Think Big: Tackling a Big Idea Nonfiction Story

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It was books that taught me that the things that torment me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

—James Baldwin, New York Times, January 1, 1964

Like all the SG Editors, I’m a story nerd, but if I’m being honest, my nerdish niche is really nonfiction. A few pages from David Grann or Elizabeth Kolbert or Candice Millard are sure to start my heart fluttering. And fictional books, tv shows, and movies based on real historical characters and events definitely hit my sweet spot. I’m looking at you, Alias Grace and Mindhunter. So I want to take my shot at Fundamental Fridays today to explore one of my favorite genres: Big Idea Nonfiction.

If you only need some quick, practical help, at the end of this post I’ve made an attempt to gather up all the stuff Shawn has written and said about Big Idea Nonfiction into a list of links. For those of you who are starting a Big Idea draft right now, I’m also attaching a worksheet that I created for my clients. I love the Foolscap, of course, and you’ll need to use that too. But I find that beginning a Big Idea project with the 6 Core Questions can be a helpful path into the heart of the story, so I adapted those questions for the worksheet.

Before we get to those tools, though, let’s take a closer look at Big Idea books, including one masterful example, and see how they work.

A Book that Changed My Worldview

There are lots of books that profoundly influenced the way I look at myself, the people around me, and the universe beyond. But the book that, more than any other, changed my own worldview when I was a college history major, was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

I’m not alone, of course. The Fire Next Time has held a solid place among American masterworks ever since it was published in 1963. Baldwin is one of those writers whose work is fresh, challenging, and relevant every time you read him. He makes me cry. He makes me curse. And he sometimes makes me laugh along with him when he tells the ridiculous truth about people.

I was reminded of Baldwin’s relevance yet again when I watched the recent documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, in which Baldwin’s own words are spoken over historic and contemporary news footage. I went back to read The Fire Next Time again, and it hit me harder than ever before, like a jolt of electricity to the heart.

And yet I wasn’t really sure whether this particular Big Idea book would work well on the Grid. Baldwin’s writing style is beautiful, but eccentric—with some of his sentences running for pages. It’s hard to tell where his scenes break and even harder to define his unique mix of narrative devices, which includes poetry, sermons, memoir, journalism, and philosophy.

So I decided to try to ask the 6 Core Questions and immediately knew that I shouldn’t have worried. In less than 25,000 words, Baldwin covers all the essential Story Grid territory of a Big Idea book, and that’s part of the reason for its enduring power. He proves that you don’t need a lot of words to make a lasting impact on readers, as long as you have a compelling, truthful theme and plenty of evidence.

So let’s re-introduce ourselves to the Big Idea, and we’ll see how Baldwin tackled the challenges.

A Genre Mash-Up

As editors, we approach Big Idea stories as a separate, unique genre, but in fact, they’re a pretty complex mash-up.

As Shawn has pointed out, the Big Idea book sits in the middle of a Venn diagram of three other types of nonfiction: academic, narrative, and how-to books. Big Idea books combine parts of each of these three, and have their own small set of Obligatory Scenes and Conventions, which I’ll get to below. But it gets even more complicated because Big Idea stories are also a subgenre of the Worldview Revelation internal genre.

You might be thinking: “Hold on. That can’t be right.”

I found this response by Shawn to a comment on one of the many posts in which he was analyzing Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Shawn says:

But think of BIG IDEA NONFICTION as a subgenre of WORLDVIEW REVELATION as opposed to WORLDVIEW REVELATION being a subgenre of BIG IDEA NONFICTION. It may seem strange, but I think that is the case. That WORLDVIEW REVELATION, an INTERNAL GENRE, has both fiction and nonfiction components. And it is the nonfiction varieties that are the most dynamic. So BIG IDEA NONFICTION is not an EXTERNAL GENRE. It’s an INTERNAL ONE.

When I first read this comment, it was a big aha moment for me. I literally smacked my forehead. I may or may not have shrieked. And not only because it was fun to see the normally calm, measured Shawn Coyne USING ALL CAPS TO MAKE A POINT. The upshot of all this is that Big Idea books, as a subgenre of Worldview, need to have most of the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions of that genre, adding a whole new section to the writer’s To-Do list.

But wait. There’s more.

What follows from the Worldview-Revelation genre is that the Protagonist in your Big Idea book is You, the Author, because you’re the one experiencing—and sharing—a revelation. Another thing that follows from the Worldview-Revelation genre is the value shift of the Big Idea book: Ignorance to Wisdom.

And the forehead smacking isn’t over yet.

Big Idea authors usually craft their stories to fit the rules of an External Genre too, which provides much of the narrative drive of the story. They choose whatever genre best fits their Theme/Controlling Idea. In The Tipping Point, it’s Action/Adventure. In the War of Art, of course, the External Genre is War.

One way to try to pinpoint your External Genre is to consider whether there is another value shift in addition to Ignorance-to-Wisdom that’s at play for the Author-Protagonist, another character in the story, or for the reader, if she takes the Big Idea to heart. This is a trick my colleague Leslie Watts, over at Writership.com suggested, and it’s so helpful.

