Why Nonfiction Needs to Tell a Story

Authors have a plethora of motives for writing a nonfiction book. Sometimes they seek to educate the reader with a message or lesson. Other times they have an experience to share. Regardless of the reason an author chooses to write nonfiction, they need to be aware of why the majority of people read in order to be successful (as in selling lots of books successful).

Readers read for entertainment. Even the readers who seek to learn from their books choose nonfiction texts arranged in a story format over those that only convey cut and dry facts. People pick a specific book because they find its concept, characters, conflict, and causality interesting. As humans, our brains are wired to recognize and engage with stories.


People Are Wired For Stories: The Four C’s

A well-executed story is not only entertaining; it’s also easy to understand and remember. The human mind is set up to engage with stories because of their structure. I’m not talking about the three act structure or any other common plot convention. The structure our brains are wired to respond to is even more basic. Stories are memorable because of the Four C’s: concept, conflict, character, and causality.

1. Concept

Concept is the unusual, different, or compelling part of a story that draws people in. Do not confuse this with the story’s message. While a message can also be unique, it is a lesson or truth the author is attempting to convey. An interesting concept is the twist to a familiar story like Stephanie Meyer's Cinder, where Cinderella is a cyborg in a future society. It is the idea that a whiff of perfume in the early morning can be a message for a perceptive hospice nurse in Linda Kinnamon’s memoir Alchemy of the Afterlife. Concept is the idea of your story. What aspect of your nonfiction story is unique? Highlight that point to make your piece stand out from other books focusing on your subject or theme.

Concept can also cover the context or setting of a story. What time period, location, and environment is the backdrop for your tale? Readers have a much easier time remembering information if it is grounded in a specific place, time, room, moment, etc.

2. Conflict

Conflict is what sets a story apart from a series of events or thoughts. It is the struggle, the opposition, the obstacle, and the point of the story. It is the complications standing between the characters and their goal. Often the most important element, conflict is what makes a piece a story. It doesn’t have to be a disagreement or battle between two people. It can be an internal battle to overcome something from the past, change, or grow. It can be external like a hurricane, equipment malfunction, or pathogen. In Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, a major conflict is author Christopher McDougall trying to repair his injured body. This leads to his quest for knowledge, solutions, healing, and the answer to what the human body can really do.

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, what adversity did you face? Bring that conflict out. A reader might pick up your book and look at the back cover because you have an interesting concept, but they will read your book for the conflict.

3. Character

young black man in pink shirt with quizzical facial expression represents character in nonfiction.jpg

Characters that feel like real – and interesting – people keep readers invested in a story. When a person picks up the next book in a series or watches the next episode of a TV show, it is because they want more time with the characters. Characters become real through action, not a list of attributes. In Alchemy of the Afterlife, Kinnamon doesn’t say she was a dedicated, caring nurse; instead she gets up crazy early every day, works over time, and makes extra visits to see to her patients’ needs. She shows the reader her dedication and caring in a way that says more than a list of her qualities ever could.

As the author and the character, it might feel strange and vulnerable to describe yourself, but it is essential. If your readers don’t connect with you on a human level, they won’t continue to read your book. If you’re writing about someone or something else, it can be a little easier to reach the needed level of characterization. In nonfiction, you have to be willing to reveal everything about the people of your book, including yourself; otherwise your readers will feel like you’re withholding information (lying) or shallow.

4. Causality

Causality is the connective tissue of a story and, like conflict, essential to making a list of events a story. The other three C’s make a story interesting, causality makes it just predictable enough to keep readers guessing. Causality is the trail of events causing each other to happen. It is the connection between McDougall’s leg injury and his quest for the running limits of the human body in Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Readers follow McDougall’s journey and training and speculate whether or not he will successfully complete an ultramarathon. 

People like to be challenged but not too challenged. Because readers are familiar with and wired to understand basic story structure, they can take new information provided in a story and infer what it might mean without having everything explicitly spelled out and without having to work so hard they become frustrated. This is the optimal mindset for engaging with a subject and learning and possible because of causality. It is also why people can “read between the lines” of a text. By understanding how stories usually work, readers can see what an author/character isn’t saying along with what they are saying. They can follow the causality and engage with the story.

 satelite view of city at night demonstrates neural map of causality in story

The connection between the basic elements of story helps readers remember information delivered in this form. The Four C’s act as a roadmap. If a reader remembers a character, they can use that character to remember the conflict, concept, and causality and all the other aspects of the story an author might want them to remember. Our brains are programed to arrange, store, and recall information through stories.


Other Fiction Techniques to Apply to Nonfiction

Scenes: Show Don’t Tell

In order to really make the Four C’s work and come to life, authors need to show events in scene, not just summarize them. This is where you describe the people in your story, so readers feel like these people are real and the conflicts they face matter. The concept goes from an idea to a reality when you give it the attention, space, description, and words it deserves.

 kids jumping with a ball outside shows what action and in scene looks like

A scene is an in the moment account of what happens. When you describe the cold spring wind whipping your hair in your face as you approach the coffee shop where you will meet the girl who will consume the next three years of your life, you are in scene. Readers want to not only know what happened, but feel what happened. They want to be transported to that defining moment.

Use The Five Senses

The five senses bring the setting, characters, and conflict into focus, so readers can imagine what it felt like to be the subject of your book. Many new authors rely on sight to describe the environment, but a cold spring wind can reveal just as much, so can your character’s reaction to the bitter chemical smell of fertilizer. In Alchemy of the Afterlife scents and touches are particularly important in order to understand what Kinnamon experienced when her patients tried to communicate with her and passed away. The five senses help make the story real and bring your scenes to life.

Eliminate Backstory

In fiction, unnecessary information and history can bog the story down and make readers lose interest. The same is true in nonfiction. Readers don’t care about an autobiographer’s daily bathroom routine, unless it has something to do with building the character, concept, causality or conflict. The only parts readers care about are the shattering ones. The moments that changed the character or some other aspect of the story forever. Ask yourself what does this information add to the story? Is it necessary? If not, cut it and move onto something more gripping. This is why memoir is the most popular form of nonfiction: it (ideally) only focuses on the interesting parts.


 two lane road between giant red rocks represents story in nonfiction

An Editor’s Thoughts on Nonfiction

I must confess I don’t read a lot of nonfiction because it doesn’t often have enough of a story. Unless I’m studying a particular subject like morticians and mortuaries for a story, paper, or work, I’m not very likely to pick up a piece of nonfiction on my downtime. When I read for fun, I want to be entertained. I want the Four C’s, scenes, the five senses, limited backstory, and more. I don’t want a list of events in someone’s life. If you want your nonfiction book to appeal to a wide audience of readers to people who aren’t already interested in your subject or you, then you need to tell a story.

There are several variations of the Four C’s of story. I was first exposed to them at an educator’s convention and have found the general concept remains the same regardless of which “c” words are used. If you want to learn more about them, I suggest starting with Ask the Cognitive Scientist’s “The Privileged Status of Story” and “The 4 Cs of Storytelling” by Eduardo Suastegui.

Now it’s time for you to use the Four C’s of story structure – concept, conflict, character, and causality – and elements from fiction to Ignite Your Ink!


What are your thoughts on the Four C’s – the basic story structure? Leave them in the comments below. If you’re interested in learning more about any of the books I used as examples, click on their image. For a list of writing books I find particularly useful, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink blog.

 Caitlin Berve sitting on a park bench in a green dress

Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.