Crossing Over: Part Two

Eric Jager offers advice on how scholarly authors can tell stories for thousands, not dozens, of readers.

August 11, 2005

Unlike my first two books, produced by university presses, The Last Duel, about a notorious criminal case that riveted France in 1386, and drawing from new documents I found in the French archives, was published commercially and aimed at a popular audience. My last article focused on how to deal with commercial presses; what follows is focused on writing for them.

To appeal to a popular audience, my book had to avoid the forbidding jargon and arcane theory that now plague the humanities. It also had to offer a lively narrative that would capture and keep readers’ interest. Losing the jargon and the theory was easy -- and very liberating. But learning how to craft an appealing narrative for a general audience was a much bigger challenge. For 15 years, since beginning a full-time university teaching career, I had written mainly for other academics. How could I write a book that appealed to thousands, not just dozens, of readers?

Just as studying the trade-book business helped me to sell my book to literary agents and editors (as described in part one of this piece), studying other crossover books by successful scholarly authors gave me a kind of “on-the-job training” for the task. I also had the advice of some excellent readers, and a superb editor. Here is what I learned, including good advice and useful examples I tried to follow in writing my book, as well as some pointers and illustrations that have come my way since finishing it.

1. Getting the Reader’s Attention: A few months ago, a bookseller was telling me how people browse for books in his store, something he watches carefully. “First they pick it up and look at the cover,” he said.  “If they don’t put it down, they turn it over read the quotes on the back. Then, if they’re still interested, they open it and begin reading.  If they read it, there’s a chance they’ll buy it.” Of course, people don’t always begin reading a book at the first sentence. But if they do, you can grab their attention with a good opening.

"I always wondered how he did it." That’s Howard Bloch’s brief, curiosity-arousing start to God’s Plagiarist, his entertaining and revealing biography of the remarkable Abbé Migne, the 19th-century French priest who edited, printed, and sold more books by the yard than anyone else before him in human history.

Sometimes a longer, more descriptive opening works better, as when Natalie Zemon Davis maps out a whole journey at the start of The Return of Martin Guerre:  “In 1527 the peasant Sanxi Daguerre, his wife, his young son Martin, and his brother Pierre left the family property in the French Basque country and moved to a village in the county of Foix, a three-week walk away.” By the end of that sentence, we’re  already traveling with the family along the country roads of 16th-century France.

A dramatic conflict can open a book nicely, too. James Shapiro begins his new book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, with the colorful story of how , on a freezing winter day, armed members of Shakespeare’s playing company  nearly came to blows with supporters of the landlord of a disputed theatre, before they prevailed  and hauled  away the theatre’s dismantled frame. Before you know it, you’re in London 400 years ago, feeling the icy winter air and the heat of an off-stage dispute.

2. The Golden Triangle: Many readers want books about real, interesting people who lived dramatic lives in colorful times or places. Successful nonfiction books -- like most novels -- tend to work within a “golden triangle” of plot, character, and setting. Even jokes and anecdotes -- our shortest forms of narrative -- rely on these three basic elements. News articles do as well, as codified in the famous Who-what-when-where-how-and-why, which leads with character and plot. The authors of longer narratives, if they want readers, must do the same.

Plot, character, and setting -- essential to all good narratives, both fiction and nonfiction – have been analyzed in critical classics from Aristotle’s Poetics to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. But as the humanities have abandoned the warm campfires of story for the frigid heights of theory, historians and other social scientists once given to dry fact-gathering have rediscovered the joys of narrative, as successful popular books by Simon Schama and others attest. Even in the sciences, narrative writing has enjoyed a renaissance, as popularizing experts such as the late Stephen Jay Gould have satisfied a hunger for good stories and readable essays once filled largely by the humanities.

Gould’s best-selling book Wonderful Life recounts the early-20th-century discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils in British Columbia and their profound implications for evolutionary science. Although the book is about biology, and some passages may slow down non-specialists, Gould, like many skilled writers, appeals to popular readers by telling a story. He weaves the discovery -- and belated rediscovery -- of the fossils (plot) into the personal histories of the scientists (character), situating both in the relevant geological strata or cultural milieu (setting). As signaled by the film allusion in his title, Gould even comments, by way of another story (George Bailey’s, as played by Jimmy Stewart), on the nature of narrative and its role in our scientific understanding of ourselves. Touché!

Paul Fussell’s widely acclaimed book, The Great War and Modern Memory, begins with a sentence that almost embodies the golden triangle: “By mid-December, 1914, British troops had been fighting on the Continent for over five months.” The British troops, soon to be fleshed out as individual poets and combatants, will be the book’s main characters. The “fighting” points to plot, which includes the myriad other activities -- eating, sleeping, smoking, talking, reading, and writing letters -- pursued by the troops between brutal shellings and risky raids.  And “the Continent” is obviously the main setting, soon to be mapped out in Fussell’s meticulous and highly readable narrative as particular fronts, trenches, and wire-infested no-man’s-zones. From its first sentence, the book tells a story, drawing readers into its world.

