Breaking Down Content: Part II

In the last blog, we looked at breaking down content so that whatever message the content as a whole was intended to deliver – be that the plot of a novel, the biography of a subject, the information of a topic, or the guide of a self-help book – it did so logically, causally, and effectively.

It is not just a spill, as some might think. You don’t just dump what’s in your head onto the page. There has to be purpose in how the content builds.

This week, we’re going to take the examples posed in the last blog and break down the first five chapters of each, demonstrating how we can now use each component to build the overall message. In one column, we’ll list what happens in the chapter, and in the adjacent column we’ll list the purpose of what’s happening in that chapter and how it contributes to building the overall content. It’s important that in this latter column we don’t see repetition.

As an aside, I’m also going to run with several topics with which I’m unfamiliar (e.g. German Shepherds as a breed of dog, and emerging from domestic abuse to rebuild my life and show others how they can do so also) because it’ll show that no matter how little you think you know, you can compartmentlise what you do know and write to build an effective and compelling message. Conversely, if you know lots, well, all the better.

So here goes …


Premise – Fiction

A wife tries to clear herself after she is accused of her husband’s murder.

Chapter Synopsis


Chapter Purpose

Chapter 1: We meet Jane Smith and her husband, Jack Smith. They wake up, go through their morning routine, and – just as she’s leaving for work – Jane says she’ll be home late because the boss is making everybody do overtime.
  Introduction to our characters and our setting. Alternatively, you can leap right into the meat of the story. Personally, I like a bit of dithering because it shows our characters and their world BEFORE whatever happens next.
Chapter 2: Jane at work. She has a domineering, sexist boss, Donald. She also works with her best friend Marcia. They have lunch, chat. At the end of the work day, Donald makes a pass at Jane. She rebukes him and leaves, instead of staying back late.
  A lot of this is circumstance, and continuing to introduce our protagonist’s character – and her world – to the reader. We now know she has a best friend and sexist boss. (Presumably, they will become part of the plot.)
Chapter 3: Jane comes home from work, surprising her husband, Jack, who’s making an intimate Skype call with his mistress. After confronting Jack and arguing violently, Jane charges from the house.
  We now unravel Jane’s world and give her motive. Note also the causality: Jack made this call because he thought Jane would be home late; Jane is home early because her boss did something that compelled her to leave; getting home early, Jack is caught. It’s all cause and effect, rather than random chance driving the plot.
Chapter 4: Jane goes to a bar, nurses a drink for an hour. Then she goes to Marcia’s. Marcia puts her up for the night and they dissect her relationship with Jack. Jane decides it’s over.
  Further plotting. The hour Jane spends in a bar might later become time for which she can’t account. (We’d write that she sat in a corner, away from prying eyes and CCTV, so nobody can verify if she was there after she ordered the first drink.) What we’re doing is foreshadowing her lack of alibi.

Chapter 5: In the morning, Jane goes home and discovers her husband, bludgeoned to death, in the kitchen. She goes into shock. Calls the police. When the police arrive, things start looking bad for her – neighbours heard them violently arguing, neighbours saw her charge out, etc.
  We now have set our plot in motion – Jane is accused of her husband’s murder. We also build suspicion of her. It looks as if she’ll be accused of this crime. What will she do?

We could keep going on with this – Jane being taken into questioning, Jack’s death falling in the time between when Jane came home from work and when she showed up at Marcia’s. We get a little bit of repetition here in terms of introducing and establishing our character’s universe, but it’s always new detail – husband, domesticity, work, boss, best friend, etc. Some fiction authors like to repeat themselves to make sure the reader gets it. Unless you’re trying to establish a conceit – e.g. the everyday routine of an everyman – once is enough. Keep the story moving forward. And in blocking it out this way, we continue moving it forward.


Premise – Biography (Autobiography, Memoir, etc.)

The story of Joe Blow, who rises from humble beginnings, becomes a councilman and grows to be invaluable to his local community.

Chapter Synopsis


Chapter Purpose

Chapter 1: We meet Joe Blow as he is now.
  Introduces the reader to Joe Blow as a person and councilman. As an aside, many biographies will begin at the epoch of their subject’s life, then reflect. So perhaps we begin here when he’s is being given a lifetime of service award.
Chapter 2: Look at Joe Blow’s parents, how they came here from Scandinavia, and had a son.
  Shows where Joe came from – we immediately get a sense of what sort of background Joe has come from. This offers context. We understand he’s working class.

