Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Building A Trap to Yield a Revelation

How Does Plot Differ from Organization, Or Does It?

Etymology is always a good friend when wrangling over definitions — so I looked up "plot" to see where the word came from, and how it acquired its meanings. The Middle English origin is a term for "a small piece of planted ground" — or a site in cemetary. In other words a area of land demarcated for a special use — a plot of land, a burial plot. From setting aside earth for uses the term shifted to a plan for an area — an architectural rendering, say, and from there to the planning for a book. Then there is the whole other set of meanings involving cabals, machinations, and conspiracies. So in its origin, the term plot is exactly as Jonathan claims — the idea behind the arrangement of materials in a book — in effect, the rationale behind the Table of Contents. And yet as we use the term in kids books, we don’t mean this at all, in fact, we mean almost the opposite.

When people say they do not like NF that lacks plot, that is because they associate the term with the narrative propulsion of fiction. They want surprise, character development, the Hero’s Journey, the arc from set up to denouement which they have come to expect from fiction. An architecture that lacks these turns of what is often called "storytelling" seems precisely to lack, well, plot. Why?

Betty Carter has argued that kids get so much story, and so little nonfiction, in the first years of school, that when they get to content (in the horrifying form of textbooks) they have culture shock. They simply don’t know how to read what they are reading — or, to put it slightly differently, they don’t know where to look for pleasure in what they are reading. Where can they find any juice in the dry rinds they are served up? Friends that is where we come in — and not because we all know how to write those You Are There intros that give a touch of fictional-feel to NF. No, but because we know the juice in NF is knowledge, understanding, insight, depth, epiphany, connection, questioning.. 

The plot in NF is the strategy through which a clever author has 1) hooked the reader (and there those narrative NF devices of wind, temperature, scurrying animals, rustle of fabric may be useful) 2) mapped a journey that will lead that reader through the twists and turns of events towards the launching point moment where the reader can suddenly know, can envision, can picture, can connect to some knowledge he or she did not have before. You are building a trap to yield a revelation (or many insights that add up to a new world view, a new picture, a new sense, of reality). 

NF is, in that sense, like those Greek mystery cults which conducted ceremonies in caves, where initiates experienced the descent to Hades, and emerged, wiser, with gnosis, with knowledge, seeing the old anew. Fiction imagines that journey — and is gifted with all of the spells and incantations of the storyteller. But NF must take you on the actual trip, the real steps through the real cave, so that you emerge with reality looking the same, and totally different. They get to to embroider plot to yield truths about being human; we plot a path to bring you to know human experience. Right?


  1. Monica Edinger says:

    I can’t claim and serious evidence or studies, but I wonder if humans are more or less hardwired for story or, at the least, narrative. A decade or so ago when I was seriously thinking and writing about history I was particularly interested in those working with imaginative thinking (say Kieran Egan whom I then introduced you to) and also the way some other non-Western cultures remembered their past. The Mende, for example, have a particular strand of storytelling that is historical in nature. And I think of children (and myself, for that matter) being compelled to tell about true events in a form of narrative. (Young kids often write/tell “bed to bed” stories, throwing everything into them.) If the book itself doesn’t have the narrative (which I think is just fine, btw) then I’m thinking that the reader constructs his or her own. Perhaps not always, but often. So with the Guiness Book of World Records, maybe they create a story for themselves (even a very short one) about the fact that particular fascinates them.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    I have read studies about humans being hardwired for story. But I suspect we are also similarly wired to acquire knowledge — tool making, after all, so often is defined as a key human trait. And to use to tools is to learn, adapt, pass on knowledge, learn more. On Guiness, of course we do make up our own stories, but, as Jonathan points out, the book-maker has also crafted a sequence, a format, a structure, for the records, which is a hidden form of storytelling.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Yes yes yes. I love your dry rind analogy. There certainly is a need for both creative nonfiction and non creative nonfiction (how’s that for wordy?). My biggest issue with this whole idea is the difficulty that parents have identifying these plot driven, hook the reader, map the journey stories that are exciting to read. They are all stored in the nonfiction area apart from other stories. Unless they are searching for a book by name, they’re never going to find story nonfiction just by browsing those shelves. I believe readable nonfiction needs to be identified on library shelves.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    well I think the Guiness NF is creative, but not Creative NF in that sense — so I take your point. A Dewey category for NF/Story — what do you all think? I like the concept. Or is this a professional development book, or website, one of you should create?

  5. Linda Zajac says:

    I definitely think Guiness is creative and bought a couple for my kids. I also owned a Ripley book when I was a kid which was an interesting read.

    When I wrote “readable” nonfiction needs to be identified, I meant
    literary creative nonfiction. All nonfiction is readable. No, I wasn’t planning a website or book on this. Why can’t creative nonfiction be its own genre with bold lettering on the spine like “Y/A.” Look what identification has done to the popularity of Y/A books. I’m not just suggesting this for popularity sake. There are some really nice interesting creative nonfiction books with excellent illustrations and/or photographs that are getting lost in the nonfiction shelves of libraries.