Laying Out the Plan

Many nonfiction books contain prescriptions for the reader to follow. They appear in self-help books, of course, but also in such categories as health and parenting. The narrative strategy by and large works on three different levels: overarching points, examples of those points, and practical steps toward a solution. Of these the area that most authors struggle with is the last.

Overarching points aren’t that hard to master. If you are writing a book on the effect violent video games have on youths, say, you can make a number of observations on different aspects of psychology, the physically maturing brain, attitude toward women, etc. These points can be backed up by examples of young men who show these traits. Presumably you have firsthand knowledge of cases or you can research them.

Laying out how to resolve a problem is more difficult. Part of the reason is that participating in the activity is enjoyable. It wouldn’t be a problem otherwise. Just ask any leader of a 12-step program how hard it is to keep group members sober. Also, it is easier to point to data amassed on a problem. The phenomenon has a history that can be followed, and studies have been conducted that show its effects.

The practical steps toward being a better person are usually devised by the author. That’s why she’s writing the book, in most cases. She serves in some therapeutic role as part of her work, and she has strategies that have worked with her patients. The book is supposed to extend her reach to a wider audience.

That’s the crux of the narrative difficulty. How do you scale up a solution that is specific to a target population so that all and sundry can profit from it? To use the earlier example here, a 13-year-old boy who plays a cheap video game alone is quite different from a 19-year-old in college playing Call of Duty against internet opponents. You can’t tell the college kid much of anything without his sticking his finger in your face.

Getting down to cases, however, is also the way out of difficulty. If you break down the possible solutions into different facets that address target populations, the advice becomes practical. A dad can help his son with online pornography addiction—and here’s a solution for ages, say, 13-15 and 16-18. The first group is exploring; the second group should get out and talk to girls. Once you set specific parameters, the solutions can be tailored accordingly.

Exercise: You can also choose a variety of mentors. A parent dealing with her own child must refrain from ordering the kid around, but a coach has a different relationship. The child chooses to listen to the coach. Again, you’re on the ground, so the advice can be acted upon by the reader.

“The best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”
—Harry S Truman

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.