From Facts to Narrative–by way of how to write the opening paragraph of a chapter

by MT

Writing is story telling, in which facts are turned into narratives. In this respect architectural historian Walter Creese is definitely one of the best story tellers. Take his early book In Search of Environment: Garden City Before and After (1966) as an example. In the beginning of the chapter three of this book that deals with the history of nineteen-century British town planning, Creese turns several historical facts into a beautiful description that serves as the overarching instruction of the chapter. If you give me the same set of facts and ask me to write, I could not imagine how boring it might become. To show Creese’s verbal ingenuity, I will retract the facts from the text and then enclose the story he told about these facts. (the brackets are mine)

  • 1835: the Municipal Corporations Act granted the self-governing powers to the local city governments.
  • 1839: the town council issued the statistical report “upon the condition of the Town of Leeds and its inhabitants”
  • 1864: National conference of the Society of Arts on housing and its essay competition
  • 1866: Publication of The Homes of the Working Classes written by James Hole
  • 1874: Criticism of the Town Council of Leeds in the October 10th issue of The Builder

***Creese’s paragraph***

[transition from chapter 2 to 3] Of the three cities of Halifax, Bradford, and Leeds, it was Leeds that finally became the true metropolis of the West Riding of Yorkshire. [introducing the main theme] It also became a center on the east, like Manchester on the west, for discussion of social reform. [Beginning of facts and evidences] No document exemplifies this better than James Hole’s The Homes of the Working Classes. It contains a quantity of information about the region and is dedicated to Colonel Edward Akroyd of Copley and Akroydon. The book grew out of an essay competition of the Society of Arts on housing, held in Leeds in 1864. Hole’s prize-wining effort was publicly read in January 1865 and subsequently published in the local press. These events aligned it with another civic trait of Leeds, an ability for searching self-examination. That process began in 1839 when the town council issued a statistical report “upon the condition of the Town of Leeds and its inhabitants” as a first response to the self-governing powers granted by the Municipal Corporation Act of 1835. Action did not accompany realization, however, then or later. As late as 1874 The Builder was still plaintively asking, “What progress have the Town Council of Leeds made since we pointedly drew their attention to the disgusting state of their town in 1860?”

***end of Creese’s paragraph***

The technique Creese employs here is the shuffling of chronological sequence. In stead of going through the events one by one, he uses the last two events—the publication of Hole’s book (1866) at the beginning and the criticism made by The Builder (1874) at the end—to frame the whole paragraph. Within the paragraph, the sequence of the events are mentioned backwards. This, I think, is not a arbitrarily decision but the rearranging of facts according to their significance and causal relationship. James Hole’s book is an important document and mentioned throughout the chapter, therefore it serves well as a welcoming gate of the chapter. After introducing the book, Creese then goes back to 1839 to talk about general, long-term trait of the town—“an ability for searching self-examination.” This is perhaps more salient technique we often seen in a larger scale, namely the length of an essay or even a whole book. Zooming into a paragraph, however, it makes the boring historical facts more vivid and the text a great read. The same elegance and clarity are also seen in his later book The Crowning of the American Landscape: Eight Great Spaces and Their Buildings (1985), which I also highly recommand. Indeed it is a real redemption to readers when great insights and graceful writing style are combined on the same author.