Genre and Nonfiction

This is the second in my Storygridding Nonfiction series.  To read the first, click here.

Who's responsible for the mess in the kitchen?

Who’s responsible for the mess in the kitchen?

“The Story Grid is interesting and all for fiction,” many say to me, “but I’m a journalist and I deal with facts and interview transcripts, you know ‘the truth’ … so it’s not going to be helpful to me.”

Au contraire, mes frères et soeurs.

The Story Grid is a way to clarify your writing intentions, especially for nonfiction writers. Once you know what kind/s of story you want to write, it then provides prescriptive advice to best realize it.

A pile of research with loads of facts, interviews and ephemera does not a compelling nonfiction book make.  But that pile does hold the clues necessary for you the writer to organize those facts and interviews into a compelling argument that puts forth a well-conceived judgment of what exactly the data means.

For example, when my oldest son and I come home from a walk and we find a trail of bread crumbs from the mudroom to the kitchen (fact number one), and we discover a jar of peanut butter on the counter (fact number two), with a butter knife with a glob of peanut butter and raspberry jam soiling one of my finest linen napkins (fact number three) and after interviewing my wife and daughter about their whereabouts the previous hour (they were working through a violin lesson in my daughter’s bedroom), the story that I concoct based upon that information is not difficult to construct.

Nor do I have any worries about third party criticism of my deductive faculties.  I know a mess when I see it and I’m confident in my conclusions about who was responsible.

Here’s what I tell myself.

My youngest son was hungry.

He made himself a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich and did not clean up after himself.

I then judge that behavior to be maladaptive to my requirement of having a clean kitchen.

And when I discover the poor lad sitting on our most expensive couch in the game room eating the hypothetical sandwich that I’d constructed in my mind based upon the evidence, the story in my head is confirmed.

I don’t fear judging the evidence nor do I shy away from condemning the accused. At no point does third party criticism for my jumping to conclusions enter my mind.  I collected the evidence and did the appropriate interviews.  Then I wrote the story in my head about what had happened.

And as any ethical journalist would do, I then ask my youngest son to confirm or deny my story.

Even though he claims innocence, his arguments ring false to me as he’s literally sitting with the sandwich in his hands, so I run the story in my head as truthful and have him clean up the mess in the kitchen. Case closed.

If I had to categorize that peanut butter and jam investigation, is there a story genre I could drop it into?

Of course!

It’s a nonfiction crime story that turns on the global justice/injustice value.  And I’m playing the journalist/master detective solving the “someone has messed up the kitchen” crime.

Or more broadly, it’s Narrative Nonfiction, which is the process whereby the writer analyzes her data, decides which one (or more) of the global fiction content genres fits the evidence, and then organizes her material to tell a compelling tale using fictional narrative structure.

She doesn’t make anything up.  Instead she judges the facts/evidence/data and determines if it fits the bill as an element for a particular global story.  And after much deliberation she settles on one or more genres to best represent the underlying meaning of the evidence.

Obviously, we all do this stuff without thinking.  Storytelling is deeply ingrained in every single human being and we don’t actually subjectively collect data, analyze it etc. before jumping to conclusions.

Something happens…it triggers a quick reaction in our brain and then a familiar story runs in our heads to explain the phenomena.  We either act immediately on that story…or we set it aside while we mull the evidence at a deeper level using some sort of methodology to guide us.

A methodology that can serve as a useful guide to sorting out nonfiction data is The Story Grid.

So Narrative Nonfiction is one of the big broad genres of Nonfiction.  What are the others?

Remember that Genres are those things that tell the audience what to expect.

Here’s mine own personal break down of Nonfiction.  I’ve cobbled my Nonfiction thinking in much the same way I did with my Five Leaf Genre Clover theory for fiction, reading and incorporating other theorists’ thoughts about nonfiction along the way. My goal was to have a “go-to” system to evaluate and make quick decisions when I was an acquisitions editor at the Big Five publishing houses.  And these broad categories serve me well to this day.

