The Meaning of Sweep

A nonfiction book that features a series of stories tied together by a central theme has a similar structure to a collection of essays. A typical format features a story per chapter, and the chapter length is determined by how many interesting facets the subject has. Since the subjects can be disparate, an author has a harder time answering a major question a publisher has: what is the book’s narrative arc?

A writer can try to include thematic statements throughout the chapters. Let’s say the overall topic of the book is: entrepreneurs who never finished school. The book contains such fascinating examples as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson. The chapters follow the same basic format: a chronology of their chafing in school, their early struggles, and on to the glorious success that gains them inclusion in the book. All along the way, the ties that bind are sprinkled in. If the author is clever, the personages can be arranged from lower to most famous, thus describing a rising arc.

One of the problems with this approach is repetition. The author is so conscious of the book’s overriding theme that it is pounded into the reader’s head in all the various forms that the author can invent to hide the fact it’s the same thing. In the previous example, that might be: rebellion against conformity is a hallmark of genius. It’s a nice thought on page 2; it’s a migraine headache by page 222.

Another is the wear and tear of having to learn the setup each new time. Everybody’s life takes different turns, and so the particulars need to be included in order for the reader to understand the obstacles that are overcome. The problem here is discontinuity. In effect, we are introduced to a new stranger in each chapter, and after a while, meeting so many new people can become numbing. Imagine reader with chin propped up by hand, thinking: His father was a deadbeat dad too, huh?

One factor that also has a tendency to creep up on the reader after a while is negativity. Usually in such books there is an overarching villain. In the above example, it is the education system. Negative comments about any subject cast a pall over the whole, and they become tiresome in the long run. Yes, school failed that one guy, but how about all of the Harvard Ph.D.’s who run the world?

Exercise: The only remedy is reducing the silo nature of the chapters. If you can pick stories that are similar, these can be grouped in a part (Part 1, Part 2, etc.). That gives you the ability to pick themes that are more limited. More important, it allows you to turn to new themes later on, making the book’s turns more fresh to the reader overall. You have the introduction and epilogue to tie everything together, anyway.

“We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
—Joan Didion

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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