Nonfiction Narrative Arc

Be careful to start your race . . . and your manuscript . . . just so

As in fiction, nonfiction narrative must include a beginning, a middle and an end. But where you begin the narrative and how you present the information to your reader is going to depend on the nonfiction story that you’ve chosen to tell.

This means that the beginning of the narrative may not be, chronologically speaking, the beginning.

The Beginning

As in fiction, the beginning of a piece of nonfiction has to hook the reader. Crafts and science fair projects aren’t narratives but I still need to hook the reader. That’s why I don’t start with the beginning of the activity itself. Why? Because the beginning of the activity would be the supply list. Before I give the reader the supply list, they have to know why they want to do this particular project.

I face a similar situation when I start a book-length piece of nonfiction for Abdo Publishing. With Evolution of Reptiles, I didn’t start with the earliest reptiles and immediately present how one group evolved into another. Instead, a built a narrative nonfiction scene with a massive Mansourasaurus shahinae searching for food while looking out for predators. Then I moved on to the discovery of the first M. shahinae fossil in Egypt.

Pick a place to begin that will grab your readers attention whether you are writing a biography or about a scientific discovery.

The Middle

The middle of the piece has to keep your reader reading. In a how-to, the middle is generally the supply list and possibly the instructions. This one is easy because your reader wants to make the project. Your job is to give them enough information to make it easy to find what they need.

In a science book or a book about the discovery, this is the place to talk about successes (yay!) and misses (sigh). I make sure to talk about what people thought when a fossil was first discovered and what they later learned through another find or genetics or simply realizing that a fossil they already had on hand was part of the story.

Shape your nonfiction story so that your reader feels compelled to keep reading.

The Ending

As in fiction, the ending of a piece of nonfiction has to wrap things up. The conflict must be resolved. The reader needs a satisfying take-away.

In an activity or project, this might challenge the reader to consider what they learned. What would they do differently next time? How will this impact their life? Will they challenge someone else to do this?

In my science books, this is where I talk about what is likely to happen in the future. What projects are scienctists talking about even if they don’t have the tech (yet!) to carry them out? What is on their wish lists? What are young scientists, those who are still students, working on? How are they challenging the status quo?

A beginning, a middle and an end aren’t just something you need in fiction. They are also 100% essential in nonfiction.

For other pieces on writing nonfiction see –

Nonfiction Story Arc

How I Built a Career in Children’s Nonfiction

Learning to Research Your Nonfiction

Three Things to Remember about Dialogue in Nonfiction

If you are interested in taking a class on nonfiction writing or on researching children’s nonfiction, my classes as WOW! Women on Writing are open for enrollment.


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