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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Shawn Coyne

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.