Does it seem like an odd thing to do for a writer to regularly analyze stories? Does it take the joy out of reading? I suspect many an English Literature student, at whatever level, may well say yes to that, but I feel that would be a shame. It certainly isn’t the point of analysis.
Why A Writer Should Study Story
So why should a writer study story? Partly it is to find out how it works and then you apply what you learn to your own writing.
Sometimes, when you come across a story you loathe, you can work out why you loathe it and avoid those issues when it comes to writing your own stories.
You can also learn about pacing a story (you’ll pick up the “rhythm” of a story as you read it. That is intensified if you read it out loud or play back a recording of it).
All writers should read widely and do include non-fiction. Sparks for story ideas often come from the latter. In reading widely, you are feeding your imagination. Regardless of whether you agree with the theory there are only seven basic plots or not, all writers are building on what has gone before.
What makes our stories unique is our voice coming out through what we write. You also need to know what you like and dislike in stories so how else can you know without reading widely to find out? But working out in more detail what you like and dislike is incredibly helpful.
Taking time out to do this helps you focus your own writing. It also pays to work out what your strengths and weaknesses in writing are. You want to play to the former and disguise the latter so a reader never knows.
I love writing dialogue but, unless there’s a specific story competition calling for this, no story is ever made up of just dialogue. (There is the odd competition that does do this incidentally. Writing Magazine have held one).
So does that mean my description is weak? Not necessarily but it does mean I have to watch that I get the balance right between dialogue and description. Knowing that ahead of writing a story helps me focus on getting that balance right. I know where I might need to compensate for my “favouritism” in one area and ensuring I do is part of my editing process.
So analysing how you approach writing a story is also useful then.
Working Out What Does Work in Fiction
Story analysis then boils down to working out what works. Especially for longer stories, you can see how the Three Act structure works and then use that template for your own work. The Three Act structure is common across fiction because it does work so well.
Act 1 – Characters and Problem to be overcome – the urgency of the need to overcome the problem increases as the act goes on
Act 2 – Problems for characters worsening, often overwhelmingly so – how can the character get out of this? And they must get out of it.
Act 3 – Climax and Resolution
That is a very rough guide to how the three acts work. I should also add that the resolution does not have to be a happy one!
From a writing viewpoint, you can work out where roughly in each act the “dramatic” bits should come, where the tension should increase even further for your character, and where to end the chapter in the case of books. Often this is on a cliffhanger.
If soap opera fans ever thought their genre was the leader on this, they’re wrong. Book writers have been doing it for centuries and Shakespeare would also have something to say about this topic. Anyone who can bring in a bear as a stage exit instruction is a writer who can (a) write themselves out of trouble and (b) is the definite master of the cliffhanger!). But again being able to work out your “placings” is all down to knowing how a story should work and that’s where the analysis comes in.
There really is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling. Stories have the structure they do because they work! The Rule of Three is another example of this. You have a character who fails at something twice but we all expect them to succeed on the third attempt. The classic one in fairytales is that of the youngest son (the last out of three) succeeding in a task where his two elder brothers fail miserably.
Analysing Flash Fiction – How Does That Work Then?
Do I analyse my flash fiction? Yes. I’m looking at the overall impact of the piece and quiz myself over that. Asking yourself questions is a great way to work out whether your fiction is working. Good questions to ask include:-
1. Does the story have the impact on me I thought it would?
2. How does my character come across? Was that as I originally thought? (Occasionally, a character irritates the hell out of me on re-reading. When that happens I change something about the character to get rid of that effect because I certainly don’t want to irritate readers).
3. Is there anything I could’ve expressed better? The answer to that one is almost certainly yes and that’s fine because this is the job of the edit, not the initial creation of the story. Nobody ever writes a perfect first draft. That thought has long consoled me!
4. Has the story achieved the resolution for the character and their problems in the way I hoped or can I improve on this?
Can you over-analyse? Yes! If you are at the point where you are always editing your story but never submitting it anywhere, then there’s something amiss. Even if you are writing for your own pleasure, rather than to try to get published, wouldn’t you rather write a story, get that as good as you can, and then see if you can write another story and another etc?
Analysing the Structure of your Story
I also carry out a separate analysis of my fiction when I’m happy with the stories and the characters. I then look at sentence length. If I want a fast pace to my stories, I use short, sharp sentences. If I need a tale to have more of a “flow” to it, then I use longer ones.
So I look at my stories and check that the sentences are appropriate to what I want to achieve here. I also mix sentence length up. Even in a sharp paced story, you need to allow your readers to take a breath every now and then. If you keep the same sentence length throughout the story, you will create something which in every sense will become monotonous!
Other Benefits of Analysing Story
Another joy to being a writer is when reading works by an author you admire, you get to enjoy their stories in greater depth. This is because you enjoy the story as it is told but, as you become more experienced in working out what works in a story and what doesn’t, you will pick up on how your author has used short sentences here to increase pace, where they’ve put longer ones in to mix things up, where they’ve cut a scene short to leave you the reader to fill in the gaps. It is the joy of seeing how something works here that adds depth to your enjoyment of reading and when it comes to writing too.
So there is every point then in taking time out to study stories and to study your own writing methods. It will help you improve what you do.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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