Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bigger 13 - The Right Structure for Nonfiction

A departure today - this entry is explicitly for nonfiction (though, I hope, most others benefit nonfiction writers). I've found that choosing the right structure makes the difference between doing a good job and doing a great job that attracts a large audience. But what are the structures of nonfiction?
Most people can readily call to mind a few ways to organize nonfiction, if asked. We all know some form the essay style, with introductions, topic sentences, and closings. Arguments begin with the second strongest point and end with the most powerful. Those who worked on a school newspaper know about the inverted pyramid.
There are dozens of others, and they can add punch to your work, or make it limp and unconvincing. Here are some to consider:
  • Chronology, journal, and narrative nonfiction – Tell what happened in sequence. Blogs often fit in with these. Note that narrative nonfiction often doesn’t fit strictly if the author uses flashbacks and other fiction techniques.
  • Dialogue, argument, and thesis – The first is at least as old as Plato. It resembles a discussion committed to paper, but, of course, it is carefully organized to make a point. Arguments do this more directly, without using characters. A thesis usually follows a required structure that makes it more abstract.
  • Epistolary style and interviews – A letter to the editor is the most obvious of these. They are purportedly written to someone other than the reader. We just get to look over the addressee's shoulder. Often, actual letters are collected and edited for broad circulation. The best interviews may resemble letters most closely when the interviewer provides comments and responds to answers. Some are more stark, with formula questions, and these may be appropriate if the interviewer does not bring special knowledge or perspectives.
  • Review or comment – The subject of the discussion, another work or event, is the distinguishing feature here. That subject may be familiar, or may need to be described in a summary fashion. These works provide informed opinion. The best reviews and comments use the reference to illuminate something important. Many depend upon the voice and personality of the author to attract the reader and hold his or her attention.
  • Recipe and how-to – Clear, straightforward, and step-by-step. While there may be some personality involved, it cannot distract from the purpose. Success is giving people the outcome they are looking for. If clever words lead to an inedible pie, you lose.
  • Contrast – Sometimes the whole picture – especially of a complex event -- emerges best when more than one perspective is offered. Contrast is often used in morality tales, where clear choices are made and we see the consequences.
  • Pyramid and hierarchy of interests – Put what is vital to know first, then the next, and so on. My investment as a reader gets diminishing returns -- by design.
  • Reference and FAQ – Just the facts, organized (often alphabetically) so I can most quickly get the information I need or want. It is important that I can get all that I need regarding a topic within a single section (or, at least, get everything but what is clearly pointed to in other sections). This means there is some redundancy in these texts. They are not meant to be read from beginning to end. A dictionary may be the most obvious example.
  • Theory and exercises – Think textbooks. The point is explained, and then the opportunity to check and deepen understanding is offered through questions and how-tos.
  • Memoir, apology and testimony – These tend to be mostly about the writer, written in the first person. Readers read to learn about them as persons.  Think of a conversation with a good friend about how life is going. The writer may, along with sharing experience, also have a point, wish to justify him or herself, or hope to inspire.
  • Observations – These should be objective and thorough. A police or post mortem report. A naturalist’s field observations.
  • Case history and cautionary tales – Much of this is like a chronology, but the focus is to tell what happened and bring out the lessons. The reader will want to get enough to emulate success and avoid failure.
  • Vision and sales pitch – This is forward-looking. It can be what might be for a society or a company, or simply the joys for a consumer of owning a vacuum cleaner. A premise must be stated, benefits must be detailed, and there must be a call to action.
  • Parable, fable and joke – Here the readers usually knows that the work is a composite or an allegory with a definite point. In other words, connection to facts is tenuous, but the reader is in on it. While not factual, a truth is expected. The story should be easily overlaid on the real world, and it should be convincing. Urban legends fit here, but they often are so compelling that they are taken to be factual.
Much of book-length nonfiction today does not fit cleanly into any of the above categories. Writers mix in quotes, artifacts, sidebars, and more to vary the tone and break up the text. Also the impact on readers can be dialed in by changing how formal the work is and/or adding humor (ironic, satirical, biting, or gentle).  Also, the medium makes a difference. Will this be a book? An ebook? A blog? A film? A speech?
Which structure do you choose, and how do you determine the tone? Start by articulating the purpose of the nonfiction work. (I do this for every speech I write.) What does success mean for you (or you client)? Do people need to take action? Advocate? Be able to do something? Avoid or embrace a behavior? Build empathy?
Next, determine who your main audience is. I like to get down to one person, and expand in rewrites as necessary. I find that the ideal reader often has strong opinions about which structures work best. Some people prefer works that are stark and abstract, like scientific papers. Others need to get cozy with the writer (think memoir). Your ideal reader will also guide you toward specific media and preferred tone.
Length makes a difference. Parables and fables are short. Textbooks are long, but broken up into sections. Narrative nonfiction can work at any length.
Completeness of information can dictate your choice. I wanted to write a narrative nonfiction book about a historical character, but primary sources were too scarce. Similarly, arguments feel weak if they have fewer than three points to support them.
Requirements matter. A friend of mine spent two years trying to get approval for a biochemistry dissertation written as narrative nonfiction before she submitted a more standard version.
Your comfort with the form can be decisive, especially when you are on deadline. While it is admirable to develop the ability to use all of the structures, you will probably have real facility in only a few of them.
When in doubt, try more than one approach and compare the results. You may be surprised by how dramatically the impact of your content rises or falls. Imagine a parable presented as a business speech, complete with PowerPoint charts.  Or a Hollywood star’s biography presented as a scientific paper.  Or a recipe book prepared as narrative nonfiction. Any of these would either be disasters or hilarious.

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