3. Story Structure: As Aristotle famously said, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or as the novelist Peter De Vries once quipped,  "a beginning, a muddle, and an end." The main story in turn consists of smaller narrative units -- each with its own beginning, middle, and end -- that offer smaller payoffs to readers along the way as they move toward the big payoff at the book’s end.

The most obvious narrative unit in a book is the chapter, but chapters, too, generally consist of smaller units, often signaled by headings, or enlarged capitals, or simply white space. These smaller units tend to have their own narrative integrity. Yet all the pieces must add up to a single, compelling story.

In Trying Neaira, her unbuttoned biography of a courtesan in fourth-century B.C. Greece, Debra Hamel invites readers right into the story with her frank, immediate narrative style. Her first sentence even daringly risks a foreign term in italics -- a Greek verb with a sexual meaning -- in a way that’s sure to excite interest in the story rather than putting readers off. Hamel also divides her book (classically) into three parts that embody beginning, middle, and end. And she marks the reader’s path by dividing each chapter into bite-sized pieces of narrative topped by short descriptive headings such as “Buying Neaira” and “Playing the Sycophant.”

In my own book, The Last Duel, each chapter comprises a narrative of its own even as it advances the book’s main story. In chapter three, for example, a Norman noble leaves home to join a foreign campaign, risks his life in battle, and returns home in bad health and seriously in debt but having earned a knighthood. The chapter, although fact-based, assumes a familiar narrative shape through its pattern of journey–battle–journey (symmetry), and the character’s changed situation as a result of the campaign (development and contrast). The reader is meant to finish the chapter with a sense of completing one small story -- with its own beginning, middle, and end -- even as its results (illness, debt, a knighthood) set up the next chapter of the main story.

4. Surprise and Suspense: Crossover books can also exploit other traditional storytelling techniques, such as surprise, suspense, and foreshadowing. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis orchestrates a dramatic conclusion to one chapter as follows:  "The Criminal Chamber was about to make its final judgment of the case, opinions being ‘more disposed to the advantage of the prisoner and against the said Pierre Guerre and de Rols,’ when a man with a wooden leg appeared at the buildings of the Parlement  of Toulouse. He said his name was Martin Guerre."

Here are suspense (the wait for the verdict) and surprise (the new plot twist). The book’s title, of course, foreshadows the revelation all along, and the question is less one of what than of when. But even if we suspect what will happen, or we’ve seen the film before reading the book, the passage makes a powerful impression. The first long sentence packs its punch into its final clause, as the phrase "a man with a wooden leg" confronts us with a physical fact before the precise meaning of that fact is revealed. Thus we experience the man’s arrival, with its aura of mystery, as the people in the story did. The terse final sentence, an indirect quote, divulges the deferred meaning, as Guerre’s own voice, in effect, announces the identity of the one-legged man. The passage is founded on fact, but its carefully arranged details and rhetorical devices form the facts into a compelling piece of story.

A graduate school mentor once said to me about teaching: "You have to know everything about your subject, and then remember what it’s like not to know anything." There’s a useful writing tip here, too. For readers to understand and enjoy your book, you have to imagine how they experience the journey, the discoveries along the way, and the sense of an ending that is promised but, for a time, deferred.    

5. Being There: The noted biographer Robert Caro, discussing how he tried to capture the atmosphere and events of the American Civil Rights era, once said: "Make the reader see, make the reader feel, what was happening.  If it was thrilling, make it seem so." Not just another version of the old adage, "show, don’t tell,” this useful advice stresses the importance of putting the reader imaginatively at the scene. (I kept Caro’s quote taped up over my desk while writing my book.)

Caro abundantly illustrates his own advice in his widely read books. But to flesh out this fifth and final point, I’ll illustrate what Caro says with an example from an author who better embodies the crossover phenomenon, Simon Schama.

Schama’s many popular historical books have found a large readership, driven in part by his role as host for the TV-miniseries, “A History of Britain.”  In the companion volume to part one of that series, Schama puts his readers right at the battlefield in 1066, as the Normans and the Saxons prepare to fight:

“If you were a Norman foot soldier you would be praying that the gentlemen on horses know what they’re doing. All around you is the scraping of metal:  the sharpening of swords; the mounting of horses. You peer up to the brow of the hill and see a thin, glittering line. You cross yourself and toy with the linked rings of your coat of mail. Can they dull the blow of an axe? You’ve never faced axes in battle before....”

It’s not just the collar-grabbing repetition of “you” that makes this passage so compelling. It’s also the vivid physical details -- sights, sounds, even tactile sensations -- that tell us what it was like to be there, how it looked and felt. While the style may annoy some academic historians by “personal intrusions” or “lack of objectivity,” its vivid imagery and human emotion are precisely the things that thrill general readers and bring history alive for millions. As storytelling, it’s masterful, and it epitomizes the art of crossing over from the library or the archive into the reader’s imagination.


Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches medieval  literature. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France ( Broadway, 2004). The paperback will appear in September, and a BBC documentary based on the book will air during the next year.


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