Big Idea Nonfiction

Big Idea Nonfiction

This is the third post in my Story Gridding Nonfiction series.  To read the first, click here.  To read the second, click here.

In the last post, I broke down all of nonfiction into four large categories, the big kahuna genres.

A good guy to follow...Marcus Aurelius points the way

A good guy to follow…Marcus Aurelius points the way

They are:

  1. Academic
  2. How-To
  3. Narrative Nonfiction


  1. Big Idea

What I love about the fourth category, Big Idea, is that it combines elements of the three other big categories. It’s a Genre-meld of sorts akin to fiction’s Thriller genre, which combines elements of Action, Horror and Crime into its narrative gumbo.

The War of Art is a perfect example of a Big Idea Nonfiction book.

As we all know, it combines the Academic (Jungian psychology) with How-To (the second part of the book “Turning Pro” prescribes a course of action) and Narrative Nonfiction (in this case Steve’s backstory as struggling amateur transforming into blue collar professional).

So how did Steve pull this neat trick off?

Let’s Story Grid an answer.

We know that the fiction Genres manage audience expectations and that the ways Genres do that is by having conventions and obligatory scenes.

Can the same be said for Nonfiction Genres too?


So what are the conventions and obligatory scenes of Big Idea Nonfiction?

Here’s what I think:

  1. The first convention is obvious.

There must be an overarching Big Idea that is both a surprising and audacious assertion and an inevitable conclusion by the story’s end.

Does that phrase ring a bell? It should because it is the same thing required of a great fiction Story. Remember David Mamet’s quote from Bambi vs. Godzilla on what makes a Story work?

“They start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”

A Big Idea Book needs this kind of premise and payoff too.

Let’s check to see if The War of Art delivers this convention.

Steve puts forth at the beginning of the book that there is an enemy within all of us intent on destroying our creative actions. (Creative dreams are a-okay with this enemy, but actually doing something to bring them to fruition is a no-no.)

He names this enemy Resistance.

The payoff of the book is that the only way to create something is to engage this enemy every single day of our lives. That is, we must wage a moment by moment war with the creature within in order to release our inner gifts.  Resistance is a thing that keeps on coming no matter if we have a Billion dollar bank account, an Oscar on the shelf or a Nobel prize.

It’s a war to the death to release our inner genius.

Surprising and audacious idea? Yes. To name and define the enemy within was a huge innovation in the “creative process” pantheon. Creativity is not soft and warm and safe as we’ve been led to believe. It’s a freaking war!

An inevitable conclusion based on the premise? Yes. The only way to release your creativity is to get in the ring with Resistance and refuse to quit.

  1. The second convention of the Big Idea Book is that the writer uses all three of the classic forms of argument/persuasion to make his case. Those three forms come from Aristotle.

They are:

  1. Ethos
  2. Logos
  3. Pathos

They are delivered through the writer’s choice of narrative technique, i.e. how he or she chooses to address the reader. His or her point of view/voice.

More on these in the next post.

  1. The third convention of the Big Idea Book is to tease the reader with narrative cliffhangers. That is, the writer makes judicious use of the novelist’s tools to create narrative drive…mystery, suspense and dramatic irony. Without narrative drive a Big Idea Book will fizzle and the reader will abandon it.

The way a Big Idea writer can keep the reader glued to the page is by regulating the amount of information he gives the reader. Not too much and not too little. Just enough.

This is an indispensable element of Narrative Nonfiction too.

The War of Art is built with a simple narrative engine fueled by three fundamental questions…

Why is it so hard to create?

How can I train myself to create?

Is creating really that important?

  1. A must have obligatory scene/moment in a Big Idea book is what I call the “Big Reveal,” which is the moment in which the reader discovers that what he’s always believed about a particular phenomenon is spectacularly wrong.

This “Big Reveal” is akin to the global story climax in a novel.

Steve used his Big Reveal as the title for his book…The War of Art. So did Malcolm Gladwell…The Tipping Point. And then they both delivered impeccable arguments to support their audacious Big Ideas.

  1. Other obligatory scenes deliver “evidence.” These are the case studies, data, etc. from reliable and respected sources to support the Big Idea. More on this too in the next post about ethos/logos/pathos.

These obligatory scenes are the fundamental element of Academic Nonfiction.

  1. Also obligatory are prescriptive, how-to scenes/advice to apply the knowledge revealed from the Big Idea to everyday life.

This is the fundamental element of How-To Nonfiction.

  1. Lastly, entertaining anecdotes have become obligatory in the Big Idea Book, what I like to think of as “cocktail conversation fodder.” These are little bits of Story that the reader can  march out to enthrall strangers at social gatherings. These bits are sticky, easy to remember and spread to friend or acquaintance.

Why have I taken the time to put forth my ideas about conventions and obligatory scenes/moments for the Big Idea Nonfiction book?

There’s a very good chance that I’ve missed a few or perhaps given too much weight to one over the others.

That is, who’s to say that my interpretation is the be all and end all? I certainly wouldn’t.

But here’s the thing.

If you wish to improve as a writer, an editor, or a human being for that matter, you need to constantly challenge yourself with little puzzles. Why did that book sell so many copies? Why did that other book never hit a bestseller list but is the gold standard for its tribe? How many different kinds of my favorite Genre are there? What do I know that others find fascinating? And on and on.

You need to expose yourself to all sorts of phenomena and think about why it is what it is and where it fits into the universe. What is its substance and material?

What Marcus Aurelius called “causal nature.”

The way you do that is to make judgments.

You need to think deeply about the art you admire and ask yourself this simple question…

“If (insert the omnipotent power of your choice) were to descend from the heavens and demand that I create my masterpiece right this very moment or face a one way ticket to oblivion, how would I do that?”

The way I would do that is to think deeply about how the great works I admire work…and then apply the principles inherent in them to guide me.

We can learn a lot more from The War of Art and The Tipping Point than just the staggering Big Ideas they so brilliantly put forth.

With some analysis using storytelling structure as our methodology, we can learn how Pressfield and Gladwell put all of their book’s pieces together to form a seemingly effortless true story.

Next up is a deeper look at the ethos, logos, and pathos nonfiction trinity and how they are employed in the Big Idea Book.



via Steven Pressfield

April 6, 2017 at 08:28PM


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