One of my favorite book genres is mystery fiction, especially classics written by Agatha Christie or Dick Francis. Did you know that mystery novels follow a formula? They use a three-act structure – the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution.
In Act One, the setup, the book starts with the status quo, introduces the characters and sets up the story. Then an instigating event occurs, usually a murder. Something happens to knock the main characters out of their status quo.
In the second act, the confrontation, the main characters devise a plan of action to resolve the instigating act and things start to happen. New characters get introduced. The original plan backfires. New information comes to light. Things look hopeless at the end of Act 2.
In Act 3, our heroes regroup to create a new plan that resolves the issue. At the end of act 3, they’re back to the status quo.
Due to the fact that there are so many different types of nonfiction books, there isn’t just one formula. The structure will depend on the type of book that you’re writing. One thing that non-fiction writers must give as much attention to as mystery writers is the first chapter. If you don’t hook the reader at the beginning of the book, they may not stick around to read the rest of it. Start chapter one with a compelling story, a shocking statistic, a controversial idea, or the reader’s aspiration.
Here are four ways to capture attention using examples from my personal bookshelf:
Tell a compelling story: The Little Book Of Great Lines from Shakespeare edited by Dick De Somogyi is a quotes book that includes lines from Shakespeare’s plays. The book starts out with a compelling story about the moment in King Lear when the blind Duke of Gloucester is led to the steep edge of Dover Cliff. De Somogyi uses that story to illustrate that Shakespeare’s words are as powerful today as they were 400 years ago.
State a shocking statistic: I use this technique in Maximum Occupancy. I start the book by stating that 60% of innkeepers depend on outside income to supplement the revenue generated from room bookings. The statistic sets the stage for the book’s promise – to show B&B owners how to be profitable and self-sustaining with just the revenue from their inn.
Raise a controversial idea: A technique used in First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. The controversial idea is that the greatest managers in the world don’t have much in common. They’re different sexes, races, and ages. They do share one thing. Before they do anything else, they break all the rules of conventional wisdom.
Describe the reader’s aspiration: In the book Monday Morning Choices by David Cottrell, he asks “What if you could begin changing your life simply by investing 20 minutes every Monday morning for 12 weeks?” If the reader wants to change, but felt it was too overwhelming, reading this statement is a huge.
After you’ve captured the reader’s attention, your goal for the rest of the book is to continue the momentum you’ve started in chapter one.