If fiction writers tell stories, what do nonfiction writers do?
They tell stories, too.
And there is a very strong case that you should use the same clever tactics in your non-fiction books and articles that fiction writers use in theirs.
But first, let’s acknowledge that some nonfiction fits into the storytelling mold easier than others. If you write biography, memoirs, true crime or books about history, you are clearly telling a story. So, you should already be using the best storytelling (a.k.a fiction) tactics.
But what if you write self-help or how-to? What if you write on spiritual, philosophical or societal topics? What if you write travel guides or academic texts?
Tell stories, too.
In fact, many nonfiction books include anecdotes to illustrate points. You can find such famous titles as Man’s Search for Meaning, How to be an Antiracist and The Tipping Point brimming with them.
But you could take it further. Instead of just sprinkling short anecdotes throughout your text, could you throw the whole arsenal of literary devices and epic storytelling at your topic?
In 1998, Spencer Johnson did just that. His small book – no more than a glorified pamphlet of some 10,000 words – rocked the New York Times business bestseller list. It lodged itself there and made itself at home for five years. That same book spent almost four years on Publishers Weekly hardcover nonfiction list.
The book was called Who Moved My Cheese?
That self-help business book taught readers how to adapt to change. Most of the book was a single story, a fable of sorts.
In 2015, I ghostwrote a book on investing strategies. What could be dryer that that? But I wrote it in the form of a story with three main characters, the reader being one of them. Yes, it can be done!
Here is a primer of the main elements to turn any topic into an exciting novel.
It all starts with plot. You cannot tell a story without a plot, and readers won’t enjoy the story without a good plot. You can wrap any topic in a plot. Even a recipe book. Even a book on carpentry. Even a book on gardening or fishing or prayer or mathematics.
A simple plot is very easy to set up.
Step 1: Think about where your readers are when they pick up the book. They want to cook. Or they want to fish. Or they want to be more confident. They have to want something, or they would not be reading your book. Your plot starts with somebody wanting or needing what your book is about to offer.
Step 2: Think about where your readers will be after you’ve empowered them with your knowledge and perspectives. What will they have learned? More to the point, what will they understand or be able to do that they might not have understood or been able to do before.
Step 3: Now, draw a line between where your readers were before and will be after. That is the skeleton of your plot. Everything you write about that takes your reader from before to after is your plot.
Of course, there should be some depth to your plot. Why would a reader want to fish? Name a reason. Is it because a child has asked a parent to go fishing? Is it because budding down at the shop have started fishing?
Step 4: Name a reason; that puts meat on the skeleton. Throughout your book, you can refer back to that reason and forward to how your book brings success.
At this point you might be thinking, “But not all my readers have the same reasons for wanting to fish or cook or gain confidence.”
That’s where characters come in.
All stories are about people. So, create some characters that people can relate to.
Remember that any story is only as good as the growth in the character. The good news is that the whole reason you are writing your book is to help readers grow in some way. You just have to embody that growth in your characters.
There is usually a protagonist who embarks on the journey (from before reading your book to being empowered by its contents). But you could have three friends journeying together towards better confidence or better dinner parties.
Having two or three main characters gives you the opportunity to show different aspects of the journey. Or each might have a different problem to solve or a different reason why they want to learn to dance or discover inner peace.
One of the characters could be an antagonist, sent in to challenger the main character(s). This can help the reader understand the challenges they might face, embodied in the antagonist. It also gives you the chance – through the protagonist – to show how to overcome those challenges.
Most importantly, multiple characters give you a way to introduce dialogue.
Dialogue is a wonderful device to give your readers information without telling them straight out. No need to preach at them when they can read how Character 1 is sharing the information with Character 2.
Every time a new companion joins the show, it’s a chance to explain the premise of Doctor Who to new viewers. As The Doctor fills in details for the companion, the audience picks up the information.
Dialogue also lets you introduce tension between different ideas embodied in different characters. It lets you create mood and emotion in a way that straight prose can’t. Every topic is less dry when there is emotion.
Remember that the journey from before reading your book to after reading it does not have to be a straight line. There can be bumps in the road. The road itself might twist. There might be dead ends along the way.
You don’t catch a fish every time. The path to democracy in any given country often faces set-backs. The reader’s angel cake might fall.
When there are challenges, you can change the mood by how the characters talk. You can create dread or despair. And when a solution is revealed, you can create elation and triumph! It’s all in the dialogue.
Have you ever noticed how some books and movies don’t start at the beginning of the story? Ever since the whisper of “Rosebud” opened the film Citizen Kane, we have seen films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Pan’s Labyrinth open near the end of the story.
This is called in medias res, and it is a clever technique to hook the reader. Start the story at the most interesting point, literally the tipping point where everything is hanging in the balance. The reader has to read on to find out how the protagonist got there and what will happen to them in the end.
I ghostwrote a book on a legal case as if it was an action thriller. My Black client had had his business stolen by his all-white accrediting organization who had infiltrated his company.
I began the book in a parking lot. My client and his family were hurriedly loading what they could salvage from his office into a van. A text message arrived from the infiltrator, ominously threatening the children. The protagonist suddenly remembered the infiltrator bragging about his hunting prowess how he could sit still and unnoticed for hours in a tree with a rifle. That’s when the panic set in.
The protagonist in your nonfiction book might have just burned the cake an hour before guests were to arrive.
Or they might have just been humiliated in front of a group of their peers, now struggling with how to respond.
Or the fish they just bragged about over the phone might have just flopped back into the water.
There are many literary devices that you will find scattered throughout nonfiction books and articles, such as analogies, hyperbole and juxtapositions.
But some are generally reserved for fiction. Flashbacks are among them. Flashbacks are most useful when you begin a story in the middle. In fact, 98% of Citizen Kane is a series of flashbacks.
Another fiction device that can make your non-fiction book more interesting is foreshadowing. The concept is pretty simple and easy to apply. If you plan to reveal something important in Chapter 4, go back to Chapter 2 and drop a subtle hint. Create some suspense, get people guessing.
Do you need help?
A lot of nonfiction authors write about what they know or about ideas they have. They know how to use words to transmit information clearly and express their ideas. But fiction is another world altogether.
You might find that you’ve written an OK story, but that it does not have the effect of a John Grisham or a Margaret Atwood novel.
That’s OK. You probably have it 95% of the way there. An editor can help. An accomplished fiction author can help. Get help.
Not every book can be a thriller or a heartbreaker. But yours can. It is a superb way to stand out from the crowd – to produce a book that stands head and shoulders above other books in your field. Keep them reading, pull at their emotions, and your book is more likely to make its point.
About David Leonhardt
David Leonhardt runs THGM Writing Services. His agency helps people write both fiction and non-fiction, as well as screenplays, web content and speeches. If you need help taking your non-fiction book to the next level his team of accomplished writers can help. Visit him at https://thgmwriters.com/writing/book-writers/
If you like this blog post, you’ll love our Author Toolkit on writing nonfiction books. It includes checklists, templates, worksheets and more. Check it out!