Tuesday, September 09, 2008

How a book on plotting thrillers helps with scholarly nonfiction

Okay, here's a revelation (or at least it was for me and two other academic author friends who tried this). A good book on how to structure a plot can work wonders with the organization of your scholarly work. Why? Because any narrative -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- benefits from the application of some basic storytelling principles. Just because you're writing about something that really happened, and just because you've heavily end-noted it, doesn't give you a license to bore us silly, or for that matter to confuse us. A crucial element of what we know as readability has to do with your book's basic structure.

Chronology -- the "structure" that most academic authors initially use when outlining their books -- is almost never the best choice for a literary plan. How many dull biographies have begun with "So and so was born on a wind-swept day," yacketa, yacketa. And how many first chapters of books have begun with prehistoric humans and their cave paintings as the "background" to a subject that begins millennia later? (I have an odd habit of looking in the first chapters of various nonfiction books to see how many start in prehistoric times... quite a few!) Many of these same books save the information on the exciting, relevant cultural meaning of the person or phenomenon until the last chapter or even an epilogue, in the naieve belief that readers will actually make it that far. In those cases, if I'm editing the book or if the author asks my opinion, I usually pluck that material wriggling from its shell and plop it down as Chapter One. Much of the time, this simple re-structuring works.

But now I'll have even better ideas. The book that helped me and my two author-buddies so much is Plot and Structure by lawyer-turned-author James Scott Bell ("The suspense never rests"), better known for fast-paced thrillers with titles like Deadlock than anything having to do with university presses. So why am I gaga over his book in this context? Because more than any other that I've read on plot (and Lordy, have I struggled with a few), this one provides strategies you can actually use to make more sense of any story you're trying to tell. It solved a problem that I was having with a narrative about an 18th-century author, and it did so in such a simple and straightforward manner that I could not believe the challenge had vexed me for two years! Give the book a whirl, and post comments about it here.

No comments: