Structure 102: Nonfiction
Some paranormal enthusiasts believe that a pyramid, simply by virtue of its shape, can preserve food, and enhance meditation and psychic talents. Others believe the Giza pyramids are a giant celestial generator that could power the world if only we could find the on switch.
There are lots of pyramids in writing. The one we’re starting with is the inverted nonfiction pyramid, the one that stands on its head.
That’s the way news reporters write stories, with the base, the most important information, first. The opening paragraph, the lead, contains the 5 W’s—who, what, where, when, why, and sometimes how.
This structure came into being during the Civil War. Reporters transmitted stories to their newspapers by telegraph. The armies also used the telegraph, so reporters rushed to get the most important facts out ASAP before saboteurs started pulling down the lines.
Here’s what the rest of the inverted pyramid looks like:
That’s the basic structure of nonfiction: lead, body, tail. It’s tweaked and expanded for longer articles and essays, but that’s the classic 3-part model.
In longer nonfiction you have more leeway word-wise in the lead. Still, do your best to incorporate as many of the 5 W’s as you can.
Remember, structure is for readers. That makes the beginning the most important element of your piece. Hook readers with a captivating opening that gives them no choice but to keep reading.
Here are some suggestions:
• Ask a question
• Share a quotation
• Wow readers will an amazing factoid. For instance: “Honeybees don’t fly. They levitate.” Truth. Look it up.
• An anecdote
Use the lead to tell readers why it’s important for them to read your article or essay, what they’ll learn if they do, what they’ll miss out on if they don’t. And don’t shillyshally. Get to the point.
Though I’ve published a few articles, I’ve primarily earned my keep as a novelist. In every novel I’ve written, I’ve used the 5 W’s—which I learned in high school journalism class—and the topic sentence—which my college literature professors taught me to hone to a laser—when I need to figure something out or I just need to take a break and think.
So long as the 5 W’s and the topic sentence are in the world, there’s no excuse for flailing around wailing that you don’t know where to start or where to go next.
If you don’t see a starting point, ask yourself: Where do I want to submit this? Who is my audience? What do I want to accomplish with this article or essay? Why is this an important topic? How should I approach it? Meaning the slant you should take.
Answering those questions will help you determine the best way to structure your article so the really important stuff is front and center.
Smooth Out the Middle
Once you’ve figured out the starting point, outline the piece to make sure you’ve included all the research you’ve done, all the brilliant arguments you want to make, and to be sure you’ve presented them logically, like ABC, 123, one flowing naturally into the next.
God in His wisdom created the topic sentence and gifted it to writers. Use it to state the main idea of the paragraph and the point you want to make about it. Jot down ideas for topic sentences while you’re outlining to serve as prompts while you’re writing.
Failure to present material in a smooth and sensible way is the most common mistake I see in my students’ nonfiction. Lack of talent isn’t the problem, it’s lack of thought. If I can tell that you’re throwing words on the page without a plan, trust me, an editor can, too.
Outlining helps you determine if you have enough material for your word count or too much. An outline helps you consolidate and trim.
An outline also helps you find spots where you put the cart in front of the horse before you started writing, but if you find one you missed, stop and fix it. The more you write, the sharper your skills will become. You’ll learn to think on the fly—a deadline is a great teacher—but if you’re just starting out, stop and think and fix your flubs to avoid frustration, the number one enemy of writing and creativity.
Let’s say while you’re writing along and following your outline, you reach Point 4 and think, “Hmmm, this is really part of Point 1.” Scroll back and put it where it belongs. Don’t trust yourself to do it later. If you forget, you’ll look lazy to an editor.
You only ever want to look like a consummate professional to an editor. Even when you don’t have a clue what you’re doing, and believe me, that will happen. It happens to us all, but fear not—writing teaches you how to wing it like nothing else on earth ever will.
Give the ending of your piece as much thought and care as you did the beginning. When you’ve covered all your points and made all your arguments, wrap it up gently—don’t push readers off a cliff.
In his brilliant book on nonfiction, On Writing Well, William Zinsser recommends that you avoid “In summary” or “To conclude” because you’ll only be repeating yourself.
Other options for a strong, satisfactory ending are an opinion, a judgment, a recommendation, or a call to action.
This is the best thing Zinsser says about endings: “The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.”
Think about that till next week. I’ll show you Freytag’s pyramid for fiction and how the 5W’s and topic sentences can help you structure short stories.
Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”