There’s long-form narrative, and then there’s book-length narrative. Both are “long,” but a story that’s 300 pages long is a different proposition, for both writer and reader, from one that’s 3,000 words.
Writers embarking on their first book-length project respond to the challenge in different ways. Some panic, staring blankly at their screen as fine beads of sweat form on their foreheads. Some luxuriate in the expanse of real estate and begin wandering to and fro around their subject, leaving no random thought unexpressed. Some try to take a 3,000-word piece and inflate it to 300 pages.
In a few decades as a book editor I have published journalists, historians and novelists. In this post I’ll identify some problems that I see often in manuscripts or outlines of book-length nonfiction.
#1 WEAK STRUCTURE
A story that’s 800, or even 5,000, words can often carry the reader through on the strength of an incredible event, investigative breakthroughs, or even bitingly ironic prose. A “narrative arc” may be unnecessary. But to draw readers and hold them for a full-length book, time-honored structures still work best: introduce a core character or group of characters who have some kind of goal or objective, follow them as they pursue that objective, and tell us how they succeed or fail. (In Storyboard’s recent Q&A with Jack Hart, he offered a brilliantly concise description of a narrative arc.)
Some structures don’t work because they are too episodic. This is often a problem with history books or others that cover a long period of time. The story consists of a sequence of events, but they don’t lead compellingly from one to the next; suspense is dissipated at the end of each episode.
A telltale marker of the episodic failing is that there are no central characters threaded through the whole narrative – the characters may be vibrant in themselves, but they cycle out of the story after a chapter or two and don’t reappear. Characters are the vessels that carry the reader’s interest and emotional involvement through the story. If they disappear offstage just when we’ve gotten to know them, our emotional investment is lost.
Some structures don’t work because they are anticlimactic. The point of resolution comes too early in the narrative, and – no matter how important the consequences of that resolution – readers lose interest in a story where there’s no suspense about the outcome.
Sometimes authors (biographers, I’m lookin’ at you) are tempted to use a thematic structure. They want to write about their subject’s womanizing, say, so instead of threading every extramarital affair into the ongoing storyline, it seems simpler to give the topic a chapter of its own. This may be perfectly valid, and allow a deeper discussion of what links the affairs together. But it tends to kill narrative momentum. A whole book of thematically organized chapters is really a long essay, not “narrative nonfiction.”
#2 THE BACKGROUND PROBLEM
Background, context, exposition – whatever you call it, getting just the right amount into your narrative is a perennial challenge. It’s a problem in short-form narrative as well, but the bigger the project, the more scope there is for tipping too far one way or the other. Without enough background on a technical subject, readers may not understand vital points of the story. Without enough context to know the larger significance of your narrative, they may not know why they should care.
Some writers, justly celebrated on this site, have a genius for fascinating digressions that are entertaining in themselves and supply essential information that makes the central narrative more comprehensible (e.g., Michael Lewis in “Moneyball“ on Sabermetrics, John McPhee just about anywhere on just about anything). But many writers either dump in too much information or stop the narrative cold in order to deliver it. If you find yourself writing what the British call a “potted history” of World War II, your protagonist’s adolescence, or the development of the personal computer, there’s a good chance you are burdening the story with an excess of background.
#3 THIN SOURCING
In general, in a book-length work readers expect you to render a subject with more depth than they’d ask of a short article. They count on you to do the legwork on their behalf. This means a narrative that draws from more than one or two sources. If you have a chapter or a long stretch of action whose leitmotif is “Johnson said…. According to Johnson,…” or repeated footnotes to the same secondary source, the reader may feel one person’s perspective is being forced on him because you haven’t done your homework. Granted, in historical or investigative writing you might find yourself having to reconstruct a key event from a single document or the testimony of a lone eyewitness. Note, however, that those would be primary sources. And even in these cases, what makes your account persuasive must be that you have found other sources that corroborate the one you’re relying on.
#4 WOODS FOR THE TREES
As in “You can’t see the.” Just as it’s important to balance exposition and narrative, it’s essential in book-length nonfiction to deliver specific details while keeping the big picture clear in the reader’s mind – another balancing act that becomes more demanding at book length.
