As a non-fiction author, you may not know that consciously creating a narrative nonfiction plot structure is key to delivering a good read.
You will bore your readers to death if you repeat fact after fact. You want to organize all your research and information into a coherent and compelling whole. Basically, you need to tell a story.
What nonfiction plot structure do you follow? Depending on where you look or who you talk to, you may hear about three-act, four-act, and five-act structures. You might find debates about how many plot points must weave through your manuscript. For our purposes, we'll keep it simple and talk about the classic or three-act narrative plot structure.
Whether you're writing in the nonfiction sub-genres of memoir, journalistic, business or self-help, you will still want to create a narrative plot. Every story, including a true story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the basic tenet of the three-act narrative plot structure. We know these three acts as the set-up, the confrontation, and the resolution.
During the setup, you’re setting the scene.
The confrontation part of the story is normally the longest part, comprising fully half of the manuscript. This is where the protagonist sets out on their journey and encounters obstacles along the way.
The final act
In nonfiction, you’re writing about events and circumstances in real life. They don't always happen in such a clean, formulaic way. It’s perfectly fine to use the above formula as a guide and make it work for the story you're telling. There are
It's common to think telling a story through the beginning, middle, and end approach means following a chronology of sorts, which doesn't always work. In fact, sometimes moving things around a bit makes for a more engaging narrative. The beginning is not always the beginning of time, rather the beginning of your story. Here's where you can get creative.
Say, for instance, that you want to tell the story of someone accused of a crime they didn't commit fighting for justice. Following the chronological three-act narrative plot, the crime itself will come somewhere in the middle of the book. However, your readers may have lost interest by then, wading through the person’s childhood and events that may seem irrelevant.
You want to draw your readers in as soon as you can, so start the book with the person’s wrongful arrest. There will have been events that have led up to this moment and the reason authorities accused this person of the crime, though. The solution is to manipulate time. You can use flashbacks, for instance, to describe the crime itself, the reason your protagonist was in the wrong place at the wrong time, the police investigation, and so on. Your story will still have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not in a chronological order.
Another option is to use a circular structure. Here you start with the climatic event that concludes the story. In our example, you may start your book with the day that the person
However, unlike a newspaper article, you don’t give all the information right away. You want the reader to keep on reading to find out how things have led to this point and what the lesson is. So, you hold back. You start with the climactic event but you don’t elaborate too much. Then you use flashbacks to go back to the beginning. You always move the story forward, through the middle and on to the climax. After the climax, you tie up the loose ends.
Often there are two or more narratives in non-fiction that are equally important. For example, let's say you are writing about an issue like immigration. You want to reveal how different events in different countries have led to people’s need to leave their homes. Each country or
So what do you do in such a case? Think about the movies of Robert Altman: he tells several parallel stories that may intertwine. Every parallel story has a beginning and a middle. At the end, they all flow together.
You can use a similar technique in your book: telling each separate story, maybe interweaving them and moving them towards the climax: immigration today. Then you picture the way forward to bring the story to a conclusion.
Here's another way to think about beginning, middle, and end in a nonfiction book. It's one of my favourites. And that's the "why, what, and how" narrative plot.
Let’s use a business book for this example.
To help you structure your book, it’s always useful to draw a diagram or write a summary in point form. Identify the main events or points from your research and see how they’re related. Is there one overarching story? Or are there different ones that
What's your approach to creating your nonfiction narrative plot structure? We'd love to hear it!
Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books. She's author of One Million Readers: The Definitive Strategy to a Nonfiction Book Marketing Strategy that Saves Time, Money, and Sells More Books. Boni is an author coach, editor, and ghostwriter. As an award-winning former Canadian television reporter, news anchor, producer, and talk show host, working under the names Boni Fox and Boni Fox Gray (it's a long story), Boni covered politics, government, the economy, health, First Nations, and crime. She won several Canadian Association of Broadcaster (CAB) awards and a Jack Webster Award for best documentary. Boni also held senior management roles in government, leading teams responsible for editorial, issues management, media relations, and strategic communications planning. Boni is co-author of Rock Your Business: 26 Essential Lessons to Start, Run, and Grow Your New Business From the Ground Up and, like any good author, has several books in progress.
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