In the beginning of your writing effort, you may be tempted to immediately wrap your work into a particular form, or genre. You’ve always wanted to write a novel, or a stage play or a long poem. However, your most successful start will be in just telling the story conjured up by your imagination, spilling it onto the page. Each type of genre demands a different set of rules and guidelines to package a story. Think of mom’s apple pie as an essay. How does that differ from recipe? What is the memoir part of that story? Can you fictionalize your collective threads? And so on.
Narrative alone has a set of rules that differ from dramatic writing, and both differ from poetic development. In the narrative space, an essay is not a short story or a novel or a blog, or newspaper copy. The different genres are differentiated by guidelines and rules that appear in literary usage manuals. In the beginning your brain to hand outpouring should not be concerned with the logical, analytical processes of obeying the rules. There may come a time when your imagination will shake it all up together. But first things first.
Story has a construct all its own and it is simple. Story is about one character: me, you, the dog, Aunt Carol, Lydia Bennett, or her worthier sister Lizzy. Story is about one humanized character (if you are prone to write about robots or alien beings) who wants something bad enough to work for it. That is the start of the story. A beginning of character + goal will get you a vignette, or a question to probe, or a sketch for a poem.
As such, the genre for this vignette should touch the audience in a calculated way. If you want to jog a reader’s memory in the grocery line, an essay on cat vittles will be much less effective than a catchy jingle, Izzy loves little liver yums. The jingle, however, does nothing to improve your cat’s weight problem.
A poem will work to evoke an intimate emotional response in the reader as Lydia longed for the ringlets of her once flaxen hair. The essay provides a narrative to identify a person and her condition, I wanted to buy her the wig, but I understood it would never replace her full body of chestnut hair. Of course, that narrative sentence could as easily appear in a fictional description or a memoir as well. As you imagine it, as it pours through your hand, you should never worry about the genre. It is simply another thread of story.
As the threads are collected, other threads appear. In the middle of your work, the earlier threads will expand, identifying another character or two. Tess finds peace in the convent with Anna, but Mother Superior breaks into their whispered chatter. The small action raises a big why? The story expands.
The structure and content of your middles will differ with genre. In nonfiction writing, the middles will expand from the key topic and argument of your work. An essay on a book review will focus on the published work, summarize the contents, and form a view as to its worthiness. An essay highlighting several works by the same author is a focus on the author instead of a book.
Creative nonfiction works like fiction, creating a story “plot,” meandering along the alleys and footpaths up the rocky slope of the high point where the broad view of the story is shown and tension is greatest.
Writing forms work to more completely reveal the story the writer wants to tell. Where nonfiction unfolds in facts and accurate experiences, fiction interweaves facts and imagination for entertainment and often levity. Yet, with all its creative beginnings, the fiction story also carries the power of a greater truth hidden in the story, something that narratives based on facts and provable occurrences simply cannot deliver: that WOW moment.