Those details may be important pieces of evidence that help to make a case, or they may be fine-grained observations of scene or personality that make the story vivid. The best nonfiction coruscates with such details. But one of the problems I most commonly encounter, from history books to exposés, is a manuscript that becomes a torrent of data, streaming past readers in such profusion that they can’t see how it all fits together. The narrative, or argument, is lost because the reader is overwhelmed with bits and pieces.
After steeping yourself in material for the months or years a book may require, it seems beyond obvious to you what all these data points add up to. It may even feel patronizing to spell it out for the reader. But you need to take a step back from the narrative stream from time to time to be sure the reader can connect the dots.
One typical cause of Woods for the Trees (see #4, above) is an excessive fondness for certain facts that aren’t really necessary to the story. I submit as a law of editorial physics that the author’s desire to include a fact in her narrative is directly proportional to the effort she expended to find it out, not to its relevance.
Editor: Betsy, this paragraph about how the congressman won a Boy Scout merit badge for whittling doesn’t really seem like something we need right here. Or anywhere.
Betsy: But I got that from his old troop leader! The guy wasn’t even in the phone book – I found him living in a mobile home at the end of a dirt road. It was a sweltering day, I interviewed him in Spanish….
#5 STOCKHOLM SYNDROME
It can also happen that after spending enough time with a person – or more rarely with an organization – to write a book, you come to identify with your subject to the point that your work becomes an apologia instead of the critical inquiry readers expect of a professional author. If you’ve embarked on your book with, say, the explicit mission of exonerating the LAPD, or Roger Clemens, that’s one thing. But if your ostensible mission is disinterested reportage, yet your text is a brief for the defense, it’s a problem.
There’s a subtler and harder-to-spot version of narrative Stockholm Syndrome, though. It happens when you absorb your protagonists’ frame of reference and forget that your readers may not know the same things or see the world the same way. You may feel the palpable urgency of whether this bill got out of committee, or that petri dish produced a viable culture, but unless you convey that urgency to the reader, your story may feel hermetic and low-temperature.
#6 WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
The most critical difference between a book and a magazine or newspaper article is that the publisher has to convince someone to part with 25 dollars or more for this story and this story alone, and perhaps more important, to invest several hours of his or her life in reading it. That’s a pretty high threshold. To get across it, you need a topic that is more than merely interesting and a narrative that’s more than well-wrought. You need a story that has a significance beyond itself, and you need to convey that significance to the reader.
The most compelling books deliver this on more than one level – they unfold events that changed history or society, even if in a small way; and their narratives connect to the reader powerfully. They make us care at an emotional level because we understand the stakes for the characters, and an intellectual level because we see how these events had wider consequences. I frequently encounter a carefully researched, artfully written proposal for a book whose subject is just too narrowly framed or whose emotional temperature is too low for me to feel we can “break it out” – publishers’ jargon for reaching an audience beyond those readers already interested in environmental law, the Milwaukee Braves or the Large Hadron Collider.
Even when they have found the right story, some writers simply fail to make its relevance clear from the beginning. Unused to writing introductory chapters, journalists often neglect them, plunging into the narrative in a hurry to get on with it or out of a fear of being boring. But a good introduction whets readers’ appetites partly by showing us both why this story is going to entertain us, and why it’s meaningful. Likewise, I sometimes receive manuscripts that end abruptly without a proper conclusion. A dramatic climax, even an epilogue, is not the same as a conclusion that helps the reader look back at how far he has come and reminds him of the importance of that journey. It’s not obligatory, but it’s a terrific tool for sending your reader off charged with excitement about your book – and eager to tell other readers about it.
In Michael Lewis’s brilliant account of the Wall Street meltdown, “The Big Short,” he finishes by recounting a lunch with the retired mogul John Gutfreund, who was at the center of “Liar’s Poker,” Lewis’ first book two decades before. His conclusion might be called a super-epilogue, looking back over two books and a whole era of Wall Street. In the final paragraph, Gutfreund, testy but scrupulously polite, proffers a deviled egg: “Who knew that a simple egg could be made so complicated, and yet so appealing? I reached over and took one. Something for nothing. It never loses its charm.” With, dare I say, relish, Lewis carries his narrative right through the last line – but at the same time, he reminds us what the whole story has been about. You may not always find a way to blend storytelling and analysis into such a perfectly dry martini, but it’s a goal worth aiming for.