On Setting & Structure in Narrative Nonfiction

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How do you structure a nonfiction narrative? Where do you set it?

Until you can answer these two questions, you really can’t start writing your book.

small town main street

Credit Image: svenstorm on Flickr

In recent years, I’ve been privileged to coauthor books with some of the most inspirational people of our time. I coauthored The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch, who celebrated life’s possibilities even as he was dying of cancer. I was the collaborator on Highest Duty, the memoir by “Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a crippled jet in New York’s Hudson River. And most recently, I coauthored GABBY: A Story of Courage and Hope with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly.

Each of these books needed an arc, a way to carry readers from the first page to the last.

For The Last Lecture, we decided that the book would begin when Randy agreed to give his now-famous lecture. He’d step on stage, and as the book continued, he’d tell of his adventures, and all the lessons he wanted his students – and his young children -- to embrace after he was gone. The book would end not in his death but in the very final moment of his lecture.

For Sully’s memoir, we decided to structure the book around all the moments of his life, and all his past flying experiences, that led him to be able to perform at his best that day over the Hudson River. It isn’t until page 206, two-thirds of the way through the book, that readers are finally with him in the cockpit of that damaged plane. But by then, it’s clear to them that this man has the experience, the smarts and the courage to see that plane to safety.

For GABBY, we chose to set the book in the seven months after Gabby Giffords was shot in the head while meeting with constituents. Almost every chapter begins with her in rehab, working incredibly hard to learn how to talk and walk again. Through flashbacks, this structure allows readers to learn about Mark’s and Gabby’s careers, their intriguing childhoods, and most of all, the love between them. The first 22 chapters are in Mark’s voice. The final chapter is in Gabby’s.

I wrote another nonfiction book, The Girls from Ames, about eleven friends now in their forties who grew up together in Ames, Iowa. I’ve since called in to hundreds of book clubs about that book, and I’m often asked about how I chose to structure it. The entire book is set at a reunion the Ames girls had in June 2008. Each chapter begins at that get-together, but through their memories, I was able to write about the four decades of their relationship. (Not every reader agreed with my decision to organize the book this way. When I spoke to women’s book clubs, I took to heart their comments and criticisms. Maybe they were right!)

For my latest book, I wanted to write a nonfiction narrative about the love we all wish for our daughters. As the father of three girls, it was a topic close to my heart. But where would I set such a book? I had considered maternity wards, daddy-daughter dances, spas were mothers and daughters go to vacation. But then my wife said, “There’s something about a wedding dress ... ” which led me to the Magic Room at Becker’s Bridal in Fowler, Michigan.

When I entered this special room, and learned of all the emotional moments it had seen, I knew I’d found the setting for my book. The Magic Room became the center of the story, a place for me to introduce the brides who ventured there, before reaching more deeply into their lives, their histories, and the love their parents wished for them.

Randy on stage at his lecture.

Sully in the cockpit.

Gabby in rehab.

The Ames girls at their reunion.

The brides in the Magic Room.

Once a story has a structure and a setting, it’s exciting to start building it, carefully and respectfully, piece by piece. In a way, I become just a messenger, helping people – both the famous and the little known – find and explain the lessons of their lives. For me it’s a great responsibility, and also a great honor.

Editor's Note: We sincerely regret the passing of Jeffrey Zaslow on February 10, 2012. We enjoyed his work and his commentary. Our deepest sympathies go out to Jeffrey's family and friends. -Rita


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