Write on, Wednesday: Decontrusting a Novel

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By Leslie Lindsay

We writers love to read.  It kind of goes with the territory.  So, it is surprise that while I was away on a writing retreat at the University Wisconsin-Madison last week, we talked about just that…writers who read and readers who write.  Now, if you have a book you are wild about, why not take it apart…I don’t mean literally, but more in a metaphorical way.  It will help you become a better writer. 

Here’s the deal:

  • Get your hands on a book/novel you really like.  You’ve read it before, I am sure.
  • Now, prepare a little worksheet (I know, it sounds like school…but I did mine on a piece of scrap paper from the kitchen last night).
  • What’s the title?  Write it down on the top of your paper.  Author, too.
  • What does the back cover blurb say?  Write it down or make a photocopy. 
  • What are some of the familiar (everyday, commonplace) themes/elements in the book?  [doctors, families, moms, infidelity]
  • What’s the unique angle?  (what makes this book different from other books that also have doctors, families, moms, and infidelity in them?)
  • What’s the hook?  (catalyst for conflict).  In my book last night it was the young patient’s mother who falls in love with the married doctor.  [Oh?!  See how this piques your interest?  That’s the hook].
  • Who is the protagonist?  Is there more than one?  List him or her. 
  • What POV is this protagonist using? 
  • What does the protagonist need?  Want?  What’s the goal?  [to feel loved, to have a happy intact family]
  • What’s the protagonist’s dilemma?  You can look at this as: [Character name] wants _________[goal] because _______________[motivation] but___________[conflict]

[In my example from last night, there were two protagonists…one’s dilemma was “I want him, but he’s married.”  The other’s was, “I’m just a stay-at-home mom with a big-whig doctor who isn’t sure if he’s cheating or not.”]

  • Does the protagonist have a redeeming moment (“save the cat?”)  What is it?  What makes her look/act good? 
  • Do the same for the antagonist (the “bad” guy, who doesn’t really have to be bad…just has opposing goals).  What is his/her dilemma? 
  • Now, what are the external events?  These are things that happen to the character(s).  You can think of them as inciting incidents [what starts the action] and turning points [changes the direction of the story in some way, can be big or small]. 
  • What is the climax?  Black moment?  [Goodness, they found out about the supposed affair]. 
  • What is the turning point/resolution?  [She really wasn’t that pretty and it’s easy to see how a doctor and patient’s mother could have fallen for each other, life is pretty good]
  • What’s the ending like? HAPPY?  TRAGIC?  IRONIC  #1(misses goal but need is fulfilled)?, or IRONIC#2 (gets goal, yet needs is unfilfulled)?  [the book I looked at last night was HAPPY with a slight ironony]
  • Of course, you can’t forget the character arc.  How does your protagonist change?  What makes her/him a better person in the end?  (Sometimes the change can be for the worse).  You may refer to this a healing or realization moment. 
  • What does your protagonist learn by the end of the story?  [love isn’t always fair, but in the end, we have what it takes to keep ourselves–and our family–happy]. 

Finally, as writers, make note of the scenes, descriptions, phrases, or dialogue that particularly move you.  I took some notes and found that really they aren’t all that mythical.  Pretty basic stuff.  But how the author gets them to work is where the magic lies. 

This whole process took me about an hour. 

So, what are you waiting for?!  Write on, Wednesday! 

“Deconstructing a novel” was a hand-out provided to us by our instructor, author Kathy Steffen.  You can learn more about Kathy at her website, www.kathysteffen.com

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