This is non-fiction, but it has all the attributes of can't-stop-reading-it fiction, and that's made me think a lot about lessons I can learn from Laura Hillenbrand. I really believe that novelists can learn a lot from analyzing non-fiction. Humans love good stories, whether they're "true" or not. So what can we take away?
1. Give Enough (Pertinent) Background Material. Zamperini's stealthy stealing of supplies in the Japanese camps and his swiping of the Nazi flag in Berlin don't mean as much unless we know about his childhood pie thievery in Torrance, California. By giving ample BUT APPLICABLE background information, we can add to the richness of our stories. I capped "applicable" because I think it's too easy to add ample but inapplicable information.
I downloaded a novel-writing app recently that is supposed to organize all of your character and plot material. For each character, you can fill in fields like "favorite food," "biggest fear," and "height." That's great, but you could spend a lot of time thinking up character details that add absolutely nothing to the story. For example, I'm sure Hillenbrand could have told us all about Zamperini's favorite dance moves, but it wouldn't add anything to the story.
2. Load the Foreshadowing. Boy, is Hillenbrand good at foreshadowing. That's part of the reason I'm so sleep-deprived today. She ever so subtly turns our attention to a possible danger looming just in the distance, and then we can't stop reading because we have to know what's going to happen to our beloved friends (characters).
Another method Hillenbrand uses to load the foreshadowing is to step away from the action to see what's going on in the rest of the world. When things are heating up at the Japanese camp, she turns our attention to Torrance, California, and the daily sadness and struggles of Louie's family and friends. She tells us the dramatic events of the war in other parts of the world, reminding us that the POWs' know nothing but are dying for just a scrap of news. Foreshadowing keeps the story tight, quick-moving, and urgent.
3. Be Compassionate. Unbroken's Watanabe may well be one of the most vicious villains I've read about, and yet Hillenbrand gives her readers enough background information about him so that we understand a little about why he is the way he is. This doesn't detract from the horrendous danger that is Watanabe; in fact, if anything, it makes him all the more scary because there is motivation behind his sadism. Also, a compassionate author, even when that compassion is directed toward the antagonist, comes across as fair and unbiased, and an unbiased author is less likely to veer the story in unnatural directions just to tie everything up in a neat bow, which feels artificial. Of course, non-fiction authors can't (or shouldn't) just change their material to meet their vision, but it can be a great temptation for fiction authors to keep things real.
I'd love to chat more, but I'm not done with this book and it's calling me...