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How to Create A Narrative Plot Structure for Nonfiction

People often think that writing nonfiction is a piece of cake compared to writing fiction. After all, you have the story right there. You don’t have to make it up from scratch, right? 

As a non-fiction author, you probably know already that this is a myth. What you may not know is that consciously creating a narrative plot structure is key to delivering a good read.

You will bore your readers to death if you simply 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.

How do you create a narrative plot for nonfiction?

What structure do you follow? Depending 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 be woven through your manuscript. For our purposes, we're going to keep it simple and talk about the classic or three-act narrative plot structure. continued below...

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Three act narrative plot structure

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. These three acts are known as the set-up, the confrontation, and the resolution.

The Setup

During the setup, you’re setting the scene.

  • You introduce the protagonist, who is the main character or champion of your main idea. In business nonfiction, for example, you are likely to be your own protagonist.
  • You'll introduce the protagonist's world and what makes them tick.
  • Then you'll describe the event that sets everything else in motion.
  • Next, describe the protagonist’s decision to react to that event, which is essentially the decision to embark on their journey. This is usually the first plot point.

The Confrontation

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.

  • You introduce other main characters, including the main antagonist, who isn’t always a person. (Your antagonist could be, for example, societal beliefs, outdated technology, even a broken justice system.)
  • You may describe the problem you've encountered and that you are about to solve, or what customer demands you've experienced that until now couldn't be addressed.
  • There will be some kind of major conflict about midway through: a big obstacle or setback that the protagonist experiences. Battle lines are drawn and the action or intensity increases. The protagonist’s decision to deal with this conflict is the second major plot point.

The Resolution

The final act – that of resolution – takes up the last quarter or so of the story.

  • Here's the climax, where the protagonist and antagonist face off.
  • After things have calmed down, you tie up the loose ends and release the tension.
  • You also emphasize the theme of the story and the lesson learned.

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, of course, other ways to approach your narrative plot structure.

Other Ways to Think About Beginning, Middle, End

It's common to think that 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 quite creative.

Manipulate Time

Say, for instance, that you want to tell the story of someone’s fight for justice after having been wrongfully accused of a crime. 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 you may want to start the book with the person’s wrongful arrest. Of course, there will have been events that have led up to this moment and the reason why this person was accused 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.

Circular Structure

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 is finally exonerated of the crime. It’s similar to the inverted pyramid structure of a newspaper article, where you start with the most important pieces. 

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.

Multiple Narratives

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 each cause of immigration will have a different narrative plot. 

So what do you do in such a case? Think about the movies of Robert Altman: he tells several parallel stories that may at times 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 at times, and moving them towards the climax: the issue of immigration today. Then you picture the way forward to bring the story to a conclusion.

Why, What, How

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.

  • Your beginning may be the ‘why’: why there is a problem, why they should care about the solution you’re about to present.
  • Your middle would be the ‘what’: lay out what your solution is.
  • And the end could be your ‘how’: all your instructions to the reader regarding how they can implement your solution to experience nirvana for themselves.

Plot Your Narrative Plot Structure

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 you’ll need to interweave? Does it make more sense to tell the story in chronological order? Or would the story be more compelling if you started at the middle, or the end, of the timeline? The choice is yours. Just remember that whatever narrative plot structure you choose, you’ll want a logical order so your readers can follow and enjoy.

What's your approach to creating your nonfiction narrative plot structure? We'd love to hear it!

About the Author Boni Wagner-Stafford

Boni is co-founder of Ingenium Books and an author, editor, and ghostwriter. She also manages communications and media for the Alliance of Independent Authors. 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, 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, 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.

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