Nonfiction’s Big Genre Silos

So, I’m going to storygrid The Tipping Point. Where do I start?

The first thing I want to do is define the broadest, but most specific (I know that sounds contradictory, but hang in there, I’ll explain) genre category I can for Gladwell’s masterwork.

Remember that Genres are those things that tell the audience what to expect. So by understanding the global Genre that the writer strictly abided, I’ll be able to jimmy a screwdriver into the top of his book and pry it open.

After my decades in the business, here’s mine own personal break down of nonfiction. Again I’ve cobbled my Nonfiction thinking in much the same way I did with my Fiction Genre theory…through dint of reading a ton of books and basically sorting them into different piles in my head.

I think there are four broad categories. When I mean is that these are the big silos that divide the primary grains of nonfiction…the corn, the wheat, the rice, the barley etc.

So here are my big silos of nonfiction.


These are essays/books that are written for and read by a very focused readership.

These groups of readers are clearly defined, but small in number. As Seth Godin would say, these are Tribal readers dedicated to very specific passions/professions.

The narrative form of the writing is far more about “presenting the findings” than it is about entertaining the reader. The assumption of the writer of academic work is that her readership is absolutely engrossed by the subject matter itself and so really just wants to get the skinny on what it is the writer discovered or what the writer’s particular argument is. These readers don’t need to be spoon-fed the previous data or history of the art. They just want to know the innovative stuff.

An example of Academic writing at a very high level would be Thomas S. Kuhn’s indispensable History of Science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The audience for the book is narrowly defined, aspiring historians of Science or someone trying to fulfill a science requirement at a liberal arts College.

And the prose, while certainly accomplished, uses a lot of words like “henceforth” and has less than captivating chapter titles like Anomaly and the Emergence of Scientific Discoveries. But if you are into this kind of stuff, it doesn’t really matter. The meat on the bone in that book is enough to feed the History of Science nerd for a lifetime. Can you tell it’s one of my favorites?

But because there is a limited market for these sorts of works, the price point is usually quite high. Think about what you paid for your Calculus textbook in College. But some of these books, like Kuhn’s, do break out of the Academic world and go on to reach a wide trade (everyday people) audience. And when they do, the price point falls to pull in that larger crowd.

Wouldn’t you know it?  Kuhn’s book, while absolutely all about Science and the scientific method has applications in other worlds…


These are generally prescriptive books “for the trade audience.”  What that means is that these books are written for the general Joe who wants to learn the best way to plant his garden, without having to enroll at Penn State’s Agricultural school. Or a general Jane who wants to learn how to change the oil in her old Volkswagen Beetle without going to a mechanic’s trade school.

But nowadays, How-To titles are migrating more and more to online courses and/or eBooks offered by straightforward experts in the particular arenas. Laser focused How-to is a great way to build a business today. No need to get Putnam to publish your Knitting Guide just to access the marketplace. If you build your own crowd of followers, they’ll pay you directly for your work. Just as long as the content is exceptional and well laid out and explained, a How-to book is a license to print money.

Examples are the Idiot Guides… and one of my personal favorites Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening books.

Narrative Non-Fiction:

This category has exploded in the past half century. If someone threatened to turn off my Wi-Fi if I didn’t hazard a guess about how this category evolved, I’d say that the movement that gave it its vigor was New Journalism.

Writers like Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Hunter Thompson, Gloria Steinem and Tom Wolfe sit on the Mount Rushmore of New Journalism. And of course the monster book that really set the whole thing over the top was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

What is Narrative Non-Fiction?

It’s completely Story based. That is, it uses the narrative techniques of fiction in order to contextualize reportage. Huh?

In other words, the writer/journalist collects the usual data involved in reporting a story. But instead of just presenting the traditional Who, What, Where, When and How? out of the old-school reporter’s toolbox, New Journalists focused on the Why? something happened.

And the way they did that was to judge the evidence from their reporting and then make a case for their subjective interpretation of the truth behind the event. They clearly answered the question “Why.”

But they didn’t just come right out with a thesis statement of their findings like an academic work. Something like “our culture is so obsessed by celebrity that we’ve artificially alienated ourselves.” Instead, they engaged the reader with their Storytelling skills and layered the theme/controlling idea inside their stories.