I was trying to apply this trick to figure out if there are Performance Genre Big Idea books or movies (Shame-Honor value shift) and I thought of Michael Pollan, who writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about the problems of big corporations involved in our food production, which I think he would label as a shameful aspect of modern society. The last part of the book is a cooking “performance” where he tries to regain some honor by growing, hunting, and preparing everything in his meal. Let me know if this one makes sense or if you think I’ve gone off the deep end.

The point is: These many layers of genre are pretty overwhelming when you embark on a Big Idea story, which is why a lot of authors decide to start with a more straightforward How-To book. That was the case with a client I’m working with now. We discussed both options, and she decided that she didn’t have quite enough expertise or years in her field to do a first-rate Big Idea book. We settled on a How-To, with the understanding that she’d like to keep the option of a Big Idea book open as a future project.

If you’re trying to make the decision about whether to write a How-To or Big Idea book, you might ask yourself whether you want to help your readers solve a specific problem or make an improvement in their lives, or whether you want to take them along with you on a journey that changes their Worldview.

Big Idea writers are gathering and integrating so many elements that an outline can threaten to look like a classic “herding cats” exercise. What keeps all the elements corralled?

If you’re reading this post, you already know the answer is a solid story structure.

By way of illustration, let’s now finally break down some of the elements of The Fire Next Time. I’m rearranging the 6 Core Questions just a bit here so we can move from the ones that are easier to answer to the harder ones.


What’s the Global and Internal Genre?

Worldview Revelation

And it follows that:

James Baldwin (the author and narrator) is the Protagonist.

The Value Shift is from Ignorance to Wisdom. Again, Shawn says:

A Big Idea book is one that shifts our understanding of the world from ignorance “not having enough information, but capable of comprehension” to wisdom/knowing.

What’s the Protagonist’s Object of Desire?

Baldwin wants nothing less than to fix the biggest problem of the moment (1963) in America: the struggle for racial equality. Readers want the same thing, but by the end of the book, Baldwin is giving them something else too. He’s trying to fulfill a need rather than just a want.

What’s the External Genre?

The external genre of The Fire Next Time is Society-Historical. Baldwin is turning American history inside out, showing readers that everything they thought they understood about race relations was a lie. Like all good Society stories, it’s about a shift in power—a revolution—with an enormous divide between those who have power and those who are disenfranchised. And again, like all good Society stories, it takes place on a big canvas: all of American history (and at times, all of world history). As Shawn puts it:

The Society Story is an allegory concerning power and lies, a revelatory shift in power from one segment of society to another.

What’s the Point of View?

In keeping with so many Big Idea books, Baldwin uses a variety of POVs, including first-person and third-person omniscient. He opens with second person in the form of a letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but readers feel immediately that he’s also addressing them.

What’s the Controlling Idea or Theme?

Okay, now we’re at the heart of the matter. Every Big Idea writer will struggle to clarify their Controlling Idea/Theme and will write a few dozen versions of this before it’s just right. In 1960, Baldwin spent eight months at the house of his friend and fellow writer, William Styron, struggling mightily with his notes for The Fire Next Time.

Baldwin’s controlling idea was simple and radical in 1963 and still is in 2018:

Both black and white Americans are oppressed by racial inequality, and they can only emancipate themselves together:

You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.

Now let’s look at the structure of the book more closely: Hook, Build, Payoff.

What’s the Beginning Hook?

Here’s where you present the Inciting Incident that prompted your investigation. In The Fire Next Time, as is often the case in a Big Idea book, the Beginning Hook is short and sharp; it makes up less than the first 10 percent of the book. Shawn says:

Especially in nonfiction, if you do not have a compelling origin story about why you chose to write the Story/Book you wrote…you’ll find it hard to engage an audience. The creator compels interest in the creation. Without Dr. Frankenstein, the monster is just an antagonist with bolts in his neck.

As I mentioned, Baldwin’s hook takes the form of a letter to his nephew, which tells the deeply personal story of his own father’s tragic life, and Baldwin’s hope that his beloved nephew will not fall prey to the same tragedy. This is the why of the book, and the poignancy of that story, along with the compelling argument, pulls us forward. We want to know more. He tells his nephew, James, that the young man physically resembles his (Baldwin’s) own father, and then says,

Well, he is dead, he never saw you, and he had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. . . .

In the Beginning Hook the Big Idea isn’t so much about every black American or the American nation as a whole, it’s primarily about one young man and one family. Baldwin says his nephew can only be destroyed if he believes what the larger society tells him he is. The idea that the way forward is for black and white Americans to stop believing lies about race comes back throughout the book in different contexts, leading the reader to reject the lies along with Baldwin.

But then there’s the corollary, the thing that turns the value shift—surprisingly— toward the positive, much as Gladwell’s Tipping Point turns surprisingly toward the negative. Baldwin writes:

I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it. . . . If we had not loved each other none of us would have survived. . . . and we, with love, shall force our [white] brothers to see themselves as they are.

