The plot of a story—the documented change in people, places or objects in nonfiction as well as fiction—poses questions: What is happening? What has caused this to happen? And, most importantly, how will it end? To keep the reader engaged, the writer must point in a specific direction, toward specific questions. It is the nonfiction writer’s job to construct a story of actual events that poses a degree of suspense.
The overall plan, or structure, of a story can also be called the frame. A frame gives shape to a story and keeps readers reading in order to find out what happens. And in between plot developments, the creative nonfiction writer can supply other information, tell other stories and explore the themes that drive the story.
Jon Krakauer begins “Under the Banner of Heaven,” subtitled “A Story of Violent Faith,” with a description of the 1984 murder of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter at the hands of her brothers-in-law. Dan and Ron Lafferty, members of a Mormon fundamentalist sect, believed that God had instructed them to kill. Krakauer’s prologue begins with a gruesome scene: Allen Lafferty, Brenda’s husband, returns home to find his wife’s body “sprawled on the floor in a lake of blood.” The throats of his wife and daughter have been slit by a 10-inch boarding knife, we later discover.
The mystery is not who killed Brenda but why they did it. Krakauer purposefully withholds the killers’ rationale and account of the murder until Chapter 22 (page 277 out of a 331-page narrative) to allow for resolution late in the book. Krakauer stays with the account of the murder, subsequent trial and sentencing until just 15 pages before the book’s end, when he returns to reexamine the issues of fundamentalist violence he has already raised in the rest of the book.
While the issues Krakauer examines in “Under the Banner of Heaven” are complex, the structure of the book is fairly simple. The book begins with a murder and ends with the killers behind bars (one for life, the other awaiting execution), and it provides an explanation for how they could have murdered a young woman and her child. Ultimately, all the questions posed by the first scene are resolved.
Creating resolution in a story by answering all the questions that the opening pages pose is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Because real life is rarely tidy, resolution and the irresolvable usually exist in tandem, and it is important to track and describe both accurately. Writers of nonfiction should be wary of their own desires to create resolution where there is none and should think carefully about how to incorporate irresolvable issues and unanswerable questions within their texts. In nonfiction, the writer must painstakingly search for the “end” of a story as it plays out in the real world.