Gay Talese’s seminal piece in the April 1966 Esquire Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” is a pitch perfect example of New Journalism.

Here’s the gist of that tide-turner.

Talese was assigned to interview Sinatra for the standard magazine celebrity puff piece. But Sinatra refused to talk to Talese. A New York Times trained journalist extraordinaire, Talese decided that he’d just report what he did in order to fulfill his obligation to file the story and explain the man through his decision not to talk.

So Talese told the story of being around the great man, but not being allowed to talk to him. (There’s a terrific cameo by writer Harlan Ellison in the Story…perfect contrapuntal writing by Mr. Talese to include)

It’s a sublime story and the revelation of the piece is in the absolutely absurd position we place celebrities in our culture. Simply, celebrity not only dehumanizes the mortal wearing the crown but those enthralled by his otherness. Obsessing over “Icons” is not just absurd, it’s dangerous.

Years ago I had a similar experience tailing Bill Murray while he played golf at the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am. We were working together on his book Cinderella Story and he’d agreed for me to walk the course “inside the ropes” with him as long as I didn’t speak to him or break his concentration while he played. The juxtaposition of him being there, but not there, while me also being there and not there was an experience that almost put me in a straightjacket. But I digress.

Narrative Nonfiction done well is the best of both worlds.

I think it’s obvious to everyone today that there is no such thing as an “objective” journalist. There are no unimpeachable Columbia University Masters of Journalism grads out there. Every writer has a subjective point of view and hiding behind a byline no longer remains a credible cloak for our media saturated populace. We all know the POV of The New York Times versus TMZ. Writing for one or the other tells us a lot about the tenor of the words before we read a single one.

What Narrative Nonfiction allows is for that subjective point of view (the writer/journalist) to argue his case. But the journalist can’t just “make things up.” He has to present the “evidence,” the details of the reporting in support of his particular point of view. But more importantly, he can’t just make declarative statements like an academic.

He has to tell a Story…like a novelist or short story writer would.

Gay Talese did not write about what he thought of celebrity. He told the story of trying to interview a celebrity. Big difference. I don’t really care what Gay Talese, the person thinks about celebrity. Nor does anyone else.  Just as I don’t care about what Jonathan Franzen thinks about the nuclear family.

But I was enthralled by “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (and The Corrections). By the end of the piece/story, I understood exactly what it was Gay Talese was getting at. He used the truthful details of his experience in a way to convey a theme/controlling idea.

That’s exactly what fiction writers do too!

Fiction writers’ just use made-up details of experience in a way to convey a theme/controlling idea. Narrative nonfiction writers use the truth.

Here are some popular examples of Narrative Nonfiction: Seabiscuit, The Boys on the Boat, The Devil in the White City, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Lion’s Gate, What it Takes…

The Big Idea Book:

The Big Idea Book draws from all three of the nonfiction categories above and when one succeeds, it’s capable of satisfying readers of all three too. Academics appreciate the research cited to support the Big Idea. How-To readers take away actionable steps that they believe can better their lives. And Narrative Nonfiction readers are captivated by the storytelling.

This is why Big publishers love the Big Idea Book…it can become a blockbuster bestseller.

  • It is Academic in its rigor. There is a crystal clear argument being made in a Big Idea book that the author builds and supports in much the same manner that an academic writer/researcher would. That is, he is making a case for demystifying a particular natural phenomenon and will support his conclusions with the applicable data etc.
  • It is prescriptive for the layman like a How-To book. The writer of the Big Idea book writes for the non-expert, not the specialist. He also contends that there are real world applications of his Big Idea that can change the lives of his readers. So the implied promise is that after you’ve read the Big Idea book, you will have the tools to apply the knowledge imparted in much the same was as you would be able to apply the principles of square foot gardening.
  • With varying degrees of success, it uses narrative nonfiction storytelling to impart a deeper theme/controlling idea into the work than just “how to use this knowledge and get a great tomato harvest.”

Examples of Big Idea Books are Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, James Gleick’s Chaos, Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan etc.

But what about Biography/Autobiography; History; Science; Business? Etc.? Aren’t those nonfiction genres?

Yes, of course. But I think all of those additional and familiar genres can be categorized into one of the four principle nonfiction genres I’ve discussed above. And one day I’ll boil down it all like I did with Fictions Five-Leaf Genre Clover and come up with some kind of graphic for Nonfiction too.

