This doesn’t mean all communication should have story structure. Stories string audiences along – that’s how they work. Giving people the most vital information up front can be more important, and using story structure in the wrong context can feel manipulative.
Even so, the benefits of story structure are strong enough that many non-narrative professionals, like journalists, put a lot of emphasis on bringing stories out in their reporting. Adding story structure to informational communication helps draw readers in and gives the work a memorable finish. This can be worth making readers wait.
Non-Narrative Story Structure
Stories can have large and complex structures, but when story structure is applied to non-narrative nonfiction, it’s usually kept simple. Even getting basic story structure in factual works is a challenge, because the real world doesn’t follow storytelling rules. In fact, our inclination to stuff reality into a concise story is called the narrative fallacy.
So for this article, we cover the barest framework:
- The hook: This draws the audience in with a promise of information to come.
- The turning point: This is the “aha!” moment, leading to…
- The resolution: This is the takeaway of your piece. It should fulfill the promise your hook made.
If you’re writing a large work like a book and you’d like a more elaborate structure, simply repeat this structure at the chapter level as well as the book level. However, remember to close each chapter by tying it back to the hook for the book overall.
Finding Your Hook
Selecting your opening hook is the most important decision you’ll make. Your hook will define how you market and package your work. It will be stated forcefully in your opening, and then you will continually remind your audience about it until you reach your turning point near the end.
A hook is always a question or problem. A question sets up a mystery; your text will promise to solve that mystery. A problem sets up a struggle; your text will promise to show the outcome of that struggle. Technically, problems are also questions. The question inherent to a problem is something like: will [we/they] overcome [problem]? But it’s particularly useful to think of these hooks as problems specifically, because problems matter to people. A question that feels trivial doesn’t make a good hook.
In a non-narrative work, sometimes the hook is obvious. If you’re writing about how people got by during the Great Depression, the Great Depression is your problem. If you’re promising to inform your audience about anything mysterious or resolve a contradiction, you’ll just need to distill that down into a single question you can answer.
When the hook isn’t obvious in a non-narrative work, this is often because the work is delivering the resolution up front instead of the hook. You’re starting with the end of the story, and you need a beginning. To solve this, first ask yourself what the central point, thesis, or takeaway of your work is. That’s the answer, but what’s the question that leads to that answer?
As an example, let’s say you have a traditional essay with a thesis statement up front. Your thesis is “Jurassic Park is a monument to evocative storytelling.” With this statement in your opening, the only question you’re promising to answer is why you think that. Unless your thesis is really provocative, like “Jurassic Park is a capitalist attack on democracy,” that won’t be a particularly powerful hook. Instead, you could make the question, “25 years later, does Jurassic Park live up to all the hype?” Then your thesis will be the answer.
If your question can be framed as a problem, go with that. For instance, most instructional works can be phrased as a question like “How do I train my dog to be quieter?” But that hook won’t be as compelling as the problem that drives this question. Instead, you might aim for “What to do when your dog is waking up your neighbors.”
If you are advocating for a particular action, look for the problem that action is designed to solve. If you want people to use a mulching lawnmower, then you’ll start by describing all the excess waste being created by lawn mowing and the harm it’s causing.
Finding Your Resolution
You may already know what your resolution will be, but in large works with a lot of information, that can be in question. If you are collecting accounts of people living through the Great Depression, there isn’t just one outcome.
You’ll want to find the right type of ending for the tone and purpose of your work. Your choices are:
- Happy Ending: The question is neatly answered or an appropriate solution is offered for the problem. This is probably the best match for instructional texts or uplifting historical accounts.
- Cautionary Tale: Rather than being solved, a problem ends in tragedy. This may seem bleak, but if you’re writing the next Silent Spring, bringing attention to a problem is more important than having an uplifting end. This is also the best match for recounting historical atrocities.
- Multiple Endings: In a non-narrative work, sometimes it makes the most sense to present multiple resolutions. If you are covering an unsolved mystery, illustrate two or more possible answers instead of leaving the audience without one. If your primary goal is to get your audience to take a specific action, you can show them the outcomes that would result from taking it or not taking it. Multiple endings are also good for comparing and contrasting case studies.
Once you know whether you’re heading toward an answer, a happy ending, a tragedy, or contrasting endings, ensure that you’re ready to bring that out at the end of your piece. While reality offers us a lot of “sort of good” or “maybe bad” endings, where you place emphasis will make a big difference on how your resolution feels. Maybe people going through the Great Depression were never as rich afterward as they were before it happened, but even so, life definitely got better for them.
Bringing Out a Turning Point
Now, we’re onto the toughest part of this process. A satisfying story is one that includes a lesson about what human actions lead to success or failure. This makes the audience feel like the whole journey was worthwhile. However, the real world is a messy place. Most things that happen in it are because of a complex set of factors, many of which are beyond human control.
To create a turning point, you must find a pivotal human decision, realization, or action that leads to the resolution.
If you’re working on an instructional text, look for the most important thing for the audience to know if they are to succeed. You can emphasize that as a realization, the “aha!” moment of the piece. For instance, let’s say your hook is “What to do when your dog is waking up your neighbors.” Your solution involves training, but you know many people resort to tactics like using shock collars. Your turning point might be the realization that dogs often bark out of fear or boredom. That means the key to quieting them is addressing this root problem. Knowing that, training solutions follow naturally.
Similarly, if you are arguing for a specific conclusion like “Jurassic Park is a monument to evocative storytelling,” then look for one important aspect of Jurassic Park that represents evocative storytelling, something that sets the movie apart. You’ll break down the movie, get to that one aspect, and “aha!” This last piece of the puzzle shows that Jurassic Park does live up to all the hype. In fact, it’s a monument.
If you are looking at historical trends or recounting real-world events, find a specific choice or action that happen in one instance, even if it was small, that can represent the whole trend you are highlighting. For instance, if you are recounting how people got by during the Great Depression, first identify the overall pattern you’d like to highlight. What do people who got through it the most successfully have in common? Then, look for one story that’s a really good example of a person taking a specific action that fits this pattern and resulted in their success. That’s your turning point. If you’re writing a tragedy, it’s the same, but the action you are bringing to the forefront resulted in utter failure.
If you are using multiple endings, those endings need to depend on the same action. For instance, in a historical account you might look for two people who had to make a similar decision, but one person made the wrong choice, and one made the right one. If want to persuade your audience to take a specific action, you’ll illustrate the good things that will happen if they take the action and the bad things that will happen if they don’t.
If the mystery you’re presenting is unsolved, your turning point is some event that forever concealed the answer. You might highlight how important records were lost or how no one could discern if a key witness was telling the truth. Look for something that could have led to the answer if we could just read what it said or puzzle it out.
Putting the three pieces of story structure together is pretty simple. Open with the hook; use it to advertise your piece. Then you’ll do your buildup, offering information but not dispelling the mystery or giving away the ending. Bring out the turning point, and finally, you can just give your audience all the answers. Ideally, the turning point comes near the end of the piece, but if your resolution involves a lot of explaining, you might need to compromise on that. Once your resolution is clear, you’ve let the audience off your hook. Your story is over.