Chapter 3: An examination of Joe Blow’s upbringing.
  Shows Joe Blow’s early life, and the events that begin to shape him as the person he will eventually become. This is important because we get an idea of why he becomes the person he does, i.e. what his drivers are.
Chapter 4: Joe, as an adult, goes to tertiary education, where he meets Diane. They go out and marry. Earning little, they rent a rundown flat. The landlord often ignores their requests.
  Shows Joe, who now has responsibilities,and struggles to get by, and is thwarted by dealing with unfairness where people aren’t held accountable.
Chapter 5: Joe graduates and gets a job managing a small printing business in the local community. He hears the grievances of everyday people. He wonders what he can do to help. Diane suggests he run for council.
  Sets Joe upon the path for which he’ll be known.
And on you go again. Just like a novel employing a traditional three-act structure, there’s a story to tell here – it’s not just about Joe’s life in its entirety. Lots of autobiographies/biographies make that mistake. Just tell everything. But that means there’s no story which frames events. In this case, this story is about Joe’s life as a councilman, rising from humble beginnings to receiving an award. We see his life through the filter of this journey.


Premise – Nonfiction (Topical)

Why the German Shepherd is the ideal dog breed for a pet.

Chapter Synopsis


Chapter Purpose

Chapter 1: Introduce the German Shepherd as a breed, offer its history, and show how it’s evolved over the years.
  Introduces the reader to the dog breed and gives a quick overview of the dog’s history, where it comes from, in what functions it was used, etc.

Chapter 2: Why the German Shepherd makes a good pet whether you’re single or have a family.
  Champions the cause of why the reader should own a German Shepherd over any other dog. This might mention stuff like they’re social, they’re good with kids, and they’re excellent guard dogs.

Chapter 3: Looks at the German Shepherd puppy and how to best integrate it into your lifestyle.
  Shows the reader what they’ll be required to do, and needs like food and training. As a sidenote, you could break this into several chapters if need be. Alternatively, you could break the chapter down into sub-categories using headings and subheadings, e.g. social training (taking the dog out, how it plays with others, etc.), recreational training (teaching it to fetch, etc.), and necessary training (toilet training, seeing that it doesn’t bark at everything, etc.).
Chapter 4: Delves into the German Shepherd as a young adult.
  Shows what sort of dog it should grow into, how it should be behaving, and how its needs evolve.
Chapter 5: The German Shepherd’s health.
  Looks at health issues the dog might face, what you need to look out for, etc.
Here, we’re breaking down the case for owning a German Shepherd into simple components, and what each will require. The components themselves don’t repeat (although there might be some basic overlap).

As a reference, it would be brilliant for a reader – they know immediately where to look to find what they need. As a guide, it gives them a good overview of the dog.


Premise – Nonfiction (Inspirational)

How to emerge from an abusive relationship and rebuild your life. (For the purpose of this outline, I will pretend I am a woman named ‘Nancy’.)

Chapter Synopsis


Chapter Purpose

Chapter 1: Recap meeting and marriage to my husband, Marcus. The early years were good. But as the marriage went on, he drank too much. Then became abusive. He started to hit me. Finally, after almost killing me, I got out.
  This chapter serves as a story in itself – showing how the relationship started out so well, and it seemed a great match, but then it slowly began to unravel, until I’d had enough.

Chapter 2: Looks at talking to counsellors, being put up in a shelter, and doubting my decision, but also knowing I was recontextualising what I was going through because I was afraid to face the future. Realising that I needed to move forward.
  An important chapter that will empathise with readers, speak to their doubts, but show that the only course is to move forward.

Chapter 3: The first practicality – dealing with immediate finances.
  Poses that instead of dealing with emotional baggage first, the important thing is to start moving forward. Working out how to survive on what immediate income there is, given it may take a while to get anything from the separation – particularly if the husband is belligerent. This is possibly one of the first things people in this situation think: how will I survive alone?
Chapter 4: The next practicality – finding a place to live.
  Looks at how to find a place to live on limited finances, and how this is just a transitional abode – somewhere to live until everything is sorted out.

Chapter 5: Working out how to deal with emotional baggage.
  Now that the practicalities are out of the way, looks at techniques to deal with the emotional gamut to move forward. This chapter might be broken down into various sub-categories, or perhaps this is when we start offering whatever technique we’ve formulated and which we’re going to offer to other people.

Again, we continue to break down the needs of what such a book would require, avoiding repetition (and waffle) so we create a complete guide that looks at everything that might be required. There’s a logic to it. It’s not random. It’s an instructional and chronological guide – one that anybody in the same situation could follow – to tackle moving forward.

The difficulty with books like this is the tendency to regress into memoir. While it’s fine to use experiences to contextualise circumstances, if it delves too readily into biography, it dilutes whatever message it might be trying to deliver because it actually becomes about something else.

It’s an important distinction – is the book intended purely as a memoir, where the author hopes the reader learns from their experiences? Or is it self-help, where techniques are offered to guide the reader through their issues?

As it is, hopefully, these four examples demonstrate how content can be broken down and ordered to deliver an overriding message.

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