But for our purposes (storygridding/deconstructing the work), I think it’s safe to say that Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point falls into the Big Idea Book Genre.

Knowing that will give us a handle to interpret the ways in which Gladwell broke down the work he needed to do to construct his book…the building blocks of The Tipping Point.

So what are those building blocks?

That’s up next.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of the Storygridding The Tipping Point posts and The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-outs.

13 comments on “Nonfiction’s Big Genre Silos

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    Round 1 clearly goes to the Story Grid. This makes perfect sense to me.

    Bold experiment, educational and entertaining.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    So glad you chose this book for Story Grid’s nonfiction debut!

  3. Shawn, I have a question. I read Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and I notice it’s told in 3rd person. Is Narrative Non-Fiction in its widest form always written in 3rd person? Does it become something else (memoir or autobiography – which I think is a category of Narrative Non-Fiction) when it’s told in first person? I haven’t read any of the Narrative Non-Fiction titles you suggest (but I will) so I’m not certain of the role point of view takes. Please advise…..and thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      Nonfiction genres, like fiction, have a lot of fuzziness. First person narrative nonfiction that you’re talking about would be something like the Hunter Thompson oeuvre, or Joan Didion’s earlier work before THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, which was personal memoir but some would argue effectively, narrative nonfiction too. The SEABISCUITS etc. are in third person generally. The way I would suggest the writer makes the narrative choice depends on the necessity of placing themselves inside the story. Gladwell writes in the first person in THE TIPPING POINT and he makes that choice for a very specific reason. I’ll get into that later on.
      Anyway, great question and you obviously see the wonderful opportunity of narrative nonfiction.
      All the best,

  4. Jack Price says:

    Hi Shawn, When I started reading your blog, I didn’t have a clue about genre. Your Five-Leaf Genre Clover for fiction helped me begin to understand it. I look forward to the nonfiction version. Thanks for sharing this with us. Jack

  5. Tina Goodman says:

    I think I’ve read some of these big idea non-fiction books that are popular with the masses. My favorites are GODEL, ESCHER, BACH by Hofstadter, and THE QUARK AND THE JAGUAR by Gell-Mann. They are hard (difficult!) to get through but expand the mind. Perhaps I will learn how to story grid these two.

  6. Joe Fusco says:

    Yay! A non-fiction grid!

  7. Kent Faver says:

    I read the blog of a non-fiction writer who apparently does quite well in the self-publishing field. I have not confirmed this with his CPA, but I am fairly adept at deciphering Kindle best selling author rankings – and his are very strong. He would be the first to state he writes on a very basic level with lots of butt-in-chair and bootstrapping going on.

    What I just realized is – despite my perplexity based on his writing skills – he sells lots of books because he knows his customer and he knows his non-fiction genre. Thanks for crystalizing this for me Shawn. This is great stuff.

  8. Kent Faver says:

    And, if I may ask a question Shawn – I’m trying to determine where to fit in the plethora and wide-ranging spiritual books from Oprah to Joel Osteen to Wayne Dyer, and we could go on. I’ve read several and they seem to lean toward a mid-point, or mid-clover of self-help and big idea. Thanks!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Kent,
      I just wrote to Debbie about a similar thing. Nonfiction genres, like fiction, are fuzzy. If someone forced me to categorize the sort of book your describing, I’d call it Self-Help primarily. That’s because the writer is not trying to use “fact” so much as spiritual reflection as a means to provide prescriptive help to the individual reader. Thank you for bringing up that very important wing of nonfiction! I’d say THE WAR OF ART is very much in that arena too Self-Help/Big Idea with a lot of spiritual mojo.
      All the best,

  9. Time for a synopsis of this book and why you chose it. Thanks. I promised I would not read another book until I finish my own (4th in the series) Should I google reviews?

  10. PJ Reece says:

    It would appear that I’ve approached “story structure” in a narrative non-fictional manner in “Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story.” If you get a chance to poke your nose into it, I’d be much obliged. I’ve been calling it a personal essay gone rogue. Cheers.

  11. George in Quito says:

    Am I stating the obvious when I observe that this is like a post-grad course in writing? I’m happy I joined the tribe.

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