Writing True Stories: Framing Your Narrative Nonfiction Story

Framing your story refers to the way you order the narrative so that the elements of your book are presented in the most interesting way. As a nonfiction writer your job is to construct your frame to steer the story in a specific direction while engaging the reader and creating a degree of suspense.

Your frame must work in harmony with the content of your story. Your content is the inciting incident, what it is your subject wants, what’s at stake, the conflict he must face and overcome to achieve his goal, how he is transformed by the process, and the ultimate cost for him to succeed. 

The frame (or how the content is presented) considers ways the drama of the story is conveyed through scenes, sequences, action, dialogue, tone, pace, style and conflict.

In Part One of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote weaves the timeline of the victims and the killers together, heightening the suspense leading to the tragic murders.

Timothy Egan presents the story of The Worst Hard Time in chronological order while inter-cutting modern-day reminiscences from survivors - drawing the reader into the devastating emotional consequences. 

Mark Bowden recreates the battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down using a narrative that splices together the stories of various individuals in different locations during the combat - keeping the tension high and taking the reader on an action-packed ride. 

Robert Evans opens his memoir, The Kid Stays in The Picture, with a compelling scene depicting the premiere of the film The Godfather and the end of his marriage to Ali McGraw (the reader is hooked, “Why did his famous wife leave him? How did he convince Kissinger to attend the premiere the night before a secret mission to Moscow?”), then jumps back in time taking the reader on a journey through his childhood days in New York to his adventurous ups-and-downs in Hollywood. 

Here are 5 ways to help you determine the best frame for your narrative nonfiction: 

  1. Read creative nonfiction. Study how other nonfiction authors arrange their narrative and analyze why it works.
  2. Know the story you want to tell. Set up the elements to serve the narrative.
  3. Eliminate unnecessary information (just because you spent months collecting all that research doesn’t mean every little detail should be presented in the book.)
  4. Determine your beginning and ending. What is the most interesting incident you can use to open the story that will keep the reader engaged?  This will most likely revolve around a major action, conflict or resolution.
  5. Determine the timeframe of the story you will tell - one week, two days, twenty years. Will your biography of Lincoln examine the Civil War years, his early years leading to his presidency, or the two weeks prior to his assassination? Focus on a period of time that allows you to explore your subject and theme in depth.