Storytelling for Nonfiction Writers

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by Hannah Earthman
Fiction and Nonfiction Book Editor

People love their stories—a phenomenon that writers may understand and count on to a greater extent than the average Joe. But are you, as a nonfiction writer, 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.

eleve-ecrivant-800pxWhether 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.

Metaphors for Manual Writers

I still fondly remember my college biology professor, and not just because he was thoughtful enough to look the other way when I skipped out on that whole finger-pricking experiment. 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 person 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 long-term business budget planning via Excel spreadsheets, and you compare coming up short on funds due to mismanagement 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.

Case Studies

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 look of the page; 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” these concepts 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 only truly latch onto the notion you’re elucidating 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.


HANNAH EARTHMAN is an experienced editor whose background in publishing also includes reviewing books, conducing author interviews, and serving as a literary agent.

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