Story Craft by Jack Hart

Story Craft

a review by Nalini Haynes

Story Craft by Jack Hart is a self-conscious guide to writing non-fiction; I read this book because it’s a text for my Writing Non-Fiction course.

Jack Hart narrates Story Craft in the style he recommends writers narrate works of non-fiction; he becomes his own example.  The immediately noticeable problem with this is his focus on himself; Hart strongly reminds me of Doctor Phil in his focus on himself as an authority.  This may well be an American thing as Doctor Phil seems so popular over there but both Doctor Phil and Jack Hart really piss me off.

Hart goes on to explain – repeatedly – how he’s worked closely with writers, so closely that it sounds like many of Hart’s writers are glorified research assistants while Hart constructs the narratives.  It appears Hart put in many long hours to win Pulitzer Prizes and other awards for many journalists, as well as being on Pulitzer Prize judging panels etcetera.  If this hadn’t been a text book I would have given up before Hart reached the useful portion of the narrative, the focus on actually giving writing tips.

Just past the introduction, the next chapter covered Story; this blended with the introduction.  Subsequent chapters include point of view, voice and style, character, scene, action, dialogue, theme, reporting, story narratives, explanatory narratives, other narratives and ethics.

Hart has much to share on these topics, I just wish he didn’t focus so much on himself.  For example, he tells a story that has been written as narrative to use as an example, but in some chapters he tells the story of writing the story TWICE OVER, trying to build tension and reach a climax in how he had dinner with the writer, the things they discussed and how he contributed so significantly to the outcome.  I don’t know if other readers appreciate the repetition and the example Hart made of his own writing as a meta-narrative over the actual examples he used, but I found this tedious and irritating, doubly so when Hart self-consciously demonstrated his point.  For example, Hart broke the fourth wall while talking about professors’ use of language; he used the word ‘erudite’ before interjecting ‘ha!’ 

The point at which Hart truly, deeply offended me was in his discussion of the ‘Boy Behind the Mask.’  This particular news story sounds compelling and life-changing, hopefully for the boy concerned as well as some of the readers.  Hart offends when he says of the boy’s disability that the deformity was a boy.  This was another example of Hart retelling a story too many times, thus necessitating a different angle – a change of wording to avoid blatant repetition – within his narrative, but I am outraged.  The boy behind the mask is not a deformity, he is a boy.  I am not a disability, I am a HUMAN BEING who is angry whenever I am discounted and dehumanised for being disabled.

The book design is poor.  The kindle version reads alright but the many figures (diagrams) to which Hart refers include minuscule text that I believe even those with normal vision would find difficult to read without a magnifying glass.  The diagrams in the standard paper text are significantly larger with much larger text than the diagrams in the magnified version of the kindle.  I slogged my way through the eBook  feeling really frustrated that my progress was so slow, to find the narrative and instructional portion of the book ended at 67%, followed by the acknowledgements, bibliography and index.  The paper book is quite appealing in a reasonably slim, nicely presented hardcover, but the text is spidery, thin and small.  It’s necessary to forcibly hold the book wide open to read text in the centre of a double page.

Story Craft has lots of useful morsels for the emerging writer, some of which were defining the already intuited, yet the very act of articulating these ideas was helpful.  Some of the structures and guides in Story Craft were new information for me that, by putting into words, Hart has saved me countless hours of reading to work out for myself.  The stories that Hart uses to illustrate his points are all interesting, I just wish Hart hadn’t included his meta-narrative of how he contributed so significantly to the stories, his dinner engagements with the writer and how he imposed structure on the story.  Overall I recommend Story Craft to aspiring writers of non-fiction and fiction as I believe some of the principles outlined here would benefit writers of fiction as well.