I think there are four major forms of nonfiction. What I mean is that these are the big silos that divide the primary grains of nonfiction…the wheat, the rice, the corn, the oats.

So here are my big silos of nonfiction.


These are essays/books that are written for and read by a very focused readership.

These groups of readers are clearly defined, but small in number. As Seth Godin would say, these are Tribal readers dedicated to very specific passions/professions.

The narrative form of the writing is far more about “presenting the findings” than it is about entertaining the reader. The assumption of the writer of academic work is that her readership is absolutely engrossed by the subject matter itself and so really just wants to get the skinny on what it is the writer discovered or what the writer’s particular argument is. These readers don’t need to be spoon-fed the previous data or history of the art. They just want to know the innovative stuff.

An example of Academic writing at a very high level would be Thomas S. Kuhn’s indispensable History of Science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The audience for the book is narrowly defined, aspiring historians of Science or someone trying to fulfill a science requirement at a liberal arts College.

And the prose, while certainly accomplished, uses a lot of words like “henceforth” and has less than captivating chapter titles like Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discoveries. But if you are into this kind of stuff, it doesn’t really matter. The meat on the bone in that book is enough to feed the History of Science nerd for a lifetime. Can you tell it’s one of my favorites?

But because there is a limited market for these sorts of works, the price point is usually quite high. Think about what you paid for your Calculus textbook in College. But some of these books, like Kuhn’s, do break out of the Academic world and go on to reach a wide trade (everyday people) audience. And when they do, the price point falls to pull in that larger crowd.

Wouldn’t you know it?  Kuhn’s book, while absolutely all about Science and the scientific method has applications in other worlds…


These are generally prescriptive books “for the trade audience.”  What that means is that these books are written for the general Joe who wants to learn the best way to plant his garden, without having to enroll at Penn State’s Agricultural school. Or a general Jane who wants to learn how to change the oil in her old Volkswagen Beetle without going to a mechanic’s trade school.

But nowadays, How-To titles are migrating more and more to online courses and/or eBooks offered by straightforward experts in the particular arenas. Laser focused How-to is a great way to build a business today. No need to get Putnam to publish your Knitting Guide just to access the marketplace. If you build your own crowd of followers, they’ll pay you directly for your work. Just as long as the content is exceptional and well laid out and explained, a How-to book is a license to print money.

Examples are the Idiot Guides… and one of my personal favorites Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening books.

Narrative Non-Fiction:

This category has exploded in the past half century. If someone threatened to turn off my Wi-Fi if I didn’t hazard a guess about how this category evolved, I’d say that the movement that gave it its vigor was New Journalism.

Writers like Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Hunter Thompson, Gloria Steinem and Tom Wolfe sit on the Mount Rushmore of New Journalism. And of course the monster book that really set the whole thing over the top was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

What is Narrative Non-Fiction?

It’s completely Story based. That is, it uses the narrative techniques of fiction in order to contextualize reportage. Huh?

In other words, the writer/journalist collects the usual data involved in reporting a story. But instead of just presenting the traditional Who, What, Where, When and How? out of the old-school reporter’s toolbox, New Journalists focused on the Why? something happened.

And the way they did that was to judge the evidence from their reporting and then make a case for their subjective interpretation of the truth behind the event. They clearly answered the question “Why.”

But they didn’t just come right out with a thesis statement of their findings like an academic work. Something like “our culture is so obsessed by celebrity that we’ve artificially alienated ourselves.” Instead, they engaged the reader with their Storytelling skills and layered the theme/controlling idea inside their stories.

Gay Talese’s seminal piece in the April 1966 Esquire Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a pitch perfect example of New Journalism.

Narrative Nonfiction done well is the best of two worlds—data (science) and story (humanities).

I think it’s obvious to everyone today that there is no such thing as an “objective” journalist. There are no unimpeachable Columbia University Masters of Journalism grads out there. Every writer has a subjective point of view and hiding behind a byline no longer remains a credible cloak for our media saturated populace. We all know the POV of The New York Times versus TMZ. Writing for one or the other tells us a lot about the tenor of the words before we read a single one.

