Have you ever seen the movie Snakes on a Plane? My condolences, if so. That’s a couple of hours of life we’re never gonna get back.
Why was it so very appalling? It wasn’t the preposterous premise; there are plenty of marvellous films with preposterous premises.
/side bar to reminisce about preposterous movies that work
Batman Begins is basically about a billionnaire who chucks his life in the bin, ends up in Bhutan, gets ninja training because of reasons, comes back home in a kinky armoured latex outfit, punches bad guys a lot, and defeats a naughty psychologist whose main weapon appears to be a burlap bag. I mean, it’s not a great premise. But it worked!
Face/Off is honestly the stupidest idea ever but Nic Cage, so…? The whole premise is ludicrous. I mean why would an FBI agent (or whatever) need to swap faces with a terrorist? WHY? But, again, it worked. Or at least, it entertained.
And the classicest of classic ridic-idea movies: Point Break. An action movie about the FBI joining a gang of bank robber surfer dudes and chasing the biggest wave ever. And yet. It’s a great movie.
/side bar ends
So, why is Snakes on a Plane so utterly reprehensible? Well, this is just my opinion, of course, so take it with a pinch of seasoning, but I think it’s because I just didn’t give a shit.
Right from the start, the story failed to be a story at all. It didn’t grab me. It didn’t hold onto me. It didn’t take me anywhere and frankly I didn’t care if it did. When you’re indifferent to the fates of the main characters, and find yourself actually rooting for the snakes to burst through the fourth wall and bite the directors and writers, you know something’s wrong.
This is fiction, and it’s a movie, not a book but this applies to nonfiction writing too.
There’s a bunch of stuff you can do to make sure this doesn’t happen to your book—you don’t want to pour your heart and soul into a book only to have people give up on it halfway through, right? Right.
To prevent that, we have to take the reader on a journey of transformation (the best fiction also does this, by the way). We want to change the reader—or, rather, we want the reader to change somehow in the reading. How do we do this?
Let’s have a look at the Reader Journey, which isn’t quite the same thing as an outline, but does link to it.
The Reader Journey
You’ve probably heard of the Hero’s Journey in storytelling—there’s a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and comes home transformed.
In nonfiction, we may have a hero (a protagonist)… but we also have a reader. And the whole point of nonfiction is to change the person who’s reading it in some way—perhaps shift their worldview, change their mind, give them a new perspective, show them how to be a better version of themselves.
That’s the reader journey, and we need to have a good idea of what that might look like before we start writing our books.
Unless you’re writing a book purely for you, to print one or two copies, and plop it on a bookshelf, your reader matters. You may be writing for yourself—I hope you are—but you’re writing for someone else, too, or it’s just a monologue nobody else is going to hear. You have a message, you have an aim or an ideal for that reader, and you have a reason for writing to and for them.
What are you writing?
Start with the type of book you’re writing. What’s the genre? Are you writing a:
- How to book, in which you solve a specific problem for a reader, or teach them a specific skill?
- Memoir or personal essay book, in which you’re sharing a slice of your own life and personality, to help your reader feel seen and heard?
- Self-help book, where you’re aiming to change people’s mindset or beliefs about themselves or the world?
- Expository nonfiction, which aims to inform the reader about the subject—maybe the history of makeup, or economics, or flexibility.
- Philosophy, which asks big questions and wakes up people’s brains.
Or something else. The type of book you’re writing will inform your reader journey.
Who’s reading it?
Then turn to your reader: who’s reading your book, and why? How do they connect with your message?
What type of person are they when they first encounter your book, and why might they pick it up in the first place? What are they thinking, feeling, struggling with? What are they able to do now?
Then think about where you’re taking your reader: who do they want to be at the end? How do they want to be transformed?
And how do you want to transform them? What do you want them to be able to do, feel, know by the end of the book?
Now to get the reader from start to finish, where do you need to stop along the way? From their point of initial understanding to the final point of enlightenment, what stages do they need to pass through? What do they need to learn, or do, or think about?
That’s your reader journey. It works alongside your outline, and is a great place to start.
Snakes on a Plane had, as far as I could tell, no reader journey. No coherent plot or story. No transformation for the main characters, other than possibly a new horror of things that could go wrong on a plane. And definitely no transformation of me, other than a faint disappointment that the absolute badass who is Samuel L. Jackson would be a part of it. That’s why it’s such an utter fail of a film, at least for me.
A few examples…
One of my favourite nonfiction books, Atomic Habits, has a strong reader journey:
- Reader picks up book wishing they had better habits and could kick the bad habits and that they were generally a better human.
- Reader discovers along the way what habits are, why and how we’re made up of habits, and what it means to be “a better human”—and how to change our bad habits for helpful ones.
- Reader is transformed into a person who can understand and change their behaviours, and direct those behaviours to be the person they want to be.
It’s super powerful, this book—it definitely changed my life.
And my book How the hell do you write a book has a strong reader journey, too:
- Reader picks up book desperately wanting to write a book of their own, but with no idea how to do it or where to start, or even if they can.
- Reader discovers all the things that scare them, scare all of us—and finds tools to fix those problems, a place to start, and strategies to keep writing.
- Reader finishes book believing they can write that book they want to write, and knowing exactly where and how to start. Hurrah!
This Reader Journey applies to any type of book you want to think about and it’s a cracking place to start if you have no idea how to start writing.
All your ideas, your messages—they’re all important, but how you present them in your book, to your reader, matters. You need to take us on a journey from here to there, and help us transform ourselves along the way.
Or it’s just information.
And we don’t want more information. We’re looking for meaning.
I’ve created a bundle of templates to help you get started on your book writing adventure, including one for the Reader Journey.
You can get your mitts on a copy here—it’s useful for the book as a whole, and also for each individual chapter (which also needs to follow the reader journey idea—a microcosm, if you like).
And if you want the whole bundle, you get a tasty discount.
Psst: Season 3 of The Weird + Wonderful Book Society kicks off at the end of June. I’m opening the doors in a couple of weeks…
But if you want to sneak in the side door now and secure your place (there are only 10 spots available) you can hit the big pink button below:
Or book a call with me here and we’ll talk.
Notes in the Margin
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