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How to Uncover Your Message and Bring Your Books to Life

Five Tips on How to Make Your Stories Stand Out - Even if You Write Non Fiction




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How to Bring Your Books to Life – Lessons in Narrative and the Power of Storytelling

Human beings (that is, the readers you’re trying to sell your books to) are hard-wired for story.

That is, we subconsciously get hooked by certain elements present in a great yarn – making us want to turn the pages and find out “what happens next”.

If you’re a fiction writer, you already know this.

But what about other genres?

If you’re trying to teach or inspire someone with a how-to book, you still need a story to bring it all together (otherwise, nobody cares).

Want to write compelling sales copy? Yep, you need a story.

It’s even more important for narrative non-fiction…

Biographies? You bet. Nobody wants to read about what Churchill had for lunch or where he bought his ties. They want the all the juicy bits.

Memoirs? Guess what. You need a story. Otherwise you’re just describing what some random person’s day looked like.

Travel? Nobody cares which airline you used, or which countries you visited. Readers care about the story, your personal journey, conflict, drama, stakes…

Otherwise, you’re pretty much just listing out a “bunch of stuff that happened” and the meaning behind your words gets lost.

In my experience, there’s very little difference between fiction and narrative non-fiction. In the former, your plot points are made up. In the latter, your plot points actually happened to someone. In many ways, narrative non-fiction has the potential to be far more engaging – because readers know it actually happened.

As far as the reader is concerned, it’s all new to them. So the lines get very blurred (case in point – George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” is, by any definition, a memoir – but was originally classified as a novel. It isn’t. There are many more examples).

Which means, if you’re writing ANY kind of book – that you’d like readers to actually finish – you need a compelling story to suck readers in and keep them turning the pages until the end.

The better the story, the better your results.

To illustrate this point, today we’re hearing from award-winning memoir author Michelle Weidenbenner.

Michelle is an expert at helping authors and aspiring authors uncover the real story they’re trying to tell – and she does this by applying fiction principles to her brand of narrative non-fiction (she writes fiction too).

So, if you’re a fiction writer – pay attention. Your stories need to follow this same process to draw those readers in and keep them hooked.

If you’re a non-fiction writer – pay even more attention! If you’re not using the power of stories in your work, here’s a masterclass in how to do it right.

Enter Michelle…

Uncovering Your Story: Five Tips on How to Write a Best-Selling Memoir

By Michelle Weidenbenner

In this article, I will share tips on how I constructed my award-winning memoir, Fractured Not Broken. A literary agent told me not to waste my time writing this book or publishing it, yet it’s selling better than any of my other books. It also has a movie option. But more importantly, it’s changing lives.

I’m a writing coach and speaker and have published seven books –most have been best-sellers and award-winning. I call myself the Uncover Agent. I help people uncover their messages in their books and lives, so they can leave a legacy.



My Story

Kelly, a young woman, came to my office one day. She sat in a motorized wheelchair with her atrophied arm poised above her controls. “I’d get up and shake your hand if I could,” she said, then laughed.

I instantly liked her sense of humor and the way she tried to make me feel comfortable with her limited mobility.

She continued. “Would you write my memoir?”

“I don’t know. What’s your story, Kelly?” I asked.

“When I was nineteen, I was a nationally ranked athlete, but when a drunk driver hit our car, my neck was crimped at the C-3 and C-4 level. I became a quadriplegic, which means I can’t walk, brush my teeth, comb my hair, or make dinner—or get up and shake your hand.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I don’t want pity.  I want to tell my story to bring other people hope.”

Kelly told me about her life and how her miracle came in a way she’d never expected. I was in awe of her poise, her faith, and the way she influenced children and adults. Her courage was something I couldn’t imagine. She’d done more in her life as a quadriplegic than many able-bodied people do in their entire lives.

I believed that her story could change lives, and I was on fire to write her memoir.



It’ll Never Sell

But several months later, a literary agent told me not to waste my time. He said Kelly’s story would make a great article, but it would never sell as a book.

