Narrative nonfiction is a book written in the format of a novel but based on a true story. The important words are novel and true.
Narrative nonfiction is a story based on true events, and people love to read a story that includes:
- a protagonist they can follow
- where the protagonist has a clear goal
- and there is something important at stake
Now that we’re working from the same definition of narrative nonfiction, let’s talk about how to make the narrative nonfiction amazing.
Perhaps you’re an editor who has been hired to edit a narrative nonfiction book, or perhaps you’re a writer about to perform a story edit on your own book. Either way, the principles are the same.
Before starting the story edit, the three questions above must be answered.
To see if we know the answers to the questions, we start with a blurb. The author must write one before the editing begins. This is critical to a successful edit.
Narrative Nonfiction Blurb Example
Money Ball by Michael Lewis is a commercially successful narrative nonfiction story.
Moneyball is a quest for something as elusive as the Holy Grail, something that money apparently can’t buy: the secret of success in baseball. The logical places to look would be the front offices of major league teams, and the dugouts, perhaps even in the minds of the players themselves. Lewis mines all these possibilities—his intimate and original portraits of big league ballplayers are alone worth the price of admission—but the real jackpot is a cache of numbers—numbers!—collected over the years by a strange brotherhood of amateur baseball enthusiasts: software engineers, statisticians, Wall Street analysts, lawyers, and physics professors.
What these geek numbers show—no, prove—is that the traditional yardsticks of success for players and teams are fatally flawed. Even the box score misleads us by ignoring the crucial importance of the humble base-on-balls. This information has been around for years, and nobody inside Major League Baseball paid it any mind. And then came Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics.
Billy paid attention to those numbers —with the second lowest payroll in baseball at his disposal he had to—and this book records his astonishing experiment in finding and fielding a team that nobody else wanted. Moneyball is a roller coaster ride: before the 2002 season opens, Oakland must relinquish its three most prominent (and expensive) players, is written off by just about everyone, and then comes roaring back to challenge the American League record for consecutive wins.
I’ve bolded the important bits.
- The protagonist is Billy Beane
- His goal is to figure out the secret of success in baseball
- His career is at stake.
So now, as an editor, you can stay focussed on the story the author intended to write as you edit every scene. You don’t need a polished blurb. It can be as short as possible as long as it answers all three questions.
Let’s back up a bit and talk about story editing. Story Editing is structural editing of long-form fiction. This comes after a draft is written.
The steps after story editing are:
Story Editing Narrative Nonfiction
Is there a Story in the Manuscript?
If your goal is to publish a nonfiction book that reads like a novel, then it must be edited in the same way as a novel. The book must form a story, so you’ll want to answer the question: Is there a story in the manuscript?
To answer that, the first step is to find the story arc. This means locating the inciting incident, plot point 1, the middle plot point, plot point 2, and the climax scenes.
- Do all 5 scenes exist?
- Are the 5 scenes in the right place in the story?
- Do they accomplish what they must for a story or scene?
If the answer to the question is yes. Then there is a story and it’s time to proceed to a scene-level edit. If the answer is no, the writer needs to make the revisions necessary to create a story.
This is the most important step in the story editing process. A writer must understand if there is a story, and it’s the editor’s job to point that out.
This comes after there is a story. An editor starts editing at the first scene and moves through each scene until the end of the book and makes suggestions for how the writer can improve the story.
A story editor must review each scene for:
Then they must review the story structure again and make sure it works.
Characters in Fiction Versus Nonfiction
In fiction, a story editor reviews the character names looking for names that are too similar and that would confuse the reader. Nonfiction writers don’t have the luxury of choosing names. Some of the character names are set because that was the person’s name in real life.
In fiction, an editor or the writer reviews each scene and checks for too many characters in a scene. For nonfiction, the writer can cut characters from a scene, but the writer has to decide how far off from the actual event they want to go.
Things like the timing of a scene, the location of a scene, and objects in a scene also fall into this category. The author must balance artistry with the truth.
Performing a story edit on narrative nonfiction is an exciting task. It can take a good book and turn it into a great story.