I was recently granted the honor and privilege of helping a World War Two veteran put the polish on a book describing his wartime experiences in the Pacific. As he wishes to remain anonymous until the time of publication, I will refer to him as Tom. And Tom had quite a story to tell.
Now, the most important thing was Tom telling his story in his own words, his own voice, with his own recollections. My role in this is part editor, cleaning up any their-they’re-there issues and such, and part guide, making the story as gripping as possible. Tom wrote everything. I applied the tools of a writer – particularly the tools discussed in this blog.
The first question that might come to mind is, “How can those tools apply to non-fiction? There is only one way to tell the truth.” There is some validity to that, but not as much as one might think. In the broadest sense, the basic parts of storytelling are very obvious. The story conflict is obvious – World War Two. It’s autobiographical, so we know our main character does not die. We know exactly who the hero is, and Tom fits right in as the character who becomes a hero through his actions during unthinkable times. And having different story techniques, like the Unreliable Narrator method we've discussed, would contradict the entire process. However, other tools can very much be applied, and this post is about a powerful one – foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is a technique where we hint at what is to come. This can be through the symbolism and examples representing events that repeat themselves, or the use of dialogue hinting at a change further along in the story. We will get to all of these in time, but this post is about the non-fiction genre. In non-fiction, symbols, examples, and metaphors may never have happened. However, a very powerful use of foreshadowing is to reveal a part of the story in advance, then go back and tell the story leading up to that point.
I recently finished Bryan Cranston’s autobiography, A Life in Parts. Mr. Cranston talked about growing up in California amidst a troubled family dynamic, coming of age, jobs and adventures, his introduction to acting, and all the struggles before he made it big. That alone is enough to make for a good read, and I am sure fans of Bryan Cranston would not be let down. But what made it truly intriguing was that he didn’t tell the story that way. Rather, he used a little foreshadowing to draw in the reader, and they were hooked.
Even though Bryan Cranston grew up in southern California, the book opens during the filming of a particularly intense scene from Breaking Bad. His infamous character, Walter “Heisenberg” White, is watching someone die and choosing to not save them. Mr. Cranston then explains the personal shock that overcame him during the filming of this terrible scene, and how it shook him to his very core. The description of the moment is surreal, traumatizing, and deeply disturbing, and it all emerged from the kind of person he tried to be his whole life.
The next chapter then goes to his early days growing up in California and his whole life narrative.
By telling the story out of order for just one chapter, the reader is drawn in. The reader experiences an intense, dramatic moment, and wants to know more. Furthermore, when the next chapter is about a child living in the LA Valley, the reader wants to know the path that led from A to B. A seed has been planted. The reader knows that life will lead to that point, and wants follow whatever path goes there. The truth has been preserved, yet the storytelling has been improved because of one little bit of foreshadowing.
This brings us back to Tom, who grew up in south Chicago during the Great Depression. To tell the story of his life from a kid skipping stones across the filthy Cal-Sag river all the way to a Navy Petty Officer in the Pacific makes for a fine story, and very much worth reading. It’s a story that needs to be told, a period of life few people these days would ever understand, and an attempt to comprehend what happens when an innocent man serves thirty months in Hell. People would read that. Someone might even by the story rights.
But what if the first chapter was sin mid-November, 1944? The story starts with Tom and his buddy walking down a beach outside the harbor as the tide comes in. The water is dark-red and too thick for the waves to foam. They see the water is awash with fuel oil and human remains from a ship they lost the day before, the Pacific slowly returning the remains of the dead. Tom goes to the shoreline, kneels to the water’s edge, and says a prayer for all the lost souls.
The next chapter is a young Tom skipping stones across the Cal-Sag during the Great Depression.
Both are the same story, but you tell me – which one would you read first?