Saturday, June 22, 2013

Breaking It All Down

Scott D. Parker

In recent weeks, I’ve been documenting my own self-education back into writing. This week, I’m going to talk about an exercise I did that helped me understand how a novel can be put together.

In just about every nugget of advice on writing, the virtues of ‘write a lot’ is always near the top. In fact, it’s second only to ‘read a lot.’ I’m of the belief that you can write a ton of words, but if you are doing it wrong, you won’t be using your time efficiently. Now, “wrong” might be a harsh word, but let’s be honest: there’s a reason certain stories work and stay with you and others that evaporate as soon as you’re done with them.

So, along with my new focus on writing a bunch of stories in different mediums, I’m breaking down some stories I like and know well in order to study how they are constructed. One in particular may surprise you. I’m a huge fan of the TV show “Castle” and the collateral material being published in the real world. To date, “Richard Castle” (or whomever is actually writing the books; it’s still a mystery) has written four books featuring Nikki Heat with a fifth on the way this fall. He’s (she?) also managed to pen a couple of new Derek Storm tales. If you enjoy the TV show, the Nikki Heat novels give a nice echo to the events of the show.

The second novel in the series, Naked Heat, is one that really struck me. When I first listened to it (narrated by Johnny Heller who provides excellent narration; he really channels Nathan Fillion), I was impressed by how fluid the story was and how easily it moved from scene to scene, taking me along from the beginning to the end. In an era in which I don’t re-read hardly anything, I re-read this book.

And now I've read it again, on paper this time. I picked up a paperback copy and pored over it with pencil in hand. Knowing the story, I annotated this thing to death. There's hardly a page without a mark. With this re-reading, I learned a few things that I found interesting. One of the characters, a high-profile sports agent, is never actually described. His dialogue is the thing used to describe him. That surprised me because I have a very distinct image of him. Guess I filled in the gaps. The plot and sub-plots are easy to see and follow and it’s very neat to see how it flows throughout the book. One of the things I do a lot is describe my characters eating or drinking. There’s an entire scene in this book where the four main characters discuss the case over coffee. Not once is the dialogue broken up with descriptions of drinking. They get their coffee at the start and they finish up at the end. It’s implied that they were drinking. It just shows me that the little breaks I put in don’t really matter. Fascinating. I’ve already started applying some of the techniques in this book for my own writing.

This was a fantastic exercise for me and I have a renewed appreciation of the shape and structure of how a novel is put together.

Have y’all ever broken down a book or story for additional study? Did it help your writing?


Keri Neal said...

I totally do this. After i read a book i break it down into formulas and patterns. I love digital books because i can go back easily and lookup parts of the book. Great post!!!

Scott Parker said...

Keri, Thank you for your comment. I did Da Vinci Code a few years back when I was working on my first book. It's very enlightening.

Just this morning, I broke the Castle book down into only mini plot points. By doing that, I could easily see that there were three little 'hunts' for evidence, one larger one that encompassed the last half of the book, and the overall one. Another thing I found particularly fascinating is how the author, when introducing a certain character, breaks into prose and gives background. That background becomes set in the reader's mind (and the police's) and it is from that where holes in the story are punched to find the truth.

And, taking a cue from Erle Stanley Gardner, I'm reconstructing the entire story chronologically. There's some quote where he says that he planned the books from the killer's perspective but then wrote the book from the hero's POV.