Friday, September 9, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Engage the Imagination

What if…?

These two little words are the most important words of all to a fiction writer. How so? They inspire story.

What if that crying toddler in the stroller you just passed is a kidnap victim?

What if the little old man sitting on the bench at the bus stop is the illegitimate son of a British king?

What if the lady limping along the path in the park is a former ballerina whose partner dropped her?

What if those two teenagers in Gothic makeup who just entered the bank are really robbers?

What if the man who just moved in next door is in the witness protection program?

What if the little girl who disappeared while walking home from your school years ago is the clerk who checks you out at Safeway?
Get the idea? Observation opens your eyes to potential stories all around you. Then engaging your imagination can turn an ordinary situation into an extraordinary book.

What about nonfiction? We have less latitude when we report, as Joe Friday said years ago on Dragnet, “just the facts, ma’am.” Or do we? Joe was a straightforward kind of guy who used as few words as possible to get his point across. Writers, on the other hand, are wordsmiths, connoisseurs of the finer points of language usage. Let’s check out the possibilities for engaging imagination in nonfiction writing by creating a (fictional) bio.

Joe Smith was born prematurely on December 31, 1959, at 12:59:43 p.m. He spent six weeks in an incubator before he gained enough weight to be placed in the regular nursery. Another two weeks were spent in the hospital while doctors assessed his condition. Baby Boy Smith had severe cerebral palsy.

Joe spent many of his school years in special education classes, where most students required extra help to learn even the most basic skills. His unusual abilities went unnoticed and un-nurtured until a high school physics teacher, who had objected to Joe taking his class, discovered his genius. Today, Joe holds two masters’ degrees and three doctorates.
That’s an adequately written bio. While it doesn’t quite jump off the page and grab the reader’s hand, it’s a succinct and easy read. But would it benefit from engaging the imagination when it comes to word choices, sentence structures, and inclusion of additional factual details? Let’s see.

Joe Smith entered the world on December 31, 1959, just 17 seconds short of becoming the first baby born at Memorial Hospital in the new decade. A nurse whisked the premature three-pounder into an incubator and off to the nursery before his anesthetized mother caught even a brief glimpse of him. For six weeks he lived in that sterile environment, untouched except for the necessities of changing, feeding, and examination. His doctor ordered an additional two weeks in the regular nursery after he had reached five pounds to further observe and assess his physical condition. His medical records contained a brief note about his surprising faculty for following the doctor’s movements with his eyes and his apparent interest in his surroundings despite his prematurity. The bulk of the report, however, dwelt on the infant’s diagnosis: Baby Boy Smith, who had suffered significant oxygen deprivation at birth, had severe cerebral palsy.

Joe spent his elementary school years in special education classes, where most students required extra help to learn even the most basic skills. Then he enrolled in a mainstream high school. His unusual abilities went unnoticed and un-nurtured until a physics teacher—who had unsuccessfully petitioned the school board to keep the disabled boy out of his class—discovered his genius. The student he didn’t want to teach became the star of his entire teaching career. Today, Joe Smith holds two masters’ degrees and three doctorates and works in medical research to find ways to prevent and treat cerebral palsy.
Does engaging the imagination work in nonfiction writing? What do you think?


Linda Lane coaches writers and editors to raise the quality bar on independently published books. Visit her at

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  1. Thanks for the reminder of how we can play the "what if" game and come up with a new story or a twist on an older one.

  2. Great post! The "what if" reminder is so simple, yet so important. As for Joe, you showed how the facts can be so much more. FYI, this comment is coming from a three-pound premie who spent six weeks in the hospital herself!

  3. I've always maintained that facts only confuse me ... I'm all for a little creative noodling to fire up the creative neurons in the reader.

  4. I start of with "Why?" and answer it with a "What if..." This usually gets the engines burning.

  5. Narrative nonfiction is an expanding field in a shrinking publishing market so writers should take note! Linda, you show so beautifully how a writer can conjure atmosphere from weather data, create character arc from physical description and known actions, and otherwise connect the links between known events in order to intuit a story arc--relevant skills for writers who want to make true stories "pop."

  6. Excellent. Those two little words, "What if" are very important to us writers!!

  7. Great post! I was searching about verbs in google and landed on your page. I am glad I did.

  8. My imagination runs wild in every day life (for some reason it usually takes a morbid turn, e.g., what attacker approaches me, what if the lights in the store all go out and...). But I will begin to extend this imagination (morbid or not) to those around me; I like the idea of doing that.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Lauren I. Ruiz

  9. Great post. I definitely need to do a little more what if when I'm working on my novel.

  10. Yes, it's important to make non-fiction as interesting as fiction, without skewing the facts. I learned that when freelancing for the Daily Herald newspaper.

    Morgan Mandel


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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