A Story’s Worth a Thousand Books

June 1, 2010

During China’s War of the Three Kingdoms (A.D. 207-265), the great general Chuko Liang, leading the forces of the Shu Kingdom, dispatched his vast army to a distant camp while he rested in a small town with a handful of soldier. Suddenly, sentinels hurried in with the alarming news than an enemy force of over 150,000 troops under Sima Yi was approaching. With only a hundred men to defend him, Chuko Liang’s situation was hopeless. The enemy would finally capture this renowned leader.

Without lamenting his fate, or wasting time trying to figure out how he had been caught, Liang ordered his troops to take down their flags, throw open the city gates, and hide. He himself then took a seat on the most visible part of the city’s wall, wearing a Taoist robe. He lit some incense, strummed his lute, and began to chant. Minutes later he could see the vast enemy army approaching, an endless phalanx of soldiers. Pretending not to notice them he continued to sing and play the lute.

Soon the army stood at the town gates. At its head was Sima Yi, who instantly recognized the man on the wall.

Even so, as his soldiers itched to enter the unguarded town through its open gates, Sima Yi hesitated, held them back, and studied Liang on the wall. Then, he ordered an immediate and speedy retreat.

The above story, from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, illustrates the 5th law: “So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It with Your Life,” and is one of about 70 anecdotes used to illustrate all 48 laws. The stories are set in Ancient China, 18th Century France, Renaissance Italy, Modern America, and everywhere in between. Altogether, these tales their interpretations make up about 90% of the content of the book.

Robert Greene tells all these stories for one simple reason: because he knows that a story is worth a thousand books.

A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the best business books I’ve read:

  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Story by Robert McKee

All of these have been wildly successful. Why? Because they tell stories. My technical writing manuals are useful from time to time, but even the ones that are designed to be read cover-to-cover I haven’t finished, because they’re boring. They don’t make you laugh, or cry, or think. They tell you what to do – which is useful enough – but at the end of the day there are a million books out there, and the ones that tell you how without the who are, for the most part, thoroughly unmemorable.

Compare that to The Tipping Point, full of stories about Hush Puppies and AIDS and Paul Revere’s ride, or Good to Great, with its stories about Walgreens’s Internet integration and how Philip Morris became the largest tobacco company in the world. In Robert McKee’s Story, the principle I remember best is “Story happens in the gap between expectation and result,” which also happens to have, at least for me, the two most memorable examples in the book: Chinatown’s “She’s my sister and my daughter” scene and the immortal reveal from The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.

So how do you tell a good story? Well, the answer to that question is tough to summarize in a short essay like this one, especially because most articles about storytelling focus on the same esoteric principles like “theme” and “plot,” which are really hard to explain. But here’s what I’ve found make for the best short stories, which by and large is what you’re telling in a nonfiction book.

Characters

Driving every great story are interesting characters whose fates we care about. In long-form stories they MUST have internal conflict – which is to say, there has to be something mentally or emotionally that’s keeping them from achieving their goals. The shorter the story, the less critical internal conflict is, though it never hurts to have it in there.

In the story above, Chuko Liang’s reputation is paramount – without it, the story doesn’t happen. Just as important is his keen wit and decision making. These characteristics inform every piece of the story, and as readers we’re rooting for him and celebrating his victory.

Details

In the story of Chuko Liang and Sima Yi, consider the details: He wore a Taoist robe, lit some incense, strummed his lute, and chanted . . . these details add depth and intrigue to the story, and make us interested. Though it’s important not to get caught up in excessive description, a red mountain bike means far more to the reader than a bicycle does.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Introduction to The Tipping Point. In explaining how Hush Puppies – “the classic American brushed-suede shoes with the lightweight crepe sole” (details!) reached their tipping point, he shares such particulars as:

  • Sales were down to 30,000 per year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores.
  • People were buying them at “Ma and Pa stores”
  • Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself, and the executives had no idea who Isaac Mizrahi was.
  • “The designer Joel Fitzgerald put a 25-foot inflatable basset hound – the symbol of the Hush Puppies brand – on the roof of his Hollywood store and gutted an adjoining art gallery to turn it into a Hush Puppies boutique.”
  • Sales figures in 1995 were 430,000.
  • The president of the company stood on stage with Calvin Klein and Donna Karan and accepted an award for an achievement that – he would be the first to admit – his company had almost nothing to do with.

