Robin Quinn’s May PMA Newsletter article, “Five Fiction Techniques That Add Flair to Nonfiction Books” is commendable. In general, novels better capture a reader’s interest than nonfiction works. Why? Here are three reasons: First, fiction strives to entertain, while nonfiction often aims to inform. Second, the novelist is free to create whatever he or she wants, while the hand of the nonfiction author is restricted; the text must conform to reality. Finally, more techniques-metaphors, character development, atmosphere invoking sentences, etc.-are available to the fiction writer. The key point is that if a nonfiction author is able to use some fiction-writing devices, then he or she will create a much more interesting and saleable book.
One powerful technique that was not discussed in the May article is narration. The best novels are almost always the ones with dramatic tales. If you think about your favorite fiction book and ask yourself why you like it, you will probably say, “It tells a great story.”
How can the nonfiction writer take advantage of narration? One way is through historical anecdotes. My company, Jupiter Scientific Publishing, specializes in popular science books. Such books are among the most difficult to market because: (1) they are often intended for the scientist rather than the general reader, despite what they may say in their introductions; and (2) they are frequently written in a rather dry prose. Some of the best science books interrupt the monotony of detailed scientific expositions by providing the story of how a discovery unfolded. Or sometimes, a short incident concerning one of the discoverers is told.
Recently, Jupiter Scientific published a nonfiction book called The Bible According to Einstein: A Scientific Complement to the Holy Bible for the Third Millennium, in which more than half the text was narration! How was this achieved? Well, one first needs to understand the structure of the book. It is science and nature in a biblical format. Its “old testament” presents a complete history of the universe, earth and life. But the events are not described; they are narrated!
Here is the first paragraph of a chapter called “The Last Jurassic Day”:The first rays of sunlight beamed upward just above the Earth’s horizon. The air was cool and moist. A mist covered the face of Earth. An allosaur woke up and roared. Pterodactyls fled the trees. The sound of flapping wings was heard. Then there came the screams of a baby brontosaurus being clawed by the hungry allosaur. Everybody will agree that it is more enjoyable to read these sentences than a descriptive account of dinosaurs and pterodactyls (flying reptiles) that might include information such as their size and weight.
The “new testament” of The Bible According to Einstein discusses humanity’s spiritual and intellectual developments as well as the laws of nature that govern all. How is narration incorporated in this part? The stories of some of the world’s major religious leaders and scientists are told. There is a Book of Buddha, a Book of Newton, a Book of Darwin and so on, each providing a short narrative biography. The new testament also contains a Book of Catastrophes in which one relives a volcanic eruption, the black plague epidemic, an earthquake, or some other natural disaster. The key point is that these events are presented in story form and not simply described in nonfiction expository writing. The Bible According to Einstein also uses many other literary devices besides narration but that would take us beyond the main subject of this article.
In short, my advice to the nonfiction author: whenever possible, employ narration. Spin a yarn and you’ll sell a book.Dr. Gezhi Weng is a research scientist and Vice President and Assistant Editor of Jupiter Scientific Publishing (http://ajanta.sci.ccny.cuny.edu/~jupiter/pub/com). You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 212/650-8194.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor January, 1999, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.