At the time, I didn’t have a book published, and I knew nothing about how to self-publish. What I did know was that I was competitive, and more than anything, I wanted to prove the agent wrong.

Ten Years Later…

In 2015, I wrote and published Kelly’s book, and it’s selling more than any of my other books. It’s been an Amazon best-seller and has won multiple awards. It also has a movie option.

(Oh, yeah. Take that, Mr. Literary Agent!)

But more importantly, it’s changing lives and bringing people hope, which is the greatest reward an author can achieve. Fractured Not Broken is a love story so unbelievable that it only happens in nonfiction.



How Did I Do This?

First – I read books on memoirs and studied the publishing industry. Most memoirs don’t sell well unless you’re famous, so if you’re not famous it’s really important to tell a great story and design a marketing plan.

After Mr. Lit Agent discouraged me from writing and publishing Kelly’s book, I surrounded myself with award-winning and best-selling authors who knew how to kick booty in the self-publishing world. I found them on FB and blog sites. They weren’t afraid to share their strategies and help me along either.



1. Bring the reader a story that will inspire them.

Read blogs on writing and interview successful authors. Ask questions. I surrounded myself with people I wanted to be like —successful authors who had their readers’ hearts in the forefront of their business.

Study fictional elements.

I published five books before writing Kelly’s story. I learned how to market these books and turn them into best-sellers and award-winning.

One of the greatest resources I used to help me bring out Kelly’s story was Natalie Goldberg’s book, Old Friend from Far Away. Natalie taught me how to ask Kelly the most bizarre questions that would build the foundation of her story.

“Can you remember a time about a popsicle?” I asked Kelly one day.

I had no idea where that question would lead, but it led to a rivetting scene in her book that shows a part of her story, but eductaes readers too.

They learned that quadriplegics can’t perspire in the heat. During one of Kelly’s beauty pageants, she began to overheat and grow dizzy. It wasn’t until people in the parade stuck frozen icy pops down the back of her dress that she was able to cool off.

Can you picture the scene on a hot summer day: Kelly sitting in the back seat of a car in a parade, her head bobbing from the sun beating down on her? Then watch as young girls giggle as they help cool her off with plastic-covered flavored ice pops.



2. Make your story read like fiction.

Start with a BOOM! Or a hook.  A hook is a literary technique used in the opening of a story that grabs the reader’s attention so she’ll keep reading.

Many writers who tackle their memoir want to start at the beginning of their lives, or they construct a story that takes the reader to one place, then to another, with no goal in mind.

It’s boring.

If your intent is to have readers read your book, you need to start your book with a hook, in the action, just before the inciting incident happens, when everything changes.

Also, your character needs to have a character goal and a transforming journey. Know what this is before you begin. Tape it to your computer screen to remind you daily what your character’s goal is.

What can  your character do at the end of the story that she can’t do in the beginning? Why should your readers go along on a journey with you? What’s in it for them? Do you hook them in the beginning to make them care about you and your plight?

If not, think deeper about how you can tell your story so readers will want to stay in your story and root for you until the end.

Find a developmental editor who can check to see if you’ve used fictional elements at certain places in your story.

For instance,  my editor, Vie Herlocker, sent me this breakdown of my story structure. She based this on K. M. Weiland’s story structure for novels.

In this example, Vie checks to see if the story parts fall in the proper places.

This might look like a ‘formula’ to some people, but in my opinion, story structure is a science that should be studied and applied.

Kelly’s book isn’t fiction, but I wanted it to read like fiction. And here’s a breakdown of how certain elements of the story showed up at specific points of the book – notice how similar this is to a fiction story:



3. Include the four pillars that make a best-selling novel.

Novelist, Susie May Warren, teaches that every best-selling novel has four essential elements that can lead to its success. Again, a memoir isn’t a novel, but if you include these four elements, readers will love reading it.

Heroism. Everyone makes selfish choices, but if you show your character making a selfless decision, your readers will root for him. Since this is most likely a book about you, think of your story and when you’ve been a hero. Can you show your better side? How?

