How to Read Like a Writer: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
In my last post, I discussed the four C's of basic story structure and how nonfiction authors can use them along with other fiction techniques to entertain and engage their readers while sharing their experiences and message. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen is centered around an interesting concept, filled with conflict, features eclectic characters, and possesses the causality necessary to tie a story together. McDougall expertly intertwines his personal journey and the running knowledge he gained to create a page turner. For those interested in running, a good story, or writing nonfiction, Born to Run is a worthwhile read .
In Medias Res: Beginning with Action
In medias res means starting in the middle of a scene or narrative and is a common fiction technique. When done well, it pulls a reader into the story by peaking their curiosity. They want to know what's happening, who these people are, and why the characters are there . Born to Run begins with:
For days, I'd been searching Mexico's Sierra Madre for the phantom known as Caballo Blanco - the White Horse. I'd finally arrived at the end of the trail, in the last place I expected to find him - not deep in the wilderness he was said to haunt, but in the dim lobby of an old hotel on the edge of a dusty desert town (3).
This beginning passage makes readers wonder why McDougall is searching for this man, why the man is called Caballo Blanco, and what will happen when McDougall approaches him. It does not start with McDougall arriving in Mexico and searching. It skips ahead to the interesting part: finding Caballo Blanco.
Born to Run also does not begin by telling the reader what McDougall is going to teach or his message. Like any good story, it begins with characters, setting, and an inciting incident. Hook your readers first. Get their attention, so they will be willing to listen to your story and the information you are trying to impart.
Concept: Why Does My Foot Hurt?
The first C of basic story structure is concept. McDougall makes his concept for Born to Run clear in both the book jacket summary and the second chapter. The need for an answer to the question “Why does my foot hurt?” led to one heck of an adventure. Chapter two builds on the curiosity readers felt in chapter one by introducing the eccentric collection of characters McDougall interacted with and the climax. McDougall lets the reader know:
In the end, I got my answer, but only after I found myself in the middle of the greatest race the world would never see: the Ultimate Fighting Competition of footraces, an underground showdown pitting some of the best unltradistance runners of our time against the best ultrarunners of all time, in a fifty-mile race on hidden trails only Tarahumara feet had ever touched (7).
The whole rest of the book builds up to the race McDougall introduces here and explores the idea of ultrarunning. The unique, interesting concept of Born to Run is both “Why does my foot hurt?” and extreme long distance running.
This concept is different than McDougall’s message. What Born to Run attempts to teach people is both our bodies are capable of so much more than people realize and how having proper running form and shoes is essential to the health of your feet. I don’t want to give much away, but I will say the tennis shoe industry is both the best and worst thing to ever happen to runners. The concept of the question and race are what inspire people to pick up and read Born to Run. If the book started with the message instead, it would not have the same story structure or as many readers.
Conflict: Man vs. Self, Nature, and Man
McDougall neither shies away from nor invents conflict in Born to Run; instead he allows competition to drive the story. Many of the runners are competing with each other to see who is the fastest and can run the farthest, but more than wanting to beat each other, they want to prove to themselves they are capable of running farther, longer, and faster. McDougall’s most significant conflict is with his own body. Pain in his foot and his desire to overcome it inspired his entire quest.
Each chapter contains at least one kind of conflict: man vs. self, nature, or man, and many contain all three. In order to complete an ultramarathon, a person must overcome their physical limitations, run with others, and conquer rough terrain and the weather. Through these conflicts, McDougall shares his experiences running and the knowledge he gained about the exercise. Because he shows them through story and conflict, they are more likely to influence readers and be remembered.
Characters: People Are Fascinated with People
Whether intentionally or not, Born to Run shows how different, quirky, and interesting people are. McDougall briefly introduces the variety of people he encountered in the second passage of chapter two:
Soon I was dealing with a murder, drug guerrillas, and a one-armed man with a cream-cheese cup strapped to his head. I met a beautiful blonde forest ranger who slipped out of her clothes and found salvation by running naked in the Idaho forests, and a young surfer babe in pigtails who ran straight toward her death in the desert. A talented young runner would die. . . . and [I] stumbled across the Barefoot Batman . . . Naked Guy . . . Kalahari Bushmen . . . the Toenail Amputee . . . and, ultimately, the ancient tribe of the Tarahumara (7).
These people and more populate the pages of Born to Run. Their interactions with McDougall are what transform the piece from a recounting of events in one man’s life to a story filled with fascinating characters. Just because a book is nonfiction doesn’t mean it can’t have fully fleshed out characters. Each person you introduce should feel real. It isn't enough to simply state what happened and a couple of facts about a character. As the author, it is your job to make readers believe the character is real and feel like they have gotten to know them through your writing.
I will note nonfiction that includes other people does have some legal hoops to jump through. Unless you’re writing about a historical figure, you might have to get permission or significantly change names. The memoirists I know hire a lawyer to help them understand what is and is not legal to avoid lawsuits, especially those dealing with patients, HIPPA, and other forms of legal confidentiality.
Causality: From Foot Pain to an Ultramarathon
Causality is the cause and effect relationship between events. Without the connection between points, a piece of writing becomes a list instead of a story. While Born to Run is not told in chronological order, McDougall does show the reader how foot pain lead him to a dim hotel lobby in a desert town and a man called Caballo Blanco. Readers see how each piece of information and decision lead to the next event and how a hurting foot can lead to a person running an ultramarathon.
As an editor, causality is something I often have to discuss with memoirists. Just because this moment in your life is interesting or happened around the same time as other events in your life, doesn’t mean it belongs in your memoir. How is that event related to and informing the other events? If it’s not, save the story for your next book or your promotional materials. McDougall remains focused on running and his quest for answers throughout the book. I’m sure other life events occurred during this time, but he left them out to better the story and keep his message clear.
An Editor’s Thoughts on Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
I am a runner but not an ultramarathoner, so this book first appealed to me five years ago for that reason. Whether you run, walk, or bike, getting outside and moving is essential for a writer’s physical, mental, and writing health. Many of my novel ideas were born on desert running trails. The repetitive motion gets my blood pumping and lets my mind wander. Many writers I know have had similar experiences and claim nothing cures writers block faster than a fifteen minute walk. If you don’t have some sort of exercise built into your day, I highly encourage it. You’ll be surprised by the progress you make in your story once you do. It doesn’t have to be long distance running or intense. Just get out and let your mind and body move. I think McDougall would second this advice.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen expertly uses the four C’s of story structure and techniques common in fiction to bring Christopher McDougall’s experiences to life. Now it’s your turn to use action, curiosity, concept, conflict, characters, and causality in your nonfiction piece to Ignite Your Ink.
What other fiction techniques are used in Born to Run? Have you found any nonfiction books that read like fiction? Leave your answers in the comments below, and if you haven't read McDougall's book yet, click the image on the side. For more blog posts like this, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.