Soon after I committed myself to storygrid Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, I had heart palpitations. I had a handle on the global external Genre (The Big Idea Nonfiction Book) and a sense of the conventions and obligatory scenes inherent in it, but I didn’t have any idea of what the overarching “Story” of the book was.
Was there even an overarching Story in there? Or was it just a really well argued extra long thesis paper that moved between ethos scenes, logos scenes and pathos scenes?
I came up with all sorts of ideas that lead nowhere until I just decided to calm down, take my time and re-read the thing. Not as an Ivory Tower editor looking to sort through the words and sentences and paragraphs and line breaks to uncover their structural design, but just as a regular Joe wanting to be entertained by a good yarn.
Still nothing came to mind about how to begin storygridding this puppy after yet another fly through the book.
Yes, the book held me spellbound as it has numerous times before. And yet again I got sucked into the multitude of stories Gladwell weaves in there like a summer camp counselor around the fire pit, but I was nowhere closer to getting a flat edge into the interior Story.
Desperate, I then did something that I never do.
I delved into the publisher created “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the paperback edition.
I’ve been in the book business so long that I witnessed firsthand how the whole “Reading Group Guide” thing evolved. Years ago, no one would have dreamed of printing a bunch of author answers to softball questions posed by the publisher’s marketing department at the back of an actual book.
Who would care?
But in the early 1990s what publishers discovered was that there were actually people who got together monthly to discuss a book that they’d all read. They were usually groups of women. And wouldn’t you know it, if you took a survey of the books these groups were reading, they were either the latest bestseller from a popular author or an unknown author whose book would soon become a word of mouth sensation.
In order to better serve these groups and perhaps induce them to choose one of their titles, publishers began creating guides that gave these groups fodder for discussion. The guides were usually Q&As with the author…ideally questions that readers in the group would actually want asked themselves.
Today, it’s hard not to find a reading group guide at the back of a paperback novel or popular work of nonfiction.
But being the grizzled vet that I am, I’ve skipped reading these guides myself…thinking I would learn nothing from whatever it is the author had to say to obvious questions.
So it is not without irony that one of the first questions asked of Malcolm Gladwell in the Reading Group Guide to The Tipping Point is:
How would you classify The Tipping Point?
All of those who’ve read and followed the tonnage of verbiage I’ve written here have probably just slapped their foreheads with the meat of their favored palms.
I certainly did when I read that question. Because it’s another way of asking the very first question an editor/author must answer when then begin their editorial work. You can read about the editor’s six core questions here.
The first question an editor/author must answer is:
“What’s the Genre?”
Here is how Gladwell answers the question:
I like to think of it as an intellectual adventure story.
Now, I can guarantee you that Malcolm Gladwell did not use The Story Grid to help him write or edit The Tipping Point. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that he understood exactly what he was trying to accomplish with the book. And while he certainly understood that he was writing in the arena of Big Idea Nonfiction Books like The Medium is the Message or Future Shock, Gladwell chose to write a Story too.
He wanted it to have the feel, the sensibility, and most importantly the narrative velocity of an action/adventure Story. But instead of the lead character of his book pursuing a bad guy or a prize or a stolen nuclear warhead, Gladwell wanted his lead character to pursue an idea. Not just pursue it, but attack it with all of the vim and vigor of Bruce Willis in Die Hard.
And if you’ve read The Tipping Point, you’ll agree that he achieved that goal.
Okay, so now I’m feeling a bit better. I now know the External Genre: Big Idea Nonfiction and I know the Internal Genre of The Tipping Point: Adventure Revelation, because I got it directly from the mouth of the author. That’s great.
But isn’t “Adventure” a sub-genre of fiction’s Action Genre? You know my whole Genre Five Leaf Clover thing? Which begs the question:
Can you apply the same Story structure principles of fiction that I laid out in The Story Grid, to nonfiction too?
I’m not sure is my answer.
Now you can see why I was terrified of storygridding The Tipping Point.
But here’s a thing I’m positive about. I believe that we all intuitively understand Story Structure. It’s in our DNA. And the other thing I’m positive about is that an editor has to listen to the artist/writer…especially when he clearly answers a critical editorial question.
There is a reason why Malcolm Gladwell classifies The Tipping Point as an adventure story.
To write like he can requires thousands and thousands of hours of reading behind it. I suspect Gladwell is a real reading nerd. I’ll bet he read Treasure Island a million times as a kid. I’ll bet he reads anywhere and anytime he can. [A friend of mine went to a party one night and found Gladwell perched on a stool in the corner of the coat closet reading a book while everyone else was getting loaded…my kind of guy.]
So when Malcolm Gladwell says he wrote an adventure story…I’m going to listen to him and approach the book from that editorial vantage point.
And I’m going to apply what I know about adventure stories to his work…even if it is nonfiction.
More to come.
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