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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Nonfiction and Plot

Have You Been Following The CCBC Debate Over "We Are the Ship"?

The thread began with the question of whether it should or should not have been eligible for the Caldecott — some see the art in the book as more point for point illustration of single beats in the story, rather than as a form of narration on its own. That set of questions in turn has led to a discussion of nonfiction and plot. Is plot central to nonfiction? And, if it is not, does — as some over at CCBC seem to think — that mean nonfiction which does not have a plot is necessarily dry. I don’t agree at all — but that is also because I think there is a false dichotomy in the assumption that plot is the same as narrative propulsion, and plotless is the same as isolated (dessicated) facts. 

My English professor wife tells me that plot is events arranged in a fashion that furthers the development and undestanding of characters, and which moves a book towards the resolution of its central conflict. All that can, of course, be true of nonfiction. The problem is that while a fiction writer has complete freedom to arrange plot, we don’t. We have to be true to the actual events and individuals we are writing about. But that does not mean we need to trudge wearily from fact to fact, date to date. We can begin a nonfiction book at any moment in the history we plan to recount. We can use foreshadowing, suspense, dramatic conflict, cliff-hanging chapter endings to engage readers. One of my favorite devices is to introduce a small thread early on in a book which, later, will come to play a crucial dramatic part. I love teasing the reader that way, and then delivering a dramatic jolt at the moment when all of the seemingly far flung threads come together.

One advantage we have in NF is that our books can be held together by the unfolding of ideas. Novels can too — but some readers resist that in fiction, finding novels-of-ideas to be dry. But in our books, the thrilling formation of a grand idea — say Evolution — is a form of plot, but entirely a plot of intellectual discovery. For some readers (for me) the unfolding of ideas, the solving of mysteries (I mean mysteries of nature, of science, of engineering, of math, of physics, of history) has a compelling interest. That is why some guys really love reading manuals — the thrill of understanding The Way Things Work makes them pick up a book. They do not want character and story, they want knowledge. I would caution anyone against arguing that knowledge is inherently less interesting than story.

I have to confess that I am writing this from a hotel room in Paris. Marinia and I had the good fortune to come here because the Jewish Museum is about to open a show about Yiddish book art that includes some of my father’s earliest work. Here is a link if you are interested There is a link between being here and this theme about plot — museums have gotten very good at using space to create narrative, which is also what we do in illustrated nonfiction — the pace of images and the design of the book also creates a kind of propulsion, a narration, that has nothing to do with plot. More on this anon


  1. Well, I know someone said “it should have been eligible” today, but that wasn’t ever the question–it WAS eligible, certainly. The question is whether it should have won. (Your summary of the “no” argument pretty much sums up my point of view.)

    The question of whether nonfiction can or should have a plot is actually not important to THAT discussion, because the criteria say only that the elements that are relevant to the work have to be distinguished, and acknowledge that all elements are not pertinent to every book.

    I tend to think that this idea of “plot in non-fiction”–which is totally new to me, and thanks very much for these comments–was central to my deep enjoyment of A Night to Remember, which I mentioned in a previous comment. But I agree with you, many people love reading facts without any kind of central narrative–that’s why The Guinness Book of World Records is so popular among kids, right?

    On museums–one of the most amazing museums I’ve ever visited is the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. It does a masterful job of what you call creating narrative.

  2. NF can be enjoyed as pure fact without “plot” but it can, as you point out in the example of the Resistance Museum, have very strong narrative but no “plot” in the sense used for fiction. I think people who dislike the pure fact kind of book, or see it as lesser than a novel, forget about the second kind of NF storytelling — passion, drive, suspense that is a result of how you guide readers through real events. The problem is the tendency to associate literature with “story” and “story” with fiction.

  3. nice