Narrative arcs in nonfiction
What is a narrative arc? Every story—even a brief nonfiction one that you write for a magazine or your prayer letter—needs a start, middle, and end.
At the start you need to set the scene. For example, in a prayer letter you might write, “A few weeks ago at the women’s Bible study I lead at my church, we had a seeker join us.” You’ve imparted lots of information in that one sentence. It’s the start of a story.
Then you need a middle. “She’d heard about Jesus at the Christian kindergarten she went to as a child. But she hadn’t thought much about him since then. In the last year, both her husband and only child had died suddenly, and she was thinking about Christianity.”
You might go on to explain more about how she found your church, what her questions were, or more details about her struggles. Or perhaps if she’d told you about a confrontation she had with someone in her family about going to a meeting at the church, you could share that (but keeping her identity private, of course).
Then there is the resolution. This can be hard in such a story as the one above, especially when you don’t know the final outcome of her searching. However, maybe it is something like, “She’s been at Bible study every time since she first came and is starting to understand more about Christianity, even saying, ‘I might be able to believe in this one day.’”
We see narrative arcs every time we read a good fiction book or watch a good movie. Setting the scene, a confrontation (or problem that needs to be overcome), and resolution. A classic example is Cinderella. Depending on how complex the story is and how much space you have, you can get more creative than the basic chronological structure above. However, it is worth keeping the narrative arc in mind when you’re writing nonfiction. Your reader will always want to hear some sort of resolution. It is not kind to tell them of a person or situation, outline the problem, and leave them hanging. As I wrote in the Spring issue last year, by delaying the end of the story, you can create suspense and draw your reader in. But don’t ultimately leave them in suspense.