A version of this article first appeared on Entrepreneur.com on May 14, 2020.
Humans seem hardwired to consume and enjoy stories. Fictional stories shape the way we think, affect how we act, and influence our choices.
One study revealed that “good storytelling” increased cooperation within a Filipino hunter-gatherer population. And Alexander the Great slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad next to him every night, a fictional story he used as a blueprint for his conquests. That story drove his choices and changed history.
The average adult spends about 6 percent of his or her time every day engrossed in fictional stories. Evolutionary theorists have attempted to understand why humans are so eager to consume fiction. But a nonfiction writer doesn’t need to know why, only that.
By leveraging this human proclivity for powerful stories, nonfiction writers can vastly improve the quality of the books they’re writing.
Narrative nonfiction and emotionally powerful prose
Narrative nonfiction, also known as creative nonfiction, is a style of nonfiction writing that uses an approach similar to fiction writing. For example, the nonfiction book might follow the story arc very precisely and have a clearly defined beginning, middle, climax, and end.
The primary purpose of fiction is to entertain. There are many advanced skills writers can use to up the entertainment value of their business books. These skills include emotionally powerful prose, changes in rhythm, smooth shifts in pacing, and vivid descriptions.
The way to learn all these advanced methods is to read a lot of fiction.
I’m a big fan of narrative nonfiction. Whenever someone wants a book written, I try and persuade him or her to use this method of writing if possible. My purpose when working with writers is to ensure the book they are writing will be read from beginning to end. Making the book entertaining is key.
Leverage the five senses
Description using the five senses is an excellent way to suck your reader into your story. The more engrossed your reader is, the deeper the emotional impact of your narrative.
This applies to business books, memoirs, general nonfiction, self-help, and many other nonfiction subgenres.
Too much description, however, can make a book boring. The way to learn what is “too much” or “too little” is to read a lot of popular fiction. The best fiction books use the senses of taste, smell and touch to bring the readers into the story and so involve them emotionally.
Brand perception has a lot to do with emotional responses, so this is a vital skill to learn when writing nonfiction.
Pick up the pace and capture the interest
Whether you’re telling an anecdote or writing about your life’s story, modifying the pacing of the story goes a long way towards evoking powerful emotions in people.
Thrillers are particularly good at this, especially near the end of the story. Two writers who do this expertly are Harlan Coben and Lee Child.
By shortening sentences and paragraphs, you immediately accelerate the narrative pace. The same is achieved by shifting quickly from scene to scene.
If you were writing a sales book, you could make readers inch forward in their seats and grip their books (or e-readers) a little tighter by writing a fast-paced anecdote of a million-dollar deal. You could jump back and forth between the manager, the salesperson, and maybe even the spouse waiting outside their child’s school, eagerly awaiting a call to know if the deal went through — or if they just lost the house!
Not only will the chapter be exciting, but it will also be memorable.
Anything can be turned into a story if you know how to do it
Once, I worked with an author who had very little to write about other than a short system.
So, we hacked away and worked out how to fill the book with narratives and emotional beats from beginning to end. What began as a lukewarm book quickly became a riveting read.
It does take a bit of smart thinking to figure out how to add emotionally powerful narratives to a book. Reading a lot of good fiction teaches you how to do it and pays off when your business book flies off the shelves.