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5 Creative Nonfiction Skills for Novelists

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

We pulled up to the gate at Utah’s Arches National Park in an imprudent touring vehicle: a loaded U-Haul van. This would be our only sightseeing detour on the trek that would take my sister from her home in California to a new job on the East Coast. She paid the entrance fee and passed me a map. That one action would enrich our memory of the experience for years to come: the map was wrapped in a magnificent essay, “Rethinking Wall Arch.” [1]

As our engine strained to take us up the final 1600 feet of elevation into the park, I read the essay aloud. The writing was so confident I was immediately struck by a sense of its importance.

If you’d like readers to say that your fiction conveys a sense of importance, here are some mad skills you can co-opt from this essay.

  1. Make important plot events personal.

The plot focus of the essay is the final event in the life of Wall Arch, which at 71 feet long was one of the main attractions at Arches National Park. The author immediately establishes his unique perspective:

Sometimes I’m considered bad luck. Things tend to fall wherever I work.

After a brief laundry list of unfortunate events, we learn that Wall Arch collapsed the morning this writer took a new job at the park, which sets up a specific—and humorous—perspective. No one else could have written this piece quite this way (which makes it all the more startling that no byline was given. But I digress.).

  1. Contextualize plot by extending the story frame.

We learn that Wall Arch has stood since “time immemorial”:

It was already curving gracefully when the Egyptian pyramids were still under construction. It stood defiantly while the mighty Roman Empire was collapsing an ocean away. It was still holding strong when the Declaration of Independence was being signed in 1776. And, most notably, it was still there on August 4 when everybody went to bed.

The way the author delivers us right back to his personal experience is a clever twist.

  1. Suspend disbelief by grounding the event in known phenomena.

When faced with a calamity of epic proportions, the first thing we do is gather what facts we can.

One answer is fairly straightforward. Erosion and gravity reign supreme over sandstone. For countless eons, rain, ice, and groundwater slowly but relentlessly ate away at the natural calcium “cement” holding the arch’s sand grains together. Eventually there wasn’t enough of this cement left to withstand the pull of gravity, and so the whole structure finally came crashing down.

  1. Philosophize.

Facts alone rarely tell a compelling tale. People are drawn to writing that probes life’s mysteries. We want to know why things happen, yes, but also what that means for us. This author steps away from what is known and risks infusing the piece with perspective drawn from his personal belief system.

Beyond the sadness or sense of loss that the collapse might evoke, there is a realization that something will eventually fill the void were the arch once stood. Simply put, another answer to the question “Why?” is, “So nature can make room for something else.”

  1. Bring home your point.

Novelists are often unwilling to make their point in so many words—but there are so many words in a novel that your point may get lost. After revising until you’ve made sure that each word choice is just right, you’ll want to go back and make sure that all of those “right words” add up to point the reader in the right direction.

In the Arches essay, the writer has coupled personal reflection with known phenomena to tell a recurring story that feels fresh, that spans millennia while seeming new. What was specific has become universal. Reporting for a new job on the day the arch fell becomes a small part of the greater circle of life:

Though shrouded in memory and mystery, the arch’s fate stands as an invitation to reflect upon the eternal cycle of birth and death that characterizes not only our planet, but our entire universe.

I can’t imagine I’ll ever forget our side trip to Arches. My sister was a character encountering the new at a time of profound life change, negotiating a plot map while driving a truck packed with her entire backstory. She and her sidekick engaged with this author’s deep perspective as they headed up the final 1600 feet of elevation, unsure of whether the truck’s engine would be strong enough to reach the summit, and came back braver and wiser for the experience.

The only thing I love more than stumbling across great writing is when it fits into a metaphor for the entire novel-writing experience.

And to think: I got all of this from reading the back of a map.

Have you ever run into great writing in unexpected places? What were the lessons you took away?

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.