Nonfiction writing

Nonfiction writers it's all about story even for you. image of keyboard, earbuds and coffee

It’s all about story. Even for nonfiction writing.

Wait. What? You might say, “Jen, I think I’m on your wrong list. I’m writing nonfiction. I’ve got clients I’m trying to help. I’ve got something I want to say. I’m not writing a novel.”

Exactly. But let me ask you a question. Are you trying to help your clients survive and thrive? Could what you are trying to teach go into one of those two buckets? Hopefully the answer is yes, because if it’s not, you’re readers aren’t going to read your book. And if the answer is yes, then your book needs to understand how story works.

Have I completely confused you? Let me explain.

It all comes down to brain science. The brain is always searching the world and looking for information on how to survive and thrive. That’s it. It doesn’t care if the writing is nonfiction or fiction.

Story is how we communicate important information

Every culture has a storyteller and stories that it passes down from generation to generation. These stories convey important truths about the culture’s history, values, and customs.

We as humans are wired for story. It’s how we convey information that is important for the survival of the species. Think of Aesop’s fables or the parables Jesus told. They convey important truths in a way we can remember and understand them. 

Here are two quick examples:

  • Aesop’s Fables. Particularly Boy who cried wolf. What’s the cultural lesson it conveys? Only cry out in an emergency. The community will come help you when you need it, but you must genuinely need the help.
  • Jesus’s parables. Particularly the Good Samaritan. The cultural lesson is about caring deeply for those who are different than you, that the highest value is caring for each other, not status or position.

If each culture just had their children memorize something like, “Only ask for help when you truly need it” or “Care for others even if it’s at the expense of yourself” do you think that would have been as powerful or as long lasting as the stories?

Writers and storytellers are some of the most powerful people in the world. The most powerful stories tap into this truth of engaging the reader’s brain and emotions.

We think in story because the brain is obsessed with survival.

In story, the brain casts us, the reader, as the protagonist.

  • Physical survival—experience something without having to live through it to learn the lesson
  • But also emotional and social lessons as well.

Stories–even nonfiction writing– must intrinsically have a framework that the brain is looking for.

Just like everyone has a spine, every story must have structure.

You have a main character who has a past with a wound (backstory). She has been living life just fine, thank you very much, protecting her wound. Until something happens (inciting incident) that means she can no longer operate in the world the way she has been.

She wants something external and tangible (story goal), but what she really wants, deep down inside, is the magic elixir that will heal her wound (internal goal). Because she is human (or possibly alien or nonhuman), she is stubborn and resistant to change. So while reaching for her story goal, she will be trying to protect her wounds. You will throw at her all sorts of things that become increasingly more difficult (conflict, plot complications) that will force her to deal with her wound, but because she won’t stop protecting it, she makes things worse for herself.

Until she reaches a point where her wound is exposed and all is lost (the black moment). It is here that she realizes what she needs to do to find healing. She has become stronger and learned more during all her trials (epiphany). She does that thing she needs to do, which she can now do, that couldn’t do at the beginning of the story. She may need to fight a final battle with the new-found strength and knowledge she has. Or she might be able to go straight to tying up all the loose plot threads until we come to a satisfying conclusion.

So, don’t you want to harness that for your book, to provide transformation for your clients? How do you take this story structure and apply it to your nonfiction book?

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PS–I have a free book just for nonfiction writers. Check it out here.

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