Writing Non Fiction 4- Telling the Story- How to frame the book

Now that you’re ready to go full speed ahead with your nonfiction book, you have to decide just how to organize it.  With fiction, you usually go according to the plot. You might have a flashback or two, but otherwise, it’s chronological.

Nonfiction organization-

First off, have a page for acknowledgements, to thank the people who contributed to your research. This is important for three reasons:

-It will make the people on the list more likely to help in the future;

-It will make each person on the list a missionary for your book to their friends and relatives, and;

-Most important of all, it’s the right thing to do.



Now for the organization;

The rules for nonfiction are a little different. Organization depends on just what sort of nonfiction you want to write. For instance, chronological doesn’t work for a self-help book, or for a technical book.

Here are a few ways to organize nonfiction based on the type of nonfiction you are writing….

Self-help, Management……Anecdotes

History. Biography………….Chronological

Instructional…………………. Categories

Travel, cities of the world… Geographical

Collective biography…………Personalities

Political books…………. …….Argument

As you can see, the organization and structure is very much a function of what you are trying to get across, which brings us to the second point of organization: starting with a bang.


If you’re book gets in a bookstore, or on a bookselling website, a possible buyer may stumble on it in a variety of ways, but they will probably read the summary or notes to see if it might interest them. (More on that in a future post.) Anyway, if the book seems like it has possibilities, the prospective buyer will probably read the beginning, the first few pages.

The first few pages are your one great chance to sell the book. If they are plodding and full of exposition, a prospective reader will stop right there. This is your chance to lasso your prey and drag it into the corral. You have to get the reader so enthralled with the beginning he will gladly fork over good money to see what comes next. Remember, the hardest part is getting a reader to read the first page and the next hardest part is getting him to read the next page….rinse and repeat.

If you are writing history or biography, that means starting with something interesting, even if you have to use a flashback. What is most interesting about the subject? That’s what should be right up front to grab the reader. Don’t bore us; get to the chorus!

If you are writing a biography, remember this simple rule; babies are boring! No one ever did anything interesting as a baby. I guarantee you that even that guy the beer ads claim is the most interesting man in the world was a yawn as a baby. And the corollary is that if a baby is dull, his grandparents are duller. If you’re writing about, say, George Washington, don’t start with when he was born and who his parents were; tell the dramatic story of Valley Forge, or maybe crossing the Delaware, then, with the reader thoroughly hooked, you can talk about where he was born. When I wrote Master Detective, the biography of detective Ellis Parker, I opened with a movie-like suspenseful description of the Lindbergh kidnapping, even though it didn’t happen until late in Parker’s career. But this was the hook, the most compelling part of the story, so I put it right up front and then went back to Parker’s early days afterwards. This will usually mean a sort of flashback to tell the rest of the story, but be careful. When you’re using flashbacks you are a trapeze artist working without a net. Flashbacks can be confusing to the reader, so use them sparingly. Only a truly phenomenal writer can use flashbacks and flashforwards without confusing and irritating the reader. For the rest of us, one is usually manageable, but no more.


I think I’m having a flashback from ten seconds ago.

Wherever possible, you should structure the book as a movie, complete with a story line and images created in the mind of the reader. Always remember that your objective is not only to get your ideas and information across, but to do it in a way that will interest and engage your readers.


So why bother using pictures? After all, lots of nonfiction books have no illustrations at all. Well, pictures do some good things for you. They help the reader visualize the text, they give another dimension to the narrative, and they give visual credibility to your writing. So where do you get these pictures? That’s a whole other topic, because it involves copyright and all that entails, but generally, you can freely use any picture you took yourself, any picture that is in the public domain (usually old historical pictures), any picture for which you have obtained permission, and most pictures from government sources such as the Library of Congress, National Archives, etc. A good source for pictures that are either free to use or use with proper acknowledgement is Wikimedia Commons. In all these cases, read the conditions carefully before using.

What is not all right to use is any old picture you grab from a website with no permission. These pictures are the property of the owners and are not free for commercial use without permission and often, royalties. This is especially true for photos found on the sites of private news services or professional photographers. Without getting into legal advice, be aware that using a someone else’s photo in a noncommercial place such as a school lesson, a personal  blog, or an educational presentation may be fine under Fair Use, but not for a (hopefully) profit-making publication.

The really boring part- footnotes and all that fine print stuff


What the…? There’s no index of footnotes!

So what’s the deal with all those footnotes, references, indexes, and bibliography? Do you need them in a nonfiction work or don’t you? And if you do, just how thick do you have to lay it on? The answer, as usual, is “it all depends”. The more academic your work is, the more footnotes, bibliographies, indexes and references you need. The purpose of the footnotes and references isn’t just to impress the reader, but to verify your accuracy and provide a means for others to check or expand on your topic. Here are some guidelines:

-Breezy, mass-market book about non-serious or entertainment-related topic (Celebrity bio, memoir, travel, self-help, etc.)- No footnotes necessary.

-Popular–aimed book about specialty topic, or current events (politics, true crime, WWII battle, etc.)- Footnotes or endnotes, bibliography, index, forward, conclusions.

-Academic/scholarly- University press, etc.- Shoot the works; footnotes and endnotes, bibliography, index, forward, list of people interviewed, author’s note, introduction by some authority on the subject, conclusions, etc.

These are not laws. If you want to write a travel memoir with notes, bibliography and a detailed index, have at it. Your readers will probably appreciate it.


That’s about it for organization. Next, I’ll have some thoughts on selling and promoting your masterpiece

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