When I wrote my huge guide to book writing (Book Craft) I cut out all the nonfiction tips and strategies last minute; I’d already explored a bunch of material in my writing courses but wasn’t quite ready to share the nonfiction resources.
Mainly, because, while I’m proud of the detailed 24 chapter novel outlining templates, I didn’t have anything similar for nonfiction. Sure, I had a ton of super crucial, very specific tips for making sure your nonfiction book matters, attracts the right readers and keeps them reading… but I wasn’t able to offer a specific plan to help you organize your ideas, after the statement of intentions and powerful prematter sections.
This is because, most nonfiction books don’t have a clear, easy, universal structure. But because I love challenges, and thanks to a few other writers who helped pave the way, I’ve actually come up with a few different methods of outlining your nonfiction book that are think are pretty great (if you agree, please share!).
Anna David made an excellent outline in her book, Make a Mess of Your Memoir, so I’m including it here. An outline like this is a great starting guide, that removes some of the indecision or overwhelm. Try it out to get started, and adapt as necessary once your story grows past the restraints.
- Chapter 1: Intro/Inciting incident/Flashback/Turning point
- Chapter 2: Childhood/Adolescence
- Chapter 3: The path (whatever it is…career/personal story)
- Chapter 4: Escalation
- Chapter 5: More escalation
- Chapter 6: Hurdles or problems
- Chapter 7: Turning point
- Chapter 8: Path toward resolution
- Chapter 9: Resolution
- Chapter 10: Life after resolution
Based on Anna’s sample, I made a more general outline that could work for most self-help or how-to books:
- Chapter 1: Author motivation (why must you tackle this subject?)
- Chapter 2: Roadblocks (why this subject needs exploration)
- Chapter 3: The cost of the problem (experiences of people struggling)
- Chapter 4: Rock-Bottom (how much it has cost you personally)
- Chapter 5: Determination to reach the truth/solve the problem
- Chapter 6: Unexpected detours
- Chapter 7: Real Rock Bottom / Surprising Revelation
- Chapter 8: Unraveling the True Solution
- Chapter 9: Proof of Lasting Effects
- Chapter 10: Final Conclusion / Summary
Notice, the incidents that led to the beginning of the story (seeking change) also lead to a greater depth. The struggle can’t be easy to resolve, or everyone would do it. So the apparent rock-bottom gives way to an actual rock-bottom. Real knowledge has a cost, and you need to show the depths you’ve gone through, the struggle to make it back up again, after descending to that rare and lonely ruin of full awareness. (Because the knowledge you want to share isn’t valuable or unique unless you had to earn it personally.)
Alternatively, these 10 steps could all be summed up in the first chapter, and the rest of the book could focus on the individual steps of the discovered process. For the sake of variety, here’s another I found by writing coach Melinda Crow. I’ve rephrased it for simplicity.
Intro: A big bold visual image to hook the reader, that focuses on the enormous problem your book will solve.
- Chapter 1: Show the reader what your book is about in more detail (theme).
- Chapter 2: Establish your hero and who or what stands in their way (set-up the challenge)
- Chapter 3: Reader motivation and call to action (why this is worth it)
- Chapter 4: Proof and results + overcome objections (this really works!)
- Chapter 5: Prepare and recap before getting into the meat.
If you ended your intro with a dramatic cliffhanger, these first five chapters can be the backstory that led you to the edge of that cliff. It could, for example, be the rock-bottom 1 or rock-bottom 2 of my earlier outline. It would be your most dramatic story, with vivid imagery that represents the core theme, conflict or subject. It would be either the turning point when you begin to know you need to turn your life around and find new answers, or the darkest night of the soul, where everything you’ve tried has already failed, but at your lowest low, you get a brilliant insight.
So here, you could wrap-up that intro story and use it to increase the forward momentum. Then, in Part Two, you’d begin the work of putting your insight or newfound determination into practice, and seeing results.
- Chapter 6: Begin to keep the promise of the premise (valuebomb/infodump of useful or practical information). This is what they bought the book for.
- Chapter 7: A breather from the intensity of Chapter 6. A side story or something light.
- Chapter 8: Next-level stuff that may be hard to swallow. You’ve solved their main burning desire, but you know they need to consider more advanced stuff (overdeliver with value).
- Chapter 9: The hero is vulnerable, with human struggles. Get personal, and show them hidden concerns or the extra amount of work or information they’re still going to need (open the can of worms).
- Chapter 10: Scare them a little more, and show them how dangerous or how hard or how much money these extra steps would normally cost.
- Chapter 11: Dig them back out of the hole you buried them in, with a tiny little light at the end of the tunnel, that lets them glimpse the hero’s change after following your advice.
- Chapter 12: How it all fits together, despite the danger or the cost or the struggle (taking action on these things is ultimately cheaper or easier than the price for not acting.)
- Chapter 13: Encourage them to go forth in the world with the newfound knowledge you gave them (motivate them to take action).
I particularly like this one, for coaches, course-creators or service professionals. Basically, lure them in and help them solve one big problem, but then, once you’ve proven value and gotten them to like and trust you, introduce how much further they have to go, new problems they aren’t aware of yet, and how challenging, painful or costly those challenges will be… unless they get help (from you, of course!).
If this is a memoir or historical narrative, you’d do better to focus on a more classic “hero’s journey” structure. I recommend my 9-point Plot Dot version, which is this:
- 1: Ordinary World (start with lack)
- 2: Inciting Incident (call to adventure)
- 3: 1st Plot Point (point of no return)
- 4: 1st Pinch Point (first battle)
- 5: Midpoint (shift from victim to warrior)
- 6: 2nd Pinch Point (second battle)
- 7: 2nd Plot Point (dark night of the soul)
- 8: Final Battle (triumph-knowledge)
- 9: Return to Ordinary (completion of journey)
You can find a basic overview of these points here, or go much, much deeper in my more exhaustive treatise on writing, Book Craft (for fiction). But if you’re writing narrative nonfiction and really want to get better at dramatic storytelling, check out my writing courses.
If you get stuck, you can also focus on generating questions:
- What’s the main point of your book (what do you want readers to feel, understand, or be able to do?)
- What are the major steps, insights or important events that make up the framework to support that feeling, understanding, awareness or ability?
- For each of those individual things, what are the big questions, challenges or obstacles they will need to have addressed or help to overcome?
Make a mindmap and brainstorm it out until you get to the smaller and smaller branches. Figure out how the “tree” fits together, where the trunk will be your singular main point, premise, thesis or transformative journey. Then imagine then need to climb the tree: which branch do they reach for first?
I wanted to share the outlines because I haven’t seen any good examples online: most “how to outline your nonfiction book” articles have a bulletpoint of steps and absolutely no applicable outlining strategies, and I love solving complex problems. I saved them as JPGS down below, in case you want to share them on social media or Pinterest. If so, please link back or tag me @creativindie
These aren’t meant as universal, as there is no widely accepted structure for nonfiction book series, but these will definitely get you started in the right direction, and you can tweak as needed for your book.
Serious about your writing?
I’ll be making a detailed video course on writing nonfiction books, walking through each of these outlines and the 12-step process I map out in my book. It’ll be $197 when it’s done, but right now you can sneak in much cheaper, as I’ve temporarily included it into my bundle of writing courses for just $37.
PS. This is just a short section from my guide to writing nonfiction, which I’ll put up for sale on Amazon soon. Get the book to learn how to write powerful nonfiction books that make a difference.