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The Five Act Structure Applied To Non-Fiction

Something I get asked a lot is ‘does the five act structure for storytelling also apply to non-fiction books or even business books?’. The answer is emphatically yes!

ACT I: Inciting Incident

The event that becomes a catalyst for everything that follows, the thing which sets the story in motion.

So, in the case of a non-fiction book, this is what has sparked you to write the book. This could be the current state of your particular field of research or study. For example, if you were writing a book on HR principles, you need to set the scene with what the current problems are confronting people in HR and where the gap in research, knowledge, or practice is. If you were writing a book on technology, you would need to outline what the latest innovations are and how they correspond and fit in with your research and understanding.

In the case of auto-biography or biography, you need to establish what the catalyst is for that person’s journey. Tristine Rainer’s book Your Life As Story offers fascinating insights into how to establish what this catalyst is, and the benefits of non-chronology. AKA: your story doesn’t necessarily start when you’re born, bizarrely. It starts with a meeting, an encounter. For example, my journey as a writer perhaps began when I first read Macbeth with my father. That is a more powerful catalyst than my birth. 

Simon Sinek said “Start with why’” but personally I think he’s wrong. He makes the classic mistake of understanding narrative from a corporate and pseudo-scientific perspective. “We need to state why we’re doing X, in order to justify Y”. This appeals to logic, but not to emotion. The ways humans process and understand story is deeper than factual cognition.

All stories start with a catalyst, as do all thought processes. We start with something external that sets us in motion. The internal “why” comes later. Heroes do not just decide one day “I want to go on an adventure”. A wizard shows up at their door and asks them to come along.

ACT II: Development/Turn the screw

We go deeper into the story here and learn more about why the event happened, possibly learn some new insights about the event and the people involved in it that may cast them in new light or confirm what we initially thought. The tension is amped. I use the phrase “Turn the Screw” in reference to Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw, a masterpiece of taut psychological and supernatural horror that continues, each chapter, to “turn the screw”, making things worse, with more at stake, and more horror.

From a non-fiction perspective, this is where we apply a sense of urgency. Why is it important that this book be written? (There you go, Simon). You might approach this section by asking: What is at stake? You have to make it clear just how bad things will be if we don’t address the problems outlined in ACTs I & II. The answer to the question of what’s at stake might surprise you in its severity. The strange reality of life is that most things really are life and death. Even writing about internal conceptual theories to do with personal development, psychology, or motivation, there is a very real human cost in failing to address these issues.

ACT III: Peripitea

This is the moment where our protagonist starts to turn the tables and gain the upper hand in some way, whether that be by realising what they need to do, acquiring an object or ally, or just trying harder. This is a moment where the “good guys” strike back.

In non-fiction: This is where a solution is proposed. This is where you introduce the maps, tools, or the specialist knowledge that is going to help the person to get through their trouble and overcome their difficulties.

This is the ACT where you get to talk most about you. Not you as a person, necessarily, but your company, your product, your philosophy or ideas. This is where you show people how you have navigated the perils and difficulties outlined in ACT II.

ACT IV: Anagnorisis

A revelation, some new information comes to light that changes everything. This would be the “I am your father” moment in Empire Strikes Back, or the “I am your mother” moment in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex.

In non-fiction, this is where you surprise your reader with an epiphany. In other words, you share a piece of insight, drawing conclusions from what you have discussed across the previous three ACTs, that they could not have otherwise reached. This is where you ‘blow their mind’. One way to do this is to use case-studies, data, or examples in order to illustrate your point and the sheer difference your ACT III solution can make.

ACT V: Catharsis

The story reaches its climax and denouement. Something is lost, so that something can be gained. We experience the negative emotions, the suffering, of the protagonist as our own and then are freed from this negative emotion in a moment of sublimity. If this all sounds a bit technical, just think of an ending to a film, book, story, that really moved you at a deep level. This is the catharsis.

This final act is the most important. It is where you reach your readers on an emotional level, and give them a healing experience. This applies to non-fiction too. How will their sorrows and suffering be alleviated by learning? What is the hope of healing and reconciliation? Can we actually change the world? Hopefully, the answer to all three is “yes”. Remember, in the words of Christopher Nolan: “Positive emotion trumps negative every time”. The hope, the salvation, the redemption, always offers more powerful catharsis than despair. To redeem beauty from darkness is the fundamental yearning of the human spirit. 

A particularly fine example of this is Chin Ning Chu’s Thick Face, Black Heart in which she ends on a moment of her spiritual awakening. In a sense, she ends at the beginning, the first moment that she realised there was a Dharma, and that her life was in God’s hands. She saves the emotional and spiritual reasoning behind her learning this philosophy of Thick Face, Black Heart right to the end, where it will have greatest impact. It also causes us to re-contextualise what we have read with deeper understanding. In essence, it is transcendental, which all good literature, whether fictional or otherwise, should aim to be.

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