Breaking down a published novel's story

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Breaking down a published novel's story

Post by Jaya » June 20th, 2012, 4:02 pm

This is probably going to rank as the silliest question on these boards ever, but I'm unimpressively lost on this stuff (that's how amateur I am).

Okay, I want to take a couple of books I enjoyed and go through them to "break them down". I have trouble sorting out the ideas in my head. So I want to see how various novels go through that (I know books are not written by formula, there is magic and flow and a blend of genuis. But I do recognize in each story that the flow follows a steady stream of building, clever intros of certain info. or people, appropriate timing, this and that).

So, how can I break it down. i want to write it down on paper.
Should it be like:
- chapter by chapter (make notes on aspects in each)
- a checklist of some sort (to literally break it down, not only the plot , but the intro of characters or personality info. etc)

Sorry if this makes sense. At this point even I have no idea what I'm asking :shock:

Okay, thanks anyway!

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Re: Breaking down a published novel's story

Post by polymath » June 20th, 2012, 4:41 pm

Not silly and makes perfect sense to me. Unraveling puzzles is a very human activity. And kudos for realizing that winning writers read and read deeply in order to become more effective writers.

But oh my gracious, unraveling a novel is a tall order to start with, let alone detail how. Consider a short story first. Pick a well-known, popularly and crtitically acclaimed one. O Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" has been on my test bench for some time, from the beginning. It's under five thousand words. The meaning of the story is accessible by audiences of all ages and sentiments. And it has all the literary conventions and traditions of prose writing.

Start with any area that suits your interest: setting, plot, idea, character, event, or discourse. They overlap, so try to stay focused on one until you build up your dissection muscles and skills.

Discourse, for example, who's the narrator? Whose voice predominates? Narrator or character? Whose voice is more evocative? How open or close is the narrative distance in each discernible part? Which writing modes does the writer use and from whose perspective to express the action: description, introspection, action, narration, emotion, sensation, summarization, exposition, conversation, recollection, explanation, or transition. They overlap so try to determine which of several are most in play for any given sentence or section. The basic principle here is the Show and Tell principle.

Or for plot determine which of antagonism, causation, and tension is most on point. Again, they overlap. But the underlying commonality is a problem wanting satisfaction. Locate the major problem wanting satisfaction and the entire structure can be dsimantled more easily.

Note the above fall into a convenient mnemonic for keeping track when away from notes and during mental exercise, though memorizing the mnemonic and its underlying concepts is difficult at first. DIANE'S SECRET SPICED ACT.
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Re: Breaking down a published novel's story

Post by Mira » June 24th, 2012, 10:39 pm

Great question, not silly at all

I really like polymath's answer.

I want to add that there could be great value in doing this yourself, but you would probably find that many people have also done this. There are probably also tools already in existence for breaking a novel down. You might do alittle searching and see what is out there.

I think breaking a novel and it's parts down can be a terrific way to conceptualize the parts flowing together to make the whole.

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Re: Breaking down a published novel's story

Post by MattLarkin » June 28th, 2012, 10:51 am

As Poly and Mira said, you should never feel bad about asking a question, especially not here. Nobody is going to jump down your throat for not knowing every answer, and everybody was a beginning sometime.

Actually, that question is pretty insightful. It's when we start thinking about how the novel was done that we begin to understand how to do ourselves. Before that, it's just by feel.

I wouldn't say chapter by chapter... One thing you may want to consider is whether you are a planner or discovery writer. If you like to plan, this kind of thing you're doing is likely to be more helpful. Either way, you should be aware of common story structures. There are many posts on this forum about story structures, some in great depth. You can find an interesting breakdown of detailed structure for a three act novel on Margo's old writing blog, too. - freelance editing for fantasy and science fiction

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