Best-selling author and award-winning journalist, Nick Chiles, shares a glimpse into his storytelling superpowers in the ASBPE Conference keynote.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nick Chiles first started working as a newspaper reporter, he realized that he wasn’t going to be “one of those investigative reporters” who sniffed out scandal and corruption. He discovered early on that his “superpower” was telling compelling stories, and he’s been winning awards (and the attention of his readers) with his stories ever since.
After working as a newspaper reporter at The Dallas Morning News, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey and New York Newsday (where he contributed to a 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a fatal subway crash), Chiles moved into magazine publishing as the editor-in-chief of a travel magazine for women of color. Then, the week after his magazine shuttered in the wake of the 2008 recession, Chiles got a call that changed his life.
A book editor in New York asked him to write a memoir for gospel music legend, Kirk Franklin — turning a new page in Chiles’ writing career. Chiles, who was already well-known in the publishing industry for several non-fiction books and novels he co-wrote with his then wife, gradually built a niche as the “king of collaborators” by helping African American celebrities pen their life stories. He has now written or co-written 21 books — three of which (including Franklin’s 2010 memoir) became New York Times bestsellers.
As the keynote speaker at the 2023 ASBPE National Conference in Atlanta, Chiles shared insights from his adventures in newspaper reporting, magazine journalism, book publishing and ghostwriting as he explained how to harness the power of storytelling.
Whether he’s writing about the life of Rev. Al Sharpton, R&B icon Bobby Brown, former NBA player Mamoud Abdul-Rauf, or movie star Jamie Foxx, Chiles knows how to coax stories from his subjects that capture readers’ attention.
“No matter how famous or successful you are, you’ve probably had a lot of trials and tribulations in your life that would allow you to tell a pretty good story,” he said. “…Our lives are really just a succession of stories: happy stories, sad, uplifting, painful, wonderful stories.”
To uncover these stories, Chiles said, the key is to spend as much time as possible with the people he’s writing about, with the goal of easing his sources into storytelling mode.
“The first couple of weeks is usually them giving me the quotes that they would give the People Magazine reporter,” he said. “I have to let them get all of that out of their system — all of their superficial canned quotes…and get to the real stuff.”
For example, when a source says, “I had a difficult childhood,” or “I had a mean mom,” Chiles pushes them to provide at least three examples of what that looked like. This requires plenty of interview time, lots of face-to-face interaction, and a writing skill Chiles calls “literary ventriloquism.”
The goal, he said, “is to get people to sound like what they would sound like on their most brilliant, articulate day of their lives — but to still sound like them.”
When co-authoring the book, “Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge” with former NBA player Etan Thomas in 2012, for example, Chiles didn’t just ventriloquize Thomas, but also 40 other famous men who contributed essays about fatherhood for the book. “I had one memorable week where I had to talk to and write essays in the voices of Yao Ming, Ice Cube and Cornel West,” he said. “You really couldn’t get three people whose voices sound less alike than those three guys.”
Humans have been telling stories since the dawn of man, Chiles said, dating back all the way to ancient cave paintings. “In fact, our brains are actually wired to respond to story elements,” he said. “We are able to make sense of the world, to remember, to understand through the use of stories.”
With help from author Kurt Vonnegut (via a pre-recorded lecture), Chiles illustrated some of the most popular narrative storylines of all time, which boil down to just six basic structures:
- Rags to riches stories, which steadily rise in emotional valence, as in “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” by Lewis Carroll
- Riches to rags tragedies, which fall in emotional valence, as in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”
- Man-in-a-hole stories, where the character “gets into trouble, gets out of it again,” in Vonnegut’s words.
- Icarus stories, named for their origin in Greek mythology, rise then fall.
- Oedipus stories fall then rise then fall again.
- Cinderella stories, which rise in a stairstep pattern as the main character meets the fairy godmother and gets ready for the ball, then quickly fall as the clock strikes midnight, and ultimately rise again toward happily ever after.
Chiles pointed to countless examples of these common storylines throughout classic literature, popular movies and even TV commercials. By harnessing the power of a strong story, he concluded, superhero writers can command the attention of their audiences across content platforms.
“If you learn how to manipulate these story structures effectively, Hollywood will pay you millions of dollars,” he said. “If you learn how to do it quickly, Madison Avenue will also leave your bank account whistling a happy tune. And if you can skillfully [write] in book form, you could also be handsomely rewarded.”
And, of course, “We can use these elements in non-fiction, as well,” Chiles reassured ASBPE’s audience of B2B media publishing professionals. “It requires taking a step back and understanding that our main goal is entertainment, is to write compelling stories that people want to read … If you’re not doing that, then all the other stuff you’ve learned is basically pointless.”
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