An aspiring author recently asked me if I had a template for book genres. For instance, a how-to book template or a memoir template. Nope. One size doesn’t fit all.
There is no effective single template for a nonfiction book. There are some guidelines for structuring your book depending on the genre.Most of the popular nonfiction book genres have similar structures.
HOW-TO and SELF-HELP
How-to or self-help books have similar, straightforward structures. The book begins with an explanation of the issue or challenge—what is it that the book will solve for the reader? Then each chapter walks the reader through the necessary and chronological stages of overcoming that issue or challenge. Each of those sequential chapters, presents the important details of the stage, including evidence and support for the book’s solutions. The final chapter wraps it all up with a conclusion.
THE BIG IDEA
A big idea book, also called a thought-leadership book, is structured somewhat differently. In this type of nonfiction book, the author will present the issue at a higher level than a how-to book. However, the chapter flow is similar. For instance, the issue is presented in the first chapter—what is it that the industry or sector is struggling with? Then, the book unpacks this idea, in sequential chapters using evidence and support. Not exactly the straight-ahead staircase of a how-to, but it does build the evidence of your book’s “solution” in a logical way.
Memoir books are usually structured in one of two ways, either as a story—a portion of one’s life that was seminal in some way, or as a “message story.” They are similar.
People sometimes speak of message stories as being lessons. I’m not fond of that word in relation to a memoir. The idea of lessons sounds “preachy” and could lead to writing a memoir that is pedantic. Probably not what you want.
Instead of lessons, think about the overarching message of your story and some of the subtopics associated with that. The subtopics all support the overarching theme and also add some depth and variety to that message. Then select “scenes” if you will, events from your life that demonstrate this. Find the thread that connects the parts of your life that are linked to this theme. Then you get a result that is positively more story than message—and that’s a good thing.
With a story memoir, the writer usually focuses on a specific time in one’s life—it might be one’s entire childhood or a single event. Even though you want to focus the story on that particular time, you aren’t bound to it exclusively. For example, an author can use flashbacks to a previous time or use hindsight perspective, “I realize now, that what he meant was . . .”
You are likely familiar with flashbacks as a device in films. Did you watch The Trial of the Chicago 7? It was an Oscar nominee and on Netflix. The focus of the movie is the trial, but we step away to see Abbie Hoffman doing what is essentially stand-up comedy with the events of the trial and also watch flashbacks to the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the police agitation and violence.
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