Resonant storytelling includes a mixture of magic and logic, of possibility and practicality. Many nonfiction writers get trapped in one side or the other. Scientists and corporate types become overly attached to jargon and traditional logic out of a fear of being perceived as “woo.” On the other end of the spectrum, those who focus relentlessly on possibility and wonder often lack the gravitas (on the page) necessary for trust and resonance. I have nothing against wonder. I seek it out every day. But in writing, it needs to be balanced.
By weaving together magic and logic, you can engage readers’ hearts as well as their minds—not just one or the other. If you do it well, you can engage their minds in service to their hearts.
Lessons from Magic Realism
In fiction, there’s a genre called magic realism, which originated in Latin American literature (among its most distinguished authors are Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes). What distinguishes magic realism, in part, is a story that seems to be ‘typical’ literary fiction set in the familiar world… yet in the world of the story, certain types of magic exist and are considered completely normal. It’s simply part of the world the author has created.
Every genre of fiction, from sci-fi to romance, has its own conventions (aka ‘rules’). Here are two of the conventions from magic realism are applicable to transformative nonfiction:
- The author describes the Ordinary World (that which the reader inhabits in day-to-day life) in vivid, tangible terms that are familiar to the reader. This anchors the reader in a shared reality with the characters, and so the reader trusts the characters. (In nonfiction, this shared reality allows the reader to trust the author. We tend to trust people whose experience of the world is similar to our own.)
- When magic does appear, it’s not commented upon as being any different from anything else in the characters’ world. (In nonfiction, this means there’s no need to defend your viewpoint or experiences, or to convince a reader that what you’re saying is true)
By making the mundane vivid, the author allows the reader to make conceptual leaps when they happen, without thinking, “Oh, that’s really unusual.”
If you’re taking the reader beyond a reality that’s familiar to them (their Ordinary World), it’s important to make the physical world as tangible and familiar as possible. This means describing locations, people, clothing, sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even conventional perspectives, in great detail. Not only does this increase resonance, as I mentioned earlier, but also it allows the reader to make conceptual leaps. They understand that you and they fundamentally share the same concept of “reality.”
Using these underpinnings in nonfiction also means making an extra effort to anchor yourself as a relatable person – someone who had the same fears/skepticism that the reader has, and being naked with your emotions and your journey. When it comes to transformation, specifically, the reader needs to trust that you’ve walked your talk, that you’ve faced the same challenges they’re facing, and you made it through.
A holdover belief from journalistic writing is that the author should never insert herself into the story. When it comes to writing about transformation, I strongly disagree. Most of us don’t read transformative books because our lives are peachy and comfortable. We want to know that someone else has been through this. I would go so far as to say that experience is the new “authority”; having gone through one’s own transformation confers a credibility a Ph.D alone can’t (But that’s another post.)
Balancing Magic and Logic
Here are some general patterns I’ve noticed in manuscripts:
- Scientists and researchers need to help readers understand the amazing possibilities of what they’ve discovered.
- Those writing about nonduality tend to gloss over or dismiss the duality our current world is built around. Often, this manifests as “nonduality is so beautiful!” without showing the challenges that duality presents.
- Healers and intuitives need to balance the vision and magic with down-to-earth practical logic in language that readers understand.
- Those writing about conscious business need to help executives see bottom-line benefits, because their job is to keep the business afloat (not to turn their companies into nonprofits).
- Scientists, in particular, tend to have a fear of being perceived as “woo,” and so they overcompensate with overly academic language and jargon. This is the subject of a whole other post, but in a nutshell, it creates distance from the reader.
Magic brings the vision to life
Logic anchors it in the world that’s familiar to your readers.
The farther you are to one end of the continuum, the more you need to focus on balancing. Picture it as a set of scales. If you’re a scientist, you’re likely heavily on the logic-and-research side. Balance that with stories about the implications for your findings, how it might help people—including the reader and those she cares about—and what it could mean for the world as a whole.
If you’re on the esoteric side, look for research that can give your reader permission to believe you. It’s not your responsibility to convince the reader; this is an exercise in setting yourself (and your reader) up for success, inviting them into the conversation.
I’m not of the belief that the current scientific method is the be-all and end-all, by any means. I believe the axiom, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured, matters.” But the scientific method is what most people today, especially those committed to the status quo, use as a common reference point. To reach your reader, you need to understand their reference points and use them in the context of your work.