More and more, as I read and closely study excellent narrative nonfiction, I’m struck by how many talented writers rely on braided structures, moving smoothly between two or more storylines.
Another term for this approach is digressive narrative. This is a stylistic device that writers employ to provide background information, describe the motivations of its characters and heighten suspense. They’re detours, sometimes quick, other times lengthy, from the primary story arc.
I became aware of it after binge-watching Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing.” This must-see network political series, which ran for seven seasons between 1999 and 2006, dramatized the Democratic presidency of liberal Joshua “Jed” Bartlett and his young, idealistic staff.
Sorkin uses the tool throughout the series, but its power is especially evident and instructive in the first two episodes of the second season. In a Feb. 2020 essay for Nieman Storyboard, I focused on one telling example: the attempted assassination of President Bartlett and the severe wounding of his deputy chief of staff. The plot digresses to follow the creation of an upstart campaign that launched an obscure New England governor into the White House. (The story features links to the episodes on YouTube along with the scripts for the two-parter. I also showed how novelists use digression, using J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, “The Catcher in the Rye.”
I also found, producing annotations for Storyboard, how many narrative nonfiction writers also digress from their primary story arc, braiding multiple storylines to tell a complete story.
Here are two examples of braided narrative nonfiction worth studying.
“The Jessica Simulation: Love and Loss in the Age of A.I. ” by Jason Fagone of The San Francisco Chronicle. The story tracks the situation of a grieving man who decided to try a unique Artificial Intelligence program to have a “conversation” with his dead ex-fiancee. “Jessica” is transformed into a chatbot that responds to prompts. Fagone braids the couple’s backstory, and a programmer’s quest to program video games that generate emotions, along with a remarkably accessible guide to the world of A.I. and its possibilities and potential pitfalls.
“Her Time,” by Katie Engelhart, published in the California Sunday Magazine, tells the extraordinary story of an Oregon woman’s underground journey to die on her own terms before dementia left her unable to take the needed action when she was ready. Engelhart braids that with the history of the right-to-die movement and the contentious debate about whether patients with dementia should be allowed the legal right to die, with assistance, before they are deemed incompetent.
Not everyone, as I wrote, is a fan of the device. “It’s really hard to jump back and forth in time without giving the reader whiplash,” says New Yorker contributor Jennifer Kahn. Alice Mayhew, the legendary Simon & Schuster editor who died in 2020 at 87 after a storied career bringing best-sellers to print, wasn’t a believer, either. She was known, according to a 2004 profile, for “unsentimentally pruning away digressions, even when — especially when — they are hundreds of pages long. Mayhew’s faith in chronological organization is said to be nearly religious.”
I think you can overdose on digressions, as you can on any writing technique. But used judiciously and with skill, they can engage readers who may welcome these temporary departures from the main plot. They’re certainly worth examining. You can start with The West Wing’s “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” or “The Jessica Simulation” and then experiment with your own stories.