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.
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?
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.