What to Expect from a Big Idea Book

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My broad Genre classification of The Tipping Point as a Big Idea work of Nonfiction.

But what does that mean exactly? Like in practical terms?

The Genre Matters

As I know that Genres manage audience expectations and that the ways Genres do that is by having conventions and obligatory scenes in fiction, can the same be said for Nonfiction Genres too?


So what are the conventions and obligatory scenes of Big Idea Nonfiction?

Here’s what I think:

The first convention is obvious.

1. There must be an overarching Big Idea that is both surprising and inevitable.

Does that phrase ring a bell? It should because it is the same thing required of a great fiction Story. Remember David Mamet’s quote from Bambi vs. Godzilla on what makes a Story work?

 “They start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”

A Big Idea Book needs this kind of premise and payoff too.

2. The writer uses all three of the classic forms of argument/persuasion to make his case.

Those three forms come from Aristotle and are:

  • Ethos
  • Logos
  • Pathos

They are delivered through the writer’s choice of narrative technique, i.e. how he chooses to address the reader, point of view.

More on these in a future post.

3. Tease the reader with narrative cliffhangers.

That is, the writer makes judicious use of the novelist’s tools to create narrative drive… mystery, suspense and dramatic irony. Without narrative drive a Big Idea Book will fizzle and the reader will abandon it.

The way a Big Idea writer can keep the reader glued to the page is by regulating the amount of information he gives the reader. Not too much and not too little. Just enough.

 This is a fundamental element of Narrative Nonfiction too.

4. The “Big Reveal”.

The Big Reveal is the moment in which the reader discovers that what he’s always believed about a particular phenomenon is spectacularly wrong.

This “Big Reveal” is akin to the global story climax in a novel.

5. Evidence.

These are the case studies, data, etc. from reliable and respected sources to support the Big Idea. More on this too in the discussion about ethos/logos/pathos.

This is the fundamental element of Academic Nonfiction.

6. Prescriptive, how-to advice to apply the knowledge revealed from the Big Idea in everyday life.

 This is the fundamental element of How-To Nonfiction.

7. Entertaining anecdotes.

These have become obligatory in the Big Idea Book, what I like to think of as “cocktail conversation fodder.” These are little bits of Story that the reader can walk around with and march out to enthrall strangers at a social gathering. As Gladwell himself would say, these bits are sticky, easy to remember and spread to friend or acquaintance.

Why does this matter?

Why have I taken the time to cogitate about these conventions and obligatory scenes/moments for the Big Idea Nonfiction book? There’s a very good chance that I’ve missed a few or perhaps given too much weight to one over the others.

That is, who’s to say that my interpretation is the be all and end all? I certainly wouldn’t.

But here’s the thing.

If you wish to improve as a writer, an editor, or a human being for that matter, you need to constantly challenge yourself. You need to expose yourself to all sorts of phenomena and think about what it is that thing is in itself. What is its substance and material?

What Marcus Aurelius called “causal nature.”

The way you do that is to make judgments.  Sure read my stuff and take what you can from it, maybe all of it makes sense, maybe just a bit or two inspires you to go back to your favorite book and think about how the writer did what they did… What matters is that you start making these judgments for yourself.  I’m hoping The Story Grid gives you a clear methodology to help you.

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.  But you know that already or you wouldn’t be here.

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
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What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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Mary Doyle says:

So far, Gladwell delivers! Many years ago I had to take a Research Methods course in graduate school, and I’ve retained enough of what I learned to hone in on the “evidence” part of the equation. Gladwell did a masterful job in this area. An inferior author will try to pass off anecdotal examples as “evidence” for some half-baked theory in order to get straight to the prescriptive part – that’s when I throw the book at the wall.

This is a fascinating look at the Big Idea, which is quite an accomplishment Shawn, since most of us are white-knuckling these final days until The Story Grid is released – thanks!

Debbie L. Kasman says:

Hi Shawn. Two posts in and I’m intrigued, hooked, and gathering great ideas for my own WIP. I’m feeling renewed confidence in my own abilities too.

(By the way, I’ve made a judgment call. I can tell already that you WILL be able to come up with an analysis and step-by-step deconstruction of the work in a way that makes sense to everyone. This WON’T be the one that breaks you. This is NOT the one that destroys your beautiful machine, and you WON’T have to build a new one!)

Kent Faver says:

My NF writing style tends to be self help – so this will be so good. I think part of the rationale for not moving from Self Help to Big Idea is lack of research (as Mary mentions above) and fear of taking a stand on your POV. What if I’m proven wrong?

Elanor says:

This is very cool. I’m not planning to write any non-fiction at the moment, but who knows what the future holds!

