The term “plot” is usually associated with fiction, but a successful non-fiction book also has a plot. In fiction, the plot is the storyline from the beginning to the end, driving the character toward a goal. In non-fiction, the plot is the organization of information and how it builds to make an argument, to prove a point, and to come to convincing conclusions.
Non-fiction books have plots. At least, they should have plots. One of the biggest flaws I see in non-fiction books by self-published and new authors is a failure to create a plot in their non-fiction books. What do I mean by a “plot”? I mean a clear purpose, a point. Authors should not just assume that because their book is about a non-fiction topic, be it biology, a city guide, history, or religion or any other non-fiction theme, that readers will understand what their point is. A non-fiction book’s plot is like a road map. It is there to guide readers from one point to the next making it clear where the book is going, and arriving at the logical and informative conclusion.
Non-fiction books are informational, but they are also argumentative. Every non-fiction book has an argument to make, even if it’s as simple as a guidebook of Austin, Texas. The guidebook should be designed to demonstrate what a wonderful place Austin is—the argument is to convince the reader to spend time in Austin, that it is worth spending time there. The directions, the road map, are the points along that argument to build on and get to the next point and ultimately the conclusion so the reader walks away feeling that visiting Austin, Texas was a marvelous and worthwhile experience.
How do you make the main points of your non-fiction book stand out? Think about how you get from one place to another on a road trip—you follow directions. You take Interstate 81 to County Road 578 and then turn at the corner of Main and Washington Streets and go three miles to the stoplight and turn left into the driveway. You do the same thing in writing a non-fiction book. You plot out the organization by figuring out the argument, its points, and how you get from point A to B and then to C.
When writing a non-fiction book, first ask yourself, “What is the argument?” and “What do I want readers to know about this topic and be convinced about when they finish reading it?” Whether you write an introduction and conclusion or just have Chapter One and a final Chapter Ten, you need to make it clear at the start, “Here is where we are, and here is where we’re going,” and then at the end of the book, make it clear, “Here is where we’ve been and here is where we arrived. This is how and why we came here and what it means to us now and in the future.”
For example, in writing about human evolution, the introduction would probably make reference to what was believed in the past about how life developed and reference Darwin’s theories and explain what is generally accepted today about evolution. Then explain what you hope to prove. At the end, sum up your argument by reviewing the points you made to prove your new theory of evolution and why it is in your opinion the right theory.
Now that you’ve established the end points (the introduction and conclusion), plot out the individual rest stops, the individual chapters. That’s where the plot thickens. A good non-fiction book is like a mystery novel, keeping the reader on the edge of his seat, craving more information, wanting to put all the pieces together. This requires a logical organization of the book’s chapters so they act as signposts to the reader along his journey.
In determining chapter order, we need to be logical. For example, if your road map wanted to show how to go from San Francisco to Seattle, it wouldn’t make sense to discuss places in Oregon after you discuss places in Washington since you have to pass through Oregon to reach Washington State. Similarly, if you want to explain how DNA can be used to trace someone’s ancestry, first you need a chapter explaining what DNA is, and then how scientists study it before we can apply it to understanding human ancestry.
On an individual level, each chapter of a book can be viewed as a different overnight stop on your journey. At the beginning of the chapter, you need to point out where the reader will travel that day, and at the chapter’s end, review where he has been and give a hint of where the next chapter will go. Each chapter should be the natural progression of the previous chapter.
Yes, this whole process is basically about organizing your non-fiction book, but don’t forget the plot, the element of surprise, the mystery. If you have something important to say, make it clear as you progress through the book why what you have to say not only is important but amazing, insightful, new, and profound, and in each chapter, leave the reader wanting more and compelled to read on.
Think about the programs that grip people’s interest on TV—those amazing discovery stories, the shows that piece together evidence to unearth the lost Ark of the Covenant, solve the mystery of Bigfoot, or find the lost continent of Atlantis. Those programs when done well are intriguing; they keep us glued to the television screen. A book can absolutely do the same by making each element of your research like a clue to the unraveling of the mystery, the conclusions you wish to make.
Whatever your non-fiction topic, make it intriguing to the reader. You can organize it so each chapter naturally progresses to the next, just as one clue leads to another until the mystery is solved, the secret revealed, the new information that can change the world shared. It may require rearranging chapters; it may be just adding a sentence or two at the beginning, middle, or end of chapters to keep readers reeled in with promises of the next amazing piece of information.
People read fiction to be entertained. People read non-fiction for information, but if you make the information entertaining, readers are more likely to enjoy the book, finish the book, remember the information, apply it, and come back for more. A good plot makes a good book. A good plot in a non-fiction book can make it more compelling than fiction.
Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.