Writing Hero: Laura Hillenbrand


I finished reading “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand back in February, and I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since.

“Unbroken” is quite possibly the best book I’ve ever read. Ever. Quite the statement to make, no? But this book caught me from the very beginning and help me rapt for 381 pages. At one intense point in the book I actually closed my eyes and ducked.

I won’t tell you any more about “Unbroken” because I don’t want to give anything away – you’ll just have to go check it out for yourself. I do, however, want to talk a little about Laura Hillenbrand though, who has now joined the ranks of C.S. Lewis, Anne Lammott, Donald Miller, and L.M. Montgomery as one of my all-time favorite authors.

I’m so intrigued by how Hillenbrand crafted a non-fiction book that reads smoother and more intensely than a novel. How did she take dusty newspaper articles, WWII statistics, interviews, and scrapbooks, and make them into this gripping piece of writing? Her work is exuberant, enthralling, and totally inspiring.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed she does that I want to incorporate into my own non-fiction writing:

  • Start paragraphs and chapters out with a leading sentence that poses a question, a bit of drama or an overarching theme to set your reader up for whatever’s next. This makes it easier to maintain emotion for the reader. It also helps you, as a writer, organize or edit all the information that you want to put in the following sentences. Does what you write next add to the emotional plot of your story or subtract from it?
  • Use strong character introductions (even planes, islands and the ocean can be characters). Introduce them to your reader with a pungent word picture and identifying characteristics. Quirky details are important as well as broad brushstrokes. You want to convey a strong impression when this person or thing appears in the story, give readers a feel for it.
  • Weave facts together with emotion for powerful story-telling. This isn’t a book report, this is a story – use statistics to give depth and make your scenes more dramatic.
What do you think? Those of you who’ve read “Unbroken” or “Seabiscuit” (or any other really good nonfiction), what would you add to the list?

Also, did you know that Laura Hillenbrand suffers from a debilitating disease? That she hardly ever leaves her house? She has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Almost all her research is done long-distance and over the phone or via email. Here’s a beautifully written article about her experience with the disease.

Do you have a favorite author? Have you read anything by Hillenbrand? What did you think of it?

*photograph from the author’s website


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