How to Tell a Good Story, or, What Time Does This Glacier Reach Town?


I have always been an admirer of the storyteller; those special individuals who can take typical everyday events in their lives and turn it into compelling narrative.

James Herriot for example, who wrote numerous books about his life as a country veterinarian. Normally, the memoirs of a long-ago British vet wouldn’t appeal to me, except that Herriot had the gift of storytelling. Events and people that may have been ordinary in his world were brought vividly to life by his hand. There probably wasn’t anything extraordinary about where he worked and the Yorkshire farmers he dealt with, but he made them extraordinary in his books.

Then there is Mark Twain, who had great success with his travelogues such as Roughing It. He took a long stagecoach trip (that many people of his time similarly took), had a series of misadventures out west (that many others experienced during the late 19th century) and turned it a humorous page-turner.

I admire the gift of storytelling, and I wish I could do it as well, but I haven’t quite got the knack. This hasn’t stopped me from trying though. I write travel journals and occasionally post an autobiographical piece on my blog, but I struggle to make them…well, interesting.

What am I doing wrong?

I have a guess. When I am writing something nonfiction in nature, I have a tendency to make sure that the story is as accurate as possible. This may be a good thing for journaling or research, but sometimes the facts prove a hinderance in storytelling.

Perhaps a little artistic license may be in order.

Event A may follow Event B, but wouldn’t it make for a better tale if Event B came first? Event C may have occurred but it makes the story drag, so out it goes. Event D didn’t really happen at all, but it’s pretty entertaining so we include that.

But how much artistic license is too much? Is there even such a thing as too much?

Despite the classification of nonfiction, Twain was prone to a few exaggerations in his travel books. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain relates how he and some fellow travelers visit a glacier in Switzerland. The men had read in a reputable travel guide that glaciers move. Excited by the prospect of riding a glacier down a mountain to the town below, Twain and company hiked up to the ice and climbed aboard. They spent a day and a night camped on the glacier before realizing that they hadn’t gone anywhere.

The men then figured that the ice only moved at certain times of the day, but after a thorough search of the guide book, they couldn’t find a time table listed. Fearing that the glacier must have “run aground,” Twain and his companions spent another day trying to get it unstuck.

At last, after another careful reading of the guide book, Twain was disgusted to find that the glacier did indeed move…less than an inch a day. A quick calculation revealed that it would take them 500 years to reach the town. The author deemed the whole thing a fraud and everyone agreed that the European governments were to blame for the inefficiency of glacier travel.

Did this really happen? Most likely not.

Does it make for a good story? Yes, indeed.

Do other writers play fast and loose with the facts in order to produce a good story? Perhaps…

So maybe in the future, I also need to be a little more…creative in my nonfiction.