Stories Convert Broccoli into Hot Dogs

by Site Author

A man becomes deeply interested in a topic. He reads everything that’s been written on the subject. Then he goes out, green Steno pad in hand, and interviews everyone involved. He compiles his Steno books—after a year there are dozens—and picks out key quotations and themes. He jots down the major points on index cards, and pastes them along the wall of his office.

As the months of work go by, the man becomes more and more convinced: people ought to know about this! And if they knew, they’d be furious. They’d think about the world differently.

So what does the man do? He could make his notes public. He could put together a YouTube lecture. He could write short, angry op-ed essays.

Instead, he puts together a story. And he makes the story so compelling that readers are tricked into learning about the topic when they think that they’re simply reading for their own entertainment. The story is a trojan horse, sneaking knowledge into readers who would otherwise be uninterested.

This is the work of narrative non-fiction, of the writers who, since the mid 20th century, have invented a new form of journalism. I am always surprised at how deliberate and explicit those writers are about the craft. Lawrence Wright, for instance, has described exactly this trojan-horse process in writing The Looming Tower, his best-selling book about 9/11.

Eventually I began to find a way to get into stories. Then the main problem—it’s still the problem—is how to arrange the information in a stylish way that will carry the reader through the story. And I finally understood that the only way to do that—for me—is with characters and scenes. Those are the building blocks of any great story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. If you have great characters that the reader cares about they will carry you into a world that might be really difficult to understand. But if you care about that person, all the information that creates the world that that character lives in becomes more meaningful. So you can feed information to the reader that makes them eager to take it in. And then if you have great scenes, that’s where you can spread the canvas out, and paint the picture, and draw the reader in.

If you have those two things… these are the things that I need to make a great story. The information is important, but essentially what the reader cares about—and the reason the reader is in the story in the first place and will stay in it—is because they have a human connection with the people that are involved in the story.

Wright calls some of the characters in his book “donkeys.” The characters are so compelling that they can carry “loads of information” to the reader, and the reader, having been drawn to the character, is happy for all of the information.

Michael Lewis does something similar in his work. Lewis’s latest book, Flash Boys, covers high-frequency trading, a topic that most laypeople would find hard to grasp. Lewis, however, has described how he manages to explain such a complex topic to readers.

I do it through the story of the protagonist. With Katsuyama [the protagonist of Flash Boys], for example, the reader is learning about the market as he learns about the market. So he becomes a proxy for the reader… The Big Short was that way too. The characters were trying to figure out what’s going on in the American financial system. They start knowing nothing and they have to learn. And that’s a very valuable character, because you can put the reader through what he went through, and the reader doesn’t feel stupid, the reader’s with someone they can see as smart but ignorant. You give the reader the feeling of being comfortable with ignorance.

This trick of teaching readers through stories is not limited to print. Television reporters have done the same thing for years, hiding the bitter medicine of news in the sugar of compelling video. 60 Minutes has always been especially adept at this. Here is one description of what Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, did in creating the series.

He gave the country nourishment, but in the form of entertainment. It wasn’t like eating your broccoli. What he gave us was a good old-fashioned hot dog, but somehow it nourished us like broccoli. There is some kind of genius in that. He was able to fuse those two things.

And finally, these days, the technique has spread far from journalism entirely. George Packer argues that narrative nonfiction has become the default way we present information to each other.

Long-form narrative nonfiction might be in dire straits financially, but it’s become the default prose genre of our time, and not just in magazine articles and books. Official publications like the findings of the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture now borrow its techniques: the use of characters, scenes, description, and dialogue; the creation of tension through pacing, foreshadowing, and recapitulation; the omniscient narrator whose sources are semi-hidden in order to preserve the elegance of storytelling.

All of this is to say that stories are not simply distractions to be shared around a campfire. Rather to understand stories is to understand how to get people to listen, how to be heard.