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Marginal Notes

Idea and story


Consider this opening paragraph, from an essay included in G. K. Chesterton’s 1928 collection, Generally Speaking:

Among those remarkable “Sayings of the Day” that are quoted in the daily Press, I remember a sentence that is quite significant. Sandwiched in between two other epigrams, between Sir Humphrey Pumpernickle’s paradox, “The British Empire must look to Britons for its defence” and the equally arresting bon mot of the Dean of Ditchbury, “True religion includes the desire for truth” — interposed, I say, in the same setting between some such jewels as these, I find a remark that really seems to me to be a text for a philosopher. I have forgotten who said it; but he was somebody of a social importance equal to that of the great men I have named. And what he said was this . . .

Earlier this year we talked about how to generate suspense by giving your readers a sense of what’s to come while preserving some ambiguity about it, then holding back on the revelation as long as you plausibly can. This is exactly what Chesterton does here. The mock quotes from other notables let readers know that what’s coming is going to be equally ridiculous, and that Chesterton is going to have suitable fun with it. But Chesterton holds off the quote itself as long as he can, just to whet readers’ appetites for the big reveal.

Any good essay – or any good non-fiction writing – presents ideas clearly and with a logical flow. But the best essays, the ones that are a pleasure to read and stick with you afterwards, also use techniques you usually think of as belonging to fiction. They essentially treat ideas as characters and tell a story about them.

Just about any long-form piece of nonfiction in The New Yorker makes use of several fictional techniques. Take Eliza Griswold’s recent piece on the future of the coal industry. Note how Griswold starts by setting the scene for her ideas with a description the countryside in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and ties the ideas to an activist named Veronica Coptis. Then, for the rest of the piece, ideas like the economic impact of closing the mines or the relationship between mines and environmental regulations are interspersed with trips back to the setting and Coptis’ life. This not only humanizes the ideas and gives them meaning. It lets Griswold release information to her readers at a controlled pace that would do a spy thriller proud.

Roy Blount once wrote an essay on the contrast between dog and cat ownership. For most of it, he sketches out all the complaints dog lovers have against cats – they’re emotionally indifferent, they’re self-involved, they’re impenetrable. And then, in a surprise that would have been at home in the denouement of any mystery, he concludes that you should really own a cat for all the reasons he’s just listed against them. Cats are like poems – short, perhaps hard to understand, but comforting without being emotionally demanding. “Dogs are like Dickens.”

Then there is this lighthearted essay by a master of the craft, one that’s still current despite being more than 300 years old: Joseph Addison’s 1712 essay on “party lying” – what we today would call propaganda or fake news. First, Addison introduces the good guy – the importance of telling the truth — by referring back to Plato, who considered truth one of the founding principles of the universe, along with beauty and goodness. Bear in mind this would have been even more impressive in the eighteenth century than it is today.

Then, as in all good fiction, he humanizes his bad guy, propaganda. Party lying is immensely popular, a mainstay of the press, and in coffee houses it’s “as fashionable an entertainment as a lively catch or a merry story.” And of course it’s completely harmless, since no one believes the lies any more, anyway. They’re just a way of showing what your politics are. “When we hear a party-story from a stranger, we consider whether he is a Whig or a Tory that relates it, and immediately conclude that they are words of course in which the honest gentleman designs to recommend his zeal without any concern for his veracity.”

Once the adversaries are on stage, the fight begins. Addison gives three subtly satirical reasons why otherwise honest people might feel comfortable lying to support their party. The reasons are couched in the arch elegance (and sometimes daunting sentence length) of eighteenth-century prose, but essentially they boil down to these. It’s not wrong when everybody does it. (“Though the weight of a falsehood would be too heavy for one to bear, it grows light in their imaginations when it is shared among many.”) Okay, it may be technically wrong, but it’s not shameful when everybody does it. (“The scandal of a lie is in a manner lost and annihilated, when diffused among several thousands.”) And finally, it doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or shameful if it’s done for a good cause (“If a man might promote the supposed good of his country by the blackest calumnies and falsehoods, our nation abounds more in patriots than any other of the christian world.”).

I won’t get into the details Addison’s response to these three points (spoiler alert – truth wins), but note that he presents the points in order of increasing strength. The argument that something isn’t immoral when a lot of people do it was self-evidently wrong in Addison’s day and it’s still pretty sketchy today. But the argument that there’s less shame when everyone does it is actually true. And the argument that it’s worth telling a falsehood in order to save the country – a feeling apparently as old as politics itself – is one that a lot of reasonable and honest people might make. By having his main idea face tougher and tougher challenges, Addison essentially gives readers a sense that they are moving forward. He’s taken his arguments and turned them into a story.

So why should fiction writers care about how to write effective non-fiction? Most of us haven’t had to write formal essays since freshman-level composition. Well, even if you’re not, say, a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, you never know when you might be called on to present a bunch of ideas clearly and memorably, whether it’s in a letter to the editor or a lengthy post on Facebook. And understanding how essayists structure ideas can make you more aware of your own thinking and how it hangs together. I’d like to believe that would come in handy for anyone.

Oh, and the statement that Chesterton put us in suspense over at the beginning? “The Charleston may really be of great practical use in teaching a man to be a good golfer.”