Structure is the architecture of your book. It is the way you are going to organise your information in a way that is entertaining and logical for the reader. What kind of structure you are going to hang your story on? Here are some of the larger ones for non-fiction books.
All NON FICTION books fall into one of two broad categories: A Big Idea Book and a How-To Book
A MEMOIR or BIOGRAPHY may also fit into one of these categories.
A How-To Book
The key to this book is that you have done something / know something /tried something and you are going to share with readers how you did it… and show them how they can do it too. You may not have succeeded entirely ..... but you have lessons to share. These books most often incorporate your your own personal story and then also reveal they a step-by-step process that the reader can also follow.
In order to write this book you have to be an expert in SOMETHING. Which means you have to have done it yourself or know a lot about it. (It helps if you are a professional expert in it too eg a lawyer writing about property law.)
A How-To Book offers:
A Big Idea Book
This book has one central blatant idea (or argument) that the writer usually tells a reader right upfront at the beginning hook of their book. The book then walks the borders of this idea and exploring it until they reach their conclusion. You do not have to be an expert to write one of these. You do need an angle (big idea). Often the Big Idea goes against current wisdom.
Fat in the Head: It’s not food it’s how you think.
The Five Hour Work Week .
The Tipping Point: How little things have big consequences
Layguide: How any guy can get laid
A Memoir / Biography
Memoir may also fit into these above categories but it may follow more traditional storytelling which takes the reader on YOUR journey, plotted in scenes that stack up to a story.
However a memoir still needs a big central idea or theme to hold it together. Please remember that actually all books need a big idea! All books need a single driving idea that holds them together, even if that idea is your love of cooking.
Here are some ideas of ways to structure a non fiction book:
A straight-up chapter-based non-fiction book
All non-fiction books are organised into clear chapters or content buckets. Chapter titles should contain clear breakdowns of what is in that chapter. Readers may not always read all the chapters and can pick and chose relevant ones that delivers the information they are looking for.
This attaches some higher / organizing concept to your structure. It can be a metaphor, poem, list
Eg 5 People You will meet in Heaven, 20 Years of Solitude, The Houses I Have Loved, My Life with Dogs. Seven Years in Tibet, 21 Lessons in Grief.
The most logical way of attacking a linear story is in this manner. Most memoirs are told in this manner. Here you pick a point to start your story then you follow a clear and logical order of events moving forward in time. Often in a non-fiction or memoir the reader already knows how your story ends.
Semi-chronological structure (memoir or biography)
You may want to start in present day and jump back in time and backfill that story. You may want to see-saw between time zones or places. You may want to use this to build some drama or tension and you can jump to another moment when the stakes are high.
If you are jumping around a lot you may need to include a marker before each scene to locate the reader. Eg Alabama 1956. New York 2012
A photography or image-based book
Any book that includes strong visual material is in its own genre. Here the images are more important - or equally important - than the text. Writers submit both images and text.
Think cookbooks, travel books, design books.
This structure will mix personal story with actual exercises or things for readers to put into action. Many diet books or books written by 'experts' are workbooks. They first share the information and story, then give the reader things THEY can do.
A blog or diary-style structure
You tell it as it happens, and you can go on other tangents. This is more immediate and unstructured and the reader walks the path along with the author ... for example So Close, Infertile but Addicted to Hope by Tertia Albertyn.
Postcards or letters (to yourself, someone else)
Carefully crafted letters between correspondents can tell a story and reveal slowly a plot
ASK YOURSELF? Are you an expert in something or a layman? If you are an expert, you have the opportunity not write a non-fiction how-to book. This does not apply to a layman.
You can be a sales expert, business or life coach, yoga teacher, car mechanic, business shaman .…. But the difference here with a non-expert is important…. You are sharing your story but you are also sharing processes, techniques, recommendations or solutions to the ‘layman’. This can be a workbook or straight non-fiction
e.g. Glassmaking for Dummies, Tim Noakes’ Real Meal Revolution, The Dukan Diet, Clear your Clutter, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Heal Your Life.
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, agent and book editor. She is a structure fanatic and book whisperer and is here to help.