“What’s your favorite novel,” a colleague asked. I had no idea. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read one.
I gravitate toward reading nonfiction books. I always have. I love learning, growth, and if I’m being honest, efficiency (I’m not just reading, I’m learning!). It wasn’t until I began ghostwriting that I realized I wasn’t just gravitating toward nonfiction, I was reading it exclusively.
It’s not that I don’t like fiction, I just don’t like wasting my time. Reading fiction felt too risky. What if it wasn’t good? What if I didn’t learn anything? I decided that needed to change. I took recommendations from friends to assuage my fears. Turns out—reading fiction is fun.
Reading Fiction to Understand Story
We tend to think of nonfiction in legal terms, Just the facts, ma’am. While it’s true that nonfiction writing is based on real people, and real events, it’s not simply serving up a cold plate of the facts. Books are, after all, meant to be engaging. Thinking of your book in terms of story can help captivate your reader.
Novels follow a predictable pattern when it comes to story. They always include an inciting incident, action, conflict or tension, a climax, and the denouement or resolution. It’s the author’s ability to create conflict and partial resolutions that pull you through the book and keep you coming back for more.
The book begins with an inciting incident. It’s the event that sets the main character(s) off on their journey and typically happens within the first few pages of the book. The remainder of the book is action/conflict/partial resolution until the climax (where the plot is resolved) at which point the book begins to wrap up (the denouement) and resolve everything usually within the final chapter.
As the hero or main character(s) journey through the plot, we experience their transformation firsthand as they react to the action and conflict. Their struggle becomes ours as they wrestle through internal conflict brought on by external circumstances. We root for them in spite of their flaws, because their flaws are what brings them to life.
The Power of Story
Stories, not facts, have the power to engage, transform, and inspire our readers. A recent article by Lani Peterson in the Harvard Business Blog shows that stories help us examine our beliefs and make sense of the world around us. Studies additionally show that as we listen and engage with stories, our brain waves begin to synchronize with those of the storyteller. Incorporating story and the elements of storytelling in nonfiction is essential if we want our reader to experience transformation.
There are two important factors here: First, stories are memorable. Your audience will remember the stories you share along with the application much longer than the cold, hard facts. Second, stories make us feel. When you read or listen to an engaging story, your brain releases oxytocin which makes us more empathetic toward the protagonist, or the hero or the story. This level of care is often so deep it’s as if we’re living the story with them. Through the sharing of your story, you can bring your reader along as if they are living the story with you. Story is a powerful tool.
Story Essentials & How to Use Them
To be clear, I’m not simply advocating for you to include more illustrations in your nonfiction. Illustrations, examples, stories and case studies are important and definitely help to bring your points to life. I’m imploring you to read more fiction to become a better nonfiction writer. Reading fiction is highly enjoyable and will help you craft better narratives around your facts. Let’s talk about how use story essentials in your manuscript.
- Narrative Arc: Every piece of fiction has a story or narrative arc. It’s more than the plot, it’s the progression of the entire story. Zoom out a bit and think of your book in terms of a story. What is the overarching narrative or story that you are trying to tell? What is the moral of your story? Your key point or takeaway?
- The Inciting Incident: This is the event that sets your protagonist off on a journey. What is the inciting incident for your reader? What has happened that they need to go on this journey with you? Perhaps they lost a job and need tips on how to land interviews, or perhaps they’ve had a failed relationship. What is the inciting incident for your reader?
- The Protagonist: The hero of your story is not you. Your reader is the protagonist. They are the hero. You are the guide who has already been there and is walking with them. It can be difficult for authors to think in these terms, but it is imperative if you want your reader to experience the transformation you are promising.
- Action/Conflict/Tension: Throughout your book you will be walking your reader through the steps they must take to achieve the desired outcome. Are your steps leading to the climax? How do they relate to the larger picture of the story? Is the pace of your book helping to move the reader through the story or slowing them down between steps?
- Climax & Resolution: This is where everything comes together. You have helped your reader solve their problem. How do they feel? What are their next steps? How does this success or transformation tie into the bigger picture of their story?
Fiction really has to grab and hold my attention if I’m going to read it all the way through. How are you grabbing your readers and holding their attention? Science shows facts alone won’t do it, but story will. In short, fiction may have something to teach us after all.
P.S. Looking for a great fiction recommendation? Try All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.