Metaphors, Memoirs, and Manuals (oh my!): Bringing Your Nonfiction to Life with Fiction Writing Techniques

People love their stories—a phenomenon that writers may understand and count on to a greater extent than the average joe. Well, fiction writers anyway. But are you, as a nonfiction author, giving your reader enough story? Typically the art of spinning a good yarn is deemed the domain of fiction writers, but storytelling can brighten up and bring together your work of nonfiction as well. This applies not only to memoirs, historical accounts, tales of true crime, etc., but also to self-help manuals, dissertations, and even instructional manuals and textbooks.

Whether you’ve come up with a dynamic system for organizing toys in a multi-child home or a complex philosophical theory told over seven volumes, you can use storytelling techniques to bring your material out of the abstract and ground it in the sort of concrete detail that will make it seem personally applicable to your reader.

May Your Biology Lesson Smell Like Clinique Happy

(Metaphors and Manual Writers)

I still fondly remember my college biology professor, and not just because he looked the other way when I skipped out on the whole finger-pricking thing, or because he talked at length about how he wished his parents had supported him in pursuing his true love (music). I remember him because when he talked about diffusion, he used the example of a huge unstoppered bottle of perfume at the front of the room, discussing how long it would take for those in the back row to get a good whiff.

You might have a similar teacher from your past, that one individual who helped you understand various aspects of a subject, be they simple or steep, by applying them to what you were already familiar with. It’s a skill you can bring into your writing to similarly lend your concepts some staying power.

And keep in mind: there’s no topic too stodgy for metaphors. If you’re the expert at business budget planning via Excel spreadsheets, and you compare money mismanagement and capital shortages to Axl Rose’s famous tendency to lose track of time, take the stage an hour or three late, and ensure that Guns ‘n’ Roses concerts start with a resonating round of boos . . . you’re not just making a concept clearer to your readers—you’re helping make sure they have some fun along the way.

Metaphors can do for your nonfiction what the family tree does for genealogy: help people *see* the information.

There Once Was a Girl . . . 

(Case Studies and Other Examples)

Another way to bring storytelling to bear on nonfiction involves case studies. These brief anecdotal accounts don’t just give your future publisher something to format in a text box, thus introducing some variety to the actual page appearance; they also provide your readers short bursts of much-needed story.

There’s a reason case studies are so beneficial in persuading readers of whatever argument you’re making. Even if your logic is sound, your research meticulous, and your explanatory wording eloquent, it can be difficult for readers to ground the concepts you’re discussing in the context of day-to-day life. Until, that is, they can “see” the concept in action.

Well, for example:

Sarah Whitmore had always taken umbrage with the idea that men were from Mars while women hailed from Venus. In fact, she could think of a hundred and one reasons why it was more likely that women were ancestral Martians while the first menfolk had called Venus home. Breaking out her yellow legal pad, she began at the beginning.

Number 1 – Second only to Earth, Mars is hospitable to human life, bringing to mind how traditional ideas of femininity encompass a certain prowess for hostessing.

In the same way that many students are visual learners who have to see it demonstrated to grasp it, many readers will truly latch on to the notion you’re elucidating only when you “show” them how the idea looks in real life. Furthermore, these brief threads woven into your nonfiction tome will help satisfy readers’ desire to be entertained along the way, whether they’re learning how to speak a new language, effectively can peaches, or navigate advanced procedures of calculus.

Are you a nonfiction writer hoping to inject a little more story into your work? Would you like a professional perspective on how well your case studies fit with the material and how to make your metaphors stronger? An experienced book editor can help ensure your nonfiction embodies the entertaining and engaging qualities of good fiction.


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