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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Nonfiction and Plot II

What Can Drive a Reader Into and Through a Book, If Not Plot?

I am thinking about the analogy between museums and books, because of this show I am here to see. The exhibit is about Jewish book art, and so the brilliant show designer has lined all of the floors in either black or white — so it is as if you were walking through the print of a book. In Unsettled, my book on Israel, I mentioned that the floor at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the floor is slightly angled, so you feel unstead as you walk through the show. So in a museum, the very ground you stand on is designed to influence how you perceive what you see, hear, and read. The parallel for books, of course, is the page and the paper.

Every kind of paper used in a NF book is a set of narrative choices: is it heavy stock so that color or grainy b/w photos look sharp? Is it a textured or old fashioned stock to give a feeling of an archival book? Is it recycled paper to match some ecological theme? Does it have all sorts of pull outs and flaps to lift — as in those ology books? Of course these are financial decisions, but they are also narrative choices that have nothing to do with plot, but deeply influence how you experience your experience in the book. 

Paper is like the floor in a museum — easy to ignore, but a great opportunity to shape how a reader experiences a book. After paper comes type — another set of choices. And then design. At this Jewish Museum show, and blank space — for example the back of a stairwell as you move from floor to floor — is used to show contextual films — footage of the actual October Days in Moscow in 1917, or the Dybbuk, a play that was very important in Jewish theater. So the show immerses you in a world even as it exhibits book art. In the same way — as Brian Selznik explained in his Caldecott speech — in our books, the page turn is everything. And that is particularly so in illustrated NF. We can use the spread, the page turn, from dramatic impact, even though our books use archival illustrations. We create pace entirely without plot.

More to come.


  1. Jonathan Hunt says:


    You’ve had some good ideas here the past week or so.

    1. While I agree with your paper/floor analogy, I think it’s too easy for reviewers to focus on things like paper, back matter, etc. at the expense of focusing on the actual writing in a particular book, almost like they don’t have the skill set or vocuabulary to deal with it.

    2. I’m going to quibble just a bit with your definition of plot. I think it’s synonymous with organization, i.e. the editorial decisions a writer (whether of novels or nonfiction) must make about what to include and what to exclude as well as which order to place it in. I would argue that the so-called plotless books of pure fact do indeed have a plot (an organizational scheme), what they do not have is causality, because they invite the reader to make the connections.


  2. I completely agree that apparently non-narrative books still have an organizational structure. I just want to get readers to realize that the term “plot,” which so often suggests fiction, does not recognize the many kinds of narrative used in nonfiction. For the purposes of this discussion, I am willing to put “fact” books to one side, to look at books that have a flow of events. But certainly we do also need to recognize the intelligent architecture behind a good book of facts. I am hoping to use these blogs — and comments such as yours — to begin to train readers for the narrative thinking behind good nonfiction.

  3. Regarding science picture books and page turns, two examples come to mind:
    1) The series by Vicki Cobb and illustrated by Julia Gorton: I GET WET, I FACE THE WIND, etc. (I have I GET WET in front of me.) In this case, the page turn is sometimes used as a place to ask questions (and to give the reader a chance to think about the answer before an explanation is revealed). I’m sure there are many examples of this use.
    2) Maybe less common is what Steve Jenkins does in MOVE! where the page turn heightens a comparision between different ways an animal might move.
    I like both of these examples because questioning and comparing are fundamental to science thinking, so it’s nice to see them driving the books.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Liz: Perfect, thanks.