Three Point Writing Structure for Non-Fiction Books: The Hero’s Journey

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

As the author of a non-fiction book, you have many options to choose from when it comes to structuring your manuscript. How will your material unfold? What context will prove to be the best backdrop for your message? Make the wrong choice, and your book may come across as two-dimensional or just plain dull.

For speakers and writers, the age old adage goes, “Never make a point without telling a story, and never tell a story without making a point.” In crafting your book, you’re going to need at least one really good story.

But how do you do that? How can you make sure your story makes a point that people care about? Is there a model for your storytelling that will ensure your words make an impact?

Yes, there is a model! A writing template, if you will. You can elevate your non-fiction book to a whole new level using what Joseph Campbell termed the Hero’s Journey. First, let’s define what a hero is, then we’ll look at a couple of examples of how you can use this idea.

A hero (or heroine) is someone who has given his life force to a cause that’s bigger than himself. He pursues a goal then returns to his old life to share his experiences.

The Hero’s Journey is the tale of how the hero pursues that goal. It’s the archetype of all myths and legends. In fact, stories with this same structure have been told again and again all over the world throughout the ages. Despite the variations in their setting and style, myths and legends have a great deal in common, especially the hero.

There are plenty of great examples of the Hero’s Journey such as The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix and the Indiana Jones series all illustrate how a hero gives himself to a cause that’s larger than he is. Can you think of other examples where the hero gives him/herself over to a cause bigger than themselves?

The key—the thing that makes the story worth engaging in—is what Campbell called the Threshold of Adventure.

The Journey Begins

Every Hero’s Journey has three parts: a beginning, middle, and end. To be more precise, these parts are called Departure, Transformation (or Initiation) and Return. Click here for background information on these 3 sections.

The story begins by establishing the status quo then introducing a change—a Departure.The story takes off when the hero crosses the Threshold of Adventure and is changed by the action of the story—Transformation. The story has a satisfying completion when the Hero goes back across this threshold—the Return—typically sharing his results with those in his ordinary world.

Years back, I went to a weekend retreat for professionals. One of the attendees was a sharp, energetic guy who had a super positive attitude. It made sense when I discovered he was a motivational speaker, Chris Widener.

We got along, found we had a lot in common, and I came to know Chris well. By the end of the retreat, he asked me to be his business partner. It took some convincing on his part—a year of it, in fact—but eventually, I came on board and became a publisher for professional speakers.

The decision came shortly after I read a book that Chris had co-authored with the legendary Jim Rohn. The book was called The Angel Inside, also by Chris Widener. Like Twelve Pillars, The Angel Inside follows the action of a hero to discover a philosophical truth.

A despondent 30-year-old travels to Italy where he’s inspired by the statue of David. He discovers the idea that the sculptor, Michelangelo, saw the statue inside the marble from the beginning and his sculpting was merely a process of uncovering what lay hidden within. The hero is mentored throughout the book to uncover the angel inside himself.

Applying the Hero’s Journey to Your Non-fiction Book

You can apply the Hero’s Journey to your own work with a few simple techniques.

First, escape the attention clutter of your office or everyday life. Where can you go? It can be as simple as visiting a neighborhood coffee shop.

Sometimes I retreat to a hotel room for an overnight to escape the clutter. When I was finishing my last book, I rode my motorcycle to a mountain cabin for a week to wrap-up the final details.

Once you’ve got time and space to work on your book, come up with the core ideas you want to put across. Then think about who will be reading your book. Is it a guide for single moms seeking advice on raising teenagers? Is your audience made up of bankers who want to learn how to manage risk? Get a clear picture in your mind of just one reader who personifies your audience. This is your avatar.

Next, think of your avatar’s greatest challenge. What’s their pain? How can you help them solve it?

Craft a story around how they discover the truths you want to present. Give this story a beginning, middle, and end—a Departure, Transformation, and Return. Demonstrate how their life is changed by the journey.

Make your characters believable and sympathetic. Your audience will want to like them, so make it easy to do just that.

You can tell the story as one uninterrupted tale, or you can punctuate it with commentary about your ideas. Both methods work, and there are plenty of models for you to follow.

Using stories in your non-fiction work will add texture and depth to your ideas. It can mean all the difference between painting with shades of gray or using a spectrum of color.

Bryan Heathman is the CEO of Made for Success Publishing and the author of #1 Best Seller: Book Marketing Reinvented, a book for authors with his best selling book launch formula. Bryan’s Fortune 500 experience includes Microsoft, Eastman Kodak and Xerox.