Table of Contents—The Skeleton for Your Non-Fiction, Self-Help Book: How to Create It

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I recently wrote a blog post about the difference between plot and story in the novel or memoir and the top three items to initially focus on when creating story. But what about the non-fiction, self-help book?

While I believe we begin in the same place with each of these genres—getting to know our people (for the non-fiction, self-help book this is your Ideal Reader), the process to create a solid foundation diverges from fiction and memoir after this step.

Rather than concern ourselves with an opening scene and inciting incident for this type of book, as we do with fiction and memoir, we must create a cohesive and complete (or as complete as possible) Table of Contents (TOC).

So, how do we do that? We begin with questions. There are six types of questions we can consider. Below is an example of one type, which might be considered a question of fact.

  1. What is your Ideal Reader’s BIG question? (This is the question that’s compelling her to seek you out and want to buy your book that will change her life with your method, program, or process.)

    Example: Can I create and maintain healthier relationships?

  2. What’s your answer to that question? (This is your direct answer, which, on the surface, is quite simple.)

    Example: You can create and maintain healthier relationships…
  • What’s your WHY to your answer? (This helps you begin the process of delving deeper into your answer so you can clarify and demonstrate HOW.)

    Example: …because you can learn to [fill in the blank with how you can and will help her achieve this].

The first and last step above can take some time to perfect, but after you have the question, answer, and “because” (your WHY), you can then begin to create a list of steps—which might include anecdotes, instructions, exercises, etc.—that will serve as the beginnings of a TOC and will not only inform and guide your Ideal Reader through your method, program, or process, but will guide you, as well, in the writing of your book.

Of course, there’s much more detail and inquiry involved in creating a polished TOC, and this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. But this is a good place to begin.

Just as we can think of the plot in a novel or memoir as the body that contains all the elements of story, we can think of the TOC in the non-fiction, self-help book as the skeleton that holds all the elements together.

Try the steps above and see what starts to fall into place.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!

Story and Plot: What’s the Difference?

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You’ve likely read or heard me go on and on about how your people (your characters and/or your Ideal Reader) come first when preparing to write a book. As I’ve posited many times over, once we know our people DEEPLY, the plot starts to reveal itself.

But what about story? How does it figure into the process of getting our people from the beginning to end of their adventures? And what is story, anyway?

Kurt Vonnegut clarified traditional, recurring story forms to help us comprehend the concept of story by visualizing them in shapes.

Here’s how I think of it.

First, plot is the container within which your characters and their stories live and breathe. I think of it as the body that holds all the parts—the locations your people occupy, the scenes they live out, and the exposition that reflects their experiences in their adventures, conversations, and conflicts.

Story, on the other hand, is the heart of it all. Story pumps the blood within and throughout and gives life to your people’s thrills and tribulations—the plot. Or, the path your people will follow throughout the story.

Story is what makes your readers care and keep turning the page.

This likely sounds vague and intangible. And it is, in a way. It’s what we, as writers, feel within us when we conceive of a protagonist and care enough to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Likewise, it’s what makes our readers stay engaged throughout and, in the end, feel they’ve had an experience that goes beyond simply reading words on a page.

So how do we create story?

Just like a body is made up of many parts, so is story. And just as with all the many parts of the body that keep it running smoothly, we can think of the many parts of story in the same way.

Without understanding these important and essential features, it can be difficult—if not impossible—to begin and keep moving forward.

To help you begin to create a path for your people and get to know them, here are three essential aspects to a solid foundation for your novel or memoir.

Opening scene
This scene puts your reader right in the story world by showing her who your protagonist is, what her status quo life looks like (before the inciting incident), and what she might need or want to change. That thing she desires.

Inciting incident
This scene happens in a ways (I always tell my clients to use three chapters or 45 pages as a guide… this can always change as the writing and story evolve). It’s the event or situation that happens and is out of the protagonist’s control. It’s what sets her off on a new trajectory that serves as a path for the story’s unfolding.

Sensorial experiences
Using vivid descriptions—including setting and place—that create a lucid, true-to-life sensorial experience for your reader is essential. When you help her see, smell, taste, touch, and hear, as well as sense, the details of your story world, you infuse her real-life world with wonder, which makes her want to keep invest in your protagonist and your book.

So, what then, after these elements of the story have been determined and written?

We keep checking back in on what we discovered about our protagonist’s deepest desire, wound, and fear. And we write scenes that build on and connect with each other, that suture the protagonist into the reader’s heart, that offer a means to understand this particular human’s—your protagonist’s— inner world.

We keep asking the all-important question: “Why?”

And if we keep writing, we find the answers.

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Happy writing!@