Last year, I wrote a book for Chelsea House called Segmented Worms: Earthworms, Leeches, and Their Relatives. It was a long book as middle-grade nonfiction goes—more than 30,000 words—covering everything from anatomy, taxonomy, and interactions between these worms and the human world. I took the project as a kind of challenge: How can I make this interesting and readable for younger readers?
The key in my mind was using stories—anecdotes, dramatic moments, and gee-whiz discoveries—to make it more than a reference book for writing science reports. I wanted kids to sit at the lunch table and tell their friends, “Did you know Charles Darwin had his kid play bassoon to a bunch of worms to see if they could hear?” or “You ever heard of worm grunters? These folks stick a stick in the ground and grind a piece of iron across the top and the worms crawl right out of the ground … Let’s look it up on YouTube …” or “In Samoa, they make a kind of meatloaf out of the egg-filled reproductive organs of palola worms. Eww!”
The best nonfiction captures important information and concepts in high-interest stories. These narratives might explore the scientific method by dramatizing scientists’ experimentation and discovery of new phenomena. They could describe the trial-and-setback efforts of engineers as they experimented with small rockets that led to robust vehicles for space exploration. They could explain the significance of a historical event or movement by describing the very human actions and antics of historical figures.
One of my favorite articles I ever had the chance to write dealt with Prohibition. Published in Search magazine, a dry, textbooky treatment was not what was called for. Instead, I built the story around two very interesting characters from the time. Here’s the lead, aka hook, for that story, that then transitions into the “nut graph,” aka thesis paragraph that introduces the larger historical event of Prohibition:
The roly-poly little man had been romping around the beer hall all evening, telling jokes and getting laughs from the tables of drinkers. The owner of this Brooklyn, New York, “speakeasy”—as these illegal saloons were called in the 1920s—was laughing too. Merriment meant drinking, and drinking meant money.
Finally, a few of the customers shouted “Sing! Sing!” to the noisy funmaker. The little man clambered onstage and launched into a tune. Afterward, he bowed to the applause, then held up his hands, saying, “This concludes the evening’s entertainment, ladies and gentlemen. The place is pinched, for I am Izzy Einstein, the Prohibition Agent.” As the patrons groaned, Izzy waddled over to an abandoned glass, sniffed it, then, with a grin, poured the evidence into his shirt pocket.
Izzy and his more solemn but no less pudgy partner, Moe Smith, were two of the most colorful characters of the 1920s. They and their fellow federal agents were on the front lines of a thankless battle—the enforcement of Prohibition. In 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution banned the manufacture, transport, or sale of liquor in the United States. These new “dry laws” helped to usher in one of the craziest decades in American history. Izzy and Moe had the time of their lives.
Telling a good story is not reserved for fiction. Capturing the conflict, drama, sensory detail, and suspense of real events—while staying true and accurate to the facts (e.g. not making up quotations, etc.)—requires similar storytelling skills. And at the heart of almost every good story—fiction or nonfiction—is human interest captured in compelling characters and events.