Writing a non-fiction story is like cracking a safe. It seems impossible at the beginning, but once you're in, you're in.’ Rich Cohen
The difficult thing about planning a book is working out how to break down all the information that is in your head so a reader gets it. Most often it feels as if there is a great mass of great stuff swirling inside your brain but how does it all come out that makes sense to anyone else? It is like untangling a ball of string decades in the making.
All books (even novels) start with the author making a working plan of how the story will unfold for the reader. The task - simply put - is to break down all of this into a series of chapters (or scenes in a novel). A logical and well-organised Table of Contents (TOC) is critical to focus you (as the writer), and it also allows the reader to choose the chapters they want to read, and the ones they may want to skip. I have a few examples below this email.
I call this process "the horribly hard task of having to put all your information into containers". It is about untangling that mass of data and ideas and all those stories, grouping it, and making it clear (and hopefully enticing) for a reader.
Memoirs and biography have a totally different plotting structure to non-fiction books, and are closer to the plot structure of a novel. You need to tell a story, and so you will plot these books using scenes as the building blocks to a story rather than chapters.
TYPES OF NON-FICTION BOOK STRUCTURES YOU CAN USE
Here are some examples of good structures for non-fiction storytelling. Can you choose one that works for your book?
A Chronological Structure (Memoir and Biography)
The most logical structure in most personal narrative stories is to follow a clear and logical order progression. I don't mind if you start with a compelling hook and jump back, but then don't confused the reader by jumping around too much. Often in these books the reader already knows how the story ends as the cover will hint at that. The key now is to keep readers on the journey.
Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama
The diving bell and the butterfly, Jean-Dominique Baby
A Chapter-Based Non-Fiction Book
All non-fiction books are organised into clear and logical chapters. Chapters should be descriptive and contain clear breakdowns of what information is in that chapter. Remember that readers may not read all the chapters. They read some in entirety, dip into others briefly, or skip some.
A Brief History of Time, From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Stephen Hawking
Non-Fiction experts commonly use this structure to take the reader down an exploration. This structure mixes a personal story with actual exercises or things for readers to put into action to take the insights deeper and move them from point A to point B. All diet books are workbooks.
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Success Principles, Jack Canfield
Clear Your Clutter, Kate Emmerson
What Are You Hungry For? The Chopra Solution to Permanent Weight Loss, Well-Being, and Lightness of Soul, Deepak Chopra
A Thematic Structure
This attaches a higher/organising concept or metaphor to your structure. For example, if you are writing a yoga book, you may want to link your chapters to the 7 Chakras. If you are writing a sales book, you may want to link your chapters to the four quarters of a financial year. Travel memoirs or books may move from country to country. In Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert grouped her story into three sections (Eat. Pray. Love). This book has 108 chapters, reflecting the 108 prayer beads on a mala.
The Four Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferris
The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman.
A List Structure
Readers love this. Lists are a useful way of grouping your information.
The 5 People you will meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen.R.Covey
Any Visually Driven (or Photography-Based) Book
Any book that includes strong full colour visual material is in its own genre. This includes cookbooks, travel books, children's book and Angel cards. Again, your chapters and images need to reflect a theme, thread or story.
The French Kitchen, Joanne Harris, and Fran Warde
Sea Change, Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck
A blog or diary-style structure: Memoir and biography:
This is a style where you tell it 'as it happens. This can be in short blog-style posts or in longer posts as if written in an actual diary. It can work but the narrator has to be really compelling.
My Guantanemo Diary. The Detainees and the Stories they Told Me, Mavish Khan
The Sober Diaries: How One Woman Stopped Drinking and Started Living, Claire Pooley
Postcards or letters
Carefully crafted letters between correspondents, lovers or rivals can tell a story and slowly and enticingly reveal a plot. These can be letters, emails, blogs, and tweets.
I Will Always Write Back - How One Letter Changed Two Lives, Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda
Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch
A Postcard Memoir, Lawrence Sutin