The “Oral History” format

I am currently in the midst of reading Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk. This is the second book that I have read in the last year that utilizes the oral history format. The first one was World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (which advocates the “classic” slow zombie, by the way). In fiction, the format is presented as the recollections of the story’s characters as told to one focal person, who may or may not also be a “true” character in the book.

At first, I thought this would be a boon for the writer. When you get stuck, just switch to a different character! However, upon further reflection, I think to pull it off well actually requires much more calculation than my first flippant view implies. Each character’s viewpoint and especially their knowledge of the described events have to be kept discrete, allowing the story to unfold as the reader pieces the scraps together to form a complete picture.

As far as adaptation to a screenplay, I see some particular obstacles. Since the format relates events that have already happened, a straight adaptation would likely turn into the to-be-avoided “talking heads on screen”. I have read that the screenplay for World War Z is currently being written. My guess is that the filmed version will not follow the multiple interviewee format of the book and will likely be a straight-up action flick, weaving elements of the book into a linear storyline, perhaps with a single survivor reminiscing the entirety.

I will be on the lookout for films adapted from the oral history format to see how the writers maneuvered to bring the story to the screen.

About Tim Giron

There are some who call him... Tim.


  1. The oral history format really intimidates me as a writer. I liked Rant quite a bit, and hear that Chuck Palahniuk’s new book, Snuff, is in the same format but with even more characters.

    A few times in Rant I would think that maybe he was cheating in mushing characters together, but then I’d see the different dialect, cadence, or catch phrase that set them apart from the others. I wonder if they are written all at once then divided up later just to keep the author sane.

  2. nice post. i started world war z last year but got distracted. i enjoyed the format very much, it is tough to do in movie format, usually it is used to get things started or minimally inserted, cannot think of a film that uses it from start to finish.

  3. M. Jaynes says

    You know, I too like the oral history format but it reminds me of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night where the reader can never really nail down the ‘real’ author because the writer keeps ‘killing’ him off. I was curious to know with which character Palahnuik most identified or most lent his ‘voice’ to and just when I thought I had found it…bam! it was gone again. It did make for very interesting reading though and I may try to play with the format a bit.

  4. Michael Avolio says

    I realize this post is several years old, but I just read it and had something small to contribute… Scorsese’s film Casino uses a complex narrative with voiceovers from two (well, three, but the third only has voiceover in one scene) different characters to adapt Pileggi’s oral history non-fiction book. Actually, to be more accurate, I believe the film was actually based on Pileggi’s research for the book (his tapes, notes, etc.), and he wound up finishing writing the book after he and Scorsese had finished writing the screenplay. But, regardless, Casino is a good example of a film made from oral history. (I haven’t read Wiseguy, Pileggi’s book that GoodFellas is based on, so I don’t know if that, too, is an oral history, but the storytelling style for GoodFellas is basically the same, though a bit more linear narratively.)