I used to think that fiction and nonfiction books had little in common. Fiction is intended to entertain, and nonfiction books are to inform, persuade, and share.

Lately, I’ve been rethinking the self-imposed limitations that the above polarity describes. It’s time to acknowledge the existence of a middle ground between fiction and nonfiction.

Best of all, by analyzing the lessons taught by both successful fiction and nonfiction books, you can breathe new life higher sales for your next nonfiction book and those that follow.  

The Starting Point: The Hero’s Journey

You may have already heard of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. It’s a classic storytelling structure that provides a template for pacing the action in a fiction book, movie script, or Broadway play. The Hero’s Journey can also be uses to provide a structure for nonfiction books, white papers, podcasts, and video courses.

The complete Hero’s Journey contains 12 steps. The steps are organized into three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return. The steps are accompanied by challenges, uncertainty, risk, and—ultimately–a safe return.

The Hero’s Journey can help nonfiction authors write helpful and relevant books using the same engaging, emotionally riveting techniques that contribute to successful fiction books.

It’s when you couple the Hero’s Journey content storyboard with the four fiction lessons, you have an extremely powerful nonfiction marketing tool that can be

But, in the absence of enough time to do full justice to the Hero’s Journey, here are four ideas that nonfiction authors can adopt from successful fiction books.

Memorable lead characters

Engaging nonfiction book often include an engaging lead character that provides chapter to chapter momentum. In Dam Busters: The True Story of the Inventors and Airmen Who Led the Devastating Raid to Smash the German Dams in 1943 the lead character was Barnes Wallis. An aircraft designer, Barnes was convinced that spherical bombs—similar to bouncing balls—could help the only way British bombers could penetrate the heavy defenses surrounding the dam and destroy them. (ISBN-978-0802121691, Amazon link)

Sometimes, it’s not a single character that readers can respond to, but a small group. And, the group doesn’t even have to be human, as proved by the four mice in Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese—one of nonfiction’s most successful nonfiction business books.

Sometimes a technology or a trend can be a nonfiction book’s lead character. For example, Anthony Rudel’s Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio profiles the technological, economic, and social changes that accompanied the development of radio broadcasting. (ISBN-13 ‏ 978-0151012756Amazon)

Nonfiction authors can adapt these ideas to create an inspiring story out of the story of business rebirth from the business owner’s perspective. Or, the story of business survival could be told as seen through the eyes of employee and/or customers. Or, the firm’s story could be told as seen through a competitor’s eyes. The point is information, by itself, is rarely enough to ensure many years of strong sales. The lead character’s story, however, converts sterile “facts” into a compelling story.

  1. Organized opposition.

A lead character by itself is not enough to engage readers. There has to be opposition (and the stronger the better!)

In the Dam Busters, mentioned above, the opposition was Air Marshall Arthur Harris. He was not only the head of Britain’s Bomber Command. He was fiercely against the idea of “bouncing ball bombs” and he had the power to cancel the whole program.

One of the best examples of tenacious opposition is in Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal. The story recounts the the assassin’s journey from Russia to France to assassinate Premier Charles deGaul. The story also tracks the police inspector who is in charge of preventing the assassination. On a day-to-day basis, the perspective changes from recounting the assassin and the tracker’s journey. (I purchased the book at a late-night bookstore and I finished it as the sun was coming up.) ISBN-13‏‎ 978-0451239372 Amazon

As with the lead authors in the preceding section, nonfiction authors could create opposition by departmental conflicts, cashflow versus time-to-market, or the arrival (or departure) of key players. Be creative and look for plausible reasons to motivate opponents, including events that took place a long time ago.

  1. Tight Deadlines

In Dam Busters, the deadline was just 8 weeks to convert, produce, and launch the bouncing ball attacks.” (This was governed by weather and cloud cover.)

Not only was the police inspector in The Day of the Jackal’s coming closer and closer to the assassin, but the deadline was both inflexible and fast approaching. The assassination was planned for deGaule’s open-air speech in Paris.

Nonfiction authors could manufacture deadlines such as upcoming stockholder meetings, supply problems, or anticipated product introductions by competitors.

  1. Details

Fiction authors, especially authors of mystery books, appreciate the power of details to keep their loyal readers anxious for more. Details like a rainy winter morning described in Georges Simenon in Inspector Maigret series, or the warm, sunny mornings in Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar Kinsey Millhone series set in southern California.

The nonfiction equivalent to the above fiction books is the decades of success that John McPhee’s books have earned. An example is his Uncommon Carriers. John chronicles stories that fascinate him, such as “What’s it like to be employed as a long-haul truck driver, a Mississippi River tugboat captains, or someone who processes a million packages a day an UPS Air’s distribution hub at Louisville International Airport?”

When you’re through reading Uncommon Carriers, you know more about the daily routines of a large segment of workers in the United States. It’s like you were looking over John McPhee’s shoulder as he was observing and recording. The information and impressions were fascinating and fun to read, but not particularly useful. But, you enjoyed being along for the ride.

John’s The Control of Nature is interesting, because it reveals strategies and, perhaps, the follies of man’s attempt to control nature. It’s incredibly detailed, but never strident.

Other authors that reflect the masterful ability to use details to bring acts to life include David McCullough (best example, The Wright Brothers) and Robert Caro. Robert Caro is currently completing the last volume in a massively detailed five-volume history of President Lyndon Johnson’s background and presidency. Robert shares his writing habits and tips in his Working.

Why are the authors in the Details section so relevant to nonfiction authors?

They are all “worthy teachers” because they have created popular, long-lived, nonfiction books that readers have paid for and read, even though they knew how the events described turned out!

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a subject area expert who is familiar with the challenges facing your intended readers. Your goal is to help your readers profit from your expertise. The challenge is not the content of your book, but how to “package” it an engaging package. Because, if it’s not “engaging,” readers won’t purchase it.

But, when’re a craftsman (or woman) and you package your information in an engaging and easy-to-read format, you have a reader for life! Not a “book buyer,” but a long-term loyal supporter.

Best wishes on your journey. It’s worth it!

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