Questionable: How Can the Concepts of Fiction Apply to Non-Fiction?

Debbie wrote:
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.

Kelly commented:
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.

28 thoughts on “Questionable: How Can the Concepts of Fiction Apply to Non-Fiction?

  1. This is really clear: thanks, Jenny. I think/hope I did this with the book I wrote about being a renting gardener. I had fun writing it in bits as they came to me, but then put my editor’s hat on to work out how to organize the whole thing; and then made it differently again when I realized I was going to self-publish it as an ebook.

    I’ve got a few non-fiction ideas, probably for short ebooks, and this will be really helpful in clarifying which of them have juice.

  2. Yes, absolutely.

    I was at a sci-fi fantasy convention this past weekend, and the difference between effective panels (the majority) and ineffective ones was whether or not the panelists had a clear point to make.

    Unfortunately, the message didn’t come down to yours; instead, the take away was that writers need to do their research. True. Yet if the ineffective panelists had done their homework, they would have discovered that they then needed to take the next step of condensing their advice into one clear sentence.

    I’m beginning to wonder if one of my past posts was dead wrong: I contrasted the novels that follow the Elmore Leonard’s advice (take out the stuff the reader skims) to novels with lots of description (Connie Willis, for example). Perhaps every sentence in every (great) highly desciptive novel has to be necessary, as well.

    Is that true?

    1. I think so; I think description has to be telling, not just vivid and interesting.
      BUT there a zillion readers in the world and lots of them just like description. So for some readers, possibly many, vivid description, at least in the beginning, might be great. I do think as you get into the story, stopping for description can be annoying. And I personally would rather have three words that are vivid and telling than thirty that are vivid and detailed. I think that a helluva lotta reading happens at the subconscious level as readers try to make everything fit, and things that are just there for fun–extraneous banter that doesn’t move the story, for example–become annoying because they don’t fit the pattern the reader has been subconsciously building. It’s the reason something new can crop up and you think, “Oh, wasn’t expecting that, that’s exciting” and “WTF? Where did that come from?” They’re both new things in the story, but one of them has potential to fit into that subconscious pattern and the other is just out of nowhere.

      Yes, I think description has to be telling.

    2. Depends on the function of the writing, right? Some writing is about a slow walk through an aesthetic, and enjoying all of the scenery along the way. Some writing is about getting from point A to point B. “Is it necessary” is dependent on a definition of what it achieves in the audience vs. what the author wants the writing to achieve in the audience.

      Sometimes Herman Melville just really wants to info-dump about whaling.

      1. I’m not sure it depends on the function. The function of fiction is to entertain. But yes, its success definitely depends on audience; that is, what the reader likes.

        I think the author determines what’s necessary, and the reader determines if the story fits her needs. Since an author has no idea of who will be reading her story, the best she can do is have a general idea of who she thinks her audience is; but since anybody can pick up her book, she has no control over that, nor should she. She can’t write for a general audience that fits everyone’s needs; that’s impossible. One of the perks of building a career over time: you build an audience who wants to read the certain kind of book you write; you find each other.

        But in general, most readers are most comfortable with a book that has a sense of shape and form; the idea that there’s an authority in the text that’s in control, making it a logical and safe (for the reader, not for the protagonist) space to explore. If there are long stretches that aren’t about the story, say long passages of description, most readers start to skim looking for story. That’s the number one reason readers skim: they want to get back to the story with the juice. So they skim sex scenes in which nothing happens except sex, they skim conversations between characters they’re not interested in, they skim action scenes that are just people smacking each other, all to get back to the part of the story where they found juice.

        One other thing about long descriptive passages: Readers like to participate. The more description you put in, the more passive their experience is; the less description, the more they can build their idea of what people and places look like. I’m always surprised when readers cast actors for my books; they’re never the people I’d choose, but that’s okay. There’s enough white space in my stuff that they can cast their idea of a hero, build their idea of a mansion that fits their movie of the book best.

        It’s like designing monsters: The less you say, the scarier the monster is. My fave is from Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, where the Thing makes a sound like screaming rabbits and is made of lip. That’s it, that’s the whole description. It’s enough.

        1. If there are long stretches that aren’t about the story, say long passages of description, most readers start to skim looking for story.