Drew McArton says:

Your mention of Aristotle’s poetic triad reminds me of Cicero’s observation that the function of the orator’s rhetoric — his persuasion — is “to teach, to delight, and to move.” I mention it only because I suspect that the non-fiction Big Book would have a fair overlap with of the goals of rhetoric. Gladwell has a big idea, so one of his over-riding goals, as you point out, is to persuade the reader: to end up selling his idea. Yes, this is teaching, but his best tools include moving and delighting the reader in the process. From what you say the emotional and narrative appeals are just as important as the logical ones in persuade the reader. I have no idea if or how you can use this. Yet it may also match up to some of the patterns in fiction as well.

Alia says:

This is super helpful. Now I see that this is exactly the genre in which I am currently working. If you have time, would you please expand upon the “Big Reveal”? I’d love to see some examples from specific books, and where the big reveal tends to come–near the beginning, middle or end?

Many thanks,

Alex Cespedes says:

Shawn- one thing I’m confused about: if the “Big Reveal” is NF’s equivalent to fiction’s climax, shouldn’t it come towards the end like the climax does? My impression is that Big Idea books usually put the reveal way earlier on and then just add to it with each new chapter. Would love your take on this.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Alex,
The Big Idea book presents the Big Idea very early on, yes. But that is the “tell” of the work. By the book’s end, if the writer has committed himself to telling a global story (and Gladwell did and paid it off too) the Big Reveal is the “show” of the Big Idea. What I mean by that is that the journey from start to finish of the book actually “arcs” in a well done Big Idea book. What the reader thinks the book is about at the beginning is entirely different at the end. I’ve got some ideas about what Gladwell was actually getting at beyond the obvious points he makes in The Tipping Point, but I need to sort them out before I spill them.
All the best

Alex Cespedes says:

Thanks for this Shawn, the “tell” vs “show” explanation is really useful. Definitely looking forward to your breakdown of Tipping Point!

Sharon says:

Shawn, thanks for your new book, “The Story Grid”! Ordering was painless and fast. Great way to kick off a Monday. Been a while since formal studies, writing books and conferences. It’s invigorating to have something new, fresh, useful, and hot off the press from such an excellent pro. Love, Sharon

George in Quito says:

My WIP is a sorta medium size idea book in the self-help category. My writer friends tell me I have a unique perspective and to hurry up and publish before someone beats me to it. I’m looking forward to how this particular story grid shakes out. And I love your book.

Tony Levelle says:

This series of posts is fantastic. A superb analysis of a nonfiction ‘Big Idea’ book. I say that after struggling with the structure of nonfiction for nearly two years while writing two nonfiction books. Great stuff!

Gary Neal Hansen says:

I am coming back to this series after some lovely time reading several of Gladwell’s books.

That early use of the Big Reveal seems like the inciting incident in fiction: it sets the problem or puzzle the rest of the book promises to solve. It is a twist on the mystery genre with an all-knowing narrator and the reader the only clueless one; or a version of the hero’s journey with a narrator who is the Obi-wan mentor to the Luke Skywalker reader.

What I would love to know at this point in my writing journey would be great models or teachers of the narrative cliffhanger. I sensed its importance recently when reading an otherwise poorly written book that kept moving me into the next poorly written chapter with well-chosen cliffhangers!


Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Gary,
Cliffhangers just require that you bring the reader up to the Crisis moment…where the protagonist has to decide between a Best Bad Choice or Irreconciliable Goods choice. Make the choices clear and then cut the scene. The reader will then want to open the next chapter because they want to know what choice the protagonist made. There are other ways to construct these using secondary plot lines and subplots, but that’s a very good place to start. Let anything else, if you do too many cliffhangers in your work, it become repetitive and boring. So beware.
All the best

Gary Neal Hansen says:

Thanks very much, Shawn. You are very kind to check in on an old thread.

What I neglected to say is that I write non-fiction. (Would that I wrote it as well as Gladwell.) So the challenge for me is finding non-fiction role models. It seems to me that in much non-fiction the protagonist is actually the reader, rather than being a character in the book.

But still there is the sense of building to a climax with a key decision to be made or a key resolving insight left in the dark.

Gladwell does this, it seems to me, in his ongoing chapter-sized versions of the “big reveal.” He creates the sense of what we assume about something, and then says “Nothing could be further from the truth!” and you have to keep going to find out.

Thanks again.

Shawn Coyne says:

Hi Gary,
Yes, by using non-fiction story you can do the same thing. If I tell you a story about a young man who works extremely hard and nothing seems to come of it who is faced with the opportunity to get a guaranteed payoff if he just looks the other way when someone else does something unethical….and then change the subject and tell you something else…you’ll keep reading my stuff until I go back to the hardworking man and his decision. Hope that helps.

Gary Neal Hansen says:

Yes, thank you very much, Shawn. Good food for thought.

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