Five things from Jon Krakauer’s Narrative Genius that You Should Steal and Use Immediately

Show, don’t tell.
Learn from Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild.

ONE: Dialogue

I was working then as an itinerant carpenter, framing condominiums in Boulder for $3.50 and hour. One afternoon, after nine hours of humping two-by-tens and driving sixteen-penny nails, I told my boss I was quitting: “No, not in a couple of weeks, Steve; right now was more like what I had in mind.” It took me a few hours to clear my tools and other belongings… (135-136)

What Krakauer does here: There’s dialogue, but only one line. Rather than giving us the entire conversation, he gives us only what we most need to understand the substance of the conversation.

The lesson to learn: Let the people in your narrative speak, but use just what you need with dialogue. The reader may not need the entire conversation.

TWO: Small Details

Sunlight glinted off the water as we chugged up the Strait of Georgia. Slopes rose precipitously from the water’s edge, bearded in a gloom of hemlock and cedar and devil’s club. Gulls wheeled overhead. Off Malcolm Island the boat split a pod of seven orcas. Their dorsal fins, some as tall as a man, cut the glassy surface within spitting distance of the rail. (136)

What Krakauer does here: He paints a picture and sets a scene using very small details. The trees bearding the slopes. The sunlight on the water. The birds. The dorsal fins. These all put the reader there on the scene.

The lesson to learn: Use small, concrete details to bring a scene alive.

THREE: Figurative Language

The icefall was crisscrossed with crevasses and tottering seracs. From afar it brought to mind a bad train wreck, as if scores of ghostly white boxcars had derailed at the lip of the ice cap and tumbled down the slope willy-nilly. The closer I got, the more unpleasant it looked. (139)

What Krakauer does here: There’s a metaphor–the train wreck made of ghostly white boxcars–that describes a scene that many readers may not have seen before.

The lesson to learn: Use similes/metaphors to describe things to readers that they might not have first-hand knowledge of.

FOUR: Second Person

All that held me to the mountainside, all that held me to the world, were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water, yet the higher I climbed, the more comfortable I became. Early on a difficult climb, especially a difficult solo climb, you constantly feel the abyss pulling at your back. To resist takes a tremendous conscious effort; you don’t dare let your guard down for an instant. The siren song of the void puts you on edge; it makes your movements herky-jerky. But as the climb goes on, you grow accustomed to the exposure, you get used to rubbing shoulders with doom, you come to believe in the reliability of your hands and feet and head. You learn to trust your self control. (142)

What Krakauer does here: The point of view shifts from first to second at a key moment, when describing what it was like to cling to the side of the mountain. This makes the reader part of the narrative–you’re there clinging to the mountain too.

The lesson to learn: Pull the reader in deliberately with the second person. Put the reader in the scene where it would be powerful to do so, but use second person sparingly. It’s difficult to make it work well.

FIVE: Physical Details to Mirror Emotions

I tried left, then right, but kept striking rock. The frost feathers holding me up, it became apparent, were maybe five inches thick and had the structural integrity of stale corn bread. Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air, and I was balanced on a house of cards. The sour taste of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to shake. (143)

What Krakauer does here: Starting at “the sour taste…,” he describes the physical sensation of the emotion he was feeling. Sour taste in throat, blurred vision, hyperventilating, shaking calves. He’s panicking, terrified, fearful. We know this because of the physical details, not because he told us directly.

The lesson to learn: Show emotions. Use the physical details of how emotion shows up in the body. Don’t say someone was sad. Show it by describing what sad looks like on that person.

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