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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Rhythm of Narration in Nonfiction

Writing about the Table of Contents put in mind of the beats, the rhythm, of writing nonfiction. I think one of reasons I decided to take a crack at writing nonfiction, after having been an editor for a decade or so, was that I realized that in working on manuscripts I was getting a good sense of timing. I began to have a feeling — it really is more a feel than a word-count-knowledge — for when the reader needed a new subhead, an illustration, and a chapter break. The flow of storytelling in nonfiction for younger readers is a skill that reminds me of the Brill Building — — that Tin Pan Alley hit factory of the 1960s. Those song writers had to know the structure of a Pop hit so perfectly that they could pour just about any story into it. That’s what we have to do in our book.

If you think about it, any subject — from bees to Beethoven — is every subject. That is, once you begin exploring, your research can take you anywhere. Generally there are libraries full of thick books on the people, animals, events, we plan to write about for younger readers. Our challenge is not merely selection — what to say — but really more organization — what are the beats of the story? We have to be like those Brill Building composers feeling in our bones when we have the reader, when we are likely to lose him, and when to move on. The expression of that inner rhythmic structure is the Table of Contents.

I often think that reviewers need to begin with looking at the ToC — to get a feeling for the rhythm of the book — to see what decisions the author has made, where to focus, what to cover, how to move on, how to keep the reader turning the pages and going deeper into the narrative. Those structural decisions come before the author writes a nice first sentence or a cliff-hanging chapter end. What is the pulse beat of the book — how has the author paced the narration? That is crucial to the books we write — and yet rarely mentioned; our chapters work perfectly in the scale of the book we write but, given a larger structure for an older readership, could be expanded.


  1. I recently read a book ( most of it anyway ) by a neighbor of mine who states in his introduction that he writes books in the following manner:
    1. introduction
    2. afterward
    3. table of contents
    4. chapters

    Interestingly, he does not mention the index – I guess his editors/publishers take care of that. This probably is no surprize to you , as a pro , but it was learning for me. It makes
    perfect sense: big idea , details , supporting data, big idea.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    can’t say I’ve ever followed that exact sequence, though fragments of all those parts bubble up as I’m working

  3. Ah, to have a magic formula for writing…I’m learning that everyone has their own unique way of approaching the execution of writing. But I like how you state that you’ve developed a ” feeling for the timing.” Those of us who don’t edit books have an equally powerful tool to develop that inner sense–reading! And reading. And more reading. And constantly asking, how did the author just do that? How did I get so wrapped up?