He hints here at what the final few pages of the book will make more explicit: He’s talking about revolution, but he thinks that the way to succeed in the revolution is through love and connection, not separation or violence.

But if the revolution doesn’t come soon, as the title says, next time there will be fire.

What’s the Middle Build?

This is the meaty Evidence section, where you present your own ideas and research and other people’s ways of looking at the topic. This is also where you answer the question raised in your Inciting Incident (This is your Big Idea Crisis) and test your own answer (this is your Climax).

Baldwin fills over 80 percent of his slim book with memories of his life as a young preacher and his disillusionment with Christianity and European civilization, particularly in the wake of the Holocaust and World War II. He brings in stories about imperialism in Africa and the Cold War, and takes a long, careful look at Elijah Muhammad and the Black Muslim movement of the early 1960s and its call for two separate nations—one black and one white—as a solution to racial inequality. In the end, Baldwin rejects that option.

What’s the Ending Payoff?

This is your book’s Resolution and is a restatement of the Big Idea you started with. But this time, after a recap of your Evidence, ideally you’ll surprise the reader by going deeper. As Shawn says succinctly, “The pursuit of the idea and applying it potently reveals a deeper truth, one that the storyteller delivers to the reader at the ending payoff.”

So it’s important for you to ask yourself if you can show some new meaning in your argument at the end. Can you offer any prescriptive how-to for applying your wisdom? Here’s how Baldwin does that:

If we—and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

So now readers know that it’s not just Baldwin’s nephew or American society that’s at stake in this revolution, it’s the future of the entire world. And the ultimate answer isn’t just to free whites from the bondage of their false ideas about race and free blacks from discrimination. The answer is for blacks and whites to connect “like lovers” with each other and change each other’s consciousness to then change the world.

At least for me, when I read that sentence, I finally recognized that love—of every type—is the deeper theme of the book. I went back to check: The word “love” appears almost 60 times in 125 pages. And the book began as a love letter to his nephew.

What are the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes/Elements of the Big Idea Story?

  • The overarching Big Idea is both surprising and inevitable
  • Ethos, Logos, and Pathos persuade the reader
  • Narrative cliffhangers tease the reader and help drive the story
  • The Big Reveal (the Reader discovers what he believed about the topic is wrong!)
  • Evidence (stories, anecdotes, case studies, data)
  • A How-To Prescription for applying knowledge
  • Compelling or Entertaining Anecdotes

These Conventions and Obligatory elements are all there in The Fire Next Time. We’ve already seen how big the Big Idea is and how it becomes even bigger and more surprising in the end. Baldwin brings in evidence from his own childhood, from his critiques of Christianity and traditional ways of looking at history, and his questions about the Black Muslim movement.

The ethos, logos, and pathos methods of persuasion are also easy to see. Ethos takes the form of Baldwin’s life history as a member of the African-American community, an activist, and an author well-read in history, philosophy, and literature.  His logos is all about the mountain of first-hand and historical evidence he supplies. And in the human stories of people close to him, he has all the pathos he needs to arouse readers’ fear, anger, and compassion.

Baldwin’s style doesn’t lend itself to easy cliffhangers, but he does craft some of his stories, especially his meetings with key figures—including the minister who brings him into her church and Elijah Muhammad—so that you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. And we’ve already talked a little about his evidence, including anecdotes from his own and his family’s life, and a little about the “how-to” at the end of the book.

I won’t go into all the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes of the Worldview and Society Genres and whether Baldwin makes use of them because this post doesn’t need to be 10,000 words long, and to be honest, I haven’t done a complete Story Grid spreadsheet of the book yet. I’m looking forward to that.

Rounding Up Some Help with Your Big Idea

When you’re looking at how to take apart a masterwork to help you with your own Big Idea book, I recommend Valerie Francis’s no holds barred, comprehensive article on How to Find Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.

And I hope that if you’re struggling with a Big Idea book right now, you can take some inspiration from Baldwin and from other writers who try in large and small ways to change the world for the better with their stories—both fictional and non.

Here’s a list of links to Nonfiction-related posts on Storygrid.com

And here is a Story Grid Big Idea Worksheet for starting your draft.

As I sit here writing this, a new Big Idea book even slimmer than The Fire Next Time has made the New York Times bestseller list, and might even go on to become a classic: Women and Power by Mary Beard. It apparently covers history from ancient Greece to 2016 in about 100 pages. I can’t wait to see how she pulls that off.

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Shelley Sperry

Shelley Sperry is an editor, writer, and researcher based in Alexandria, Virginia. She
used to work at National Geographic, so she thinks every book is better if it has a cool
map, a dramatic landscape, or a lot of penguins. As an editor, Shelley specializes in nonfiction, helping authors tell true stories about the world. With co-author Leslie Watts, she will publish a Story Grid masterwork guide to Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in 2020. Shelley agrees with Barbara Kingsolver, that “revision is where fine art begins.” You can find her online at SperryEditorial.com.