Just because you’re writing nonfiction doesn’t mean your writing has to be dry and academic. In fact, because it’s nonfiction, you need to make it even more interesting. Wake up those readers who’ve been lulled into a corporatespeak stupor. Shake up those readers who’ve grown jaded by a glut of proposals and white papers. They’ll love you for it.
And consider this: According to Jefferson Smith, a creativity scientist, only 63 percent of readers finish a book—on average. If it’s boring, has too many mistakes, or just doesn’t engage readers, that percentage skyrockets. The solution? Write something they can’t put down.
Easier said than done, you say? Not really. Just plump the pillows on your couch, grab the remote, and start watching high-quality movies and television shows. Screenwriters have perfected their craft with techniques that can make your nonfiction sparkle. You’ll learn that you can start in the middle of a subject to draw your readers in. Or drop breadcrumbs, so to speak, to make them follow you into the heart of your premise. Maybe you’ll even write some dialogue or create fresh characters.
Whatever, pop some popcorn and settle in for the most fun (and affordable) writing workshop you’ve ever attended. As you watch, look for these eight screenwriting techniques to use in your books (and the blogs and articles to promote them).
1. Enter late: Quickly draw your readers into a chapter by putting them in the middle of a problem or situation—then go back to clarify. Think James Bond with those outrageous opening scenes of helicopters and machine guns and Bond suspended midair. Or the opening of “Rectify” (arguably the best television series ever written). Ray McKinnon, writer and director, drops us into the action by showing Daniel changing into civilian clothes after 19 years on death row (instead of starting with the crime or the court decision to release him). You could begin your book with a client running his hands through his hair, overcome by a serious problem. Once you’ve captivated your readers (because they probably have that same problem), you explain how it can be solved.
2. Exit early: Have you noticed in movies and TV that no one ever says goodbye on the telephone? That’s because it’s more interesting to skip mundane actions and let scenes play out in your readers’ imagination. “Exit early” also makes endings more memorable than the traditional tie-everything-in-a-bow approach. Instead, craft chapter endings that leave your readers eager to turn the page to learn more.
“I hate endings. … The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.” —Sam Shepard, playwright
3. Yearning: Your goal isn’t only to impart information. Your book needs to move your readers. More than likely, you’re writing your book because you have the key to their success, their happiness, their riches. You’re sharing information in order to help them. The best way to connect with their yearning is through stories. Stories tap into our emotions and desires in ways that ordinary prose cannot. And when, through your stories, your readers buy into your premise, you’re on your way to a bestseller.
4. Setup/Payoff: Setups are a kind of foreshadowing—hints you plant throughout your book so the payoff is believable and satisfying. In movies and TV, there’s the cough. I’ve come to dread hearing one in a movie because more often than not it signifies a looming illness yet to be revealed. Of course, the really good setups are more nuanced than that. In “Shawshank Redemption” when Andy asks Red to get him a black-market poster of Rita Hayworth, you figure it’s just a pleasant distraction during long nights in his cell. But when the warden pulls it down to reveal Andy’s escape tunnel, it takes on even more importance. Think about your goals for the book—those are the payoffs. Now go back and set them up. (Stories work great as setups.) You’ll engage your readers and keep those pages turning.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” —Anton Chekov
5. Charged Object: The charged object is defined as “an often ordinary object that is given larger meaning by the story.” Like the proverbial picture worth a thousand words, the charged object succinctly and visually crystalizes characters’ fears or yearning. Early in “Rectify,” the ceramic mechanic on the counter at Ted’s tire store causes Daniel to freak out. Late in the fourth season, it becomes a way to show healing and reconciliation. In “Nebraska” the truck was the charged object throughout the film, and in “Shawshank Redemption” the harmonica plays as a symbol of hope. Can you think of a charged object that relates to your book’s mission? If you’re writing a self-help book, perhaps a stress ball is the charged object (and even a visual in bulleted lists or subheads). Or maybe you’ve held on to an old pair of shoes, scuffed with the heels worn down, to remind you of how not to be a successful salesman. In a memoir, there’s likely an object from your life that holds extra meaning.
6. Action Points: Action points drive the story in interesting ways.
a. Conflict & complications deal with the situations your readers are eager to eliminate. These need to be believable and suspenseful—though they don’t have to be actual events, as long as the conflict/complications represent legitimate scenarios. When you set these up right, your solutions deliver powerful payoffs.
b. Barriers push the story forward. Stories would be pretty boring if someone set out to achieve a goal (a partner, new job, more money) and everything went swimmingly. Along the way, readers will relate to the barriers and look to you for resolution.
c. Reversals catapult the story in different directions and force new developments. Use this technique throughout your chapters (not just at the end) to create a zigzag progression rather than a dash to the finish line. “Luke, I am your father” is such a famous reversal it doesn’t need an attribution. Or Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in which Norman evolves from helpful to weird to vicious with the unforgettable reversal at the end. What can you share that will startle your readers into believing in your premise and solutions? Surprise them to keep them engaged.
“In a detective film, we see a reversal when the discouraged detective suddenly puts two and two together and realizes how to solve the case.” — Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger
7. Ticking clock: A structural device, usually early in the story, that requires something specific to occur or a problem to be resolved within time constraints. Think “High Noon” or even more literally, the classic suspense film “The Big Clock.” In “Rectify,” Daniel faces the ticking clock of a possible return to prison; the constant thrum of this threat beats throughout all four seasons of the show. Some degree of suspense is vital in all stories, not just mysteries and thrillers, and the ticking clock helps ratchet up the tension. In business books, there’s always the ticking clock of turning a profit or staying in business by a certain date. In memoirs, the ticking clock of ruination or despair (or success!) may rear its head. And in self-help books, the ticking clock refers to whether help and/or healing can arrive in time.
8. Feed imagination: Don’t overwrite. Let your readers fill in gaps. Too much detail bogs down the story. Share just enough information, then give them space to imagine their own path to success. You can even suggest they close their eyes and visualize their desired outcomes.
“Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.” — Alfred Hitchcock
As you watched your television shows and movies, did you spot some other techniques you want to try? Great! There are no rules you have to follow—other than writing an engaging book people can’t put down and want to tell their colleagues about. That’s your goal. Have some fun achieving that, and your book will be better than you ever imagined.
Lynda McDaniel has enjoyed a long career as an award-winning nonfiction magazine writer and book author, including her three-book Write Faster Series. More recently, she is a novelist of the popular Appalachian Mountain Mysteries series. For the past decade, she has been sharing the fruits of her writing life to help clients craft and publish the books they’ve always dreamed of writing. She lives in Eureka, California with her family. https://www.LyndaMcDanielBooks.com, https://twitter.com/WordWardrobe.
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!