In fiction writing, we often say “story is king.” Remember how I define that:
Character + Plot = Story
To make your nonfiction engaging, use stories either on a small scale, like anecdotes, or on a large scale, as in a memoir.
A story may be brief, like Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus.
Note that this story contains a hero (Lazarus), a villain (the rich man), and a wise counselor (Abraham). Those are the characters.
It also contains an inciting incident (Lazarus and the rich man die), a goal (the rich man wants Lazarus to come to Hades and serve him), a conflict (Abraham says no), and a resolution (Lazarus remains in heaven). That’s the plot.
How important stories are to your book will depend on your nonfiction genre.
In a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, story is of primary importance and needs to be treated almost as thoroughly as the story in a novel.
In a parable, story is second only to the lesson.
In other types of nonfiction, there will probably not be an overarching story throughout the work, but brief anecdotes and case studies will support the book’s message. The minimum you need to tell a story is a person with an obstacle to overcome.
Who are your characters?
In nonfiction, the characters could be you and your colleagues, or carefully camouflaged clients in case studies. You may invent fictional characters to use in anecdotes or parables like the one cited above.
Your main “character” may be your reader, whom you will address in the second person. This is often the case in prescriptive nonfiction.
In memoir the characters will be real people, but you need to treat them much the way a novelist treats characters. The more your nonfiction uses narrative storytelling, the more important it is that your characters be well-rounded.
When you are writing a memoir, or any nonfiction based on your personal experience, it’s tempting to make yourself the star of the show. As much as possible, however, try to avoid being self-aggrandizing. Remember that unless you are an A-list celebrity, people are not reading your book to learn about you so much as they are reading your book to learn what you can teach them. The further you get from memoir, the less you should focus on yourself and the more you should focus on your reader.
What is your plot?
Your plot may be a series of life events, in which case you will want to look for a common thread or theme to unite them. You may need to omit those that don’t support the point you are trying to make.
In a case study, the “plot” may be a single event in a person’s life, or a cascade of events. Just as in a novel, we must show the cause-and-effect relationships between actions and reactions whenever possible. Sometimes in true stories, things happen randomly. While this is discouraged in fiction, in true-life stories, although the cause of an event may not be knowable, the reaction should be clearly drawn from it.
If you are inventing a hypothetical scenario or anecdote, ensure that it contains the three elements of plot: inciting incident (the thing that knocks down the first domino in the chain), conflict (an obstacle or challenge to be overcome), and resolution (problem solved, or hero defeated, and lessons learned).
Stories are powerful because they are memorable. This is why Jesus, Plato, and other great teachers of antiquity used them, and why we still use them today. Insofar as storytelling is compatible with your genre and the objective or your book, use it.