What Narrative Nonfiction allows is for that subjective point of view (the writer/journalist) to argue his case. But the journalist can’t just “make things up.” He has to present the “evidence,” the details of the reporting in support of his particular point of view. But more importantly, he can’t just make declarative statements like an academic.

He has to tell a Story…like a novelist or short story writer would.

Gay Talese did not write about what he thought of celebrity. He told the story of trying to interview a celebrity. Big difference. I don’t really care what Gay Talese, the person thinks about celebrity. Nor does anyone else.

But I was enthralled by “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”. By the end of the piece/story, I understood exactly what it was Gay Talese was getting at. He used the truthful details of his experience in a way to convey a theme/controlling idea.

Here are some popular examples of Narrative Nonfiction: Seabiscuit, The Boys on the Boat, The Devil in the White City, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Lion’s Gate, What it Takes…

The Big Idea Book:

The Big Idea Book draws from all three of the nonfiction categories above and when one succeeds, it’s capable of satisfying readers of all three too. Academics appreciate the research cited to support the Big Idea. How-To readers take away actionable steps that they believe can better their lives. And Narrative Nonfiction readers are captivated by the storytelling.

This is why publishers love the Big Idea Book…it can become a blockbuster bestseller.

  • It is Academic in its rigor. There is a crystal clear argument being made in a Big Idea book that the author builds and supports in much the same manner that an academic writer/researcher would. That is, he is making a case for demystifying a particular natural phenomenon and will support his conclusions with the applicable data etc.
  • It is prescriptive for the layman like a How-To book. The writer of the Big Idea book writes for the non-expert, not the specialist. He also contends that there are real world applications of his Big Idea that can change the lives of his readers. So the implied promise is that after you’ve read the Big Idea book, you will have the tools to apply the knowledge imparted in much the same was as you would be able to apply the principles of square foot gardening.
  • With varying degrees of success, it uses Narrative Nonfiction storytelling to impart a deeper theme/controlling idea into the work than just “how to use this knowledge and get a great tomato harvest.”

Examples of Big Idea Books are Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, James Gleick’s Chaos, Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan.

But what about Biography/Autobiography; History; Science; Business? Etc.? Aren’t those nonfiction genres?

Yes, of course. But I think all of those additional and familiar genres can be categorized into one of the four principle nonfiction genres I’ve discussed above.

You can have the Academic Autobiography or the How-To Science book or the Narrative Nonfiction Business book or the Big Idea History book.

The big broad nonfiction categories are useful because they give the writer an inherent structure and a specific audience to consider before they write 100,000 words with little appeal.

So for all of you nonfiction writers out there, think about which of these big four categories your work would best fit.  And then start reading the masterworks for that particular global category.

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  1. Debbie L Kasman on March 24, 2017 at 8:52 am

    Thanks, Shawn! SO helpful!

  2. Hilarie Pozesky on March 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Shawn – I’m a huge fan of your work. But I’m dying to know, where do you put memoir in all of this? With memoir, you’re looking to tell a universal story using part of your own life to illustrate it or make the argument whatever that might be. Anyone out there have thoughts on memoir?

    Thank you!

    • Mary Doyle on March 24, 2017 at 9:11 am

      I’ll look forward to Shawn’s answer on this too Hilarie. I’m betting that memoir will fit into Narrative Nonfiction. I’m remembering Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” and what a page-turner it was.

    • John Shaw on March 24, 2017 at 9:35 am

      I am also curious about Hilarie’s question, and tend to agree with Mary. What say ye, Shawn?

    • Shawn Coyne on March 24, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Hi Hilarie,

      Memoir is usually narrative nonfiction. BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE uses the Action External Genre. THE GLASS CASTLE is a Maturation Internal Genre. DRINKING A LOVE STORY is an Education and/or Redemption Genre. Etc. Memoirs can be academic too like THE DOUBLE HELIX, which was so well told that it mirrored an Action story.

