Monday, April 6

Study the Pros: Map Your Favorite Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the many things I enjoy about writing is that the techniques can be used for a variety of purposes. Many of you just completed (or are on the way to completing) my recent Revision Workshop, and one of the first tasks there was to create an editorial map of your manuscript. But an edit map isn't just for revisions. It can be a handy way to study a novel to better understand how it was written.

This exercise works well for studying novels in your own genre, as well as getting a feel for novels outside your genre or market. If you're about to try writing a different genre, this could be a useful first step to get a handle on how that type of novel is written.

Take your target novel and go through it scene by scene and map out what happens, same as if you were prepping for a revision of your own manuscript. Since all you know about the story is what's on the actual pages, it's easier to identify the action and important tidbits--and give you a clearer idea of the types of action or events you might want in your own novel. You'll also see where the author foreshadowed or dropped clues, or even laid the groundwork for future books if it's a series.

Pay particular attention to your favorite scenes and pinpoint why they resonate with you so strongly. Maybe it tapped into your emotions (which could suggest you might want to deepen the emotions in your own novel), or revealed an amazing twist (so perhaps get sneakier with your own plots), or had fantastic character banter (maybe you might brush up on your dialog). Scenes you love can shed insights into how to improve your own writing.

You can study whatever aspects are appropriate to that genre as well, such as noting when clues are revealed in a mystery, or when the casual flirtation turns serious in a romance. How you choose to map your favorite novel is up to you, and focus in the aspects that will help you the most.

You can also map out and study bestsellers in your genre, or even books you couldn't stand, but everyone else seems to adore, to figure out what made readers love them. This is all about studying a novel to see what makes it tick,.

Here are some things you might look at:

Study the Structure

Looking at the structure can help us find the right balance between action, narrative, and exposition, as well as how that author structured the novel as a whole.
  • How did the scene open?
  • How much time was spent on setting the scene?
  • What drew you into the scene?
  • Who's in the scene?
  • How was the novel paced? When did the major turning points occur?
  • When was major information revealed?
  • What structure template did the novel follow? Did it follow a template?

Study the Plotting

Since we know the novel's plot now, we should be able to clearly see what plot elements were addressed in a scene, how many subplots might be woven in, or where the focus shifted to something besides the core conflict.
  • What was the conflict of the scene?
  • How many major plot points were addressed? What about subplots?
  • How far was the conflict moved along the plot path?
  • Were any conflicts resolved?
  • Were any new conflicts introduced?
  • How did the scene end? What was the hand off to the next scene?

Study the Characters

We know our favorite characters as well as we know members of our families (sometimes even better). Look at how an author brought those characters to life.
  • What (and how much) backstory was introduced?
  • What personality traits were displayed? Ticks? Flaws? Habits?
  • What elements of the character arc were used?
  • How much character description was there?
  • For new or walk-on characters, how much time was spent on them?
  • How much internalization was there?
  • How much did the characters interact?

Study the Techniques

Magicians know how the magic works, and writers see the craft behind the story. Look for the techniques and how they enhanced the novel.
  • Where did the author foreshadow?
  • How much telling or explanation was there?
  • What was the balance between active and descriptive language?
  • How did the author draw readers through the scene? Where were the hooks?
  • What vocabulary was used? Was it simple words or more flowery language?

Study the Things You Don't Like

We can learn just as much from things we don't like as we can for the techniques we admire. Look at the elements that didn't work as well, and think about what you would have done differently and why.
  • What scenes fell flat for you?
  • Which characters annoyed you?
  • What plots or twists didn't feel credible? Why not?
  • Were there any scenes you skimmed?
  • What was your least favorite part?
  • What would you have cut? Fleshed out more?

Compare it to Your Novel

While we certainly don't want to copy someone else's novel or writing style, or force our own stories to fit someone else's format, we can gain insights into ways to make our novels stronger or more compelling. We might realize that we've been jumping into the action too fast (and thus leaving readers behind) and it's okay to linger a little longer to set the scene. Or we might find that we're lingering far too long and our readers are wandering off before the good stuff happens. 

Studying a novel we love is a great way to look objectively at a story and dissect it down to its components, without bringing our personal history with the story into it.

What novels would you map out? What novels do you admire and why? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. This is also useful when critiquing or editing someone’s work… And they might actually be able to use it as much or more than you!
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Absolutely, thanks for pointing that out. This would indeed make a great template for a crit.

  2. Janice, what a great post. Studying published books can push a writer's understanding of structure far ahead. Sharing this.

  3. Great post! I would totally map out The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen(if you haven't read it yet, I highly recomend it to anyone who likes fantasy and adventure). The plot and charecters prevented me from putting it down, especially the amazing twist at the end. Mapping it out sounds like a great idea. Thanks!

    1. Great book, I read that several years ago. Very nicely plotted for the reveal as well, so it would be a perfect book to study to see how an author handled twists.

  4. I do this ALL the time! With movies as well ,since storytelling isn't limited to books.

    1. It's awesome, isn't it? I've done it with TV shows (for mini arcs) but never movies. I'll have to try that.

  5. I would map out my favorite Stephen King novel, and those knitting mysteries I'm so fond of reading. Though I realized long ago that King has a unique way of bringing readers into the story by interrupting the narrative with the MC's thoughts in italics, and using parentheses to isolate additional material, thoughts, and events. It's a multilayered method of storytelling that I naturally find myself gravitating toward in my own writing.

    1. King would be a good author to study then. Is there a method to when he uses those devices, or is it just a gut feeling? Would be fun!

  6. Funnily I just did this with the last three novels that I read! I only went so far as to map out the first five chapters and was amazed to see that they ALL followed a similar pattern... particularly that an opportunity to change the MC's normal behaviour presented itself in Chapter 2 in each story. I was also humbled to realise that my novel does NOT do this... and so will be revising exactly where my story should really start. It's well worth the effort!

    1. Basic structure in action. (This is why I'm SUCH a structure gal and why I talk about it so much) No matter what the story, storytelling has a rhythm readers are used to. It's used so much because it works so well :) First thing I do with any novel is map out those major turning points.

      That chapter two opportunity is the inciting event. You'll find it within the first 1-30 pages of a novel (or 1-50 in a longer novel--about the first 10%).