The best way to learn how to write a book is to read and write. Seriously. The write part is easy (hahaha—at least in theory). Write. As much as you can—early in the morning, or at night, or at lunch, or write every day at a specific time, or, or, or…(for ideas on time to write, here are some ideas in Make Time to Write and Find Time to Write). You get the idea, but the next part, the reading part is where it gets complicated, where deconstructing a novel comes in.
If you are a writer, you are probably a voracious reader. Read, read, read everything you can, especially in the genre you want to write. Reading other’s work will help you study story structure and analyze what works and what doesn’t so you can apply concepts of writing that resonate with you to your own writing. How to do this? 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. Work at deconstructing a novel.
Deconstructing a novel isn’t a book report where you just tell what happened in the book. This is a method of digging beneath the surface of the book to see what makes it a can’t-put-it-down read. This can be an eye-opening experience. Give it a try!
1. Begin with the jacket copy.
This is what enticed you to pick up the book in the first place. 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.
2. What are the familiar and unique elements? And what is the Hook?
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.
So what are the familiar and unique angles that pulled you in as a reader? What is the hook? (For more on this and discussion on the familiar/unique/hook for a few bestseller examples, see How to Write a Page Turning Novel: The Big Idea.)
3. What is the protagonist’s goal, motivation, and conflict?
You’ve heard this before, but in case you haven’t here is the simple version: Protagonist wants _____________ (goal) because _____________ (motivation—why he wants it) but _____________ (conflict—why he can’t have it).
Dig in and get to the core of the story, simplify, and put these three aspects of the story into one sentence. If you’ve never focused on this before you are about to experience one of those light bulb moments in regards to your own work.
4. What is the protagonist’s goal vs. the protagonist’s need?
Now that you have the protagonist’s goal figured out, what is his need? This is something he may not know himself, the deep-down driver, the thing his life lacks, the one true thing that will complete him to become his best self. The need is usually something huge and internal. Examples: he needs to find his place in the world, find his purpose, allow himself to love, etc. A clear illustration is Katniss from The Hunger Games (whether it appeals to you or not, if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I highly recommend it—it’s wonderfully written fiction). Her goal is to survive the games. Her need is to allow herself to love.
5. What is the protagonist’s story dilemma?
Great fiction is driven by dilemma. If the protagonist does xxx to get his goal, xxx will happen (which will be terrible). Give your protagonist two choices, neither of which is good. Going back to The Hunger Games (I told you, it’s one terrific piece of fiction) for Katniss to survive the games she has to kill all the other tributes…one being is Rue, a small girl who reminds Katniss of her beloved sister. She feels protective of Rue. Another is Peeta—a young man from her district who loves her, and who she eventually befriends. So how can she possibly kill other people, particularly those she cares about? Dilemma? Oh, yeah!
6. What is the protagonist’s moral code or compass?
What drives the protagonist, morally? What is the most important thing to the protagonist? Love? Justice? Truth? Having a good time? Family? These are generally big, sweeping concepts, just like the need, and in many cases, hooks back to the protagonist’s need.
7. Answer # 3, #4, and #6 for the Antagonist.
Spend as much time developing the point of view and internal life of the antagonist as well as the protagonist. Notice how great authors do just this.
8. What are the turning points in the story?
There will be points where the story goes in a completely different direction. These are huge, big moments that make the reader read on to see what will happen next. These are the moments where your mouth drops open in surprise. List them out and see exactly how the author twists and turns the story.
9. What is the protagonist’s character arc?
Plot the steps of the internal change the story forces on the protagonist. Does he learn to stand up for himself? Finally choose love? Come to understand his need and act on it? When the moment happens in the story it will be a surprise to the reader, but will feel “right” somehow. How did the author do it? If written well, there will be subtle stages that are apparent when you look for them. Plot them out, on a graph if that helps you to visualize this important internal throughline. This will help you when thinking through and plotting your own character’s character arc.
10. How does the book end?
Is the ending happy (protagonist goal and need are both met) tragic (goal and need not met) bittersweet (the protagonist doesn’t get the goal but his need is met) or ironic (goal is met but need isn’t). Are all loose ends tied up? Or is there still a question or two unanswered? Is the core story question answered? Is the ending appropriate to the book? Why or why not?
11. (Bonus Point) What does the protagonist learn by the end of the story?
This is the big realization, resolution or redemption. Or all three.
Now here comes the best part of deconstructing a novel. Going through this exercise will help you learn from other wonderful writers, but now you can use these ideas to deconstruct your own novel—when you are finished with your first draft and in the revision stage. No turning on the analytical parts of your brain until your imagination is finished with the first draft job! Put your own novel up to these parameters. Fill in what’s missing, strengthen what might be weak, and you are on your way to making your work the best it can possibly be.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. Her books, FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere. Check out more at www.kathysteffen.com