Secrets of Writing the Big Idea Book, Part One

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Are you writing a nonfiction Big Idea Book or interested in learning how? Are you curious about the structure of the story that has become crucial to human evolution, vital to our basic survival, and capable of extrapolating what makes us human?

I don’t know about you but there is nothing I love reading more than a Big Idea Book. I love that, for several dollars and a few hours of my time, I can skip through all the drama the writer went through and suck up all the knowledge they’re willing to share. I appreciate that they’ve suffered so I don’t have to. I love holding the author’s cheat sheet in my hands and mind, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over years of studying the structure of the Big Idea Book so you can produce a similar book with much less suffering.

You have an innate ability to manifest what you are passionate about, what you put your energy into, what you intend to create, and there are some simple, if not easy, steps you can go through to create the book you want to provide the world. Here, I’ll reveal an invisible mesh-like structure that holds these stories together. I’ll help you decipher that mesh and unlock your readers’ understanding of their world via the idea you want to share in your own Big Idea Book.

To get there, let’s examine the genre basics of the Big Idea Book.

Need to get familiar with the Story Grid’s categorization of genres first? A refresher is here.


Uh Oh. Did you notice that the Big Idea Book isn’t delineated on the Story Grid Genre Clover? Let look at the Big Idea from its core.

The mesh backing the Big Idea framework is the Worldview Revelation story. It’s hardwired in our brains. It’s a story that pervades all of human societies because it’s become how we think about absorbing ideas. The Worldview story within the Big Idea Book both reveals the author’s growth and offers a prescription for growth to the reader. This mesh is navigated via the Heroic Journey and is usually driven by a secondary external genre.

Don’t worry, we’re going to break this down together.

We’ll delve into an overview of the Big Idea narrative and master the Worldview Revelation story. We’ll also be ringing them both inside out to reveal the secrets of writing a compelling and persuasive Big Idea Book. Basically, the Big Idea book is a combination of the academic, narrative nonfiction, Worldview, and how-to genres. It is primarily an internal genre. It is about change for the narrator and the reader.

While all stories are about change, the Big Idea protagonist is you (the author, just like in Memoir) and you must demonstrate how you changed by overcoming something within yourself. You must show how you gave up a want in order to get what you needed; likely a new and more mature, clear, meaningful or informed view of life. Somehow, against great odds, you managed to integrate a new way of thinking into your life and it changed your circumstances for the better.

Offer this compelling story to the reader, add the supporting data to explain why this worked, and then offer your reader a prescription for achieving similar results, and you’ll have one heck of a Big Idea Book.

Let’s get specific and break these big tasks down into smaller ones via Story Grid methods.

First, let’s look at “the why.”

We’re all drawn to Big Idea Books for similar reasons.

The core emotion is what a reader wants to feel–the reason they choose a particular type of story.

The core emotion the reader feels at the end of the Big Idea Book is relief or satisfaction when you (the protagonist, the author) learn what is essential in time to avoid disaster; or pity and horror when you find out too late. The Big Idea reader especially wants to gain knowledge without having to earn it the hard way like you did. They want the reward without the risk.

While the journey you went on as the author protagonist may be either prescriptive or cautionary, the journey you take your reader on is always prescriptive. You are going to save them the time and trouble you invested in exchange for their time and financial investment in your story. You will help them draft a narrative around their own possibilities, limitations, decisions and need for change.

What is a Worldview Revelation story within the Big Idea Book?

The Revelation story is about a shift in worldview from ignorance to knowledge, through the revelation of previously hidden information.

As Shawn Coyne demonstrates in the Story Grid Gas Gauge of Need, a Worldview story is driven by the human need for self-actualization.

In the Big Idea version of the story, you–the author protagonist–were looking for self-actualization in researching and writing the book.

Your reader’s desire is to attain that self-actualization for themselves.

You and your reader are not concerned with staying alive (as in an Action story), or with safety and security (as in a Crime story), but with fulfilling your talents and your potential, making sense of the world, and understanding your role in it.

Both you and the reader start out by lacking some crucial knowledge. Your story arc is a change in both attitude and action as the missing knowledge is revealed.

What are the values at stake?

The global value at stake in all Worldview Revelation stories is ignorance vs wisdom. That value–the desire to move from ignorance to wisdom yourself–motivate you to write the Big Idea Book, and it is the value change you hope to invoke in your reader.

What’s the controlling idea of a Worldview Story?

