Have you ever been in someone’s kitchen for the first time and known exactly where to find the silverware drawer without being told? That’s because there is a predictable structure to a kitchen. In fact, if you search online, you’ll find about a half dozen standard kitchen layouts—the galley, the L, the U. Over a lifetime of cooking, you’ve learned to move in those standard layouts and can guess where the silverware is because it’s probably in a common, convenient location.
Books are similar to kitchens. Whatever genre you write in, you will find standard structures that readers are familiar with and expect. If you use those familiar structures, you simplify the reading process—readers already have the context needed to know how to access your information easily. In a nutshell, you’re organizing your kitchen so a first-time visitor can find the utensils.
Let’s look at four common nonfiction book structures, when to use them, and some client examples.
Book Structure #1: Chronology
Many narratives work best when presented chronologically. Most stories are told beginning, middle, end. Consider this approach if you are writing a memoir or history. Of course you can add flashbacks for context, or bookend the timeline with some thematic commentary, but start by mapping out the story’s timeline.
Examples: John McNeil’s memoir, Breathe Freedom, starts with relevant youth experience then moves through the events of defending himself in a stand-your-ground state and his subsequent arrest, imprisonment, and release.
Jonathan Alcott’s memoir, Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World, moves from childhood to adulthood following his educational, career, and personal challenges and successes. The book begins and ends with the same event, a speech, as a way to tie the entire narrative together.
Book Structure #2: Process
How-to books are often structured in a step-by-step process, with each chapter being one step. This might be a good approach for you if you frequently teach your topic; when you do so, you probably move through the subject matter in a logical, sequential order. The learner/doer must complete one task before it’s possible to move to the next.
Examples: The second half of Becky Sansbury’s After the Shock is organized in a sequential manner. To enhance your resilience when in crisis:
- First look at your experience,
- Then test your assumptions, and
- Then assess your resources.
One part of Stephanie Scotti’s Talk on Water is organized by process. When working on a presentation:
- Clarify your core message,
- Organize your content,
- Develop your audiovisuals, and
- Express yourself and engage your audience.
In both books, each step of the process gets detailed in its own chapter.
Book Structure #3: Principles
When the ideas you’re presenting are related but not sequential, they can be organized by concept, theme, or principle. Consider this approach when your book entails life lessons, business guidance, or how-to’s that don’t have ordered steps (e.g., “how to live a happy life”).
Examples: Alan Hoffler’s Presentation Sin is organized by three core concepts that contribute to better communication:
- Content, and
The three Cs work together and are, in fact, presented as interlinked circles, but are not sequential. Each C is a section of the book.
The first part of Philippos Aristotelous’s MARVEL of Engagement is organized by principle. To increase employee engagement, focus on:
- M – Meaning
- A – Autonomy
- R – Relatedness
- V – Values
- E – Experience
- L – Learning
Each of the MARVEL principles is its own chapter; the second half of the book offers tools for applying the principles.
Book Structure #4: Argument
Many nonfiction books state a thesis or take a position, and then offer support for that position. Consider this approach if you are persuading someone of your viewpoint or are suggesting a new solution to a problem and want to build the case that your solution works.
Examples: A. Charles’s book Owning Ourselves takes the reader through a series of propositions about why we are unfulfilled or dissatisfied with life and culminates in his recommendations for becoming more awake to the world.
In the first half of The Peephole Effect, author Maryann (Patalano) Locaparra builds the case for the power of perception; in the second half, she offers actions readers can take to use that power effectively.
Which nonfiction book structures work for you?
As you begin writing—and especially if you feel overwhelmed with the amount of information you have to share—start by looking at these four basic nonfiction book structures. Often, one overarching framework will serve you well. But you’ll notice in many of the examples I gave above, the book was divided in parts, each with its own structure. The nature of your book’s content should lead you to a logical design, so don’t be afraid to use more than one framework when needed.
However, if most of your content seems to fit into one book structure and you have a few leftover items, consider whether those things are truly needed. Sometimes a book is stronger when you know what to leave out; your structure can be a good filter.
If one of these four frameworks isn’t a good fit, look for other familiar models. Unless you have a good reason, don’t try to create something new and unexpected—you will just confuse the reader. It’s like opening the drawer for silverware and finding aluminum foil. The aluminum foil is still needed and the silverware is not lost, but the confusion makes it harder to get the cooking done.
You know a good party always ends up in the kitchen. When your kitchen has a familiar organization, your guests can help make the meal prep easy, leaving more time for good conversation and fun. When your book has a familiar organization, your readers can take in the information more easily—and then start using it.
Book structure is one of the things I specialize in, so if you’re struggling with it, let’s talk: 919-609-2817 or firstname.lastname@example.org.