Dissecting Gawande’s narrative structure

In a recent post, Not Exactly Rocket Science’s Ed Yong tried to break down Atul Gawande’s work and figure out why it can be so darn compelling. Yong and many thousands of others (myself included) were riveted by Gawande’s latest New Yorker piece, a treatise on palliative care.


Atul Gawande in action. Photo by Center for American Progress via Flickr.

It was a great read, but nothing shocking – much of it reminded me of sections of Gawande’s 2008 book, Better – and it clocked in at a mammoth 12,000 words. Yet, even in the age of bullet points and boldface, that didn’t stop anyone. Why?

Putting aside the fact that Gawande’s a wonderful writer who’s built a powerful brand for himself, Yong instead considered the power of Gawande’s narrative structure. It’s something I’ve noticed throughout the man’s work, and something that he can get away with as a prominent surgeon who writes for magazines: He saves the climax of his key anecdote (the patient’s outcome) for the end, and usually weaves it into several minor peaks and valleys in the course of the story.

These four sections are all obviously united by a common theme. But to hang together in a single feature, they need more than that. Gawande achieves this by using the tale of a terminally ill cancer patient, Sara Monopoli, to frame the four topics. It is obvious enough to use real-life stories to illustrate the theme of death and Gawande’s experience gives him plenty to draw from. But his critical move was to use a single story to frame all of the others.

1 thought on “Dissecting Gawande’s narrative structure

  1. Avatar photoeileen beal

    He and Malcolm Gladwell have a lot in common. Both write about deep and obscure stuff and area able to lure readers in with great narrative and seemingly un/dis-connected info (data) and then they string it together seamlessly to create gripping/engaging narrative that leads to new insights that (one–at least this one–hopes) change peoples’ lives.

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