A guest post by K.M. Weiland
You shouldn’t be reading this blog.
No, seriously. As awesome as Larry’s blog is and as generous as he is for sharing his story sense with all of us, this is not the place to learn how to write a story.
(This is the part where Larry kicks me off his site and vows to never invite me on the premises again.)
But, actually, I’m not just picking on Larry. You shouldn’t be reading my blog either or the how-to books of any of your favorite authors. Not if they’re preventing you from paying attention to what’s really going to teach you how to write.
And where, you ask, do you find this magic font of all storytelling wisdom?
That’s easy. In stories.
Reading for Pleasure? Don’t You Dare!
If that heading is giving you goosepimply feelings of horror, you’re not alone. When I first confronted the idea of purposefully analyzing (aka hacking apart) favorite stories in order to figure out how they ticked, I immediately came down with a case of the shrinkie-winkies. What kind of a horrible suggestion is that? Why would I want to ruin my beautiful experiences with these wonderful stories? If I was to look too closely at the specific clockwork that made these stories run, wouldn’t I lose forever the stories’ unspoken magic?
We’re all aware that becoming a writer changes a person. For one thing, we’re no longer able to read a book without being aware of what’s going on behind the scenes. Stories we might have enjoyed in our pre-writing days are now chucked in the garbage because the POV head-hopped in Chapter 3. Some of us become so hyper-aware of writing mistakes in other people’s books that the whole act of reading ceases to be enjoyable.
So why on earth would you want to purposefully hack apart your favorite stories? Is the knowledge you’ll gain really worth whatever magic you’ll lose? And, for that matter, what does “analyze” even mean? How is it different from just reading the darn book?
You Don’t Have to Trade Magic for Knowledge
My own resistance to the idea of deliberately analyzing stories came to screeching halt when I was asked to write Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic. I set to work hacking apart this classic story, knowing I’d (better) come up with some great insights into what has made it so enduringly beloved by readers.
But would I lose the magic?
After analyzing a story in such microscopic detail, would I ever be able to look at it in the same way? Would I still see the heart and soul? Or would I open its covers and discover nothing but the sliced and diced cadaver on which I’d performed an autopsy?
Really, what this question comes down to is: if you think about a story too logically, will you still be emotionally moved by it? The answer surprised me.
The more time I spent with that story, digging through its treasures, figuring out why it ticked, and learning its secrets, the more I loved it. Who’da thunk? I didn’t appreciate the magic show less for glimpsing the truth behind the magician’s illusions. I appreciated it more.
The great lesson here is that our writer’s brain should always be humming. And we should love that it’s humming. Don’t regret that you noticed that headhop in Chapter 3. See it for what it is, analyze its effect on your reading experience, and keep reading.
Analyzing Stories 101
Now that we’ve established that analyzing stories isn’t just painless, but fun, how about we figure out how to analyze them to our best benefit? Here’s how I approached Jane Eyre:
1. Choose the book.
You can (and should) analyze every story. But for the purposes for the in-depth kind of analysis we’re talking about here, you’ll find the greatest application in choosing a book with which you’re already familiar. Choose one you love. After all, you want to figure out what the author did to make you love it. If you haven’t read it lately, you might want to flip through the book, read its Cliff Notes, or watch a movie adaptation just to refresh your memory. You want to know where the story is going so you’ll be able to recognize how the author is setting up key elements.
2. Buy a copy you can mark up.
You’re going to be making a mess of the book, so you don’t want to use that calfskin-covered first edition that’s been handed down through your family. Buy a cheap paperback from the secondhand store, one with large print and wide margins if you can find it.
3. Select your study topics.
You may choose to study everything about a story, or you may find it more useful to focus on specific elements, such as structure, dialogue, or character development. Write a list of your topics and assign each a highlighter color. Keep the list in the front of the book for easy reference while reading.
4. Divide the book structurally.
Even if you’re not deliberately studying story structure on this pass, I highly recommend starting out by identifying the approximate placement of the major plot markers in the book. Doing so will allow you to easily orient yourself within the timeline of the story and help you see how various elements work differently at specific structural moments in the story. Since you know the major plot points occur at the 25%, 50%, and 75% (with the climax starting approximately halfway through the Third Act), divide the book into fourths and write the appropriate plot point number at each of the quarter marks. Dogear the pages for easy reference.
5. Highlight and annotate.
Now you’re ready to start reading. But you’re not just reading. You’re on a treasure hunt for the story elements on your highlight list. Whenever you find a hidden gem of structural insight, foreshadowing, snappy dialogue, or character development, stop right there. Refer to your color-code cheat sheet in the front of the book and highlight accordingly. Consciously iterate your discoveries by writing yourself notes, either in the margins or in a separate notebook (noting the page number, of course).
6. Bonus: Type up your thoughts.
Really, those five steps are all you need to know about hacking up your favorite story. But if you want to take this whole thing to the next level, type up your notes when you’re finished. Better yet, expound on those notes. Write a blog post about your notes. The more fully you can explain your discoveries to yourself, the better you’ll understand them and the more likely they will be to stick in your brain for the long term.
The subconscious osmosis of simply reading or watching stories is a powerful way to learn. Logically exploring story technique through blogs such as this one (yeah, I sorta exaggerated in that first paragraph) is a great way to consciously cement those unconscious lessons. But the single best way to learn how to mimic the masters is to learn from them.
K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.