Back in the 1980s, Harvard freshmen parents weekend offered me a special opportunity to see a master teacher in action. A feature of the event was the choice of attending some of the survey classes offered to students. A class taught by one of my idols, biologist Edward O. Wilson, was on the list, so I eagerly attended.
I watched as Dr. Wilson, wearing a white lab coat, told the students the story of a visit to the Costa Rican rainforest as he showed slides of the trip. I found his casual travelogue interesting, but it didn't seem like a professor's lecture for beginning students. The more I listened, the more I realized that his presentation covered several basic principles of biology as he described what he saw and did in the forest. He embedded the facts so softly into his story that the students didn't realize their learning brains were on automatic pilot as they listened.
Fiction writers and fiction lovers sometimes talk of the power of story as if only made-up stories can carry that power. But nonfiction contains many fabulous stories, and when told in that format, it can make the real world at least as compelling as any world conceived in imagination.
Armed with my love of nonfiction story-telling, I just began teaching a class for the University of Montana Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program for people 50 years old and up. My class is full of curious students, each with ideas about what they want to write. About half of them have family stories to share, and the rest have varied interests. I am not daunted about these differing ambitions, however, as I know the basic principles of writing good stories are the same, whatever the genre. Basically, there is one fundamental requirement--keep your readers turning the page!
I've found one of the best books on the subject of storytelling is "Story," by Robert McKee. His book and seminars focus on writing for the screen, but it doesn't matter. Novelists as well as screen writers attend his seminars and refer to his book. One of my new students, as a matter of fact, showed me a summary diagram in the book called "The Three Levels of Conflict" that has helped him in structuring his stories. Conflict and its resolution are at the core of any story worth reading. As soon as we find out the main character has a problem, a conflict, we want to know how it is going to be resolved, and as long as the main character is off balance and having to struggle through a series of challenges, readers stay engaged.
The "main character" doesn't have to be a person. In my own work, my main character is often an animal, or even a complete ecosystem. "The Right Dog for the Job: Irah's Path from Service Dog to Guide Dog," features a Golden Retriever puppy whose life undergoes some surprising twists and turns before he becomes a successful Guide Dog for the Blind. In "When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone," the main character is Yellowstone National Park, put out of balance during the 1920s when the top predator, the gray wolf, was killed off in the park. The book tells how returning wolves to Yellowstone during the 1990s has gradually led to restoring the natural balance in the park. It's a satisfying story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like any fiction.
That's a great strength of much of today's nonfiction for children--it combines engrossing stories with important and interesting information about the real world, a powerful combination for learning.