          I don’t know, this seems like a subset of readers to me. Sure, I skipped the damned inserted songs in Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Wind in the Willows, Roald Dahl, Redwall, etc., but apparently, that’s a thing in British Fantasy Lit, and a sufficient number of readers enjoyed them that it became a convention-ish in the genre.

          The Princess Bride (the novel) lampoons the ways a whole lot of literature in history (much of which has been critically lauded) includes a whole lot of digressions away from the story. Now, it also highlights that a lot of readers want just the Good Parts version, but there are nonetheless also readers that take all of the text on, digressions and all.

          Juvenile Fiction is the most ruthlessly lean fiction. The page counts start ballooning as you move to higher age sections. (Vividly demonstrating this: the Harry Potter series.) That shows that enough older readers want what would be bloat in JF to support that market.

  3. I’m a consultant who does statistical/financial analysis in the realm of low credibility. I’m good at the theoretical stuff, but what makes me very successful is that I turn each presentation into what I call a story. Turns out most CEOs of large companies hate numbers and have very short attention spans. Who would have thunk? I’d echo that you need to turn technical presentations into things that are more immediately accessible. Sometimes the best format is problem then solution. Sometimes it is problem, narrative of problem to get buy-in and then solution. It is almost never giving solution and then repeating it because if you start with solution you will likely fail to get buy-in with solution, but every step before solution has to support the solution you will give so that your solution feels like the natural conclusion. As the Dempseys say, get them to agree with you once (on something simple and obvious they already know), and then they are more likely to accept what follows. In this realm, graphs are immensely useful but only if you tell people in a snappy way what the graph says and why they should care.

    For my sins I spend a lot of time training people to convert technical analysis into stories. We get a lot of amazingly good tech people who can do an analysis but have a very hard time converting it to a story. I place my success with my liberal arts education (double major in statistics and art history at a Univ of Chicago)

    If you can’t summarize your presentation into a short story that basically doesn’t use numbers, then you have failed to understand it well enough to convey it to others.

    It really is true that almost everyone hates numbers and that practically everyone interprets them badly by themselves. Narrative is more effective. Oh, and no one cares about how brilliant your analysis is or the esoteric techniques you used. Have some stuff in an appendix in case your meeting includes a mirror image of yourself, but leave it out of the main presentation. I might look at numbers for days on end, but give me a presentation on numbers and I fall asleep as quickly as the next person.

    1. Your problem/solution probably is still the tell-’em pattern:
      You tell ’em you’re gonna tell ’em about the problem.
      You tell ’em the problem.
      You tell ’em the solution to the problem.

      And as you said, the ineffectual presentation is one where the presenter doesn’t understand what the point is. In this case, thinking the point is the solution. The solution is just the conclusion. The point is the problem: Here’s the problem, here’s why it’s the problem/ramification of the problem/aspects of the problem, here’s the solution to the problem.

      The bad presentation that thinks the point is the solution goes:

      Tell ’em the solution before they understand the problem
      Give them a bunch of numbers to support the solution the they don’t listen to because they hate numbers.
      Tell ’em to implement the solution they don’t understand and now don’t like, having missed the support stuff.

      As Davy would say, what you need is these people nodding along, so you give them things they can agree with even as they learn them so at the end they’re likely to agree with your solution. However, I should point out that that’s not always necessary in a presentation, it’s only necessary in a persuasive presentation, in rhetoric. If you’re just imparting info and not trying to persuade anybody, you don’t need people nodding along.

      Although that’s always nice (g).

    1. I love it that people love the Dempsey Con, but it’s really just plain old rhetoric. Pretty much any freshman comp course teaches that as Persuasive Writing. I drummed that into high school seniors and college freshmen for years.

      1. Hmm, maybe instead of telling the students I’m teaching them persuasive writing, I’ll start telling them I’m teaching them to be successful con artists…

        1. The thing is, it works. If you’re careful and you follow the steps, you can convince a lot of people to think your way. You just have to be clever about it.

  4. This is such a great discussion because I am working on a presentation at work, and I just looked at all my finely crafted tables of numbers, and realized . . .

    I would not like to sit through my own presentation.

  5. Thank you for this! Hopefully the next presentation I give will be one around a single point with engaging stories.

    What if you want the audience to walk away with 3 points?

    I also trust that writing a self-evaluation (scourge of the earth/tis the season) is something very different except for knowing your audience and tailor it to them.