Sacrifice. Look at your dreams and desires. What did you want more than anything? Then show how that’s taken away from you. In The Hunger Games, Katniss gives up her freedom to save her sister, and we instantly love her. Help the readers like you by showing you sacrifice something important to you. Share your dreams, then take them away.

Redemption. Your character (you) musst have a moment when you see the mistakes you’ve made. Early in your story you make poor choices, but by the end of your story, the reader wants to see that you’ve learned something. At the end of your book, when you’re given the same opportunity, show how you choose differently because of what you’ve learned along your journey.

Justice.  In Kelly’s story, the drunk driver got nine years in jail. Readers were happy to see justice. They don’t like to see unjustice. They love it when all the loose ends are tied up neatly in a bow, too. Give them a reason to clap when justice is served.

However, in memoirs, the truth might mean that justice was never served, which motivates the reader to care deeply about the victim or you.

But maybe justice is in your forgiveness. Maybe you were the victim, but throughout your story you learned how to forgive, you became a stronger person, and even though the villain didn’t get what he deserved, you moved past the wrong-doing and became a mentor to others who are similarly wronged.

In this way, the reader finds satisfaction.



4. Let Readers See your Character Journey

Who you are in the beginning of the book shouldn’t be who you are at the end. You must have a character arc. It’s important to show what you learned along the way, but what you learn is a transition. It isn’t the fairy godmother showing up, waving a wand, and making your life better again.

Your character journey is an inside job. It’s the sequence of events that changed you on the inside.

How do you show your arc?

Let readers see your goals and dreams and what motivates you.

What obstacles get in the way of you reaching your goal? Is it a drunk driver like in Kelly’s case? Is it the environment or something inside you that gets in the way of you finding success?

Show two steps forward toward reaching that goal and then two steps back again. Are you your own worst enemy? Do you sabotage your success? Show that.

With each new struggle, show how you respond. Toward the climax of your story, you should be learning how to move past the obstacles with new strength, courage and tenacity.

Do something that surprises your reader. Kelly decides to go tubing on the lake while she’s working with teens. As a quadriplegic, she can’t swim. If her head gets below water, she can’t lift it.  She would surely drown. She must rely on others to pull her out. There was no way she could do this in the beginning of her story.

It was only toward the end that she was able to move past her fears and rely on others.



5. Develop a Marketing Plan

Before you begin your memoir, think about this: What’s in it for your readers? Who are you trying to influence and why?

Once the memoir is written, you will need to find ways to turn this into a nonfiction how-to book that will serve others that share your pain.  If you write your book with the intention of making it a business, you’re much more likely to succeed.

Your book could lead to a career in coaching, speaking, paid mastermind groups, Bible studies, or maybe a paid program that speakers will pay you to use. If you think of your overall message and what that means to your readers, you’ll come up with other ways to help serve those you want to influence.

My friend and mentor, Kary Oberbrunner says, “You must make your book the beginning of a relationship with your reader. Not the end.”


Michelle calls herself the Uncover Agent. She helps people uncover their message in their books and life, so they can leave a legacy. Her current project,  “Leave a Letter, Change a Life,” encourages everyone to leave their friends and families letters or keepsakes designed especially for them. When Michelle isn’t writing or coaching, she’s playing pickleball.

Get free writing tips from Michelle right here on her website

And now, we want to hear from you – whether you write fiction or non-fiction, let us know how you use story in your books to hook readers in and keep them engaged (or how you plan to) – leave a comment below and let us know.

  1. Michelle says:

    Thanks for sharing this article, Nick. I hope that it helps writers uncover their story so they gain millions of readers!

  2. Adm says:

    Story is the most important tool in a writers box.
    I have a free book called Story…and how to write one

    For any author who may find themselves in a corner or wants to know how to create a story that connects with the reader. Freely available on Amazon, simply search my author name.
    Adam J Pestridge

    Enjoy reading it.