      I could go on and on. It’s absolutely crucial to figure out your Story genre for a memoir. Or else it becomes a seriously boring book report of tens of thousands of dull words.


      • Debbie L. Kasman on March 26, 2017 at 4:31 am

        I’ve been with you since your first StoryGrid post, Shawn, and you’ve taught me a great deal. I’ve just recently figured out (I think) what genre my WIP is (amongst other things). I’ve been working on this for about 4 years and I never would have gotten this far without you. (Thank you so much!!) Here goes:

        I think my WIP is a Big Idea Feminist Career Memoir with a Spiritual twist.

        External Genre: Action Adventure

        Action Sub Genre: Epic Rebellion

        Internal Genre: Worldview Revelation

        External Value at Stake: Life to Unconsciousness to Death to Damnation

        Internal Value at Stake: Stupidity perceived as intelligence (unwilling or incapable of understanding) to Stupidity to Ignorance (lack of wisdom) to Wisdom

        Obligatory Scenes and Conventions: 1. Hero/Victim/Villain 2. Quest with a clear purpose 3. Path/Methodology 4. Sidekick 5. Set Pieces or Sequences that must be solved before the global story can move forward 6. Hero at Mercy of Villain 7. Blatant Statement of Controlling Idea 8. Ethos/Logos/Pathos 9. Irony

        Point of View: Third Person Omniscient; First Person Plural; First Person Omniscient; First Person with Free Indirect Style; Second Person Singular

        Object of Desire: Wants a waking up formula; needs the global truth about systemic discrimination

        Controlling Idea/Theme: Women (and feminine oriented men) will rule the world when we wake up, shatter our internal glass ceilings and heal our deep feminine wounds.

        I’m looking forward to putting a copy of the finished product in your hands (later this year) simply to say, “Thank you. Look what you’ve done!”

        Please keep writing and sharing!

        • Shawn Coyne on March 26, 2017 at 5:28 pm

          Fantastic Debbie! Looks like an incredible story. Keep working.
          All the best,

  3. Mark McGinn on March 24, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    I then judge that behavior to be maladaptive to my requirement of having a clean kitchen.

    Love it!

  4. Sean Crawford on March 24, 2017 at 3:04 pm

    Shawn and others,
    I like how you give nonfiction a place of importance.

    These days I am trying to get into fiction writing, but my tastes keep going towards reading and writing nonfiction, even though I used to be quite the fiction reader when I was younger.

    Maybe New Journalism would be a good compromise for me.

  5. Sue Flemke on March 25, 2017 at 9:00 am

    Thank you for this series! My head is currently in the deep part of the ocean in a perfect storm of where-do-I-go-from-hereness. I’m trying to decide what to write next. I like writing about my experiences but my problem is that it’s very hard to narrow things down. I’ve lately been writing small pieces about people I’ve known. I get a lot of really great feedback on social media from these small bits including declarations from people saying “you should write a book!!” I wouldn’t take that seriously except that they come from other writers and professional friends with nothing to gain by sucking-up.

    This series is helping me weather the storm, as all of your practical guides do. Thank you again!

  6. Regina on March 25, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Put the grid on it! Thanks for the nudge!

  7. Faith Watson on March 27, 2017 at 6:44 am

    This non-fiction topic is truly a gift. Thank you for all of it, but especially the answer about memoirs. Must avoid the dreaded book report.

    I want to connect real stories with real insights. But not everything is about me. Now I realize that without the genre and hook, those nuggets in the stream that shine truth at me might be like my rock collection to others. No one was all that impressed with the backyard quartz…

  8. Kenny Gregs on June 30, 2020 at 7:08 am

    Thanks for this amazing story! I liked your style of writing so much, do you have some recommendations for beginner in this field? I am trying to check the samples from professional writers on this website but if you have some tips and tricks for fiction writing, that would be great.

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