I write nonfiction (for work). But I find that many of the things you focus on–particularly the importance of the first scene, and timing–are helpful for both my written work and my presentations. I’m not sure that’s a question, exactly, but it would be interesting to talk about how many fiction rules also apply to non-fiction.
I’d like to expand that question to how much can be applied to presentations too, unless that’s getting too far beyond writing?
Nonfiction and fiction are different, of course, but there are some parallels.
The big thing in both is that you’re trying to hold an audience to get one main idea across. And in both, you’re dealing with a retention problem, so first you have to grab your audience, and then you have repeat your main point/focus/intent/theme so that they’ll retain it while you’re being tremendously entertaining so they’ll listen, and then you have to hit that main point hard at the end so they’ll remember it.
The most obvious way to figure out the main point is answering the “What is this this essay/report/presentation/story about?” question. If you can’t get your central idea/question/intent into one sentence, you don’t know what the piece you’re writing is about, and it’s going to go all over the place.
And you need to know because you can only have one main point. Here’s a depressing fact: even the most attentive reader/listener retains about ten percent of what he or she reads or hears (assuming she only reads the book/essay or sees the presentation once). It’s just the way our brains work. So to make sure you get your main point/theme/thesis/intent across, you follow the old preacher’s formula:
• Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.
• Tell ‘em.
• Tell ‘em what you told them.
You obviously do not repeat anything, you say it differently every time, but you stick to that one main point and everything in your story/essay/presentation sticks to that point. Because at the end of the story/essay/presentation, that’s the thing you want the reader/listener to walk away with. It’s more subtle in fiction; I assume most readers don’t know that the theme of Faking Itis that honesty is the only way to connect, not only to other people but to oneself, but readers might very well say, “I loved it that at the end they had great sex because they told each other the truth, and in the big climax they were there for each other because they trusted each other.” Fiction is squishy about theme; it has to be there but it shouldn’t be obvious on the page. But in non-fiction, it should be obvious: This is what this book is about.
So you start (tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em) with a hook that is about the main point.
The Devil in Nita Doddis about a woman who’s been an outsider all her life, so it opens with her sitting in a cold car with a stranger, trying to sober up so she can understand what’s going on, totally disconnected from herself (she thinks, Don’t be odd, Dodd, when she is in fact odd at a cellular level). In a book about outsiders coming in from the cold, the outside protagonist has to start in the cold to have somewhere to come in from.
Non-fiction is the same, just blunter. Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score,starts off with “Trauma happens to us, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child, one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body, and one in three couples engage in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit. . . . traumatic experiences do leave traces . . . on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.” His thesis: Trauma is all around us, it’s common,and it changes us at the cellular level in our bodies and our brains. He doesn’t hide that idea, he hits us with it in the first paragraph.
The rest of the story/presentation/essay continues to tell us that right up to the end. It tells us in the different ways it shows or argues that thesis is true, in the different aspects of the problem/thesis/plot, in escalating scenes and acts and character arcs; it expands on that core idea, adding other ideas, new characters, subplots, examples, anecdotes, arguments; but it always, always connects in some way to that main theme. It’s the writing equivalent of the old Hays Movie Code that said if two people were in the same bed, they each had to have one foot on the floor. You can have a lot of ideas in your story/essay/presentation, but you have to keep one foot on your main idea at all time because the middle is you telling ‘em, it’s the reason you’re writing what you’re writing.
Then you get to the end and you nail that thesis to the wall by telling ‘em what you told ‘em. Your odd protagonist has found her community and is surrounded by friends who are equally odd, and she’s connected and happy and warm at last. Van der Kolk’s final sentences are “Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue, and we have the knowledge to respond to it effectively. The choice is ours to act on what we know.” That’s what he wants you to walk away with, the knowledge of how common trauma is, the huge impact that it has on us, and the call to deal with it because we can. The end is the last place to nail your thesis, and it’s the best place because it’s the part people remember most.
Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em.
The only other parallel between fiction and non-fiction that I can think of offhand is that teaching by analogy with narrative is the most effective way to write non-fiction or make presentations. Obviously, fiction is all narrative, but when it comes to the non-fiction task of getting ideas across, stories do it better than abstract statements. That’s why van der Kolk’s book is full of stories about trauma and how the affected people recovered. I won’t remember the technical terms about brain scans and brain parts when I’m finished with this book, but I’ll remember Ute and her blank brain scan forever.
The big thing, though, is that at the end, you revise for that controlling idea, no matter what you’re writing. Keep one writing foot on the thesis, and you’ll be fine.