How to Use Elements of Fiction in Nonfiction Writing
What Makes Great Writing? #004 - Featuring Derek Thompson
Here’s a mistake many people make:
They assume poetry belongs only in poems.
In fact, some of the most poetic language I’ve read lives in nonfiction books, where a gifted author is trying to explain a difficult concept to people who don’t yet see what they see.
Today’s analysis is exactly one of those moments. In this selection from Hit Makers by Derek Thompson, our author uses poetry to explain science and science to explain poetry.
Let’s dig in.
Source - Hit Makers
Author - Derek Thompson
Blazon: a list of attributes used to describe the entire subject
Personification: treating a non-human thing as if it were human
Anaphora: repeating the same word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence
Chiasmus: words, grammatical constructions, or concepts that are used in reverse order
Metaphor: a word or phrase compared to another in a way that is not literal
Simile: making a comparison with the word “like” or “as”
Tricolon: a phrase or sentence using three elements
Alliteration: repetition of the same consonant sounds
Assonance: repetition of the same vowel sounds
“Running up and down your arms, just beneath the surface of your skin, amid the veins, glands, arteries, vessels, and nerves, there is a smooth thin muscle gripping the bottom of each hair. It is called the arrector pili muscle, and it is activated by the sympathetic nervous system. This means you cannot control it, or flex it impressively on cue, like a bicep.”
A blazon kicks off the poetry here after “just beneath the surface of your skin.” But Derek includes the other elements to add depth to the description.
Notice how he turns sideways from terms we are familiar with to terms we aren’t. (From “glands and arteries” to “arrector pili muscle.”) Unlike poetry, which can drop 4 ambiguous lines about a red wheelbarrow, the nonfiction author’s job is to be understood.
And the foundation of new understanding comes from existing knowledge.
“Instead, something outside of the body must summon the arrector pili to attention…When we feel cold, feverish, or deeply emotional, our hairs pucker up and create a raw and lumpy texture along a scam, like a freshly plucked bird…”
Personification here of the arrector pili. Is a muscle really “summoned to attention?” No. It can’t be. But by treating this involuntary muscle as a human, we understand it better.
“In Chinese, they call it ‘lumps on chicken skin.’ In Hebrew, they say ‘duck skin.’ In English, they are called ‘goose bumps.’”
Derek is displaying his expertise here. He educates us with a simple tricolon, the end of which we are delivered an “aha!” He’s talking about goosebumps! We understand!
“A few years ago, at a college reunion, I was walking through the South stretch of the campus on a Golden fall day in Evanston, Illinois and I suddenly felt an urge to listen to songs by Jeff Buckley.”
Worth noting: I didn’t skip forward a few pages here.
Derek jumps straight into a new story. Consider it a hard cut. A new scene in a movie. We were talking about goosebumps. Now we’re hearing a personal story.
Transitions don’t always have to be smooth.
“I hadn’t heard Buckley in many years, perhaps since graduation…replaying his music nine years later, it was like opening a time capsule and watching its treasures react to fresh oxygen.”
Notice how the specificity increases - going from “many years” to “nine years.”
This is followed by an excellent simile to describe what happens whenever you experience nostalgia - “like opening a time capsule.” We all understand this.
“Inside the songs, there live the memories of my first college crush, the anxiety of my first journalism class, and my first 4 AM political debate in the study area with blue felt couches, the aroma of chemically buttered microwave popcorn, and the alarmingly sticky floors.”
This is a juicy one.
We start with a metaphor. Nothing can “live” in a series of musical notes. But it feels like it does.
Then, the back-to-back tricolons. Crush. Class. Debate. And within the debate are couches, popcorn, and sticky floors.
You could argue that all of these adjectives take away from Derek’s message, but I’d argue the opposite. Derek is taking you straight to his world. You need to know these weren’t just any crushes, classes, or debates, but his first ones. You need to know the couches were blue, the popcorn was chemically buttered, and the floors were sticky because HE knows all this.
This is not theory. It’s reality.
“But the song also help to conclusions today’s anxieties – the knowledge of a failed romance, a magazine job I loved, and the fact that my 4 AM friend was about to get married.”
Notice that we’re completing the parallel structure between paragraphs here with another tricolon.
First crush -> failed romance.
First class -> magazine job.
4 a.m. debate -> married friend.
The one slip (if you could call it that) is with this 4 a.m. friend. We don’t know that Derek has a 4 a.m. friend until the second part. If he wanted to tie the structure more tightly, the line could have been “my 4 a.m. debate friend.”
Hearing the music playing within the memories, or the memories playing within the music, the song triggered an ancient promenade response. I got the chills…
See the clever little chiasmus here? Derek uses the words “music” and “memories,” and then reverses them.
Not only do the words shows how interconnected these two are, the sentence structure itself makes the concept more memorable.
Wordsmithing at its finest.
“This keeps happening to me. I synthesize my favorite shows and songs, mix them up with moments, give them dimensions they don’t have. My favorite books are also daydreams. My favorite songs are also places. My favorite movies are also friends…”
We’ve got the cute little alliteration to start us off (“Shows and songs”… “mix with moments”… “dimensions they don’t have.”
Then, into a combo that can only be described as “totally rad.” If this were Tony Hawk Pro skater, Derek would rack up a million points.
He rolls out another tricolon (the three final sentences in the same structure), combines them with an anaphora (repeating “my favorite” at the beginning of each line), and then kicking in metaphors with each one (a book is not a daydream).
“A full explication of this phenomenon is beyond my grasp. But that’s OK. It is not essential to understand each goose bump. It’s a secret, after all, a neural whisper shared between the sympathetic nervous system and invisible muscles; a feeling that slips beneath the skin and, without permission, pulls on you, from the inside.”
This is the last paragraph of the chapter. We’re personifying the nervous system once more, sliding in a nice alliteration + assonance combo (_Sli_ps beneath the _ski_n), and wrapping up where he began it - a description of goosebumps.
A chapter that starting strictly with sciences ascends to a poetic finish, showing that not all phenomena need to be explained to be meaningful.
Thanks Derek, for making what could have been a dry topic come alive.
(And if you haven’t yet, I recommend reading his latest post: Why is Gen Z So Sad?)
Much love as always <3