Malcolm Gladwell, instead of using the details to illustrate a story, uses details as the story. Consider the following short tale:

The two stood, facing each other, each daring the other to make the first move. A magpie cawed, catching Jacob’s eye for just a tenth of a second. That was all it took. Moments later, his wife rushed over to him, hysterical, her tears pouring into the pool of blood that grew from the gaping hole in his temple.

The story never says that Jacob was shot, but it doesn’t have to. The details do that work for us, and rightly so. Similarly, a 25-foot basset hound on top of a store is a far more interesting and effective way of illustrating the point of growing popularity.

Rising Stakes

Most books about story talk about “plot,” but I find that term doesn’t really mean a whole lot. What really makes a story strong is rising stakes, which happens in one of two ways:

  • Increasing either the importance of accomplishing the goal
  • Increasing the challenges to accomplishing the goal

Everything that happens must be more important or more difficult than what happened before it. If you go back to the original of the story used to open this article, the stakes rise in paragraph one: 150,000 troops rush in (increased challenges) to capture our hero (increased importance), with only a hundred men to defend him (increased challenges). In order to survive, he has to think of something . . . and then he does.

I could write a whole lot more on this, and I’ll save it for a later article, but it’s important to realize that the longer a story is, the more you’ll have to do this. Start by asking yourself the question “Is this more or less interesting than what happened before?” If it’s less, then something needs to change.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why most sequels suck, it’s because it’s really hard to increase the stakes on the second story after the writers blew their wads increasing the stakes in the first.

Mystery vs. Suspense

If two people are sitting at a table, talking for five minutes, and then a bomb goes off, you’ll wonder what happened. But if you show that there’s a bomb under the table, you’ll spend the next five minutes shouting at them to stop talking and get out, because there’s a bomb under the table.

This example, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock, illustrates a great point in storytelling: Suspense happens when you give the audience information that the characters don’t have. Mystery happens when you give the characters information the audience doesn’t have.[1]

The Hush Puppies example from The Tipping Point is suspense – we know what’s going to happen, we just don’t know how, and we get to watch the company executives come along for the ride. In The 48 Laws of Power, it’s mystery – we’re not sure what’s going to happen, and then when it does, we wonder how and why.

If you feel your story lacks the element of surprise, drop a hint up front of what’s going to happen, making people wonder how. If, on the other hand, the ending is completely unpredictable, try to disguise it as long as possible to add to the mystery. Both are legitimate tools, and incorporating one or the other makes every sequence of events that much more interesting.

These are just a few of the elements of story. There are a thousand more. What’s important is that you incorporate the human connection in your nonfiction books, because it’s the only way to have people really care about the result.


[1] In a true mystery story, there are a few more rules than that, but for our purposes, this definition is sufficient.

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4 Essential Components of a Nonfiction Masterpiece

May 11, 2010

I was a couple years out of college when I first read The Tipping Point. I was working as a “Research Specialist” (read: Administrative Assistant) at a healthcare consulting company, and we had a library of business books that the owner referred to on a regular basis. Among them was Gladwell’s classic about the little things that make a big difference, and as someone who was struggling with my own inner demons, trying to tackle leadership, popularity, and how to change the world, it altered my life.

Over the years, a handful of works have had similar impact on me. Most of them you’ve heard of, but all of them spoke to concerns I was dealing with at the time. And most importantly, they each had the four essential components of a nonfiction masterpiece:

A Desperate Topic

Give Me Desperate Buyers Only (DBO), an (expensive) e-book by Alexis Dawes, contains a detailed explanation of the “desperate topic” criteria. Basically, a topic is desperate if it solves the problem stated by: “I want (more) x,” with x being one of three things: money (often in the form of sales, productivity, etc.), happiness (time, satisfaction, relationship, etc.), and changing the world. The specifics will vary tremendously, and that’s why there are a thousand books on how to succeed, make money, lose weight, get a job, have sex, raise your kids, fix your marriage . . . and the list goes on.

The bottom line: You have to address a concern that people care about.

It should be noted that this comes naturally for most nonfiction authors (excluding memoir, which is a different beast altogether). There are ways to increase marketability by honing in on a more desperate topic (this is what DBO goes into detail about), but if you’re interested in writing a nonfiction book, you’ve probably already got this handled on some level.