A story’s controlling idea is the “lesson” your reader comes away with, the meaning they apply to your story. Also called a theme, it’s the single sentence summing up the argument your story attempts to prove through narrative. While in fiction, the controlling idea is usually only implied, in your Big Idea Book, it must be explicit and transparent.

If your story is positive, your controlling idea will go something like this:

Right action is possible only when we have clear knowledge of reality;

If your story is negative, you’ll have a controlling idea like this:

Disaster reigns when we live in ignorance of reality.

You controlling idea needs to be succinct. It must describe the climactic value shift of the global story, and the cause of that shift.

What are genre conventions and why do we need them?

Here’s how Coyne explains Conventions:

“They are elements in the Story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled or so bored out of their skull that no matter how beautiful the sentences, they’ll quit reading. Conventions are not obligatory scenes…they are specific requirements in terms of the Story’s cast or methods in moving the plot forward (minor revelatory turning points that must be there but can be weaved into the story at the writer’s discretion).”

To work, your story must meet all of the conventions of the Big Idea Book and most of the conventions of the Worldview Genre.

What are the conventions of the Big Idea Book?

  • The overarching Big Idea is both surprising and inevitable. You need an intriguing premise and a pay-off. In the Big Reveal, you show the reader that what they previously believed about the topic is incomplete or wrong.
  • Ethos: Persuade the reader. Aristotle described this an appeal to ethics. You convince the reader of your credibility and authority in the subject matter. You show why they should trust you on the topic. You demonstrate your character.
  • Pathos: Persuade the reader. This is your appeal to reader emotion. Your argument creates an emotional response via your impassioned story and anecdotes. Make your reader angry, sad, and laugh-out-loud entertained. Your job is to elicit emotional responses that put the reader in the right frame of mind to accept and absorb the knowledge you are providing.
  • Logos: Persuade the reader. This is your appeal to the reader’s logical brain, your reasoning, facts, and data. Use compelling historical analogies, anecdotes, and case studies difficult to counter with “alternative facts.” This is where you prove your argument with evidence.
  • Narrative cliffhangers drive the story. A writer creates narrative drive by controlling the flow of information for the reader. We don’t tell them more than they need to know at any given point and we give them enough information to understand the idea in context. For more information on narrative drive (mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony), check out this great post from Valerie Francis.
  • There is a how-to prescription for applying the knowledge you offer. Examples: You tell them how to guerilla market, hire the best employees, calculate risks in their businesses, or edit their own fiction. If this is a challenge for you, I highly recommend reading Jean Marie Stein. Her advice is for writing self-help books but it absolutely applies.
  • Several points of view are incorporated into the narrative. For example: personal anecdotes might be best in first person. Scientific data is probably third person omniscient. Prescriptive advice, if not coming from another expert, will be second person. Example: This blog post is written with a strong second person, instructional voice.

What are the conventions of the Worldview Revelation Genre in Big Idea Books?

  • During the discovery and writing process, you (the author protagonist) had at least one strong mentor figure or several less involved mentor figures whose advice collectively added up to the whole. Introduce us to your mentors and what they taught you the hard way. Show your resistance to learning something new.
  • At least one large social problem was the subtext of your story. This might be ageism playing a role in your ability to get a job, racism preventing your political aspirations, misogyny preventing you from obtaining proper medical care, or class prejudices standing in your way of a good education.
  • There was a clear threat of escalating danger, even if the danger was limited to your psyche. What was at stake and how did the stakes increase as you went along without the knowledge you needed?
  • There was at least one shapeshifter or hypocrite character capable of directly impacting your world. This person said one thing and did another. Usually this character first appeared as a helper and then became a hinderer, but this can be reversed. The shapeshifter’s levels of antagonism can vary greatly between characters and stories. Remember, this isn’t a solely evil character. Your job isn’t to point fingers, it’s to demonstrate the conflict and opposition you were up against.
  • Your story followed a cause-and-effect trajectory as you pursued your object of desire from beginning to end. Your actions caused reactions and your reactions caused actions in others. Show us how everything you did to solve your problem made it worse until you learned the critical information you are sharing with us. Examples might be how you made poor decisions in business and had to terminate employees or file bankruptcy. It might be that you chose the wrong medical provider or trusted the wrong mentor and implemented bad advice.
  • Show us how you saw the world not as it was but as you believed it to be. Show us how you were focused on your want instead of your need. Show us how this external object of desire forced you to face a specific long standing problem or fear.
  • Show us, through conflict and actions, how you were forced to change in order to get what you needed. Show us how a critical flaw of yours had to be remedied for you to grow and self-actualize.
  • Accelerate your development as much as possible. In Worldview fiction, character development generally happens much faster and more definitively than in “real life.” For the Big Idea Book, you won’t want to change your timeline of actual events but you can make the story as succinct as possible by beginning as close to the inciting incident as you can and ending as soon as a climax and resolution can be made clear. Skip the boring parts. If it’s not absolutely needed to move the story forward, leave it out. Stay on theme. Not sure what to leave out? Check out this great blog post by Anne Hawley.

