TulipsDo you have a non-fiction work-in-progress? Are you in search of structure to your manuscript?

The organization and order of information in a non-fiction book is every bit as important as plot is to fiction. Immersing yourself in the subject matter is no guarantee that the structure of a book will reveal itself as self-evident.

So how does a writer of non-fiction move from the research, notes, interviews, documents, and quotes into a coherent structure? And more importantly, a structure that serves the readers of your work? Structural editing is part of the writing process itself.

Here I suggest four techniques to help you hone and refine the narrative structure to your non-fiction work-in-progress.

Thematic analysis

What are the major themes in the book?

Describe how each theme is relevant. How does each theme get played out? In which sections does each theme arise? Are there characters whose personalities or interactions embody one of these themes? How so?

Write reflectively about each theme. As you do, ideas for tightening the plot will pop out at you.

Question analysis

What subjects, topics, and issues will your book cover? What questions will your book answer? Pretend you are writing questions for IBM’s Watson on Jeopardy. Make a long list. Include questions you have already answered in your research and questions you plan to investigate further.

Sort the questions into groups that emerge from critical reflection. For each group, write additional questions you will need to answer. Think about what the reader needs to know and when and where in your book they need to know it.  Sort your grouped questions into an organizational framework.

Don’t forget to ask the big questions. So what? Who cares?


Sketch the important scenes in your book. Think cinematically. If you are artistically inclined, draw them; if not, paint with words. Brainstorm on as many scene sketches as you can without referring to your research. What are the most gripping moments? Where does the action take place?

Take each scene and identify the conflict or goal, the actors involved, their motives, the themes, and questions it will address.

Play around with the order of these scenes to find a new narrative whole. Consider yourself the movie producer or film editor. Identify the holes between scenes and how to connect the scenes into a coherent narrative.

Character Analysis

Strong narrative structures are built upon characters whose motives drive plot forward. First, identify all of the people in your story. Make two lists: one of major or leading roles, and a second with supporting roles. This is your cast of characters.

In your list of major players, identify your protagonist(s). With which character(s) do you invite your reader to identify, share a point-of-view, and eventually champion? Which character(s) play the role of antagonist? Who (or what) offers the conflict, challenge, struggle, or problem?

For each person in your cast of leading characters, write a character sketch. What role does each one play in this narrative? Describe the physical attributes, distinctive behaviors, personal qualities, and motives. Identify in what places the character appears in the action. Organize a file for each character in which everything you plan to include in your book is in one place. Upon first reference to a character in your new narrative structure, introduce the person to the reader with full attribution. Upon second reference, add more character description and disclosure of details . And so on; developing character depth. As you write the character into the narrative of your manuscript, refer to your sketch and include these details from your sketch.

By taking the time and trouble to work out character sketches, you gather a stronger sense of the dynamic tensions between characters and how their problems, conflicts, and struggles drive the story forward.


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