Book Dissection: The Smart Writer’s Way (and free book)

Someone has already done it; let them help you.

You’ve got your original idea and you’ve done your research. Now, before you begin to write your book, you should find a novel similar to what you plan to write that is already published. I guarantee you there is something out there that is similar. Then you should sit down with your razor sharp brain and cut it apart to see all the pieces. Then put them together again to see how they all fit.

You have to ask yourself a number of questions:

  1. What was the original idea the author started with? How close is it to mine?
  2. How did the author translate that idea into a story? What twist did the author put on the original idea? What’s my twist? How am I different from this author’s work?
  3. What is the theme/intent to this story?
  4. Why did the author begin where he or she did?
  5. Why did the author chose the perspective he or she did?
  6. What scope did he or she place on the story?
  7. What is the pacing of the story?
  8. How did the author bring the story to a conclusion?
  9. What did the author do that you liked?
  10. What did the author do that you didn’t like?
  11. What didn’t the author put in the book that you might have? Why didn’t the author put that in?
  12. What was in the book that you feel could have been left out? How would the story change if it were left out?
  13. What were the subplots? How did they connect with the main plot? Did all the subplots get resolved?
  14. Why did the author pick the settings he or she did?

These are questions you are going to face in your own manuscript. If you can understand how someone who successfully wrote the same type of book answered them, you greatly improve your ability to answer them.

Here’s another interesting exercise to do. Take a book that was made into a film and compare the two. For example, The Great Santini by Pat Conroy. If you read the book, then watch the movie, you will notice several subplots are missing from the movie version that are in the book. How did the screenwriter do this yet maintain the original idea and story of the book? Did these subplots add or take away from the book?

I was talking to producer Dan Curtis (Winds of War) and he told me how he works on taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay. First he breaks the novel down into a list of one or two sentences summaries of every major scene or action. Then he writes the screenplay off that list. Then he breaks the screenplay down into a list of one or two sentence summaries and sees how that compares to the one he did for the novel.

Use narrative structure to lay out the structure of the novels you read. What is the hook? What are the progressive complications? What is the choice the protagonist has to make? How is it made? How is the main plot resolved? How do the subplots support the main plot?

It is essential that you be well read in the area in which you wish to write. The more you read, the more you will get imprinted in your conscious and subconscious brain the style and manner in which those types of stories are written, which will aid you greatly in writing your own.

You should also read more first novels, rather than the latest by a best-selling author. Since you are trying to get published, see what kind of novel it takes to get published at various publishing houses. Some best-selling authors can crank out anything– which would not get published if a no-name author did it– and have it become a best seller.

Another thing that book dissection can help you with is determining how “realistic” your book needs to be and in researching your topic. For example, in most mystery novels, police procedure lies somewhere between detective shows on TV and the way it is really done. You’ll find if you interview a homicide detective about how they cover a murder scene, that you will be overwhelmed with detail and the scene you write in your book would have to be many hours long and slow your action down. So see how such scenes are generally written in most novels that are published in your genre and proceed accordingly.

I have sat down with best-sellers and breakout novels and broken them down on a spreadsheet scene by scene to study the structure. Many authors I’ve talked to have done something similar in order to learn.

A question you should ask yourself after dissecting a book like what you want to write is this: How is my book going to be different? What is my unique twist? Every idea has been done– it is in the development of your story off that idea that you have to bring your originality.

102 Solutions to Common Writing is FREE for the next couple of days on Kindle.

Atlantis was free last week and now is in the top 10 overall in science fiction.

Monday I go to New York for Digital Book World and will be blogging about what I learn there.  From there, it’s on to the San Diego State University Writers Conference.  Nothing but good times ahead.

About Bob Mayer

Bob Mayer is a NY Times Bestselling author, graduate of West Point, former Green Beret (including commanding an A-Team) and the feeder of two Yellow Labs, most famously Cool Gus. He's had over 60 books published including the #1 series Area 51, Atlantis and The Green Berets. Born in the Bronx, having traveled the world (usually not tourist spots), he now lives peacefully with his wife, and said labs, at Write on the River, TN.

Posted on January 18, 2012, in Write It forward and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This is good advice. I’ve always done this sort of thing naturally on my own. I’ve often found that I learned a lot by dissecting professional work that I admire as well as work I thought wasn’t up to par.

  2. Someone once said… “Nothing new has been invented since the wheel.” Maybe nothing new has been written since the first myth!!! Dissecting another story’s first page often launches me into my own. Now, I have more ideas to consider. Great post!

  3. Bob,
    This is very helpful information. Thanks as well for offering up your book for free download. I am downloading it now and plan to devour it beginning today. If all goes well I am looking to buy the Toolkit too!


  4. Free Kindle ebook downloaded, thank you very much! As always, I appreciate your passion, your willingness to push the envelope and your expertise. Happy New Year, Bob!

    Tamara Sellman at Writer’s Rainbow

  5. This is a great post! I grabbed the free download last night. Thanks for both!

  6. Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Good post, plus currently a free ebook download.

  7. I found that so sensible. thank you. Great advice as usual.

  8. Great advice, I couldn’t agree more! Studying novels in our genre is so helpful.
    Thank you for the free book, just what I needed in the midst of editing madness
    M-C :)

  9. Wonderful advice. I’m going to try tearing a book down. I wish the free book was free to all kindle owners and not just prime members! Oh well, learned a lot here. :)

  10. Thanks for offering the free ebook promo. I do the screenwriter’s tip when I edit my novels to check for tension and purpose. I write a one or two sentence summary of every scene. Then it’s easy to see what to cut and what’s missing. You always have good advice, Bob!

  11. Hi Bob,

    This couldn’t have been a better blog post for me at this current time. I am starting to research how to write fiction and I think I need all the help I can get in terms of plot and storyline structure. I have already written two memoirs (good preparation for writing fiction, maybe) but I have to say I’m slightly terrified of writing my third book.

  12. I don’t think is necessary that the story is similar to yours. The important is to understand the key points, that are the same even in two total different stories.

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