Blame Aristotle. Blame classical Greek culture. Blame all of Western Civilization. But every story must have a beginning, middle, and end. And more than that.
Without narrative structure, a non-fiction book is just a boring recitation of one thing after another. You may think because your book is based on your real life experiences (memoir), historical events, scientific experimentation, or natural observations that you don’t need a story to write a book. Think again.
Fictio, from the Latin, is the heart of all writing: to inscribe, shape and mold an inventive or interpretive explanation.
To write non-fiction and memoir is to inscribe, shape and mold facts into a coherent tale. For a writer, there are two parts to every telling: story and plot. They are not the same thing. Plot is the structure given to the story. For example, girl meets boy is the story. The plot is that girl gets a new hairdo, leaves salon, drives through traffic looking in rear-view mirror and rear-ends boy in a BMW. Love ensues.
Archetypal stories, myths, and fairy tales provide a cultural pool from which to remix story structure variations, techniques, and stylistic flourishes. Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek mythology and stories in popular culture from The Wizard of Oz to Underdog takes on City Hall.
Writers need to find their story first and then figure out how best to tell it. Always keep in mind that your job is to let the reader know what they need to know when they need to know it. Not an easy task, I know.
Following Aristotle’s dramatic arc in non-fiction and memoir provides a generic template for successful storytelling. Long form narration in non-fiction and memoir requires the writer hook readers and hold onto them for a full length book. Not an easy task. The traditional inverted pyramid story structure of American journalism don’t work in book length manuscripts. This journalistic plot is premised on the most important information at the top and the editor should be able to cut it to a jump page and the reader eventually gets bored with the least important stuff. No endings. That doesn’t work well in books.
If you examine the diagram here, you see that the narrative begins with exposition. Set the scene. Introduce characters and their motives with action scene(s) and the premise. Then the inciting incident creates a conflict or challenge. Something happens and instigates further actions.
Plot is the sequence of events. Story is the consequence. One thing should lead to another. A memoir is more than a string of vignettes. History is more than a chronicle of chronological events. Scientific inquiry is more than a series of loosely related experiments. Across the vertical access of time, from the start of the book to the ending, the reader should feel movement, change, transformation in their comprehension and appreciation for the complexities to your subject matter.
The rising tension in the reader created by the narrative structure should rise to a crescendo. Find the climax scene to your story and plan the falling action into denouement. Anti-climatic stories are the ones readers tend to lose interest in and there’s no reason to finish a book if it isn’t going anywhere. There needs to be a payoff for reading to the end of the book. For non-fiction (not memoir) there needs to be a conclusion before the narrative ending. This is more than a summary or rehash. It requires you spell out the ramifications and implications of your findings. What does the reader know now that s/he didn’t when the book started? What is the take-away lesson? This is the falling action into the denouement in Aristotle’s narrative arc for non-fiction.
The ending is embedded in the beginning. For non-fiction this does not require you tell the reader what you are going to tell them in the book, then tell them, and finally tell them what you told them. This sandwich structure suffices for academic theses and journal articles but, again, book readers demand the satisfactions of a book with a story.
If you organize your book in alignment with Aristotle’s classical form of narrative arc, you are less likely to have the following writing problems in non-fiction and memoir.
1. Factophilia. The obsessive love of facts and inserting irrelevant ones sidetracking the plot. Weave your facts and data into the story as they serve the forward progression of the story.
2. Trees, no woods. So lost in your world of research and data that you can’t balance the exposition with the narration. You assume the readers knows things they don’t. Deliver specific details while keeping the big picture clear in the reader’s mind. Take a step back from the narrative stream from time to time to be sure you let the reader connect the dots.
3. Stockholm syndrome. You have been taken hostage by this writing project for so long you can’t get outside the interior writer world and forget your readers may not see things the same way you do.
Let the facts tell you a story. Then figure out how to share this story with your readers in a narrative arc structure.
Brian McDonald has accepted an offer of publication for his new memoir, THE LONG SURRENDER (Working Title), from Wisdom Editions, an imprint of Calumet Editions for April 15, 2022. After 30 years of preaching, Brian Rush McDonald walked away from the pulpit. He had become a Jesus freak during the tumult of high school desegregation in the 70s in Mobile, Alabama, and then immersed himself in the dogma of fundamentalism at Bob Jones University. Anxiety about unsaved souls facing eternal damnation, doubts about harsh doctrine, and guilt about his sexual longings as a young adult—he attributed it all to SatanicRead more…