Why You Should Be Mercilessly Hacking Apart Your Favorite Stories

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.





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22 Responses to Why You Should Be Mercilessly Hacking Apart Your Favorite Stories

  1. How true! I’ve found that the more I learn, the better I appreciate those good, well-crafted stories. I just have to remember to button my trap when we’re watching movies as a family, as not everyone’s interested in where the pinch points are.

  2. K. L.,

    Since I subscribed to your blog, I have a tendency to scrutinize as I read for pleasure. I don’t mark up the books though because I turn them in for credit for others I haven’t read yet. Yes, I use the local used book store.

  3. Rhonda, my Best Beloved, who is a good Writer’s Wife, shout’s “mid-point!” and “all is lost!” right with me while we watch old TV series on Hulu.

    When I learned music theory, I gradually lost interest in most of the classic rock I loved as a teen, and started enjoying more jazz and complex classical music. I don’t miss Lynyrd Skynyrd one bit.

    At the same time, I discovered that the Beatles were even better than most folks realize, and that some of my favorite musicians were in the same boat: far better, more enjoyable than when I was ignorant of theory.

    I hear this cry from neophyte songwriters all the time. “If I learn more, won’t it destroy my creativity?” Why would art be the only place in life where ignorance was better than knowledge?

    Technical note: another option would be to choose a classic you love that’s available at Gutenberg.org and print out a copy with wide margins, double-spacing, all that.

  4. Kerry Boytzun

    Weiland is DEAD on the money with the normal fear of taking apart a beloved story–what you BELIEVE is authentic or magic (same thing). It’s no different than looking into the mirror as your life piles on the years and realizing that in many ways, you’re not as smart as you thought you were, and missed a lot of things in the daily grind working for the system–because you had to eat and all that stuff. When you can feel your time is near, you will NOT be wishing you spent more hours at the job and sucked up to everyone there to get ahead (today’s team player BTW). Then how can you get more out of life in the moment? Same way you craft a better story–through analyzing what is causing the pain and the joy. Go deep.

    If only everything in life was purposely analyzed by taking it apart. Like the news “stories” for example. What you believe to be true are called news stories but if you take them apart, you’ll see them for the fiction they are. Heck you can even apply Larry’s structure to them and note how these stories “suck you in” like the latest downed Malaysian Jet that the US Guvt is so quick to say “the Russians did it…” What is this, a fiction story? Clearly it is.


  5. Great advice and perfect timing as I get ready to launch my next novel-writing project. I’m taking apart Alice Monro’s short stories, too. Plot development is my biggest challenge. I know this exercise will help. Thanks.

  6. Thanks so much for having me today, Larry!

    @Rhonda: Hah! Yes, non-writers are so unappreciative of the finer posts of the craft. :p

    @Glynis: I only ever mark up books when I’m purposefully analyzing them–and only then when I’ve bought a ratty paperback explicitly for that purpose.

    @Joel: Great thought on the Gutenberg texts. For those who don’t mind reading the computer, it might even be a handy idea to import the text into Word and use Track Changes to make notes.

    @Kerry: It’s absolutely true. The principles of fiction are applicable is so many other areas of life. Probably because life influences fiction before the fiction influences life.

    @Carol: Smart. Short stories are so packed that they’re often a great way to grab a bite of knowledge on the go.

  7. Fabulous post! I’ve read about the dissecting project before, and me too – while I thought it was a great idea, I’ve always been afraid to. Farthest I’ve gotten is buying old books with the intention of marking them up.

    And I agree with the other commenter- as a trained musician – I’m always analyzing music…

  8. Wait no longer! It’ll change your life.

  9. Glad I ran across this post. I don’t read for pleasure anymore. I can’t. I sit there, if nothing else, rewriting sentences in my head (especially the passive ones), or when the writer is really good, marveling at how they pull off the feat, how they show me a character in all her glory, and yes, I try to reverse-engineer how they did it! As I do it, guilt grips me and tells me, no, you’re missing the joy in the story if you over-analyze it. But if the story is good enough, it doesn’t matter. Joy comes in the end, regardless.

