What Is the Best Way to Organize Non-fiction?
Lori’s post led me to think about the deadly way we tell young people to write in their non-fiction. The most standard way to organize a paper is in terms of chronology X happened first, then Y, then Z. That is a list, which we hope becomes a bit more than that when we imply causation. Because X happened first, Y followed, which, in time, became Z. In terms of books, one is a timeline or chonology — events are listed in the order they took place; the second is a narrative — events do things, they set forces in motion, which result in changes. But that narrative is still a prisoner of chronology. You know that chapter one is set earlier in time than chapter two, because moving through the book is moving along a succession of dates.
Folks, there is no reason why a non-fiction books (the model for students’ papers) needs to be organized this way. Why "begin at the beginning"? What, after all, is the beginning? Does the story begin with George Washington is born, or his ancestor came to America, or the English Civil War which caused that earlier Washington to leave, or when George goes off to fight the French, or in Valley Forge. Why not "begin at the most dramatic" — in other words, organize around intensity of interest? Begin when the story gets really hot, then, having caught the attention of the reader, backtrack to cover what he or she needs to know? Or, begin at the end — Washginton giving his farewell speech and the devotion of his men — why did they care so much? Or Washington on his death bed, and the nation fears for its future, yet rests secure in what he built, not a royal succession, but a political process, a presidency — how did he create that, was he the one who did? Now we go back to Washington general, soldier, child, his ancestors and the heritage of fighting against the crown.
I think form is as interesting as conent, and we ought to play with it, experiment — how many different ways can we recount some aspect of history, and what is gained and lost from each one? Is chronology best? Is reverse chronology best? Is intensity best? Is posing a big question best? Can we begin with a minor character, as you might in a novel or play — we watch someone else walk on stage, which leads us to come upon our main character in an unexpected way (Jim Murphy did a version of this with climate and mood in American Plague).
If you feel like posting here, I’d love your thoughts on the pros and cons (and good examples) of different ways people have used form in non-fiction. And even if you don’t want to post publically, think about this when you speak to students and teachers — deciding how to recount information is just as important as the information itself — in fact it completely changes how readers will take in what you have to say. In the beginning…which beginning?