Consider this opening paragraph, from an essay included in G. K. Chesterton’s 1928 collection, Generally Speaking:
Among those remarkable “Sayings of the Day” that are quoted in the daily Press, I remember a sentence that is quite significant. Sandwiched in between two other epigrams, between Sir Humphrey Pumpernickle’s paradox, “The British Empire must look to Britons for its defence” and the equally arresting bon mot of the Dean of Ditchbury, “True religion includes the desire for truth” — interposed, I say, in the same setting between some such jewels as these, I find a remark that really seems to me to be a text for a philosopher. I have forgotten who said it; but he was somebody of a social importance equal to that of the great men I have named. And what he said was this . . .
Earlier this year we talked about how to generate suspense by giving your readers a sense of what’s to come while preserving some ambiguity about it, then holding back on the revelation as long as you plausibly can. This is exactly what Chesterton does here. The mock quotes from other notables let readers know that what’s coming is going to be equally ridiculous, and that Chesterton is going to have suitable fun with it. But Chesterton holds off the quote itself as long as he can, just to whet readers’ appetites for the big reveal.
Any good essay – or any good non-fiction writing – presents ideas clearly and with a logical flow. But the best essays, the ones that are a pleasure to read and stick with you afterwards, also use techniques you usually think of as belonging to fiction. They essentially treat ideas as characters and tell a story about them.
Just about any long-form piece of nonfiction in The New Yorker makes use of several fictional techniques. Take Eliza Griswold’s recent piece on the future of the coal industry. Note how Griswold starts by setting the scene for her ideas with a description the countryside in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and ties the ideas to an activist named Veronica Coptis. Then, for the rest of the piece, ideas like the economic impact of closing the mines or the relationship between mines and environmental regulations are interspersed with trips back to the setting and Coptis’ life. This not only humanizes the ideas and gives them meaning. It lets Griswold release information to her readers at a controlled pace that would do a spy thriller proud.
Roy Blount once wrote an essay on the contrast between dog and cat ownership. For most of it, he sketches out all the complaints dog lovers have against cats – they’re emotionally indifferent, they’re self-involved, they’re impenetrable. And then, in a surprise that would have been at home in the denouement of any mystery, he concludes that you should really own a cat for all the reasons he’s just listed against them. Cats are like poems – short, perhaps hard to understand, but comforting without being emotionally demanding. “Dogs are like Dickens.” [Read more…]