Editor, children’s nonfiction @ Sourcebooks eXplore
When I read a nonfiction manuscript, the first thing I gauge is not the facts or the subject matter, but what the book feels like. Is it funny? Is it nostalgic? Is it triumphant? Is it whimsical? That feeling matters so much to me because facts stick better when tied to emotions. The truth becomes real when my heart, not just my head, is convinced of it.
One of the best ways to tie facts to emotions is through storytelling techniques. This is why nonfiction, like fiction, needs to tell a good story. I’ve unpacked a few of the elements I look for whenever reviewing manuscripts here:
- Every good story has a theme, or core message. It’s what the book is all about. It’s that nagging question about the universe the author has been dying to answer. And it’s not enough for YOU to care about this question about the universe. You have to wonder why the reader — and in this case, the child — would ask that same question. Then you give them a reasonable, age-appropriate answer, woven throughout the piece. Theme is the reason the reader grabs the book off the shelf. It’s the reason your story wants to exist.
- Every good story also has conflict, or tension. This happened, and this happened, and this happened is boring. This happened because this happened because that happened is much more interesting. This happened because so-and-so made it happen despite all the odds is even more interesting. In most cases, conflict is often already there in the “stuff” of your story; you just have to dig it out! And in children’s books, that tension might come about in simple, natural ways: in opposites, in mysteries, in irony, in surprises, in questions, in incomplete thoughts before page turns, etc. Without conflict, the work will fall flat. Tension keeps the reader reading.
- Every good story has a structure, or a way of organizing the content to carry the reader along and help them absorb the story. In nonfiction, there are many common structures: rhyming stanzas, questions and answers, repeating key phrases, the three-act narrative, step-by-step formulas, and more. The question is not only does your book have a structure, but what structure fits your book best? Does your chosen structure add to or take away from the theme, tone, and tension of the book? Without structure, the reader will feel lost while reading.
- Every good story has a protagonist, or main character who is on a journey. In nonfiction, it doesn’t always make sense to have a protagonist, but there are many instances where it does. The protagonist might be the person the biography is about, the animals who are trying to survive the winter, the earth facing climate change, etc. If you have a protagonist, by the end of the book, something needs to have changed in them so that something changes in the reader too. The protagonist’s experiences help the reader connect to the story on a personal, emotional, and visceral level.
- Finally, every good story knows what it is and what it isn’t. Some people tie this in with theme, which I’ve already described, but I call it something else: humility. The best storytellers don’t try to do too much with their manuscript. They find the heartbeat of the story and stay as close to that heartbeat for as long as possible. (And they gladly say no to everything else that tries to push and prod its way onto the page!) Then they let the story go. They offer it to the reader as a gift.
Good stories have many other elements, such as plot, pacing, antagonism, and more. I chose not to dive into those because they often overlap with the elements already mentioned, and this blog post can only be so long. 🙂 But to sum these ideas up:
- Know why your book needs to exist.
- Know what conflict already exists inside the content, and dig that out.
- Know what structure serves your content best, and surrender to it.
- Know if your story needs a main character for the reader to follow along with.
- Know the heartbeat of the story, and stay as close to that as possible.
- Be willing to say no to anything that doesn’t belong.
It’s clear to a reader when an author hasn’t figured these things out yet. Don’t worry — this doesn’t mean they can’t be figured out! It probably means the manuscript just needs a little more time and revising.
At the end of the day, nonfiction children’s writers want the same thing: to help children understand the world around them and how they fit into it! Using storytelling techniques to tie the reader’s emotions to the facts can only assist you in accomplishing this goal, and everyone (especially the children!) will be better served for it.
Learn more about Anna here: https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/anna-sargeant/