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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Words & Language Toolbox

Fictional techniques in nonfiction

By Paula LaRocque

Informational writers try hard to make their work come alive on the page. And the demand for brighter, more imaginative writing is increasing along with the proliferation and competition of print and online media. That demand comes not only from readers but also from newsroom editors, workplace managers and corporate bosses.

One of the quickest, safest and most economical and effective ways to spruce up otherwise flat writing is through figurative language. Nonfiction writers admire colorful language and well-executed metaphor, simile, analogy and so forth as much as anyone. But they’re often uneasy about using those devices themselves — perhaps because they revere truth and fact beyond anything, and they associate “literary devices” with fiction.

Whatever the cause, informational writers tend to write to a formula — either taught or supposed — that advances report-writing rather than storytelling. The resulting work displays impeccable mechanics and indisputable fact, but it dies on the page — sterile, dull, lacking in storytelling color and drama.

I’ve seen this problem for years in newsrooms. The more important the project, the more serious its intent and sense of “gravitas” — something destined for Pulitzer or other competition — the more unreadable the story. That all-important lead is heavy, overlong and over-qualified. It’s littered with self-conscious cliché and “insider” vocabulary: firestorms of criticism, stunning victories, staggering defeats, heated debates, verbal insults, and allegations of wrongdoing — amid, unprecedented and burgeoning.

But the lead isn’t brief, bright, clear, interesting or conversational. And you don’t find a fresh image or smart simile to clarify meaning and engage and please the reader’s imagination.

So are metaphor and simile inappropriate for nonfiction? No way! Are they appropriate? Yer darned tootin’. The trick is to know when and how much. Such devices might not be appropriate for a technical or lab report, but they can and do enrich nonfiction features and profiles.

Often clarity and simplicity alone can make writing sparkle. But once the foundation of precision is in place, wordplay can help make ordinary work extraordinary.

Skillful writers depend on fresh figurative language to add color, energy and depth to their work. That word fresh is important. There’s no shortage of metaphor; it’s everywhere we look. But it’s no good just grabbing what’s already there. You want something that’s yours alone — something that other writers may want to emulate.

Good figurative images needn’t be intricate or involved; they need only be natural and evocative. The simile is a simple and economical figure of speech but has great image-making power — and good images support fact as well as fiction. Sportswriter Blackie Sherrod, famous for his individual and colorful writer’s voice, wrote that an athlete he interviewed was “as supple as a buggy whip.” Another was “as colorful as a dump truck.” He wrote that a prizefighter’s chin jutted out “like a dreadnought bearing down on a U-boat.” Another writer, David Casstevens, wrote that an athlete was “built like a Volvo,” and a trainer’s voice sounded “like a slow ride down a gravel road.”

It’s always a challenge to a writer to describe a subject's physical appearance fairly and accurately — and describing it in colorful and memorable terms is even more challenging. But it’s not just one good picture that can be worth a thousand words; a few words of apt metaphor also pertain. Wall Street Journal reporter Julie Salamon once wrote that Bette Midler balanced her plump torso on spiked heels so high that they caused her to teeter ahead faster than most people could run — which caused her to look, Salamon wrote, “like a pheasant on amphetamines.”

Nonfiction writers can enliven an otherwise lackluster lead with a few words of space-saving simile. A weather story begins: “Like a mooching second cousin from out of town, 100 degrees arrived in Phoenix on June 10 and would not leave.” A theater review says the show “runs like a new Mercedes.” A music critic writes that Bach's vaulting, cathedral-like score “was reduced to a picky, pale semblance of itself, with notes ticked off like numbers on a speedometer.”

As wonderful as good metaphor can be, we still don’t want to overdo. Politicians help us remember not to. Jesse Jackson once said that if we “crush the grapes of hope into raisins of despair, they may not be able to bounce back in the fall.” Another pol lost control of his simile when he said an issue was like “a little snowball that rolled down the hill, gathered moss and, when it got to the bottom, became a big mushroom.”

That kind of overblown metaphor is not really what we’re looking for.

Paula LaRocque is author of “The Book on Writing,” “On Words” and “Championship Writing.” Her first novel, a mystery titled “Chalk Line,” will be published by Marion Street Press in 2011. E-mail: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Website: www.paulalarocque.com

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