What are Obligatory Scenes and why do they matter?

Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” If you leave out a scene, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work. The scenes in the Worldview Genre closely follow the Heroic Journey.

All the obligatory scenes of the Worldview Revelation story are necessary to the Big Idea Book.

What are the Obligatory Scenes of the Worldview Genre?

  • An inciting incident challenged your worldview.
  • You initially denied responsibility to respond to the opportunity or challenge.
  • Forced to respond, you lashed out against the requirement to change your behavior and learn something new. Show the reader how you resisted change and relied on old habits while expecting new results.
  • You learned what your antagonist’s object of desire was. The beginning of solving your problem was clearly identifying it, what you were up against.
  • Your initial strategy to outmaneuver your antagonist failed. How did you try and solve the problem and why didn’t it work? Note: The antagonist can be a person, group of people, or a force.
  • There was a clear “point of no return,” the moment you knew you could never go back to the way things used to be. There must be a precise moment when your worldview was knocked out of alignment. At what point was it clear you could never go back? Show the reader how you knew.
  • During an All Is Lost moment, you realized you must change your black and white view of the world to allow for the paradoxical nature of life. What were the circumstances of rock bottom? And what brought you out of it and led you to attack the problem again?
  • Your gifts were expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world. This is the Core Event of the story. What knowledge did you bring that solved the big problem?
  • Your loss of innocence was rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe based on your action in the Core Event. What did you learn?
  • There was a paradoxical win-but-lose, lose-but-win, bittersweet ending. You got what you needed but not what you wanted, or vice-versa. There are clear sacrifices either way. What did you gain? At what sacrifice? How was victory different than what you originally expected?

Additional suggestions regarding the Worldview Genre:

Compare and integrate the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell) or The Virgin’s Promise (Kim Hudson) with the obligatory scenes and conventions of the Worldview Genre.

Change is hard and requires loss. Perhaps you want to compare your growth against the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross change curve.

Now that we have all the facts in one place, how do we make sense of them? How can you write your own Big Idea Book with order and purpose?

I’ve created a guide for you. Here, the mesh-like structure is revealed:

BEGINNING HOOK

Tell us who your target audience is for this book.

Offer a compelling, personal story about why you wanted to write this book. Make them care. Grab your reader’s attention with a thought-provoking question. Show us the assumption you’re challenging. Keep it short and as close to five percent of the book as possible.

State your what you believe. State the one Big Idea outright and in layperson language. This is the heart of your story and the goal for the book.

Present the inciting incident that prompted your journey.

Explain how you have a piece of knowledge to offer the reader while showing them that you’re just like one of them by using familiar concepts.

Demonstrate your ethos, that you can be trusted because you’ve done the research, experienced the challenges they are facing, and now have solutions worth sharing.

MIDDLE BUILD

This is the evidence section (progressive complications) where you present your own ideas/research and other people’s views of the topic. You’re packing this with your stories, data, scientific research, more anecdotes, analogies, metaphors, interviews, etc. Use vivid examples.

The question you raised in the inciting incident created the Big Idea Crisis. In the middle build, create the global climax by answering that question. Remember, in the Crisis, you’re showing the reader that what they previously thought was wrong.

Give supporting details that help the reader fully understand The Big Idea and prove what they thought before was either wrong or incomplete.

ENDING PAYOFF

Here, you restate your Big Idea, summarize the best evidence, and share a twist in the information you previously provided, perhaps a hidden meaning. You recap what you learned. Example: You might have a Big Idea that states one must work smarter not harder and yet the twist is that not everyone is capable of such and the reader must exercise great tenacity.

This is where you offer prescriptive steps to the reader, showing them how to apply your knowledge and experience to solving problems in their own lives. Remind the reader of the benefits of the knowledge you’re providing.

