“Never could any one say of their illustrations that they were windows that exclude the light, and passages that lead to nothing.” ~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon in defense of writers who use narratives
How do you use a narrative in a nonfiction piece?
First, decide what the meat of your message is before you decide on the sandwich bread. What is it you are trying to say? Are you writing a newspaper editorial about freedom? A blog post about perseverance? A devotional about loving your neighbour? The message of your piece is prime. The anecdote, or little story, in which you sandwich your truth, is there to shine the light on your message, and not the other way around.
Second, find a relevant story, not just a flashy bit of jewelry, which will pull the reader into your message. Spurgeon says of the great Puritan storytellers, “Never did they go out of their way to drag in a telling bit which they had been saving up for display.” If your message is short, such as a devotional, you will need to use a brief, anecdote such as a quote, a lyric, or the highlights of a true story. Feature pieces could use a longer illustration, but it is not necessary. Length is not what grabs people’s attention.
Be sure the quality of the diamond suits the style and the setting. Spurgeon mentions speakers and writers who are both rustic and classical in their narratives. There is a place for each, depending on your audience and the point you wish to make. He quotes Thomas Adams whose anecdotes were “rough and ready”.
“The husband told his wife that he had one ill quality — he was given to be angry without cause. She wittily replied that she would keep him from that fault, for she would give him cause enough.”
Spurgeon also points to William Gurnall whose illustrations were more classical:
“A heathen could say when a bird (feared by a hawk) flew into his bosom, ‘I will not betray thee unto thine enemy, seeing thou comest for sanctuary unto me.’ How much less will God yield up a soul unto its enemy when it takes sanctuary in his name, saying, “Lord, I am hunted . . . take me into the bosom of thy love for Christ’s sake; castle me in the arms of thy everlasting strength . . .”
D.L. Moody is lauded by Spurgeon as well for reaching his own generation with relevant anecdotes:
“When I was in Belfast I knew a doctor who had a friend, a leading surgeon there, and he told me that the surgeon’s custom was, before performing any operation, to say to the patient, “Take a good look at the wound and then fix your eyes on me, and don’t take them off till I get through the operation.” I thought at the time that was a good illustration. Sinner, take a good look at the wound tonight, and then fix your eyes on Christ and don’t take them off. It is better to look at the remedy than at the wound.”
Third and finally, decide where and when to tuck the anecdote into your piece. Some writers like to start the piece with an anecdote because it grabs the reader’s attention. Others like to tuck one or more illustrations into the middle to keep the reader awake. Spurgeon again gives good advice, “He never so exceeds in illustration as to lose sight of his doctrine. His floods of metaphor never drown his meaning, but float it upon their surface.”
My preference is to start with the anecdote, then share the message, and then refer to it again at the end. This creates a resonance from beginning to end. The reference at the end should be subtle enough to compliment your reader’s intelligence, but obvious enough to help the readers connect the anecdote to the truth of your message.
Whatever piece we aim to write, plan to use every-day occurrences to illustrate your point. They are like bridges that help the reader to cross from tangible and real-life experience over to the abstracts of truth. Like Spurgeon said, they should open the window and let the light in.
Spurgeon’s quotes were all taken from the following article: “Anecdotes from the Pulpit” found online at The Victorian Web, last modified June 22, 2018.
If Pam Mytroen could spend all day in her kitchen baking pies, brownies, and making turkey dinner for friends, she would. But Murray Pura once told her to write first and then bake—advice that she is trying to stick with these days, except, of course, when her grandchildren stop in for milk and cookies.
Thank you for your words, Pam, and the helpful tips to “open the window and let the light in.” Your article comes right to the point and gives readers a practical guide to using narrative. I also enjoyed your references to Charles Spurgeon.
Thank you Alan. It seems that using narrative in nonfiction wasn’t always accepted by the elite. I’m so glad I’m not elite and I can enjoy it. 😉 Nice to hear from you.
Thank you for drawing such clear views of the different ways to get my message across.