Have you lost the plot?

How to plot a business book

Many people start their businesses with a romantic view that everything will run like clockwork. They have perhaps read a few business books, been on some courses, filled in a business plan template and maybe earned a degree or obtained an MBA. Once in the driving seat, however, the real world sets in, and they quickly learn that running a business is not a tick-box exercise. Those strategic models they studied, acronyms they memorised, and critical pathways they theorised are more of a guide than set-in-stone rules. And it turns out there are more twists, turns and unknown avenues in your average business journey than the plot of a Dan Brown novel.

Surely reading a business book should be as exciting as running a business… and always leave you feeling inspired to achieve more.

You see, running a business is an adventure story, not a textbook. So why do most business books read more like something from a classroom than an engaging human narrative that draws you into every page? Surely reading a business book should be as exciting as running a business (albeit from the relative safety of its pages) and always leave you feeling inspired to achieve more. Yes, you want to learn new things, master the book’s methods, and improve your technical, emotional or cognitive abilities as you glean insights from the author’s experiences and expertise. But it should be relatable, compelling and full of life. I’m not suggesting every business book should read like a novel, or you must finish every chapter on a cliffhanger.

But it does need to have a plot at its centre: Because the plot makes the journey make sense.


Seven plotlines: Which is yours?

Literary research over centuries, examining millions of stories, from Homer’s epics to Jane Austin’s romances and even through to the children’s stories of Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson, has concluded there are seven basic plots. Every single (complete) story ever written, it seems, falls into one or more of these categories or types of story, and there is no escaping the design. The experts (people far cleverer than me) even go as far as to say that those who have tried to break the code on purpose only ever produce a work unbefitting of the genre – story.

You will only Google it out of curiosity if I don’t, so I have listed the seven inescapable plotlines here. But please don’t linger on the idea too long as the detail is not my point:

  1. Overcoming the monster: defeating a mighty enemy (usually of supernatural origin)
  2. Rags to riches: elevation from a dire situation (also represents the reverse scenario)
  3. The quest: the search and discovery of new ideas, places, situations or riches
  4. Voyage and return: from one situation/place, learning lessons, and returning safely
  5. Comedy: a story that starts badly, turns into chaos, then ends at a happy ending
  6. Tragedy: the opposite of the comedy format, with no winners (only morals) at the end
  7. Rebirth: coming through a terrible trial by becoming a new, improved version


Your business book needs a plot!

What makes each of these plots work is its completeness and conclusion. And your business story will follow one of these plotlines: You cannot escape the inevitable. Unless you have concluded your business story, you may not know the outcome just yet, but when you arrive (and I hope yours does not turn out to be a tragedy), you will see the signs. Life is full of surprises. But even if you are in the middle of your story, your business book should not be open-ended, and it absolutely must follow one of the seven plotlines.

If you are writing a business book, you need to start with a plan. I call this a BookPlan (yes, I did play with some more imaginative ideas, but in the end, search terms, algorithms and the label-on-the-tin philosophy won me over). The components of that plan should include the reader identity, the big idea and breakdown of its parts, and the plot. Get the free resource to help you start planning your business book here.

I promise you! Fail to clarify these four things before you start, and you will deliver an unsatisfactory, irrelevant (probably boring) book that will not take your reader from where they are to anywhere worth going.