  10. Story’s power is in the emotion. And the emotion can surprisingly sneak past even cynicism sometimes.

  11. Ms. Weiland,
    I enjoyed your post. Interesting how things “come back around.” You might be familiar with Mystery Writer Lawrence Block. He, circa 1979, yeah, I’ve seen a few moons, taught novel “dissection” by a different name. Doesn’t matter. It was pre-social media so it didn’t start a fire storm. 🙂

    His one additional step in taking one a part — read the novel beginning with the last chapter first followed by the next to the last chapter then all the way back to the first chapter.

    When I don’t follow this procedure I read at least the last three chapters beginning with the last chapter first.

    I don’t need to be caught up the in writers voice which is really easy to do if I like the author and let that massage my mind rather than taking the thing a part.

    Again, thanks for the post.

  12. I am indeed familiar with the great Lawrence Block, although I’ve never tried this approach (too OCD :p ). But I can see how it would be beneficial.

  13. Excellent article. Most of us learn better with examples, and analyzing a story is an examination of a big example.

    I did this with Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. I was put off at first by his vocabulary and descriptions, but I became fascinated with the story and couldn’t put it down. I went back and analyzed it, mostly for structure/physics, and the experience took nothing away for me.

    The best way to do it, for me anyway, is to read the book first for pleasure, and go back and analyze when you’ve finished.

  14. Although part of my brain is always analyzing whenever I’m reading or watching a movie, my experience with deliberate analysis definitely agrees with yours. I’m able to get the most out of the exercise if I’m already familiar with the story and know where it’s going. Doing it that way allows me to focus on the mechanics, rather than the ride.

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  16. Wonderful article…and so SO true. Years ago I broke down quite a few books when I was digging into scene construction techniques. That exercise was more eye-opening than any how-to book I’ve read so far, but it also allowed me to learn more FROM the how-to books because it gave me greater insight into the topic. Taken together, the two approaches, hands-on analysis and how-to instruction, are actually quite synergistic.

    I admit I did have the same worry about “losing the magic,” but soon discovered that “reading analytically” is like watching a movie, piece by piece, in the editing room. It’s a different experience, and when I switch to “reading for pleasure” it’s more like heading out to see the same movie in a theater. Your mind switches modes rather easily…at least mine does. One experience doesn’t preclude the other. In fact, my mind slips into movie mode so easily, I sometimes find it hard to read long sections analytically without falling into the story.

    And yes…this greater insight into the craft has ruined quite a few mediocre books for me over the years, but it’s worth the trade-off, as it’s also allowed me to appreciate masterful works far more than I might have otherwise, not to mention its provided me the basic skills to write at a professional/semi-professional level.

  17. Agree! The really great thing about analyzing is that the analyzing is almost as enjoyable, in itself, as the reading experience.

  18. Especially when you have one of those “that’s how you do it!” moments. Moving technique from the subconscious to the conscious is exciting as hell.

  19. Mason

    Maybe this is what I’ve been missing. See, every time I write, I get this jittery feeling that I’m about to go insane. My first theory was that I just don’t read enough. But now that can be extended to analyzing stories. I don’t think I’ve thought a single story through so much in my life yet. The Hunger Games? No, those are in hardback and I just finished the series today. But maybe that old paperback Sorcerer’s Stone could do the trick. I was considering getting the whole seven anyway.

  20. Great post, K.M.! I’ve been slowly (very slowly) working my way through “The Well-Educated Mind” and the reading list it included, however, your approach sounds much more enjoyable Same concept, different angle 🙂 I’m definitely going to give it a try!

  21. @Mason: It’ll change your life!

    @Heather: First I’ve heard of the book. I’ll have to check it out!

  22. John Timm

    It wasn’t until I taught my first lit course and had to dig deeply into the texts that I fully appreciated their worth. It changed the way I read forever. Sure, there have been disappointments, but on a whole, some wonderful discoveries.