As I mentioned in my most recent blog, a strong structure invites the reader into your book. Your table of contents is a big selling point–not only for readers but also for agents and editors. I like to think of the table of contents as displaying the book’s bone structure.
Break the table of contents mold
One of the wonderful aspects about bone structure is that, while we each have a basic face “shape,” we each also have a unique look. So don’t be afraid to break out of the standard mold with your book’s structure. Do something a little different. But not so clever that it calls too much attention to itself. That would be like having so much plastic surgery that you looked, well, plastic.
Make it simple
A simple structure sometimes works best. For example, He’s Just Not That Into You starts most of its chapters reusing the title: “He’s Just Not That Into You If He’s Not Asking You Out,” “He’s Just Not That Into You If He’s Not Calling,” etc. It reiterates the book’s theme yet shows how that theme is explored in each chapter.
Make it informative
The memoir, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, has a simple but very different structure. Each chapter title is one word, but it has a subtitle. So you find chapter titles such as: “Beginnings: God on a Dirt Road Walking Toward Me,” “Problems: What I Learned on Television,” “Magic: The Problem with Romeo.” While I don’t know exactly what each chapter will hold, these titles, as befits a memoir, are more opaque than a standard nonfiction book. But they reflect a thoughtful approach to the book’s structure and create curiosity.
Make it an invitation
I’m currently reading (along with the rest of the book club I’m a part of) Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya. Each chapter explores a neighborhood, a geologic wonder, a celebrated building or street, etc. The chapters’ titles hint at the contents but do so in a flirty way, inviting you to read on: “Stairway to Heaven,” “The Harbor at the End of the World,” “The Canyon” (there’s a canyon in the center of the city–I never knew that despite having been to San Fran numerous times), “The Country in the City.”
What is the latest nonfiction book you’ve read? Did the table of contents invite you in, or did you enter into the book’s world for another reason? Which of the three qualities of a table of contents does your WIP possess?
I never read the contents table;
it does not appeal to me,
for it makes me that less able
to embrace the serendipity
of an undiscovered land
that lies beyond the unturned page;
writer and I walk hand-in-hand
through that lovely gilded age
of the wordful journey shared
from the first unto the last,
and in delight that’s unprepared,
it all goes by far, far too fast,
and thus my sonnet here presents
my thoughts on Table Of Contents.
Bet you never expected a poem about a Table Of Contents, and now, having seen on, completely understand why.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Ooooh, this is so interesting! I love your examples of non-fiction structures that work. My latest non-fiction reads have been the collection “How to Write a Mystery” and “You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type” because I’m really wanting some everyday Mom-type helps for kids and teens I work with at camp who are struggling with anxiety and depression. I went searching for the mystery book looking for the most recommended craft books on mystery. But I got pulled into the brain book because of the whole brain type thing. Then I did indeed look at the table of contents online and saw that practical helps anyone can do at home to help depression were indeed included. Yay! So yes, the table of contents did help sell the book to me. Now my children are suffering greatly as I offer glasses of water, sweet potatoes, blueberries, or a cup of green tea if they look even slightly droopy, ha! Poor things. Life is indeed difficult after your mother reads a new book.
Kristen, thanks for the great example of how you made the decision to buy the brain book–and the repercussions for your children!