Nonfiction writers: Start every chapter with a story

Image: Olena Panasovska

I don’t care whether you’r writing a memoir, a historical narrative, or a business book full of advice. You should start every chapter with a story.

Why? Because stories draw people in. It’s that simple.

Here are the starts of some chapters in my first book Groundswell. Would you want to read these chapters?

When he woke up on May 1, 2007, Kevin Rose had no idea he was about to have the most interesting day of his life, courtesy of an uprising of his own customers.

Steve Ogborn is a management consultant with three teenage kids in a suburb of Chicago. One day in the summer of 2007, he was reading one of his favorite blogs—Engadget, which is aimed at lovers of personal technology—when he saw the unthinkable.

Some nut had put an Apple iPhone—the hottest technology product out there, just released—into a blender. The online video on Engadget featured a geeky-looking guy in a lab coat and safety goggles. The iPhone, in a matter of less than a minute, was reduced to dust (or “iSmoke” as the geeky-looking guy put it).

In a tiny town in central Pennsylvania lives a guy named George. George loves his dog, Pooch. Pooch is a cockapoo, which is a fuzzy cross between a spaniel and a poodle. George and Pooch are very close. “We enjoy taking walks and running,” says George. “We also go hiking and enjoy playing in the yard. I would be lost without my Pooch.”

Gala Amoroso was very interested in people like George. Gala was senior consumer insights manager for Del Monte Foods.

Of course, it’s not just me. Here are some stories that open chapters of other books:

Each person has a story in his or her head, a narrative used to navigate the world. The extraordinary thing is that every person’s narrative is different.

A few years ago, I went with a small team to a village in India, trying to understand the challenges that VisionSpring faces in their work.

VisionSpring is a social enterprise that works to get reading glasses to the billion people around the world who need them but don’t have them.
(Seth Godin, This Is Marketing)

Do you like chicken? Do you really, really, really like chicken? Do you like chicken as much as Jimmy Buffet likes the beach? If so, The Cheesecake Factory is your perfect restaurant.

Each of the chain’s 200 locations offers 85 different chicken dishes. Unsurprisingly, given how many chicken dishes alone it includes, the menu itself runs to 5,940 words long. That is more than 11 percent of the book you are about to read.
(Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin, Talk Triggers)

Come with me for a moment to the Hospital of Doom.

At this hospital, patients are three times more likely than at other hospitals to receive a fatal dose of anesthesia and considerably more likely to die within forty-eight hours of surgery.
(Daniel Pink, When)

On a Wednesday morning in 2017, I find myself in Menlo Park, California, sharing a small table at a faux European coffee shop with a woman I’ll call Julia– and I’m making a duck out of Legos.
(Dan Lyons, Lab Rats)

You have stories. Why don’t you lead with them?

When I’m editing a chapter in a nonfiction book — typically a business book full of advice — I look for the stories. Assuming there are any, the edit is simple: I just delete everything before the first story.

Usually, the author recaps their main idea right after the story. This renders the prose that came before the story redundant. Deleting it makes the chapter stronger — first you read the story, then you understand the idea in the context of the story. If there’s anything worth saving in the blah-blah-blah self-important opener that the author created to start the chapter, I move it to after the story. It works better there, and your reader is more likely to remember it.

It take guts to start with a story. As an author, you’re thinking “I need to tell them about my brilliant principle. If I start with a story, they’ll wonder if the book is serious. Stories are fluffy — my work is full of powerful ideas, not fluff! How can I get away with starting with a story?”

Trust me, your reader will follow along, at least until the end of the story. And then, you’re at the pinnacle of their attentiveness. That’s when to hit them with your idea, smack between the hemispheres.

Of course this creates demands for you, the author. If your book is 12 chapters long, you need at least 12 stories. Where are you going to get those?

Your own experience, your clients’ experience, vendor case studies, stories told online, books, your friends, your social network, and published accounts. Read this for more on how to find stories.

And if you analyze the best nonfiction, you’ll soon find that it doesn’t just start with narratives. It’s narratives all the way down.

You could, of course, write your book with no stories at all. But why be boring when you don’t have to be?

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