Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 2

Dynamic non-fiction delivers unexpected drama.


We want "heightened reality."

Now, as I stroll down the street, my right forefinger extends five feet in front of me, feeling the ground where my feet will walk.

Before my right hand would have been on a steering wheel as I went down the street. I drove to work, found shortcuts in strange cities, picked up my two daughters after school. Those were the days when I ran my finger down a phone-book page and never dialed Information. When I read novels and couldn’t sleep until I had finished the last page. Those were the nights when I could point out a shooting star before it finished scraping across the dark sky. And when I could go to the movies and it didn’t matter if it was a foreign film or not.

But all this changed about seven years ago. I was driving home for lunch on what seemed to be an increasingly foggy day, although the perky radio deejay said it was clear and sunny. After I finished my lunch, I realized that I couldn’t see across the room to my front door. I had battled glaucoma for 20 years. Suddenly, without warning, my eyes had hemorrhaged.

I will never regain any of my lost sight. I see things through a porthole covered in wax paper. I now have no vision in my left eye and only slight vision in my right. A minefield of blind spots make people and cars suddenly appear and vanish. I have no depth perception. Objects are not closer and farther; they’re larger and smaller. Steps, curbs and floors all flow on the same flat plane. My world has shapes but no features. Friends are mannequins in the fog until I recognize their voices. Printed words look like ants writhing on the pages. Doorways are unlit mine shafts. This is not a place for the


– by Jim Bobryk (Newsweek, March 8, 1999)


Here’s something worth remembering.  Inexperienced writers are afraid they’re going to loose their audiences if they don’t hook them with the title and a gimmicky first line.  Give your audience credit for more intelligence than this.  Remember they’re not coming to this work critically, but with the hope that this is the story that will…go deeper in, take them farther out… make them more of what they are.  It’s why we go to plays expectantly, despite the fact that most performances are disappointing. Why we read the next novel, though left unsatisfied by so many before.  We aren’t disappointed by tricks, but because a writer has squandered the opportunity to do so much more.

As you write, picture a person lovingly reading over your shoulder who wants more.  Who says, “I want to feel it just as you did, don’t rush through the details.  What was the temperature?  How did the light shine in through the window?  When she made that remark, did her expression change ever so subtly?  What is the reason these characters are here? What are their relationships?”  The scene, the characters are a means to express your and the reader’s fullest feelings, deeply and importantly.  Explore the richness of each possibility.”

Michael Shurtleff (Audition) notes that in everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to capture reality on the page.   We want heightened reality.  The writer needs to find out what the characters in every scene are fighting for, to fully play out the opposites that exist within each character.  You have many creative choices in the selection of what you include and what you exclude.  Make choices that intensify real life drama.  In the example above, we get the contrasts between the sighted and the unsighted world.  Remember whenever you have two conflicting things, intensify both. 

Michael Shurtleff says, ” One of the great results of using opposites is behavior that is unpredictable, therefore always more intriguing to an audience.  In out example we, the reader, are imagining how we would react. And in general, it’s why people are forever astonishing us in life: we don’t know what they’re going to do next, they’re not consistent, and their doing something we didn’t expect is always surprising us.  Interesting acting always has this risk element of the unpredictable in it.  That’s why actors like Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando and DeNiro and Pachino interest us so; we never quite know what they’re going to do next.  They make us want to know.  They make us keep watching them.  They surprise us with their unpredictability.”

As a writer you need to supply these opposites, even if you don’t see them in your subject in real life.  What’s there is obvious.  It’s what is underneath the obvious that makes for interesting writing.


Eight Secrets of Creating and Selling Dynamic Non-Fiction Part 1

Eight Secrets

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”                                                   –E.L. Doctorow 

John Lehman

What are the forces at work below the surface that affect editors and publishers? Discover, for example, how each book or article must offer a tacit promise to an audience and how to shape your work to make it memorable. Use these eight techniques to find the best subjects, develop them most effectively and market the results for quickest success. John Lehman has presented writing seminars in dozens of cities throughout the country. He is a book reviewer for Book Lover Magazine and is a columnist for BusinessFirst. He has had articles in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Omni and more than fifty other consumer and trade publications. He is the founder and publisher of Rosebud magazine.

Dynamic Non-Fiction:

1. Offers a tacit Promise

2. Delivers unexpected Drama

3. Revels in Personality

4. Is visually Memorable

5. Gives content Shape

6. Moves with Efficiency   

7. Has a title that’s Tantalizing 8. Can be readily Marketed 

 Dynamic non-fiction offers a tacit Promise.  

The Rats on the Waterfront 

By Joseph Mitchell 

    The biggest rat colonies in the city are found in run-down structures on or near the waterfront, especially in tenements, live-poultry markets, wholesale produce markets, slaughterhouses, warehouses, stables and garages. They also turn up in more surprising places. Department of Health inspectors have found their claw and tail tracks in the basements of some of the best restaurants in the city. A few weeks ago, in the basement and sub-basement of a good old hotel in the East Forties, a crew of exterminators trapped two hundred and thirty-six in three nights. Many live in the subways; in the early-morning hours, during the long lulls between trains, they climb to the platforms and forage among the candy–bar wrappers and peanut hulls. There are great colonies of brown rats in Central Park…

    The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can out-think any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria. They will bite babies (now and then, they bite one to death), and they will bite sleeping adults, but ordinarily they flee from people. If hemmed in, and sometimes if too suddenly come upon, they will attack. They fight savagely and blindly, in the manner of mad dogs; they bare their teeth and leap about every which way, snarling and snapping and clawing the air. A full-grown black rat, when desperate, can jump three feet horizontally and make a vertical leap of two feet two inches, and a brown rat is nearly as spry. They are greatly feared by firemen. One of the hazards of fighting a fire in a junk shop or in an old warehouse is the crazed rats… 


By Tracy Kidder 

    Jim Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.

    Locke’s transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber. Then, bending over, putting one eye to the lens of the transit and squinting the other, he transforms his view of this patch of open ground into a narrow, well-lighted tunnel divided by cross hairs. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, in another context. “The art of civilization is the act of drawing lines.” And of course it has also been the act of drawing level ones.

    This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college  and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter…