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  • Book Structure: Creating a Strong One for Your Nonfiction Book

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    Books - Perfect Bound, Self-publishing

    You might know that a novel needs a strong narrative structure. This usually involves the classic fictional book structure of climax, conflict, and resolution. However, a nonfiction book needs its own strong book structure if it’s going to hold readers’ interest. A nonfiction history can quickly become a dry, boring recitation of facts, and a how-to book can become a disjointed, rambling mess without a solid book structure. Here are some ideas for creating a nonfiction book structure that will make your book a joy to read.

    Use a Table of Contents to Define Your Book Structure

    One way to organize your material is to create a table of contents (TOC) before you start writing. Start with an introduction, and then write out a list of major headings and sub-headings that focus on the key facts you want to present. Give each chapter a tentative title. Keep the titles broad. At this point, think of them as files and your TOC as a filing system to store and organize your material.

    As you sift through your research material, decide which chapter each fact or event will go to. For instance, if you’re writing a biography, information about the subject’s parents or early life would go into your chapter on the subject’s childhood.

    This is just a draft at this point, and your first TOC is likely to change as you develop the book. For now, use your draft TOC to guide your writing, organize your research material, and develop new ideas as you continue writing. Give each new story, fact, or analysis its own by filing it under the correct chapter title.

    Develop a Narrative Hook for Your Book Structure

    If you’re writing a book about something, it’s clearly something you’re passionate about. When you write nonfiction, you want to share that passion with your readers. How do you do that? By creating a strong, plot-driven story the reader can relate to and characters they care about.

    If you’re writing a biography, the story is already built into the historical record. That is a huge benefit to any writer. Award-winning author Hilary Mantel once revealed that she turned to historical fiction because she was “bad at plots” and figured that writing a historical novel meant the plot was already done. Having a built-in plot makes writing a biography or history easier. However, you still need a strong nonfiction book structure to make the book interesting.

    Make It Relevant

    The plot may be set in stone, but your job is to make it relevant and engaging to modern readers. Use contemporary language and comparisons to current events that will make things clear to a modern audience. In Alison Weir’s Queens of the Age of Chivalry: England’s Medieval Queens, the author includes a modern-day currency conversion every time an amount of money is mentioned in her book. For example:

    “Marguerite’s sons were assigned a household of between 50 and 70 attendants, which cost the King 1,300 pounds ($1,117,370) annually and included wet nurses, maids, laundresses, and Perrette, the prince’s rocker.”

    These details add relevance. They also add color and detail.

    Anyone can read a basic outline of the facts about your subject. Your book should fill the gaps for readers who want more nuance, more analysis, and more compelling stories about the subject of your book.

    Use Details to Build Book Structure

    The excerpt from Weir’s book is another example of using details to add color and bring the past to life. This builds a book structure that propels the story forward and provides a compelling plot line.

    When you go through your research, look for incidents from the historical record that paint a picture of the times, their daily life, or their views.

    In Andrew Lownie’s book Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, about the king who abdicated his throne to marry Wallis Simpson, the author wanted to show that the couple lived a dissolute, self-indulgent life. One detail he used to reveal that was to show that, when they lived in the Caribbean, they sent their clothing overseas to be dry-cleaned. The book showed receipts and bills for these costs. It’s a small detail that paints a large picture of two people who believed they deserved the best of everything.

    Focus on Relationships

    One way to build a strong nonfiction book structure is by focusing on relationships. If you’re writing a biography, was there an equally famous person that your subject had a strong relationship with? If so, use that information to develop a storyline based on that friendship, alliance, or family relationship.

    Jane Dunn’s book Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens is a dual biography that traces the lives of two strong women who changed the course of British history. Although the two women never met in person, their relationship lasted decades and profoundly affected each other.

    Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, by Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, details how Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt developed an alliance during World War II. It uses the nonfiction book structure of a relationship to discuss how the U.S. decided to enter World War II.

    Follow a Standard Book Structure for How-To and Self-Help Books

    The advice we’ve listed here mostly applies to memoirs, biographies, histories, and other works of nonfiction. If you’re writing a self-help or how-to book, however, you should use the nonfiction book structure that publishers—and readers—expect from these books.

    Use this outline to develop your how-to book.

    • The problem: What’s the problem the reader needs to solve? How will learning to do this thing improve the reader’s life? Whether your book is about losing weight or developing your spirituality, it should address a specific, definable concern.
    • How you can help: The next part of the book should focus on how you are qualified to help the reader. Maybe you’re a recognized expert, or you’ve helped others achieve the same goals. Focus on your specific training, experience helping others, and current research to bolster your case.
    • A specific plan: Every how-to book needs a specific plan of action that the reader can follow. Readers want a step-by-step plan. When you look at successful self-help and self-improvement books, they all feature something like a 10-step plan or a 12-step checklist.
    • Use numbers: Readers of self-help books want practicality, and they define that by numbers. In Declutter Your Mind by S.J. Scott and Barrie Davenport, the authors explain the “four causes of mental clutter” and provide strategies to eliminate mental clutter, including “400 words that identify your values.” Use numbers whenever possible.
    • Examples: You must include real-life examples of people who succeeded by following the plan you outline. Emphasize that these are ordinary people just like the reader, but they all managed to succeed despite the things holding them back.

    Explore Parallel Stories

    If you’re writing about the past, you may discover that there are more than one strong narrative thread running through the story you’re telling. Using those stories can help you build a nonfiction book structure that tells the story from different viewpoints. You’ll have to resolve the stories at the end, showing how they intertwine to produce a cohesive plot line with a conflict, resolution, and ending.

    Book Structure Matters

    Novels need good, strong narrative force. So do nonfiction books. Use your research to find the telling details that make your nonfiction book structure come alive. Once you’ve authored your book, use professional printing to make it look its best. Contact Dazzle Printing to learn more about our affordable rates and dedicated customer service.


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