An Original Premise

This is much harder than it sounds, but ultimately it’s what makes the difference between Built to Last and Built to Be Mediocre. Most people think they’ve got an original premise, but really what they’ve got is an original way of looking at the same premise. While you can certainly make money selling sausage on a stick, at the end of the day it’s just a sausage, and it’s not going to change the world.

What sets the books like The Tipping Point or Good to Great or Caro’s Book of Poker Tells apart from the sausages-on-sticks of the literary world is that the ideas came seemingly out of left field. It was like saying the earth goes around the sun – for most of human history the idea never even occurred to anyone, and then once it did, people’s view of life altered.

The good news is you don’t have to be Copernicus in order to come up with an original premise. The bad news is it will probably take a lot of work. The reason Good to Great is such a monumentally important work is the amount of research Jim Collins and his team put into developing it. They created a detailed methodology (not original in itself) for identifying the companies they’d interview, and then spent thousands of man-hours conducting those interviews and then arguing with each other over the principles to include in the book. Had they not conducted all that research, they never would have discovered the “Level 5 Leader,” or the “Hedgehog Concept” or any of the other principles of the Good to Great company.

How to Do Something

If you’ve ever read a book that spews a bunch of stuff at you without telling you how to do something, you know how unsatisfying it is. It’s like eating an ice cream cone without the solid chunk of chocolate at the bottom. It just isn’t the same.

Good to Great might have ended up as only a very good book, instead of a classic, if not for one critical choice Collins made in writing it: he doesn’t stop at describing the Level 5 Leader, he addresses the immortal concern: “How do I become one?” This is especially critical because the qualities of a Level 5 Leader are mostly inherent; by the time a 30-year-old reads this book, it’s too late to become the quiet, unassuming person characterized by Level 5 Leadership. However, Collins knew that in reading Good to Great, people would be driven to alter their leadership style, so he described not just the what, but the how, as he’d been doing in a much more subtle way through the rest of the book.

Part of why The Tipping Point is so much more revered than Gladwell’s follow-up books is not that the premise is any more original, but that there’s an inherent “how to” built into the pages. You want to alter the world? Here’s how to do it. Find these kinds of people.

Great Stories

The person-to-person connection is fundamental, and a book that has only facts and no human element is one that lacks a soul. In all the books I’ve talked about, the stories actually comprise maybe half the text. This is no accident. I challenge you to find a revered nonfiction book that doesn’t include stories that speak to you emotionally.

Even for more technical “how-to” books, the best ones are the ones that offer the best examples. I’ve got dozens of writing books, but my favorite by far is Robert McKee’s Story, and it’s because of two examples he uses to illustrate the principle of the “gap.” I’ll cite one of them:

As Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker fight to the death with light sabers, Vader steps back and says: ‘You can’t kill me, Luke, I’m your father.’ The word ‘father’ explodes one of the most famous gaps in film history and hurls the audience back through two whole films separated by three years. . . . Two films that made perfect sense to this moment now have a new, deeper layer of meaning. . . .

George Lucas could have exposed Luke’s paternity by having C3PO warn R2D2, ‘Don’t tell Luke, he’d really be upset to hear this, but Darth’s his dad.’ Rather they used Backstory exposition to create explosive Turning Points that open the gap between expectation and result, and deliver a rush of insight.

That second paragraph completely altered how I view exposition, back story, and act structure. I’m in the middle of On Writing by Stephen King, with similar experiences, even as he identifies principles I already know – like cutting out adverbs – in a whole new way.

When you start to pay attention, you’ll notice that these same rules show up everywhere. This article, for example, was not written in a vacuum devoid of the four points above. Neither were the world’s most memorable speeches. (Look closely at the Gettysburg Address or the “I Have a Dream” speech and you’ll see all four elements.)

So . . . Take a look at your book. Does it have the essential elements of a nonfiction masterpiece?

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David Kassin Fried is a professional ghost writer and book editor specializing in nonfiction. His business, DKF Writing Services, has been providing freelance writing, editing, and proofreading services since 2006.


Review of Stephen King’s Under the Dome

September 29, 2009

The full review of Stephen King’s Under the Dome is now available.


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