Friday, February 27, 2015

Structuring for Nonfiction Books--How Do You Do It, So Your Reader Can Follow It?


We were taught in school a three-part structuring tool:  Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.

While this essay-structure helped me pass my high-school English classes, it never came in handy as I began writing books.  In fact, I had to unlearn that tool, pick up completely different ones.  No longer impressing a teacher, I had to impress my readers.  And a reader's mind gets bored with knowing what's coming.

This is obvious in fiction and memoir--we want to dive into the story, be surprised.



How about nonfiction?  You might think that essay-structure is solid for most nonfiction books.  Yes, if you're writing for academic audiences who are still working in that essay model.  But if your readers are long out of school, looking to be engaged and interested in your topic, you've got to pick up another tool.

I've written and published a lot of nonfiction books.  My best structure tool for them is the same as what I use for fiction and memoir--the storyboard and the W template (click here for a video all about these, if the idea is new to you).  But there are some modifications to make when writing nonfiction.  You have a slightly different path to walk along that W.

Leslie from New York City writes about architecture and design.  She read my post on Structure Advice for Wordsmiths:  Why Good Writing Comes After Good Structure When Developing Your Book and had some good questions.  She's a good wordsmith, she says, but the structure can be baffling. 

"I can craft the words, but it's getting the foundation right.," she says.  How does the structuring advice I gave in that post apply to nonfiction?  How can you create a solid foundation in a nonfiction book?

Most nonfiction books have three goals:

1.  To present the benefit of your material--why it is useful and important to a reader--usually through illustrative examples (anecdotes or stories, a la Malcolm Gladwell and others).

2.  To take your reader through a series of steps,  or stages of increasing complexity,  in a way that makes it easy to absorb the material.

3.  To help a reader apply the learning to his or her own life.

Fiction and memoir often work with three acts, kind of like three parts to a story, where each part builds on the previous one.  Act 1 usually sets up a problem.  Act 2 develops the problem, makes it more complex, makes it more universal.  Act 3 resolves the problem and/or shows the narrator or character becoming a different person because of what's happened.

In nonfiction, these three acts work very well too. 

Act 1 in a nonfiction book sets up the need--why would the reader want this information you're sharing?  Usually people read books for entertainment, for education, or for inspiration.  What's your book's benefit to the reader?  Use act 1 to establish the need for your material.  As mentioned above, writers like Malcolm Gladwell accomplish this with stories, using real people.  You can too.

Act 2  in a nonfiction book presents the method, the steps to learning your material.  How do you build a bridge?  How do you understand why Britain got to love a certain food?  How do different species of butterflies migrate?

Act 3 in a nonfiction book differs by genre.  Most nonfiction books use act 3 to show the reader how to use the material that's been presented earlier.  Obviously, some nonfiction books (how-to books, self-help books, business books, etc.) will have more of this than a book on history that is designed to educate, not inspire.  But some nonfiction books are a call to action, or a call to arms. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
If you're working on a nonfiction book, read first.  Find recently published nonfiction books in your field.  See what those authors did to structure their books.  You can do this online by browsing the tables of contents. 

Then take your ideas and make a long list!--including stories you might have that show your reader the benefit of your topic.  Using what you learned by reading, can you see a way to divide your material into the three acts?