    1. Michelle says:

      Hi Adam –
      It sounds like you’re a passionate “STORY” guy too. Thanks for sharing your free book and for stopping by to offer a comment. Have you read The Story Brand? I think it’s a MUST-READ for any business/author-preneurs. It’s helping me understand how my business is a STORY too.
      Keep writing! Michelle

  3. Pam says:

    That’s amazing! Very helpful! PS. What is pickleball?

    1. Michelle says:

      Hi Pam – Pickleball is a blast. It’s a sport similar to tennis, but on a smaller court. It’s more like ping-pong on steroids. Here’s a You Tube video about it:

      Some people say it’s only for ‘older’ people, but young people play too. I try to play almost every day. If you want to get really good, you learn the dink game. I’d like to call myself the DINKING DIVA. Haha!

      Thanks for asking. I hope you play it some day. Keep writing!

  4. Majken Sander says:

    Thank you, once again Nick for sharing an inspiring persons view.

    Personally I write non-fiction. mainly about data – and I use stories to reach out to the readers, establish common grounds as to situations they have been in work-wise, and then work from trying to make things easier, – how to find, implement, leverage, orchestrate the facts that touch upon their situation.

    I am very interested in more views regarding non-fiction, maybe more dedicated towards non-fiction, not particularly about ‘how to become author-industry’, but more ‘everything else’ non-fiction process would be helpful.

    1. Michelle says:

      Majken – Good for you for using stories to reach your readers — stories connect, even if it’s about data. Here’s the thing … If you think of ‘story’ when you’re writing to your readers, do this:
      1. They are the hero in your story. (Your customer)
      2. They have a problem to solve and need YOU as their guide.
      3. What can you help them with? What are their pain points? What problem will you solve for them?
      4. What are the stakes? What will happen to your readers if they don’t sign up to read what you have to offer? What will they miss out on?
      5. What makes you the authority to listen to? Even if you don’t have a degree, your life experiences can make you a credible and valuable source.

      Story world can be applied to all types of writing – fiction or nonfiction. I think it’s because people connect better with stories. (Sure wish some church pastors would learn this concept. Yawn!)

      The most important thing in nonfiction is to think this: What’s in it for the reader?
      Thanks for stopping by and reading this article.

  5. Babette says:

    Thanks Michelle! I am writing a memoir so this speaks to me. I think I am a better storyteller than writer. My book is written but it is not up to my standards. Lately I have been recording myself read a chapter and then making edits that way. I think it helps.

    1. Michelle says:

      Oh. My. Gosh. I’m writing a ghost story and my main character’s name is Babette! You don’t hear that name very often. Wow!
      What device do you use to record yourself? I recently started doing this in Scrivener, but my mic gets stuck, and it doesn’t keep up with my voice. I just bought a new Mac so maybe it will work better on that one!
      If you think about it, we speak must faster than we type. (I’ve gotten real good because I speak to text.)
      Once you record yourself, do you translate it into a WORD file? Or where?

  6. Jane Ann McLachlan says:

    Hi Michelle,
    Good article. Congrats on getting this memoir out. I’ve written a memoir which got me an agent who loved it – but hasn’t been able to sell it. I’m thinking of self-publishing it. I’ve self-published fiction, but I think marketing a self-published memoir is a whole different game – I wish you’d spoken more about the “marketing plan” you mentioned, and would love to hear some tips on how you successfully launched and marketed a memoir on Amazon?

    1. Michelle says:

      Hi Jane –
      Ah, yes. The marketing plan. The key is to make your book the beginning of a relationship with your reader. We all just want to write, but now that isn’t enough. (For most of us.) I wish I had the golden secret. Marketing ideas change daily, except for this one suggestion. If you can find a way to make your book the start of something bigger with your readers, you will sell more books.

      What might that be? What is your book’s message or your character’s journey? For instance, one of my books is about an orphan who has a problem bonding. She has RAD – Reactive attachment disorder. If I build a speaking platform to help mom’s of kids with RAD, join blog tours about this topic, lead paid mastermind groups about RAD, and create a five-step program that helps families with kids with RAD, my platform becomes more than just a book. The financial opportunities grow, but more importantly, I might help change lives and gain trust in the book market.

      What is your book’s message, and how can you build this into a business?

      Also, can you use someone else’s platform to leverage the marketing? Who’s someone famous who has your same heart? How can you reach out to that person to endorse your book?

      Authors are creative. Use that to come up with something different. Make it about your reader. Try different things.

      I use AMS ads and try to build a quarterly $0.99 promo with ads at various reader marketing sites too. It helps to keep my books visible.

      Good luck, and congrats on completing your book. Many people die before they fulfill this dream.


  7. Joan says:

    Hi Michelle (hi Nick!),
    Wonderful article. I’ve spent a good amount of time studying (and teaching) creative writing. Your article is easy to read and leaves us inspired. Thanks for sharing! I’m also glad you knew your own mind and didn’t bow to the ‘expertise’ of a literary agent.
    In my last novel, Verses Nature, I combine an innovative literary style with a seemingly scandalous plot (‘delicious sin and literary genius’) that has all the ingredients you outline above. I call it feminist literary fiction. It’s not erotica. I’m glad to see that I also have several men on my reading list and in my newsletters my readers and I have a great time post-morteming the politics of relationships and sexual desire in a socially critical way. A question for you, Michelle: how do you deal with the market’s demand for clean-cut literary genres on the one hand, yet the call for novel reads on the other? My fiction often occupies a gray zone, which makes it hard to label. Can we be truly innovative if we (are to) write according to a strict pattern/framework? Or, put another way, how do you combine the requirements of a recognizable narrative structure on the one hand, and surprise on the other? Don’t these two ideas (familiarity and surprise) stand in contrast to one another? Once again, thanks for a great article! I’m heading over to your website now to see if you treat us to some inside info regarding your marketing plan.

    1. Michelle says:

      Wow, Joan! Those are some tough questions.
      Do you have a tagline for your books? You have a specific niche, and I’m confident that there are readers that appreciate this type of literature. If you focus your marketing on being ‘different’ in a positive way, you’ll catch the attention of the readers who will appreciate what you write. Read through your reviews. What is the common denominator? What do most readers compliment you on? Why do they buy your books? “Delicious sin and literary genius” sounds awesome, but it might make readers think it’s erotica, and if you don’t want that image, maybe tweak this a bit.

      Even though your book might not appear to follow a ‘formula’ I’m confident it still has these elements: A Hero, with a problem and stakes. Adding surprise to these elements doesn’t change those three necessary elements. There’s a reason many books have been written about the hero’s journey. Knowing the elements and including them has been proven to satisfy. Keep your surprise though. For instance, in The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta outsmart the villain (forgot his name) when they decided to eat the berries together so they both die, leaving no survivors. Even though this was a surprise to the reader, it was plausible because the author included foreshadowing of the berries early in the story, but yet it surprises. I doubt many readers expected that, but when they read it they thought, Wow! What a great surprise. And it works!

      Thanks for stopping by. Wish you were in my living room, so we could discuss this in greater detail. Ha! My family gets a little annoyed with me because I love to talk story structure. I do it when I watch movies. (I call it Movie Biology – I dissect the parts.)

      You should try that too. Watch a movie. If you like it, and you think it’s different, check to analyze the elements. Are they all there? Identify them. It will help your writing too.


      1. Joan says:

        Hi Michelle,
        Thanks for the feedback! :). I’ve got some of the best reviews of Verses Nature on my website. Reviews which I hope will whet the appetite of future readers. Thing is, when the book first came out, many were shocked, but not in the way I was hoping. They felt that the book didn’t deliver as a work of erotica (which it isn’t!), or that, as a literary work, there was too much sex in it (there is, in fact, very little explicit sex). I licked my wounds for a long time, then gave myself a good shake and got back to work, using my newsletters to explain what my fiction is about. Not much I can do about those reviews that are already out there, tho. I can only hope that new readers will use the Look Inside option at Amazon and make their own minds up.
        On the topic of structure: yes, I see what you mean. Kurt Vonnegut’s six universal story structures is something I’ve never been able to disqualify, although I think that, today the diversity we see in so many areas can be infused into our storytelling so that it need not be a question of, say, one story model or the other, but of blending familiar structures to create less familiar tones, as we can do with colours. Trying my very best to resist using the word ‘new’ here, can you tell? 🙂

