Writing for Story: A look back at Jon Franklin’s masterpiece

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In 1986,  two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Jon Franklin put all of his knowledge about writing narrative nonfiction into a book. Three decades later it stands the test of time

In 1979, Jon Franklin won the first Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a dramatic rendering of a brain operation that focused on a surgeon who fought and lost a battle with a tumor. 

Six years later, in 1985, Franklin won his second Pulitzer, this one for explanatory reporting for “The Mind Fixers, “a seven-part series about the new science of molecular psychiatry.

A year later, he published “Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize winner.” Three decades later, it remains one of the finest handbooks available to the budding writer of narrative nonfiction.

The book still succeeds because Franklin is not just a superb writer, but a reflective practitioner and willing teacher who shares the lessons of his craft with clarity and generosity. He describes his methodology as a “step-by-step cookbook approach.” If you follow it, as I learned, you can write successful narrative nonfiction. 

I purchased the book shortly after it appeared, put its lessons into practice, and can testify to its power. To prepare for a new writing project, I recently dove back into my copy.

I was pleased to see that it was just as instructive and inspirational as I remembered.

Here are some of the most cogent lessons, mostly in Franklin’s own words,  that jumped out at me as keepers; consider it a sort of Cliff Notes version of a book that deserves a spot on every storyteller’s bookshelf.

 Franklin presents a coherent, easy to follow (if challenging to achieve) formula to build a story that can produce compelling stories.

He based his prize-winning theories on his study of short fiction, specifically the stories of Ernest Heminway, John Steinbeck and other writers that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and other popular magazines of the 1930’s and ‘40. These publications, he said, amounted to “the universal school for writers.”

The fiction they published rested on a simple but elegant formula: a complication, plus a body (or) development) and a resolution.” Franklin applies and expands the lessons of that form to the nonfiction story.

Among the highlights:

  • “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” 
  • “A complication is any problem encountered by any human being; it’s an event that triggers a situation that complicates our lives…” For instance, a surgeon confronts an intractable tumor or ‘Joe loses his job.”
  • “To be of literary value, a complication must be not only basic but also significant to the human condition.”
  • “A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication.”
  • “Most newspaper stories are endings without beginnings attached.” You can find story ideas by finding a good ending and reversing the order. 
  • You implement the formula by writing the complication, developments and resolution on three by five cards.
  • You must cast them in three words and in terms of action: “Cancer strikes Joe.” “Joe overcomes cancer.”
  • Avoid static or passive verbs: has, had, were, was, is, be, am, being been. Verbs must be action verbs.
  • “Once you’ve stated your complications and resolution in terms of clear action, identify the actions your character takes in his attempts to overcome the complication… using three-word active statements, you should be able to form a chronological chain of actions that lead either directly or indirectly from the complication to the resolution. This composes the development of your story. The complication, the action events that flow from it, and finally the resolution compose the backbone of the true story. A fiction writer would say you now have your plot.”
  • Outlining is essential. “With an outline you can think your story through, quickly and without great effort. Massive structural problems will stand out, and you can solve them with the stroke of a pen. You can think the story through, time and again, very quickly, and still retain the energy, enthusiasm and freshness you need to do a good job when it comes time to actually write the story.”
  • An outline might look like this
    • Complication: Company fires Joe
    • Development: 
      • 1.  Depression paralyzes Joe
      • 2. Joe regains confidence
      • 3. Joe sues company
    • Resolution: Joe regains job
  • The story must adhere rigorously to the facts. You can’t make up anything to fit your focus.
  • “If all else is done properly, The most dramatic aspect of any story is growth and change in the main character. The growth and change should be made the central part of the outline, so that it will emerge as the backbone of the story. 

In addition to the craft lessons, Franklin also reproduces “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” which won the Pulitzer, “ and his series, “The Ballad of Old Man Peters,” both of which he annotates.

Although the rest of the books contains more information about structure and revision, the lessons I itemized are the most vital for anyone contemplating a piece of narrative nonfiction.

I bought the book shortly after it appeared when word of its publication was spreading among narrative and would-be-narrative writers and their editors. I decided to try and put its lessons into practice as soon as possible. 

By chance, a call to theSt. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) reached me in the features department where I worked as a staff writer. 

The caller was an elderly man named Bert Mudd who had an interesting, but dubious, story to tell. Mudd said his older brother Thaddeus had been murdered  in his home in Viginia. Bert Mudd was going to find his murderer. With my marked up copy of “Writing for Story” staring at me from my desk, I asked if I could tag along.

Once I returned, with bulging notebooks and several audio tapes, I set to work.

It took a while before I could match Franklin’s formula, but eventually, I came up with:

Complication: Brother hunts killer

Resolution: Brother identifies killer

In between, I sketched out Mudd’s the developments: his travels north, fruitless encounters with authorities, his indefatigable sleuthing that led to a chance encounter with the man who would be charged, along with another man, with  his brother’s killing. Because I’m working from memory here, I can’t replicate what I wrote on the cards that charted the development of the story between the complication and the resolution, but the three-word complication and resolution are tattooed into my brain.

The story, “His Brother’s Keeper,” was splashed across the front page of the features section. That day, I received two phone calls. One was from the editor of a local magazine who offered me a freelance assignment. The other came from an English professor at the University of Tampa. She invited me to give a reading of the story.

The other day, I asked Franklin to what he attributed the staying power of the lessons in his book. He replied:

“I think the lessons had power when I was able to channel our forbears.  Adapt the things they knew, re-digest it and recast it for the modern reader.  It also dovetails into things we are just discovering about the brain and behavior.

I first discovered complication resolution from that wonderful book, “The Professional Story Writer and His Art.” But the authors got it from Chekhov, and I’m sure Chekhov stood on the shoulders of giants.  So in my own way I was sort of writing literary history.

‘These ways of conceptualizing story go back at least three thousand years — and may be genetically controlled.  Certainly the anatomy of story mirrors the anatomy of the human brain. Catch the harmonics of that and you will hold fire in your hands. (That from John Steinbeck.)

I was half biopsychologist even back then.”

If you’re interested in writing narrative nonfiction, you owe it to yourself to get Franklin’s book, either by buying it or borrowing it from your local library. It’s formulaic, to be sure, but the formula works. I recommend you also take a look at “Jon Franklin and “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,”” a 2012 Nieman Storyboard article by its editor, Paige Williams, who interviewed Franklin and reproduces the annotation found at the back of his book. In her introduction, Paige, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, said the story “never fails to captivate or instruct.”

The same can be said for “Writing for Story.”

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