This post was originally published on February 20, 2023, on NFFest.com as part of their 2023 Nonfiction Fest month. After reading this post, pop over to NFFest and read the other informative posts by fabulous nonfiction authors.
I know the struggle well. You research like Ken Burns—widely and deeply— and then face the itty space of a picture book. You sit in front of your laptop, notebook, or notecards…and you freeze. Hours or months tick by. Suddenly, you realize that you’ve spent all your writing time scrolling social media and looking up how tall Channing Tatum is (FYI, he’s 6’1”). At some point, the chirp of insecurity drains your writing energy and clobbers you with the realization that you don’t know your story focus. This common problem has a common solution: create a plan.
First, remember this: Narrative nonfiction is a true story. The most satisfying stories are focused and have depth. In overly simplistic terms, a story is about a character who faces obstacles while in pursuit of a goal. Your character might be a wolf on a nighttime hunt; a dog’s adventure during a war; the Apollo 11 mission; the life cycle of a tornado; a community challenge; an unsung hero who did something notable. Whatever the subject, the specific angle or focus you choose should unfold in your story’s beginning, middle, and end. And for character-driven stories, their ordeal should reveal a universal human truth—a relatable theme.
What is a story focus?
Step one of crafting a plan should be nailing down your story focus. I learned this as a newbie writer while working on a little-known story about a founding father—a topic nobody had yet written about. But I was so enamored with this complex and fascinating character, I crammed his entire life into my spare picture book space. I overwrote that manuscript again and again, as a generalist writer instead of a specialist. I ultimately shoved it in a drawer for years. I’ve since learned that choosing a focused angle for a subject is akin to being a specialist, and that’s what picture book narratives require. An example is my book Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, about an equally multi-dimensional character. That narrative is laser-focused on the events leading up to Lincoln’s close-call duel. You won’t find anything in it about his presidency or the other layers of his life that I learned about during my very deep research. Focus, focus, focus!
The journey is the story
I’m a visual thinker, so when I embark on a new narrative nonfiction story idea, I envision my character climbing a metaphorical mountain. The character’s achievement is the metaphorical summit. Before they reach that achievement and stake their place in history and books, the character overcomes documented obstacles—those avalanches of self-doubt, skepticism from others, proverbial skinned knees, and hard-knock failures and restarts. When they get knocked down, the character pulls themself up and keeps going. Their external and internal journey IS the story! Of course, narrative nonfiction is not formulaic, and some narratives don’t follow the traditional three-act structure. But, as I tell my p.b. bio students, starting with a focused story plan is like having a trail map as a guide. When you know the tried-and-true path, you’re less likely to fall off a cliff and into Channing Tatum’s bio.
Tip: When you find yourself lost in too many details or blocked by overwhelm, begin your plan from the story’s ending. Put your character on the summit of their achievement, which is likely your story resolution. From that satisfying perspective, retrace the character’s steps. Don’t get distracted by your character’s other shiny paths! Follow only the footprints that led to THE achievement/resolution/ending. It’s okay if you must incorporate essential details from other aspects of their life, but only enough to give the character and the journey context. You could even try writing the ending scenes of your book first. Planning from the ending to the beginning can be like plugging your destination into a navigation system.
Need more help boiling your story down to its core? Here are a few overview templates to experiment with. There are subtle differences between them, so try them all until you find the one that fits your needs. Remember that these are intended to be generative, not prescriptive. And, hey, you can use them for fiction, too.
Despite _______________________________________(insert 1-3 relevant obstacles),
my character, __________________________________(name your character),
chooses to ____________________________________(name specific external plot actions),
and ultimately accomplishes ______________________(insert THE notable accomplishment or story climax),
thanks to their________________________________(insert 1-3 specific character traits).
Ultimately, they learn _________________________ (story theme).
During a time when _______________________________________(societal expectation),
my character, _________________________________________________(name),
believed _______________________________________ (the belief or goal that contrasted
Despite ______________________________________ (state 1-3 internal &
external obstacles), (Character name) _____________________________________________
accomplished __________________, thanks to ______________(character traits that reveal the theme).
More than anything, [character name] wants or needs [problem or goal].
While [group or society context that shows what opposed them],
they try to solve the problem by [1st attempt], but they fail because [what went wrong?].
They try again by [2nd attempt but fail because [what went wrong?].
They try again by [3rd attempt] but fail when [insert what went wrong].
Finally, they succeed by [final attempt that’s different] and learn [insert theme].
If you were able to concisely fill in the blanks, congratulations, you have distilled your story to its focused core! Now you can flesh it out into a scene-by-scene outline or start writing. But first, buckle up for a bonus exercise.
Bonus: Turn your Summary into a Pitch
Why wait until your manuscript is completed to write a sparkly pitch that would be perfect for submitting to agents or editors? Write it now as an exercise to boost your confidence and cement your narrative goal firmly in your mind. Simply flesh out your earlier exercise into a ~100-word summary. You can thank me later!
Here’s an example of how I used focus elements to craft a ~100-word summary for the autobiographical picture book that Billy Mills and I wrote, coming in 2024. The tight story focus for Wings of an Eagle: The Gold Medal Dreams of Billy Mills is clear. You know exactly what the book is about, from Billy’s challenges to the themes of chasing a dream and giving back. Is it perfect? Certainly not! There are many ways I could smooth its rough edges. But it’s almost the exact pitch that accompanied the manuscript that was acquired by Little, Brown Books in a pre-empt.
He faced poverty on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was orphaned by age 12, developed a debilitating health condition, and struggled against extreme racism, but Billy Mills persevered against all odds by chasing a dream. In 1964, he became the first American to win Olympic Gold in the 10,000-meter event—the second Native American in history to win Gold in any Track & Field event, after Jim Thorpe. Billy knew then that it was time for his traditional Lakota Giveaway. He stepped off the winner’s podium and into a life of service, helping Indigenous people worldwide.
Now that you’ve added planning tools to your narrative nonfiction writing gear, you’re ready to scale your own picture book mountain without getting overwhelmed or lost. So, what are you waiting for?