Franklin: Writes Structured True Stories

Franklin_review_08212015Jon Franklin. 1994. Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.  New York: Penguin Books (Plume Book).

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Having grown up reading Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and Life Magazine, I love a good, real-life story. But as I remember it, even fiction once focused on ordinary life lived extra-ordinarily. The newer idea that fiction would be structured in the manner of an Indiana Jones movie—jumping from one action scene to another—still bothers my sensitivities. Perhaps, this new fictional form reflects a new reality—a life lived with less time, more routine, and impatience throughout.

In his book, Writing for Story, Jon Franklin likewise reminisces about the move away from short story publication with a slightly different focus. Traditionally, these short stories offered aspiring fiction writers an entry point for learning their craft. Back then, young writers could easily write and sell short stories. Today, the non-fiction narrative (NFN) provides a new entry point. Consequently, Franklin views NFN as “a profoundly important event in the history of modern literature.” (27)

According to Franklin, the NFN “combines the appeal, the excitement, and reading ease of fiction with the specific information content of nonfiction.” (26) The NFN likewise adopts the structure of a short story with a complication, development, and a resolution and marked throughout by twists and complications (21-22).

Jon Franklin is a professional writer and has taught both writing and journalism.  He has written a number of books. He received two Pulitzer prizes for his non-fiction writing while working as a journalist for the Baltimore Evening Sun[1]. In Writing for Story, Franklin writes in 10 chapters:

  1. The New School for Writers.
  2. Kelly’s Monster.
  3. The Ballad of Old Man Peters.
  4. Stalking the True Short Story.
  5. Structure.
  6. The Outline.
  7. Structuring the Rough.
  8. Contemplating the Structure.
  9. Polishing.
  10. The Nature of Art and Artists (xiii).

 Acknowledgments and a preface precede these chapters.

Appendices at the end of the book outline NFN stories featured in Chapters 2 and 3. The two short stories—Mrs. Kelly’s Monster and The Ballad of Old Man Peters

illustrate Franklin’s writing points in the chapters that follow.  Mrs. Kelly’s Monster earned Franklin his first Pulitzer prize for feature writing in 1979.

Franklin defines a story with these words:

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (71)

The need for a “sympathetic character” explains why, for example, one sees very few economists starring in television dramas—almost no one considers a brainiac researcher a sympathetic character[2]. Franklin observes that:

“Complications that are more fundamental to the human condition, involving love, hate, pain, death, and such, are very basic to the human dilemma and thus are fair game for the professional storyteller.” (75).

Here is a second reason why economists do not normally appear in television dramas:  the complications they face and solve are typically abstract and not basic, not matters of life or death. When the government shuts down, economists are not typically among the essential personnel required to work the night shift.  By contrast, medical personnel, police, fire fighters, and military personnel are considered essential and often appear in television dramas.

Franklin’s final point is about the resolution of the story:

“A resolution is simply any change in the character or situation that resolves the complication…A resolution, like a complication, can be either physical or psychological, external or internal… A resolution, by definition, destroys tension.” (76-77)

Resolutions are helpful to authors because while complications can exist without a resolution, every resolution has a complication. News stories are often endings without complications and may soon be forgotten.  Resolutions with interesting complications involving sympathetic characters are priceless.  Franklin’s advice?  “Never fixate on just one part of a story.” (78-79)

Franklin offers insight into the perianal question:  does a story have to have a happy ending?  He opines: “successful stories generally have happy endings…[because] the reader’s world has a surplus of sad endings…What the reader really wants is to be show some insightful choices that have positive results.” In a practical sense, sad endings are harder to write successfully so young writers should be wary of them (80-82).

It is hard to capture all the good advice that Franklin offers in a short review. A key takeaway is this—outline the structure of the story and pay attention to transitions that are labored. The problem may be in the underlying structure, not the polish of the writing. Another is to start with the climax, not the opening. Foreshadowing leads to the climax so starting the climax helps clarify what to foreshadow.  A further point is to show emotion, don’t just talk about it.

Jon Franklin‘s Writing for Story is a helpful book for authors which bears reading and re-reading. Even though I write primarily non-fiction, I still write a lot of stories and tell a lot of stories when I preach. Knowing the rules for story writing makes me a better writer. It may help you too.



[2] In fact, The Brainiac is the name of a cartoon villain (

You may also like

Leave a Reply