Good morning! Nonfiction Monday is being hosted by Gathering Books.
Last month I spoke in Ithaca, NY at the regional SCBWI shoptalk meeting. My topic, of course, was writing nonfiction and in particular story and voice in nonfiction. One question has stuck with me since that night. One woman who was working on a biography asked, "Does there have to be conflict in nonfiction?"
I told her that, yes, especially in a biography. She wasn't sure that her chosen subject had encountered any conflict. My response was, nobody's life is smooth sailing, and if it is nobody wants to hear about it. So, after a little discussion, she admitted that the woman's life had not been all sunshine and roses. Now the writer has to decide whether the conflict, which seemed to be more in the subject's personal life, is appropriate fodder for a children's book. But that is a topic for another time.
So, my short answer is yes, there should be conflict in nonfiction. However, that conflict can take many forms. In a biography, which most resembles fiction writing because it is character driven, the writer must present the struggle the subject went through. As in fiction, that struggle could be internal or external. Most of the picture book biographies that I can recall tend to focus on the external struggles especially when someone steps out of traditional roles to forge new territory. Think of Marian Anderson (When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan) against the racial atmosphere of the time; Louise Smith (Fearless by Barb Rosenstock) who made her name in stock car racing; Annette Kellerman (Mermaid Queen by Shana Corey) who broke rules in woman's roles and fashion.
I would love to hear from you about picture books biographies that deal with internal struggle as well. Off hand, I am coming up blank, (although most people who struggle against tradition also face internal doubts).
Older biographies delve deeper into the psyche of characters. Darwin comes to mind in Deborah Heligman's Charles and Emma.
But conflict can also be represented in other nonfiction. When writing about an invention or discovery you should address the setbacks as well as the successes. When presenting information, you give more than one opinion, which can often be conflicting. In a how-to you provide warnings where caution is required.
Conflict can come in the form of tension in the writing or presentation of the material - surprises in the language, or in the turn of a page. An ABC format, for example, could have unexpected entries that keep the litany exciting.
If you think of other examples of conflict in nonfiction, I'd love to hear about them.