An ultra-simple plan to get your nonfiction book started
You’ve got ideas for a work of nonfiction, but how do you begin laying out the information in a cohesive narrative?
One way is to borrow the basic three-act plot structure commonly used in fiction. Even though you are writing about facts, you are still telling the reader a story, so many of the principles of fiction planning are also relevant here.
Three-act plotting starts with a simple division of the content into three parts – a beginning (introduction), a middle (body of the argument), and an end (conclusion).
Act 1: The beginning
In fiction, the story begins with an event that creates a problem for the hero that they have to solve. This problem situation acts as a hook that grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read more to find out what happens.
In nonfiction, we need to do the same – hook the readers with the core problem or question that your book is going to address. You need to present the problem in such a way that it creates questions in the mind of the reader and compels them to read on to find out how the questions are resolved.
There are several ways you can present the hook:
- A statement of the purpose of your book or its ‘big idea’
- A description of the problem you are going to solve and a promise of a solution
- A very short story that dramatizes the problem or crisis that your book deals with
A great example of the first way of starting can be found at the beginning of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel:
This book attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. The question motivating the book is: Why did history unfold differently on different continents? – Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs & Steel
Here he spells it out his purpose exactly – to find out why history unfolded differently on different continents. You can see this is a big idea book because its scope is vast and it required a huge amount of research.
Here’s an example of how to start a book by describing the problem and making a promise of a solution:
Do you ever feel discouraged and frustrated with your life? Do you ever feel like your dreams will never become reality? Well, this book will change that for you. –Janet Bray Attwood, The Passion Test
And here’s an example of a book starting with a dramatic story:
He collapsed right in the middle of a packed courtroom. He was one of the country’s most distinguished trial lawyers. He was also a man who was as well known for his three-thousand-dollar Italian suits that draped his well-fed frame as for his remarkable string of legal victories. I simply stood there, paralyzed by what I had just witnessed. The great Julian Mantle had been reduced to a victim and was now squirming on the ground like a helpless infant … – Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari
Once you’ve opened the story with your hook, you’ll probably need to tell your readers something about how you’re going to tackle the subject:
- If the book is quite long and broken into parts, you could briefly describe what the readers will discover in each part. This is common in ‘how to’, big idea books and textbooks.
- If your book is more of a personal journey, for example a memoir, the beginning section might describe the situation that led to your journey.
There are so many possibilities for the beginning that I can’t cover them all here, so just take the idea that the beginning is your setup where you describe the problem and provide any information for the reader that will orientate them about your book’s structure and proposed solution.
Act 2: The middle section
The middle is the main body of your book. It’s where you build the reader’s understanding, teach a process, or argue a point. There are several models you can use to arrange this information. I cover them in more depth in the Ultimate Guide to Nonfiction Planning, but here’s a summary:
- Chronological: Telling the story from beginning to end as it unfolds in time.
- Collective: Different authors contributing chapters on the same theme (for example, a reader on contemporary literary theory).
- Hub: Similar to collective design but all the chapters are written by the same author. Think of a wheel hub with spokes radiating out from it – the hub is the core idea or topic, and each spoke is a chapter that deals with this topic from a different aspect.
- Logical/procedural: Argument, logic, or linear processes shape the story (linear narrative).
- Personal discovery: Your experiences shape the narrative. You teach and inform readers by taking them through the process in which you discovered the principles you are teaching.
- Hybrid design: Any combination of the above models.
Act 3: The end
The end is usually a short section where you tie up loose ends and revisit your original purpose statement to reflect on how this has been answered. You can also sketch out how the reader’s world will be changed with this knowledge or offer suggestions for further exploration.
What structure works best for you?
This three-act structure should work for most nonfiction, but don’t let it hinder you if you find some other structure that will work better. The only thing that matters is that you find a structure that enables you to get your ideas down and tell an engaging and informative story. For more on three-act structure, see this article on three-act structure for fiction.
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