Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Using the Storyboard W to Structure a Self-Help Book

One of my readers from New York asked if the storyboard W, which gives an easy way to enhance momentum in your story, could be used for nonfiction as well as fiction and memoir.  Specifically, could it be used for a self-help book?

I've written and published many self-help books, as well as how-to books, so I could easily answer
yes.  But I wanted to give her an example, so I told her the story of my student Carol who is writing a self-help book for women who do too much for others.  

Carol’s ideal reader is a generous soul, a people pleaser who spends her days doing for others.  Carol was like this too, and that’s why she is motivated to write this book.

Carol’s book contains some great anecdotes, as most modern self-help books do.  For Carol’s triggering event, she chose an embarrassing and true story of one of her clients who got “caught” tending to herself instead of a sick friend.  The shame that resulted caused the woman to completely turn her back on her own needs for many weeks, until she got sick herself.  

Act 1 contained a series of stories like this, as well as good information about the mindset of people pleasers.  The purpose of Act 1 in any genre of book is to engage the reader, establish the basic question or quest of the book, and get the momentum started.  Unless you do this, your reader will not read on into Act 2, the meat of your story.  

Carol set up Act 1 pretty well.  She had good questions, such as this one:  how can a person still be kind, compassionate, and responsive to others, but not give herself away?  Something many readers would want to know.  But in Act 2, Carol’s book slumped.  She only had low-key scenes with little external action.  It was pretty easy to build the hopeful stuff, called the rising action—stories about women who would simply sneak away by themselves to get some peace and privacy, hiding with a good book and glass of lemonade on their porches.  But the falling action, which deepens the problem and brings us to a bigger turning point the book addresses--how to really make lasting changes inside yourself--was more difficult. 

I suggested Carol look for stories that showed a woman about to burst from being too contained for too long.  Yes, the first story showed someone getting sick.  Did Carol know of anything worse that had happened when needs were repressed too long?

Carol thought of a story of her own:  a serious confrontation with a neighbor, who called Carol for a committee favor on a morning when Carol’s son was suspended from school.  She remembered how she blew up at the woman—and although it was embarrassing, it beautifully demonstrated what happens when two desires clash—the desire to maintain the aura of being everyone’s helper with the extreme need for privacy.  When desires clash, there is surprise, drama, action. 

Carol’s willingness to include this “island” in her book made a big difference in  the overall dilemma of her self-help book.  She realized she couldn't just present an opening dilemma/question.  She had to keep deepening the self-inquiry as the book progressed.

When I asked her to study her favorite self-help books to see how published writers did this, she saw that all her best-loved authors always gave more in Act 2.  There was also a surprise element, something the reader didn't expect, maybe a movement of the initial dilemma to a more universal level.   

If you’re writing a self-help book, you can easily use the W and three-act structure to check whether your dilemma/conflict is strong enough in the middle of your book.  This helps avoid that slumping (boring) section that many books have--the reason we might read to chapter 5 then close the book.  Take a clue from Carol’s story.  

And don’t feel your Act 2 conflict has to be highly shocking to be effective.  It just has to deepen the self-inquiry that a self-help book addresses.  I look for what's unexpected, a place I can take the reader that is unique and interesting.  “The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish,” says writer Terry Southern, a screenwriter who worked on films such as Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove. Shock is “a worn-out word,” wrote Southern, but astonishment always makes for good literature.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  In the search box at the top of this blog, type in "three-act structure."  You can read several posts about the W and how it works in different genres.  There's also plenty of information on this in chapter 14 of my new book, Your Book Starts Here.  Click here to read reviews and check it out.  

2.  Read the table of contents of several self-help books on your shelves.  How do the authors deepen the initial question of the book, take the reader to a new level of self-inquiry?

3.  Write down three ways you might take your topic to a deeper level.  Spend 30 minutes writing about one of these ways, and see if it can be inserted into Act 2 of your manuscript to prevent the slump.


  1. Do you have the diagram of the w storyboard available anywhere on the web other than in the youtube video? thanks!

  2. Sure! Just email me and I can send you an attachment of the diagram, Autumn.

    My email is mary@marycarrollmoore.com