    1. If you try to get across three different points, the audience will miss at least two of them and probably not get the attention the third one needs.

      So look at your three points. Are they really about the same thing? Are they support points for the real main thesis? If not, if you really want to communicate, pick a lane.

      For example:

      I have an hour to make a speech to romance writers.
      I spend fifteen minutes on Point of View.
      I spend fifteen minutes on manuscript prep.
      I spend fifteen minutes on publishing.
      I give them the last ten minutes for questions.

      That’s a terrible presentation.

      I have an hour to make a speech to romance writers.
      I spend fifteen minutes on Protagonist/Antagonist/Conflict and the importance of character in story.
      I spend fifteen minutes on Character Arc for the Protagonist/Antagonist as embodied in the Conflict.
      I spend ten minutes on Turning Points as a way to link Character Arc to Plot Arc and reinforce Theme.
      I spend five minutes summing up the importance of Character and Character Arc to Story.
      I give them the last ten minutes for questions.

      The first one has three different points, the second has one point built over three different aspects. Which one am I going to get better, more informed questions on? Which one is going to be most useful to writers? Which one is mostly likely to end with the audience grasping (if not agreeing with) the main point?

  6. One of the best things that I got out of my uni years (long time ago now) was working out that when I needed to give a seminar paper or a speech or presentation the best thing I could do was grab my boyfriend (now husband) and drag him off on a walk and try to explain as succinctly as possible what I was trying to say in the speech without notes. Doing that clarified for me what the main point was, and how to stick to it. Doing it without notes meant I didn’t get sidetracked by the very clever waffle I’d built up. I still do that now if I need to give a speech about anything.

    1. I do that all the time here. I try to explain what I’m doing with Nita, and doing that helps me understand it better. You all are a great sounding board.

  7. I write nonfiction books (about modern witchcraft for Llewellyn and now St. Martin’s Press) along with fiction. No matter what the book is about, unless it is something like a 365 Day book, you need to have flow. You aren’t necessarily trying to make one point, the way you would in a shorter presentation, but you want chapter one to lead into chapter two, and then that one should lead into chapter three. Even if the chapters are about completely different things, I try and segue from one into another, or at least make it a logical progression. You can’t just take a bunch of information and place it randomly in the book. (Well, you can, but I wouldn’t.)

    I don’t know if that helps or not.

    1. One of my favourite “how to write” books is Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. He used to write a column for Writers Digest, and they decided it would make a good book. But he discusses in the book how he couldn’t just take the articles and put them in chronologically as they’d appeared in the magazine. There’d be no flow, no cohesive thread. I can remember even find that bit of information useful as a writer – that everything needs to have an arc! 🙂

    2. It’s still about one thing. Wicca is a practice in harmony with the earth, for example. You may hit a dozen different points, but you’re probably not also discussing Satanism and Buddhism, or gardening in general; everything ties back to the main point.

      Seriously, a book/presentation/essay/story without spine just flops around. In any strong book, there’s a central thesis that binds it all together, even if it’s not readily apparent.

  8. One of the things I have learned in an advocacy career is that you have to start with a shared value that catches the audience attention so that the audience is open to hearing what you will say next. Start with something they agree with and care about and you are off to a good start, and can probably get them to consider a position they would have disagreed with if you started with it. In fiction, you have to start with a character or situation that interests them and I think in some way meets or engages their values or you lose them. If you catch them early you can then take them almost anywhere . Otherwise they stop reading.

    I also think that having a story arc to the presentation makes it much more understandable and memorable. The logical flow makes it easier to recall.

    Also I really agree about narrative. But good nonfiction narrative that builds the arc and isn’t just a chain of stories is hard to do.

    1. Good narrative is hard to do, period. I love the “shared value” approach, that’s such a great way to put the “get them to say yes” bit.

  9. Writing nonfiction is a process, of course.

    The most common revision of a completed draft is rewriting the introduction and thesis to match what the argument turned out to be when that argument was written all the way out.

    I love revising. Digging out of subordinate clauses what turned out to be my main points–that’s when writing begins to be fun for me.

    1. Yes, this. I used to tell students to start with a question and write until they got the answer. That’s really the way I write fiction, too. “Who is this character and what’s her deal?”

      1. My best (art)work comes from asking a question, and working to answer it. And I don’t remember it often enough!

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