What can Jack Hart’s Storycraft teach us about writing?

Photo of Storycraft front cover

What’s the hardest line to write in any story? The opening line. Get it wrong and few people will hang around long enough for you to make amends. Jack Hart knows this and so he starts his book with this line in the preface:

‘Nearly forty years ago a police reporter walked into my Northwest Magazine office and pitched a story.’

Storycraft, p. ix

I often skip the preface, foreword, writer’s and editor’s notes, impatient to sink my teeth into the actual story. Jack Hart, a long-time editor, university lecturer and writing coach, probably knows this too and so when he writes a preface, he makes sure it pulls you straight in. And once he gets you hooked, he holds tight until you’ve read it all.

What you may not know about Storycraft is that it’s not a crime novel or action-packed adventure fiction. It is a ‘Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction’. And it’s masterly. Hart not only tells you how it’s done, he shows you how to craft a good story with every one of his paragraphs and chapters. He has us learn from the best writers and journalists he’s either coached as an editor at the US daily, The Oregonian, or those he’s learned from and admired himself. At one point, the story he was pulling apart for the learner’s benefit got so poignant that I felt myself well up. How many guides can make you do that? 

The theory, guidance, tips, anecdotes and examples of story creation are all there, as you would expect, but what sets Storycraft apart from other guides on the subject is that it manages to show you, through its own narrative, how best writing works and how it makes us feel as readers. 

The only thing that slightly jarred with me when reading it was that whenever the author returned to a book, story or character he’d already mentioned, he would explain again who or what it was, or which chapter we’d met them in. For a fairly perceptive (and impatient) reader this felt like too much hand-holding – I prefer a writer who trusts me to follow their beat. (Storycraft has a handy index for when your mind draws a blank.) But maybe that’s just my copy-editor’s hat that I couldn’t quite put aside.

When I’m thinking of Storycraft the term that keeps coming up is ‘page turner’. As I’m learning how to see the bigger picture in story writing and help writers craft their stories, I find Jack Hart an excellent, inspiring teacher and his book a real pleasure to spend time with.  You can buy it from University of Chicago Press or Bookshop.org, the online bookstore that supports independent booksellers.

Photo of Storycraft front cover
Jack Hart’s Storycraft on my armchair. (c) 2021 Kasia Trojanowska.