End the book by calling the reader to action and helping them imagine a better future.

Pay off reader’s attention by resolving a story or discussion that has been running through the book. Create a sense of closure while encouraging the reader to take further action

This is your Resolution and it must deliver a piece of valuable new information that hasn’t been covered in the middle build

Still not sure how to form your Big Idea Book?

Shelley Sperry, a fellow Story Grid Editor, has compiled an excellent cheat sheet for her clients writing Big Idea books. She also did an impressive delve into the Big Idea Book in this post.

The Story Grid Editors’ Roundtable offered more insight on In Defense of Food.

Ask yourself some key questions: What were the extenuating circumstances or pressures that drove me to acquire this change? Examples include a competitor, family pressures, expectations of society, pursuit of love, business failure, financial obligations, a crime committed against you or a loved one, or some other injustice. Use your answer to identify a secondary external genre to create the narrative drive of your story. Evaluate the conventions and obligatory scenes of that external genre for which will complement your story.

Consider one of the external content genres as your story’s secondary genre.

Also, consider the internal genre of Status or Morality. Think of all the lessons you learned as you tried to improve your position within a hierarchical society.

Remember, the narrative drive of the story often comes from the external genre you choose, the one that best fits your controlling idea. What value shift (in addition to Ignorance-to-Wisdom) forced you to change?

Additional Internal Genres:

Status: This story is about how you changed from failure to success, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

Morality: This story is about how you changed from selfishness to altruism, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

External Genres for the Big Idea Book:

Performance: This story is about how you changed from shame to respect, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

Love: This story is about how you changed from indifference to love, loneliness to togetherness, lack of intimacy to intimacy, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

Society: This story is about how you changed from subjugated (under tyranny) to freedom, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

War: This story is about how you changed from dishonor to honor, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

Crime: This story is about how you changed from injustice to justice, or how you failed to change, and suffered the consequences.

Finally, Coyne says, “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, 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. And if you’ve read that Big Idea Book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, you also know that the omnipotent power of your choice has already descended. She’s sitting right next to you…patiently waiting for you to take up your calling.”

Time to put it all together.

Now that you have the basic keys to the Big Idea Book, as well as the tools you’ll need to write a better narrative, how do you put it all together?

1. Read Secrets to Writing a Big Idea Book, Part Two.

2. Read widely within the genre. Some books I recommend (in no particular order) are The War of Art, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, Running Down a Dream, The Story Grid, The Tipping Point, The Four Hour Workweek, Lean In, Big Magic, The Happiness Project, Girl, Wash Your Face, Mom Up, You Are a Badass*, Braving the Wilderness, A New Earth, Quiet, Not Nice, We Should All Be Feminists, Story Genius, American Islamaphobia, Delusions of Gender, The 5 Love Languages, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, DeClutter Your Mind, Manage Your Day to Day, The Hidden Life of Trees, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, All the Rules, The Artist’s Way, Invisible Ink, Codependent No More, Save the Cat, When Breath Becomes Air, Being Mortal, Thinking Fast and Slow, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, and Start with Why.

3. Compare the masterworks of the genre.

4. Imagine your story arc by using the values at stake in the Worldview Revelation Genre.

5. Get your words on the page and then compare your work to those masterworks.

6. Check your work with The Story Grid book and against the Big Idea secrets here.

7. Use what you learn to edit your work and finish that story.

Your readers, like me, are waiting for stories that will help us navigate and better understand our world. We’re ready to learn what you know.

Need some extra help completing your Big Idea Book? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals. You might also want to contact Shelley Sperry since she is awesome.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:

Secrets of the Performance GenreSecrets of the Morality GenreSecrets of the Status GenreSecrets of the Society GenreSecrets of Writing MemoirSecrets of the Crime GenreSecrets of the Worldview GenreSecrets of the War GenreSecrets of the Action GenreSecrets of the Thriller, Part One and TwoSecrets of the Horror Genre , Secrets of the Western Genre, and Secrets of the Love Genre

Special thanks to Anne Hawley, Certified Story Grid Editor, for editing this post and for the Gas Gauge infographic. And thanks to Shelley Sperry for the for the Four Kinds of Nonfiction infographi

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Certified Story Grid Editor. She is honored to have edited the award winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and memoir writers. She is easily bribed with promises of iced coffee drinks, piles of puppies, and long walks in thunderstorms. She is currently on contract, writing a Story Grid guide to a masterwork. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
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