        I want to be in your living room too, Michelle!! 🙂
        I’ve just made a cheesecake. I’ll bring it along 🙂

        Sorry this seems like a new comment. I tried typing this immediately below your feedback on my original comments, but it didn’t work.

  8. Oli says:

    Hi, I am a Dutch author and I’ve written a fiction YA story about a chubby girl in a crude new order, forced to being trained as a gatekeeper. As this new situation is pposite from her previous life, she learns that the most valuable thing in life is unconditionally friendship, something she did not have in the beginning of the book. In the beginning of the book, her only goal is to escape and to get back to her old love. slowly this goal is changed into survival together with her friends and love interest. At the end of the book she has transformed from a chubby, unsecure, lonely teenager into a determined, beloved and well-trained warrior.
    I have indeed looked at my story structure, learned from screenwriting classes, character arch and plotpoints. I have actively run a marketing campagne as an Author, as well did my publisher. The tagline of the book is: keys are mightier than weapons and I used keys to develop marketing tools and bookish gifts. Thanks for the sharing of the knowledge, Although I have written three books now, I’ll never stop learning.

    1. Michelle says:

      Hey Oli – I love your tagline. How are you marketing this book? Maybe you could create a five-step program on how teens could go from insecure and lonely to a determined warrior ready to tackle life and leadership. Or something. Search for a way to make this book a business. How could you reach the teens you write for? Speak at schools. Speak at Mom’s groups. Pitch/sell mastermind groups while you’re at these speaking engagements. Sell a package for parents on how to develop confidence (or something you’re passionate about) in their teens.
      Get it?
      Keep writing and learning. Good for you. Many writers think they know it all. We should all be on a growth journey, right? The day I stop learning is the day I die.
      You sound the same. Way to go!

  9. tom behr says:

    Hi Michelle
    Thanks for a terrific article (and thanks, Nick)! I believe your emphasis on telling a story is 100% on the mark. Think for example, about what makes ideas “sticky” (“Made to Stick,” by Chip and Dan Heath). Story telling is key!
    A quick off-the-top-of-the-head brainstorm about this thread. I’m planning my second non-fiction book now on living happier, more joyful lives (after writing three novels and a biography), and I wanted to explore how to make the book drive a sustainable value-adding business. So I mind-mapped all the different ways different types of people (market segments) might interact with the core ideas of the book. Instead of just asking how as an author I could “push” my idea into the marketplace, I tried looking at it from a “pull” perspective. A lot of cool ideas showed up that I might otherwise have missed.

    1. Michelle says:

      Hi Tom – What a great exercise to PUSH your idea in the marketplace! I’d love to see your list.

      When we can switch that word SELL to SERVE – how can we serve others with our book, it changes everything. Your book on how to live a happier and more joyful life certainly has a market. Who doesn’t want that, right?

      There are many different target markets for this depending on where your heart is. You could mentor teens who need confidence or senior citizens who are looking for their next purpose.

      But think of using this book in training with a five-step program, or in selling your training to other life coaches who might want to buy your program. It would give them instant access to a business model/plan that’s already done by you for them, but would grow your brand, too. A book is a business, and it sounds like you’ve started working that plan. Keep going and growing.

      Another suggestion that I learned and loved … when you write your chapter titles, use a VERB to a NOUN title. Hijack Your Life, Energize Your Job – there’s an active verb with a word or two in the middle and a noun at the end. These chapter titles pop and help readers remember them. There’s a website called and that help you search for powerful ones. Check them out.

      Thanks for taking the time to read this article and good luck!

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