A great book for writers: ‘Telling True Stories’

The book is not new, but it’s worth revisiting: Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide is packed with tips on nonfiction writing, especially narrative journalism.

I really love Telling True Stories and highly recommend it. I’ve found dozens of gems inside.


“They say language makes us human. That notion is being challenged as we discover that apes have language. Whales have language. I welcome them into our fold. I’m not threatened by them, quite frankly, because I think stories make us human. Only by telling them do we stay so.” — Jacqui Banaszynski, “Stories Matter”

“A lot of college graduates approach me about becoming screenwriters. I tell them, ‘Do not become a screenwriter, become a journalist,’ because journalists go into worlds that are not their own. Kids who go to Hollywood write coming-of-age stories for their first scripts, about what happened to them when they were sixteen. Then they write the summer camp script. At the age of twenty-three they haven’t produced anything, and that’s the end of the career. By the time I became a screenwriter, I knew a few things, because I had worked as a journalist. When I wrote Silkwood, I knew what a union negotiation looked like because I had been in on several of them.” — the late Nora Ephron, “What Narrative Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters”

“I’d like to give one critical bit of advice to those who are drawn to this work and want to succeed: The idea is vital. Telling a good story demands a great conception, a great idea for why the story works — for what it is and how it connects to the human condition. It is about ideas, about narration, about telling a story. You must be able to point to something lager.” — David Halberstam, “The Narrative Idea”

“On Long Island, there’s an epidemic of break-ins while people are in their homes. The robbers want the owners there, so they can be forced to reveal where jewelry and money are hidden. Invariably the news reports tell you how much was stolen, and perhaps what sorts of arms the assailants carried. But that’s not the story. The story is fear, on the part of the victims and sometimes the assailants — or their ecstatic yodels after successfully dominating and humiliating their victims. Such as the vital facts of crime. The underlying emotions reveal so much about life, and they should be developed in journalism and not just in novels.
“You need to provide readers two things in this sort of journalism: a detailed picture of the social setting and at least some insight into the psychology of the principals. I think of the setting as a horizontal intersection — there lies the story. In 1808, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Hegel coined the term Zeitgeist — in English, ‘the spirit of the age.’His theory was that every historical epoch has a ‘moral tone’ — his phrase — that presses down on the life of everyone, and no one can avoid it. I think it’s true, and why, in fiction or nonfiction about big cities, for example, the city should be treated as a character because cities are positively feverish with moral tone.” — Tom Wolfe, “The Emotional Core of the Story”

A 'Saint' in Mundane Clothing

A ‘Saint’ in Mundane Clothing (Photo credit: Robert Burdock)