Wednesday, September 26

Learning Story Structure: Deconstructing a Novel

Learning Story Structure: Deconstucting a Novel

Lately, the writing world has been a twitter with the Department of Justice lawsuit and we have read more than we ever thought likely of sock puppets, or at least sock puppet accounts. And that's fine. Those were, and are, important issues, but let's talk about the act, and art, of writing.

Which brings me Kathy Steffen's terrific article, 10 Steps to Deconstructing a Novel (or How to Learn From Great Authors). Folks, this is a terrific post! Kathy advises us to:
Read first as a reader to enjoy the book, then go beyond the “magic” and take a look behind the curtain to discover how the writer enthralled you. Get that other part of your brain working—not the imagination part, but the analytical part. Read as a writer. Deconstruct your favorite novels.
So let's do it! Look at your bookshelf and pick a book, or books, you've read and enjoyed.

1) The Blurb/Jacket Copy
Look at the blurb, otherwise known as the jacket copy. If you chose an ebook, the blurb isn't always included, but you can look it up on Google Books, or at your favorite on-line bookstore. For instance, this is the blurb for A Discovery of Witches:
Deep in the stacks of Oxford's Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell.
As soon as I read that blurb I knew I wanted to read the book, although I didn't get around to it for some months. Kathy Steffen writes:
When you go beyond your emotional reaction to the copy and look at it with your analytical brain, notice what jumps out at you and what excited you about the story and the characters.
For me, it was the mention of witches, a library and a bewitched alchemical manuscript. But what really got me was the last line: "Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell"

2) Prising apart the universal and the unique
What are the familiar/universal elements? What is unique? What is the hook? Kathy writes:
The familiar element gives your story mass audience appeal and connection. Ask yourself, how is this story universal or something people will connect with and understand?

The unique angle is just that—unique, fresh, or something familiar with a twist—and unique appeals to people. These two opposite aspects pull readers into the book.

Finally, add the hook. The hook is exactly what it sounds like, the reason someone gets intrigued. Think of the hook as the catalyst that pulls the reader into the book. The “closer” for the “familiar/unique” deal.
Here's an example:
Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay (yep, was made into a television show, Dexter.)

Familiar: Dr. Dexter Morgan, a highly respected police lab technician is a nice guy. But this isn’t just another CSI or serial killer fiction because…

Unique: Dexter (the protagonist) is a sociopathic serial killer (an example of been there, read that—serial killer—with a twist).

Hook: He’s the hero! It’s actually fun to see him figure out how to mimic emotional behavior so no one will guess he’s a sociopath. As you read, you find yourself rooting for a serial killer. (Writing a Page-Turning Novel: What’s the Big Idea?)
3) Goal, Motivation, Conflict
A book is generally about the goal of the protagonist, whatever that is. Can't quite bring that into focus? Try Kathy's fill-in-the-blank sentence:
Protagonist wants _____________ (goal)
because _____________  (motivation—why he wants it)
but _____________  (conflict—why he can’t have it).
For instance, in A Discovery of Witches, all her life Diana has wanted nothing to do with magic because magic killed her parents but she can't stop using it because magic is a part of her. (Or something like that.)

4) The hero's goal versus the hero's need
I'm sure I'm making a mess of this, but--again using A Discovery of Witches--I would say that while Diana's goal is to stop using magic entirely, her need (arguably) is to incorporate magic into her life and, in so doing, accept herself for who she is. It works nicely when the hero's need and the hero's goal conflict since that helps create conflict and conflict is interesting.

5) The story dilemma
Here is where you have to be mean to your characters. The characters you have lovingly created and are emotionally invested in. I feel toward my characters a bit like how I imagine a mother hen feels toward her chicks. I want to protect them from harm, not thrust them out into the cruel world and subject them to brutal story dilemmas! But, alas, we must if we want to create a great story.

In The Hunger Games if Katniss achieved her goal then bad things would happen to people she cared about. Specifically, she'd have to kill them. That's bad. That creates conflict. Tension. What is bad for your (beloved) characters is great for your story.

Or look at The Firm. Mitch McDeere wants to become a rich through practicing the law but it turns out that would mean being a lawyer for the mob, something that would put himself and his beloved wife, Abby, in mortal danger. Not good. And then Mitch's choices get really complicated when the FBI enters the picture. Great story, but I wouldn't want to be Mitch.

6) Your character's moral compass
In The Firm, I think the most important thing to Mitch was getting as far away as possible from the poverty and squalor of his youth. Showering his wife with gifts, providing for her, for their family, these were the things that drove Mitch to accomplish his goal of becoming a lawyer.

7) Don't forget your antagonist!
So far we've only been talking about hero's but a hero is nothing without an antagonist. Antagonists have goals, motivations and conflicts, just like heroes do (#3). They have needs (#4). They have a moral code (#7).

Granted, the antagonist's moral code is usually skewed in interesting ways, but they usually have one. In The Firm Avery (who I view as Mitch's nemesis) has adopted the morals of the firm and sold his conscience. But not entirely.

Avery is conflicted between accepting the danger of turning his back on the firm and accepting the poverty, accepting the loneliness, that would come with doing the right thing. He wants to, but he can't. In the end he does and saves Abby's life. Avery is a interesting, and exquisitely human, character.

8) Turning points
There is generally at least one turning point in a story. (In The Firm there are at least three, or so I would argue.)

One usually occurs when the hero answers the call to adventure. Another occurs at about the middle of the novel, the point of no return. For Mitch this was when there was no way back to his previous life. He was told he either had to side with the FBI or the mob. Either way he could never go back to his old life. Another generally occurs just before the end at the "all is lost" moment where the hero's schemes unravel and it seems he/she will never reach the goal. (Michael Hauge has a great article on this: The Five Key Turning Points Of All Successful Scripts. Also--I have this on a bookmark I've hung above my desk--here is Michael's Six Stage Plot Structure.)

Read the rest over at How To Write: Ten Steps to Deconstructing a Novel (or How to Learn from Great Authors).

Other articles you might like:
- Writing Resources
- Pixar: 22 Ways To Tell A Great Story
- Want Help With Editing? Try Free Editing Programs

Photo credit: CillanXC

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