Have you ever read a nonfiction book that you just couldn’t stop reading because you wanted to know what happened next? If you have, that’s the trait of a really great narrative nonfiction book. Oh, and to clarify, narrative nonfiction is a book that tells a real story and it’s structured much like a novel. Have you read In Cold Blood, the book about Truman Capote? Or what about Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, the story of the Black women who worked as brilliant mathematicians in the first Apollo programs? Or how about Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, a story of what happened to a man who was shot down over the Pacific ocean during WWII, managed to drift to land, but was promptly captured? Or what about The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger about a fishing boat that disappeared during a terrible storm in 1991 (a book that was later made into a successful movie starring George Clooney)? These are all real stories about real people describing real events. That’s why great narrative nonfiction can be so powerful–the stories are true.
However, there’s an art to writing great narrative nonfiction. You can’t just start writing at the beginning, follow the story through time, and end the story. You have to do lots of research to collect little nuggets about all of the people involved in the story, what life was like in that time or place, and dig up other articles about your topic to draw from. If you love research and interviewing people to hear their stories, you’ll love writing narrative nonfiction.
I published my first narrative nonfiction book in 2014 and it took me YEARS to finish it. It’s a super niche subject, the history of an amazing cave in north Alabama and the story of how explorers found 15 miles of cave passage and connected three caves together into one. Although not as flashy as mountain climbing, caving is one of the last sports where people can still find places deep under the earth that no humans have ever seen. I started working on the book at least 10 years before I published it. This was a book purely for pleasure; I had no expectations of sales outside of the tight-knit caving community. I started out by digging up old newsletter articles people wrote in the 1960s and 70s about early exploration trips. Luckily, in those days before the internet and email, the only way to share stories in a written format was to publish them in print. I found hundreds of articles and made notes about quotes that were especially compelling and stories that were either crazy or hilarious. Many of those stories and quotes made it into my book.
My next step was to interview people who participated in the exploration of the cave in the 50s and 60s. I got a good recorder and met up with some of them or just called them on the phone. I spent hours talking about the caves and hearing lots of great stories about everything that happened during those years. I was sure to ask questions about what life was like during that time. What was the town where the cave is located like? What kinds of clothes and safety gear did you wear? What kinds of equipment did you use? How did you communicate with others around the country about setting up exploration trips? Doing interviews takes some preparation, so if you’re working on a narrative nonfiction story and there are people still alive you can interview, do some preparation. Think about some details that would make your story more real for your readers. What kinds of cars did they drive? What kinds of restaurants did they visit? How did they plan trips across the country? There are so many rich details you can weave throughout your narrative that will capture the imagination of your readers.
Of course, you also need to record your own experiences. If you’re writing about a place, it’s good to be familiar with what it’s like now. In my case, the cave I was writing about was one of my favorites and I could weave in my own observations and stories into the narrative.
And finally, you have to weave everything together. Your research, your interviews, your favorite quotes and stories, and your own knowledge and experiences need to be pieced together in a way that feels like a complete story. How do you do that?
You start by outlining. You might think that outlining a nonfiction book sounds stupid–you just write everything that happened in order. That’s not how the best narrative nonfictions are structured. They do follow a general timeline of events, but you need to weave in some of your additional information. You want to include personal information about each major character in the story to help your readers better understand them. Where should you put that information? You might want to flash back in time occasionally to tell a story from years before to help illustrate a point or event. You might want to include a story from the present day to help show how different a person or a place is now. But don’t worry, your outline doesn’t have to stay absolutely fixed. As you work on your narrative, you can move and rearrange things to flow better or to create a sense of drama. For example, in my book, I often would end a chapter with a small cliffhanger–explorers were peering into a new part of the cave and wondering if it connected to the section they hoped–then start the next chapter with something else to make the readers feel like they were reading a novel. For my book, that technique worked. I heard from several readers that they stayed up late into the night reading, wanting to know what happened next. That was the highest praise I ever received.
So how should you outline your book? Make a list of chapters based on big events to start with. Then look at your research and other materials. Think about where they might best fit into story, and add them to your outline. You can certainly write all of your sections for your first draft just linear through time and capture the overall story. Then you can go back and sprinkle in your research, stories, and other details.
If you’re working on a narrative nonfiction book, I recommend you read some of the most highly acclaimed books in a genre similar to your own. Read it for enjoyment, but also pay attention to the structure. Make notes on how and when the author switches between characters,, between times, and how they weave in extra information. That will help you see how to do it in your own book.
Good luck on your book!