Nonfiction writing: It’s narratives all the way down.

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Nonfiction writing is made of stories. All of it. Advice. Logical reasoning. Analysis. It’s all stories. And if you don’t understand what a narrative is, no one will read what you write, and no one will be able to benefit from it.

I’m editing a nonfiction manuscript right now in which the parts aren’t written as narrative. The author has no concept of story. It’s full of insight and impossible to read (and very hard to edit). Your brain just skitters away and can find nothing to latch onto.

I would have believed this is impossible. It reminds me of prosopagnosia, “face blindness,” a condition in which people can’t recognize faces. People with prosopagnosia have great difficulty navigating the world. People who don’t understand what a narrative is have great difficulty writing, and their readers have great difficulty navigating their writing.

While most of you do intuitively understand what a narrative is, it helps to be deliberate about it. As I’ll show, narrative drives your book at every level, from the tiniest elements to the sections to the chapters to the structure of the whole thing. That knowledge needs to get into your pores and ooze out through your fingertips as you create.

What is narrative?

“Narrative” is just the way we refer to stories when talking about them. It sounds a little less sophisticated to say “story,” but for the purposes of this post, they are the same thing.

A story starts with a person with a problem.

That person may be specific (“Rick Clancy seemed worried.”). It may be a class of people (“Marketers have too many tools and too little time to figure out how they all fit together.”). It may be the reader (“Do you ever feel like an imposter?”).

In some cases, it may not even actually be a person (“The advertising market was collapsing.). But somebody, or something, has to have a problem to set up a reason that you might want to read further.

What comes next? Exposition. Learn about the problem. Why was it a problem? How did it become a problem? What approaches did people think of to solve the problem?

After that, we need to get into attempting to solve the problem. We need to talk about some attempts to fix it. For dramatic purposes, if things are going to be at all interesting, the obvious solution isn’t going to work. (No one wants to read narratives of the form “She had a problem, she tried to solve it, it worked, and everyone lived happily ever after.” There’s very little insight to be gained from that.)

Some structure helps. Maybe we explore the seven steps to the solution. Or the five ways to categorize the challenge. Or the three people you need to convince to get permission to solve the problem.

Maybe the problem leads to another problem and we need to solve that. Or maybe it generalizes to a larger insight. In any case, the problem needs to lead to something significant enough to be worth reading about.

And, of course, we need an ending. What did she learn? Where are we now? What comes next? How is this important? We need to tie things off nicely.

I don’t want to be too literal. Narratives are not just about people. They can be logical reasoning about markets or companies. But they still have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Why narrative is important

We are hardwired to follow stories. It’s how our brains work.

A reader reading a narrative will naturally want to know “What happens next?” So they will keep reading.

In the absence of a narrative, they are likely not to keep reading. Absent a narrative, writing seems boring. With a narrative, even an essay about interest rates, beetles, or artificial intelligence can be fascinating.

If you want people to keep reading, you need narratives.

It’s narratives all the way down

There’s an old story about the philosopher and psychologist William James, who was once accosted by a woman whose cosmology included the assertion that the earth stood on the back of a giant turtle. When he asked what the turtle stood on, she responded “You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question, but I have an answer to it. And it’s this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

When James asked what the second turtle stood on, her explanation was unassailable: “It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”

That’s how to think about books and any other form of nonfiction: they’re narratives within narratives within narratives. They’re narratives all the way down.

A narrative can be as short a paragraph. Take this six-word story, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

But for most writers, the basic story unit is the section. Take the five sections in this essay: each is narrative. Written as stories — as narratives of aspiring writers overcoming challenges — they look like this:

  1. What is your challenge in writing? It’s understanding stories.
  2. What does a narrative mean for you? It’s a challenge for somebody or something, a description of how they solved it, and a lesson or ending.
  3. Why is narrative important to you? Because it’s what makes people keep reading.
  4. How do narratives fit in to what you write? They fit in everywhere, from the smallest elements of prose to the largest.
  5. How do narratives lead to author success? In all ways — which is why you have to think about them constantly.

Notice that there are substories within the narrative, like my story at the top about the manuscript I’m editing or the story about William James and the turtles.

This post itself is a story, as is every post, every book chapter, and every well-written piece of prose. In my case, I pose for you the challenge of understanding narrative, then explain what it is, then why it’s important, then how it works. Each section leads to the next, which is what makes it a narrative. As you read each part you think “I got that, now my question is . . . ” and that’s followed by the answer to your question, which I anticipated. It all connects.

What is a nonfiction book? It is, of course, a narrative made up of smaller, chapter-length narratives. The first chapter is a story that scares the crap out of you. The chapters after that explore the problem in more detail. After that, the next chapters explain the dimensions of the solution, and if you have a well-developed idea, the consequences of that solution. It hangs together logically because it is a narrative.

(That’s an advice book. If you’re writing about something that actually happened, a business or historical narrative, that’s obviously a story, too.)

You should be able to tell the story of your book, or the story of your chapter, or the stories within your chapter, and keep the audience rapt. They love stories, they eat them up. That’s why authors are public speakers, and public speakers are, or at least potentially ought to be, good writers.

What this means for you

You should be thinking narrative at all times, in everything you write, at every level.

At the micro-level, think, “what stories can I tell that will make my point?” That includes researching other people’s stories, which are case studies.

At the section level (about 200 to 500 words), think, “What problem is this section about and how will I resolve the question it raises?”

At the level of a chapter or post, think, “How will I set up the problem, how will I explain it, how will I resolve it, what will they learn?”

At the book level, think “How do I connect all my insights so they hang together?”

Do this and people will start reading what you write and never stop. They’ll get to the end and feel satisfied. They’ll tell other people to read what you wrote. And you’ll be a success.

That’s my story and sticking to it.

One response to “Nonfiction writing: It’s narratives all the way down.

  1. I share about 1 in 10 of your blog posts in my LinkedIn feed. This was one of them. I can see this post becoming the core of another book.

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