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?


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.

Professional Coiner

February 2, 2010

Coinage – [KOI-nij] – n – the act or process of inventing words

I had this word on a vocab test once. It was a silly word to have on a high school vocab test, since it was just the noun form of a word all of us knew anyway, at a time when everyone thought it was hilariously funny to add “-age” to the end of every word. Foodage: that which could be considered to be food. Sexage: any act that approximates sex. Sufferage: the act of suffering (of course, an intentional – and we thought highly original – homonym for suffrage, which is the right to vote).

I still coin words now, except I’m much better at it and far, far more defensive. I think it’s the only reason I write my own stuff, because I know I can get away with it there. I’m approaching the end of my short story, “The Blinding Mirror,” which I’m writing in a Poe-esque style that gives me an excuse to dive into a thesaurus – one of my favorite past times. Still, I’ve found the thesaurus insufficient, and yesterday I created the word “iration,” which, to my knowledge, is not currently in the dictionary.

In context:

“He’d been in such sour spirits, on such regular occasions, now, that they rather expected it and simply placated him and his irations.”

My wife was able to define the word immediately: “angry ravings.” And thus, a word is born. When “The Blinding Mirror” takes the world by storm and is published in the next anthology of great works by up and coming writers, edited by Stephen King (’cause why not?), “irations” will trickle through the Internet and into common vernacular, and then Miriam-Webster will be forced to include it in the dictionary, just like they did with “ringtone” and “ollie” and “d’oh”.

When my father and I were writing Ups & Downs, he got mad at me once or twice for making up a word. But I responded to his irations with irations of my own, and insisted that as long as you know what it means, it is by definition a word, and it’s our prerogative as writers – our responsibility, even – to coin the words that will be used by the next generation.

This placified him somewhat. Which is a good thing, too, because otherwise I would have had to dislocute him.

10% Inspiration, 90% Marketing – Books & Modern Media

October 29, 2009

People hate technology. They really do.

Of course, this is a vast generalization, and really what I mean is that businesspeople hate technology. But even that’s not true, because plenty of businesspeople out there embrace it and use it for exactly its intended purpose – to provide a new way of providing something consumers want, and in exchange, receiving monetary profit.

Which means that it’s not that businesspeople hate technology, it’s that business-dinosaurs hate technology, because they’re too blind to realize that change is inevitable, so they should embrace it and figure out a way to incorporate it into their business model.

And for some reason, well-established artists seem to be least creative when it comes to inventing ways to take advantage of technology, because they’re so incredibly stuck in the old paradigm of Intellectual Property. I wrote about this several months ago, and as a self-published author of a fantastic book who’s completely loused up the marketing process, it’s something I think about quite often.

In response to how much easier it is to copy and distribute art today than it was even 10 years ago, an organization called Creative Commons has created a “some rights reserved” license, a.k.a. the Creative Commons license, which lets the copyright-owner choose the conditions upon which copying and redistribution are permitted.

By now, most people are aware, at least vaguely, of the existence of the Creative Commons license. Many, I suspect, still haven’t seriously considered using it. Why? Because using this license requires throwing out all the books you’ve read that tell you how to break into the business. It requires a D.I.Y. approach to publishing, and it requires trusting that if you give someone something for free, the money will flow in your direction. Stephen King tried this approach nine years ago, and it was ultimately unsuccessful. Fair enough – he’s already got a model that works for him.

But Cory Doctorow recently published a column in Publisher’s Weekly about how he’s done exactly that. Here’s someone who clearly has no problem coming up with ingenuitive ways of marketing his work, and has reaped the rewards as a result.

I think we can all learn a lesson from Cory Doctorow, Diablo Cody, Stephen Elliott, and the other mad artists working in the world of modern technology. Come up with something new, and dedicate your time to it.

Because the more time I spend in this business, the more I realize that there are few things harder than finishing a book – but marketing that book happens to be one of them.

Review of Stephen King’s Under the Dome

September 29, 2009

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

Stephen King’s Under the Dome

September 17, 2009

I just got back from a meeting, where I acquired an advance reading copy of Stephen King’s new book, Under the Dome.  I was told by the rep who gave it to me that I’m one of the first people in the world to hold a copy of this book.

Watch this space for a full review in the coming weeks.

More on Adaptations – The Shawshank Redemption

February 7, 2009

I’ve seen and read both before, but revisited the Stephen King novella recently, and decided to follow it up by watching the movie. The main plot is the same. The novella tells the story by subjects, guided by chronology, whereas the movie tells the story chronologically, guided by the subjects. In a few cases they shifted the chronology for dramatic effect – for example, Andy coming into the library before Brookes leaves, so that he can help so-and-so set up the trust fund and so that we care about Brookes when he dies; or Andy spending 19 years at Shawshank instead of 27, so that we can frame the movie with Red’s 20, 30, and 40-year parole hearings.

Casting Morgan Freeman in the role of the Irishman “Red” was just a stroke of genius. As well as being a perfect fit for the character, it just gives a timeless universality to the two heroes of the tale – black and white, hope and despair, yin and yang who make this perfect match. It would seem that this casting wasn’t a given during the writing of the script – supposedly Rob Reiner wanted to direct it and cast Harrison Ford as Red. Can you imagine how different a film that would’ve been?

Something else I’m noticing is the three-act structure. Is it there? There are three parole hearings. Maybe that’s it. We enter the prison and try to assimilate ourselves. We try to improve our situation. The shit hits the fan, and we leave.

Standard wisdom says that the turning points are decisions made by the hero. There a few things Andy does that constitute decisions deviating from the routine – The tarring-the-roof scene and the final exit are obviously huge plot-driving decisions. But the Italian ladies singing Mozart? The library project? The rock hammer or Rita Hayworth? No, I think the structure here is not quite so black and white. I think the story stands on its own, and the turning points are the little successes Andy achieves along the way – including all of the above, as well as Hadley beating the shit out of Bogs and Tommy getting his GED.

The thing is, in the presence of great storytelling, “three-act-structure” is a phantom menace. In this movie, every event is driven by the one before it or the one after it. The characters are constantly making decisions that affect each other and affect themselves, and the situation itself is perfectly sufficient to heighten the tension and the stakes. Because that’s really what the acts are measuring: the tension and the stakes.

I think this is a happy benefit of the adapting a novella of this length. The story is a hundred pages long, which is just long enough to get in every piece of the action, without having to cut anything and without having to embellish, and letting you jump in at just 2 hours. Sure, you shift some stuff around, but you don’t need to worry about restructuring it, because it’s the perfect length as it is.

I wonder how many great screenplays have been passed over or killed in spirit because they don’t fit the mold. I wonder whether, if Darabont hadn’t directed his own screenplay, it could have ended up as one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. I doubt it. Reiner’s version, with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, certainly would have grossed more in the box office, but it wouldn’t have had the same energy or spirit.

A lot of great movies are based on short novels. Darabont himself is currently rumored to be working on an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which definitely qualifies.  And I have no doubt he’ll make it great, because he’ll have the freedom to do what he wants.

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