I have been writing a lot about fiction because of my PitchWars mentoring and the upcoming Story Genius workshop, but I coach as much non-fiction as I do fiction, and the lessons I give for fiction writing apply equally to non-fiction – whether that’s memoir or self-help/how-to. This truth really struck me this week, because I was helping two novelists, one memoirist, and a non-fiction writer through exactly the same steps. I thought I would take a moment to show how two key lessons of fiction apply to the other genres.
1. Know the force of change. Novels are about change – about the shift that a person makes in their perception of the world. So in every story you tell – whether that is a full novel or a little vignette or case study in a memoir or a non-fiction book – you want to illuminate that change.
And you want to get at the WHY – WHY did they change? We don’t just want to know THAT someone did something; we want to know WHY they did it – what motivated them, what pushed them, what forced them to make that change? And what did the change cost them or earn them – not just on the surface but underneath where it really matters.
In fiction, we ask the writer to dig deep into their character’s backgrounds and motivations to figure out what they are going to change from. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron contends that the story actually starts long before the novel starts – that we are all products of the way we were taught to see the world. We are taught one thing, and life often teaches us that we were wrong about that thing. This is where the “epiphany” or “revelation” of story comes in.
The key thing here for non-fiction writers is tied up in the phrase “life often teaches us that we were wrong.” In a novel, plot forces the characters to look hard at their closely held beliefs about the world. That’s the job of the plot – to force the characters where they don’t necessarily want to go. In non-fiction, you are dealing with some of those same forces, but the difference is that they are real.
So the question becomes this: what forces a person to change? Maybe you are writing about losing weight or landing a new job. What are the forces your reader has to overcome to do that? If you are talking about getting people to behave in new ways, they are going to ask, Why should I?? Why should they change? And if they WANT to change but find it hard to break old habits, what can they leverage to adopt the NEW habit? How can they orchestrate their own epiphany? Willpower is never enough. In fiction, a character stays on one path until forced to take another path. What, in the universe of your book, is going to make people change?
If you are writing memoir, you will need to dig deep into your own story to figure out why you took one path instead of another, or made certain key decisions, or stayed doing the same thing long past the time when it made any sense for you to do it. You need to peel back the veneer to show us your motivation for change – even if that motivation isn’t something you are exactly proud of.
2. Build your case. In fiction, every scene or action in the story is tied to the scene or action that comes before and after it. Lisa calls this a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing leads inevitably to another thing. A story is not, in other words, a random series of things that happen. The same is going to be true in your non-fiction book. You don’t want a random series of case studies or a random series of lessons or a random series of vignettes. You want everything to build and deepen as the argument unfolds.
In memoir, this means leaving things out – a lot of things – so that you can focus on one main idea or spine. I often draw the trunk of a tree on a whiteboard to illustrate this idea. Yes, there are branches, and some of them are big, but there must be one main spine holding the story together.
I recently finished a memoir called The Narrow Door, recommended by an Author Accelerator member in our Facebook group (thanks, Mary!) It was a gorgeous exploration of a literary friendship seen through the lens of grief. It was a very fractured narrative, pinging back and forth in time. And there were vast swathes of the author’s life that he did not include – I don’t know that we ever learned where he grew up or how many siblings he had or whether he played baseball in high school or sang in the choir. But he gave us what we wanted – one main spine, one main story to track. In other words, he built his case all the way through his tale.