell us we aren’t reading fiction. I know that creative nonfiction uses narrative elements (i.e. plot and character) to tell its story, but do nonfiction tropes exist too?
Reflecting on both novels and nonfiction that I’ve been reading lately, I came with a few elements I believe we find in nonfiction work. I’d also argue that these are employed in some fiction work to make the story seem not just believable enough for us to become engrossed until the final page, but believable enough that we finish the book with the eerie feeling that we’ve just read a true account.
– too many minor characters who play too big a role
I’m currently reading Helen Garner’s memoir The First Stone and am getting lost with the amount of characters who are first referred to in passing without any kind of description, before emerging again from the shadows and performing major plot points in the story. It reminds me of those long-winded gossip stories that friends will tell over catch-up dinners, the ones that refer to dozens of people you’ve never heard of and met before and have to try really hard to care about. David Carlin’s memoir Our Father Who Wasn’t There is less annoying, but not by much, with dozens of characters called John, Jack, Bob, Andrew, Noel, Brian… “Use some imagination,” I said to the book. “I can’t keep track of all these farmers with boring names.” But that is life; stories that go off track, minor characters that don’t quite fit, and names that were fashionable when your parents were having babies. So unless a story has been trimmed and embellished, that’s what nonfiction will be like. On that note, The Little Friend (a novel by Donna Tartt) also introduces a long list of minor characters who lead intricate lives and insist on ruining the plans of the main characters — I believe this is one of the motivations for the New York Times Book Review‘s declaration: ‘It grips you like a fairy tale, but denies you the consoling assurance that it’s all just make-believe.’
– mundanity that never becomes relevant
– reflections by the narrator in present tense
– character goals that aren’t achieved, even a little bit
I acknowledge that these elements aren’t part of all memoirs and creative nonfiction, but I am sure they are subtle indicators that we are reading a story that hasn’t been constructed. What else reveals this? Does the representation of time affect our belief in a story? How about the details of a setting? The trendiness of the main character’s name?