Learning from the masters

Knowing how to analyse a story is one of the first lessons we all need to learn as writers. By analysing our favourite stories we can learn how they work, what makes them great, and hopefully how we can make our own stories great too.

For me, I tend to go through a book a week. This isn’t some kind of my dick is bigger/smaller/greener than yours boast, it’s just a fact. There are plenty of people who read much more than that, but I’m always surprised by the number of writers who boast they don’t have time to read. I challenge you to look at how many books you are reading in a given year, whether you are reading enough in your chosen genres and whether you are reading beyond your chosen genres to gain a broader knowledge of stories.

This is important! Too many writers hammer away at a keyboard without a good knowledge of the genre that they are writing in, or sometimes even fiction in general. How can you know what’s good or bad if you haven’t got an appreciation for other work? It’s as Stephen King says in this horrendously over-quoted quote (yet I’m going to quote it again here anyway):

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

This is how we develop good (or at least our own unique) taste as readers, and this translates directly into our writing. The more you read, the more you should be able to identify when your own writing needs re-writing, where your pacing/characterisation/theme/blah-blah is wrong, or whether you are re-treading the same old concepts and tropes from already famous work.

So is this post just a rant about reading more? No.

I want you to read for pleasure, but as a writer, you should also be reading for the study of the craft too. To start, pick some books – I recommend doing this with books you have read at least once and that you know well, but a look at a bestsellers list won’t steer you wrong either. Remember though, you want to analyse these books, not get lost in their story!

Once you’ve chosen, I recommend the process below.

[pmc_box background_color=”#4188d3″ border_color=”#4188d3″ text_color=”#ffffff” ]STEP 1: ANALYSE EACH PART OF THE STORY[/pmc_box]

So read, read, read. But for each scene, make notes on the following:

Which characters are in this scene
The building blocks of any scene, the characters that appear will shape the action and direction of the story. Note who is in each scene, are any making their first or last appearance? To what length does the writer describe them? How much ‘screen-time’ do they get? Are any meeting each other for the first time? Lastly, who is the POV character, whose eyes do we see the scene through?

What actually happens in this scene?
What are the characters actually doing/saying/thinking? How is the story moving on in this scene? What new information is provided to you as a reader? Is this scene following on from a previous one – and how does it end, setting up the next one? Lastly, what is the mix of action, dialogue, narration and description?

What is the writer’s goal for this scene?
This is obviously up for interpretation – It could be to introduce a character, raise the reader’s tension, reveal important plot information, foreshadow an upcoming event, explore a particular theme, or it could be because they liked a certain character and wanted to give them something cool to do! You may have to come back to edit these as you remember more of the story and the meaning behind a particular scene becomes clear.

What is your favourite passage from this scene?
Not mandatory, but a great habit for building up a database of cool quotes and passages from your favourite authors. I tend to copy out the first lines of any major character (and their last lines), as well as any particularly witty, ‘cool’ or impactful dialogue and description.

Remember, this is studying! Take your time and read the chapter/scene once first before reading again and purposefully making notes. Repeat this process chapter by chapter throughout the whole book and you will have an in-depth analysis of one of your favourite books and why it’s as good as it is. If you don’t have the time to do a whole book, just choose your favourite chapters from books you already know.

[pmc_box background_color=”#4188d3″ border_color=”#4188d3″ text_color=”#ffffff” ]STEP 2: CHART EACH CHARACTER’S DEVELOPMENT[/pmc_box]

For each major character (at the very least the main protagonist and antagonist), make notes on how they develop across the story as a whole. I ask the following questions of each character:

  • What does the character want? What/who is in their way?
  • How does the character see themselves? How do others (including the reader) see them?
  • What has the character been doing (actively) in the story up to now?

I ask these three questions at the following points as I’m reading through the story (by the way this is much easier to do precisely with a Kindle as it tells you the % progress through the book):

  • At the very start of the story
  • 25% of the way through the story
  • 50% of the way through the story
  • 75% of the way through the story
  • At the end of the story

Asking these questions at these points should give you a deep understanding of how the writer has developed their characters over time, as you can compare how each character’s motivation changes as the story progresses. It can be a good study to also compare the protagonist’s journey against the antagonist’s and chart their interactions and progress.

A few people have asked me why I chose these points, I’ll write another post on story structure but I always recommend reading these books on the topic: The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler, and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. You will see that most writers consciously/unconsciously use these % markers in their stories, and annoyingly once you know this fact it tends to spoil the reading experience for you as you will be on the lookout for plot twists and resolutions!

[pmc_box background_color=”#4188d3″ border_color=”#4188d3″ text_color=”#ffffff” ]STEP 3: REVIEW YOUR NOTES[/pmc_box]

Now you’ve finished the story and have a full set of notes, review them.

Read through your notes and compare them to your own work and ideas – how do they match up? Is the pacing similar, do you have more/less going on in different stages of the story, are your characters showing significant progression at the right times to keep readers engaged?

What often surprises people about this exercise is how much they realise about their own work by studying in-depth the work of someone else! That said, the process I’ve outlined above is very time consuming so you may want to evaluate just how beneficial it is to you as a writer to do more than one or two.

[pmc_box background_color=”#4188d3″ border_color=”#4188d3″ text_color=”#ffffff” ]EXTRA CREDIT: RE-WRITE SCENES[/pmc_box]

Finally, my last bit of advice is to take your favourite scenes from the books you are analysing and re-write them. This can be an excellent method to build your own writing skills, particularly if you are just starting out and looking to develop your ‘voice’. Obviously, I’m not recommending just trying to mimic other authors, but the process helps you identify what feels natural to you and works just like a regular writing prompt.

I would recommend trying any of the following exercises with some of your favourite scenes:

  • Re-write the entire scene verbatim
  • Write the scene again from memory using your own voice
  • Write the scene again but from another character point of view
  • Write the follow-on scene from this one as you would imagine it

[pmc_box background_color=”#4188d3″ border_color=”#4188d3″ text_color=”#ffffff” ]THAT’S EVERYTHING, GO HOME[/pmc_box]

Hopefully, you will try this technique yourself, at least on just one scene/chapter from your favourite book. I’ve found it helped me really understand why successful writers do certain things, and this has translated directly into my own writing.

One bit of warning though, since doing this I find that I’m analysing every story, film and TV series I watch nowadays automatically! It can be a bit of a pain and I have to remind myself to just relax and enjoy the story for its own value sometimes.

About the author

DSM Griffin

My full name is Daniel SM Griffin (but call me Griff), a European (have been described as British), male human. My views and opinions (like my hair and teeth) are my own.

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