The Logic of Narrative

In nonfiction, the guiding principle of following chronology can take you a long way. But what happens when your book does not follow a time line? Where are all those reams of research and data dumped? The easy answer is: by topic. But what constitutes a topic, exactly?

The first consideration is what type of book you’re writing. Let’s take the subject of retirement planning. If you are writing a just-the-facts book about different aspects of retirement, the topics fall under certain umbrellas. You would expect a chapter on IRAs would group the various types of those instruments: 401K, Roth, etc. If, on the other hand, you are advocating a way to retire, your plan must appear early in the book. That way you can gear any discussion of IRAs through the prism of the great approach you have.

The next broad imperative is presenting the topics in an order that is ranked according to importance to your reader. Depreciation, for instance, affects only a limited number of retirees and its effect overall is limited. So that belongs in a later chapter. The family home, by contrast, is most people’s largest investment, and its sale to gain retirement income deserves a more prominent place. If you are promoting a retirement strategy, those topics most affected by your plan should come first. That’s where it truly makes a difference. If you are advocating reverse mortgages, say, that house is paramount to the book.

A further concern for an advocacy book is how abstract the topic is. Say, you organize topics around the quick pace of technological change today. That does have an impact on seniors, with their limited incomes, but it’s also so broad that it can become a grab bag. A quick-strike fortune of an experienced worker in automobile interiors could happen in today’s world, but that same tide also has produced the Fitbit, a watch for exercising. These are two completely different subjects: entrepreneurship and exercise. You’re better off creating two chapters featuring those topics, with the pace of change inserted into both.

On a lower level, you should keep on eye out for topics that pop up in different chapters. For example, if you have a 92-year-old marathoner in one chapter, and a 102-year-old diving champ in another, they may be illustrating different points, but really, aren’t we talking about exercise? 

Exercise: To a large extent, you can determine order by a simple rule of thumb. How much material do you have on each topic? If you have tons of quotations on the virtues of continuing to work, to age 70 and beyond, it’s probably an early chapter. If you have less material on prudent vacation planning, that will become a shorter chapter, and you’re better off sticking the shorter ones toward the back.

“Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order.” 
—Tom Stoppard

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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