Conflate, and Tighten Up Your Story


When you conflate, you tighten your writing and move your story forward. With practice and persistence, you can make your lessons more powerful, enjoyable, and universal.

Are you familiar with the word “conflate?” Conflate means to combine or bring things together and fuse them into a single entity. In nonfiction writing, it’s a technique where you merge several conversations, events, or relationships and present them as a single conversation, event, or relationship. When you conflate, you efficiently cover a large span of time without boring your readers with the minute details when all they really need are the pertinent points.

Spare us the details

Let’s say you had 30 conversations with your spouse about adopting a child over the course of two years. For a number of months, you may have considered the possibility of adoption and talked about it a handful of times. Then you progressed to where you were more serious and had numerous discussions about foreign versus domestic adoption, the potential age of the child, and same race versus other race adoption. These conversations took another several months. Finally, after two years, you decided to pursue foreign adoption of an older child.

Do you need to drag your readers through every conversation? Perhaps – but maybe not. It depends on the purpose your book serves. Let’s say your book deals with foreign-born children and how to help them feel at home in a family and culture that does not resemble them, and how, as a parent, you can be an advocate to help the child overcome his or her unique obstacles in assimilating.

In this scenario, do your readers need to know about the two years you spent discussing adoption? My guess is they’ll want the fruit of your investigations, not your method of arrival.

So how do you summarize those two years of discussion? Conflate them! Try using dialogue to convey all the pertinent information, but boil it down to two or three conversations.

“It’s time we face the truth. I don’t think we’re going to give birth to our own child. Maybe we’re not supposed to.”

“I don’t think I’m ready to give up on it.”

“I know, it’s hard, but we’ve tried for years and we’re not getting younger. What if we changed course? We can adopt, like the Tremond’s did. The process takes a while, so let’s start taking this seriously. If we really want to raise a child, I think we need to consider this.”

“I know. Maybe you’re right. But finding a baby…”

“What if we considered something else? There are a so many children who need a loving home, maybe we should think about adopting a young child, not searching for an infant.”

“Just the other day, Juliette, from my support group, showed me a picture of orphans in Haiti. They were brought together after the earthquakes, and there just aren’t enough adults to take care of them. One little girl – I think she was seven years old – she had these beautiful eyes. But her smile… It was like she knew she had to smile for the picture, but only her mouth smiled. She looked so sad and lost.”

You can conflate two years of backstory of how this couple arrived at their decision on foreign adoption into a single conversation. You move the action forward quickly while still delivering the essense of the deliberations.

The great teachers were great storytellers

Here’s another example of conflating. Let’s say you are a teacher, and over the years, you have had dozens of students with varying degrees of autism. If your book is about socialization and the classroom, and you’ve learned how to help these special-need students open up and relate to their classmates over time, why not illustrate these lessons through the eyes of one child, not three dozen? Why not give the child a representative name, demonstrate a multitude of experiences through a single set of eyes, and use this character to illustrate your teaching methods?

Does this seem dishonest or insincere? Consider this: all the great teachers were storytellers. Jesus, Aesop, and Buddha all taught valuable lessons through stories. Were the characters in the stories real, or did they conflate numerous people and character traits into one representative character?

I don’t know. Who was the good Samaritan or the prodigal son? Was it just one person? Does it matter? Did you learn somehing about human nature through Aesop’s fables, even though the characters were animals? Are the lessons less valuable because you can’t attach them to a specific person?

When you conflate, you tighten your writing and move your story forward. It takes skill, but with practice and persistence, you will make your lessons more powerful, enjoyable, and universal.

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