I’m a big fan of reading literary studies and occasionally I like going over a book or a passage with a more insightful – the writer, not just reader – eye. The good thing about gathering tips from your favorite authors or books is that they’re more significant and personal to you than a how-to novel which may not quote anything you like or even anything that resonants which makes the information ( no matter how helpful ) harder to absorb, hold, or even understand. By researching writers you like it’s a little like creating your own how-to guide formatted to fit your needs.
First take a favorite author or book, something you’re familiar with. It’s easier than picking a fresh story as it usually takes multiple readings to really get to layers in the writing. Plus, it’s easier to discover more things when you’re already familiar with the scenes.
Pick a book you love or dislike, doesn’t really matter so long as you want to learn from it. Either or could be powerful. Any book you feel strongly about you’ll be more interested in studying than a book you feel just meh about.
Gather up some tools – colored tabs, highlighters ( if you have an extra copy of the book you don’t mind marking up ), recipe cards or a notebook, and pens.
Have some goals in mind, before your start your in-depth study. A novel is such a broad thing with so many different facets it can get overwhelming trying to absorb everything. A good way of knowing what to study is to decide why you want to study a particular angle, and what you want to learn. Pick your focus.
* scene transitions
* word usage
* sentence structure, grammar
Here’s just a small sampling of things you can look for. But genre opens up all kinds of different avenues – sex scenes, world building, magic, information, clues, red herrings handling history, tension, suspense, violence.
When you’re studying don’t look for formulas: conflict & resolution, counting up such and such pages in between chapters, mapping out the narrative arc. All of that precision seeking is hogwash ( believe me, I’ve tried it.) What you want to do is keep the information sharp but loose. You don’t want a recipe on how to create a good character you want to learn how a good character behaves.
How do you study a character? Start with simple things – what do you want to learn? I like to start by examining how the characters are first mentioned – zone in on that scene. Take one of my faves,Lolita by Nabokov . Let’s skip the foreword. Counting from chapter one, Lolita, the title character, is mentioned first but the how is very important. It’s in ownership to Humbert. In two paragraphs ‘my’ is mentioned 5 times. That’s key. How does Humbert address himself at first – as a murderer ( and rather humorously ). Charlotte is at first a voice at the top of the stairs, then she’s connected to her cigarette ash falling and when Hum finally gets a look at her dismisses her as ‘poor lady’ and a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich. ( Quite interesting considering Humbert spends most of his time ignoring woman that Charlotte is heard before seen. )
What can I learn or take away from all this? A character can be introduced before they are shown to create interest and curiosity in the reader, a build up of actions can create symbolism and should be kept in mind, and being forthright can surprisingly create suspense. Also by slanting or angling words characters can reveal their relationships to one another, and they can also implant ideas in the reader and manipulate judgments from the reader.
Other good places I like to look at are those ‘moments’ in a book. They’re the stellar moments of revelation or change – what scenes/characters are building towards.
How to examine wording.
Context is key in creating powerful sentences so try not to take anything out of context. You’ll lose meaning, and thereby lose your grasp on how powerful the scene truly is. Take a paragraph and examine it for tone ( the angle of the sentences – meaning I could write – I don’t like broccoli or – Broccoli sucks – the second is angling to fit character or mood. The first, though appearing to lack an angle is an angle unto itself. ) Look at the nouns, pronouns, verbs and arrangement.
Let’s examine a paragraph -
– from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe
What can I take from this paragraph, but for the fact that it is a whopping 92 word sentence?
First examine context. What is Wolfe doing?
He starts with one image ( a rather ordinary one ) – millions of stars in the sky in a backyard but then he throws in a simile – like tiny neon bulbs. Then he steps back again to the ordinary image ( a bit revamped ) - you could see them between the leaves of the trees.But then he starts to twist our vision and view. First ,he’s got us looking at stars comparing them to neon bulbs and being able to see them through the leaves on trees. Now he takes the stars, the neon bulbs, and places them on the trees ( not too extraordinary for anyone who has seen a tree hung with lights, until you remember they’re stars. That gives my brain a little whoa of interest. ) Now he transfers the stars, the neon bulbs, to the bus, but – look at the wording – broke up into a sculpture, millions of them massed together ( inferring? like a star constellation ), finally the stars/bulbs become a whole nighttime of neon dust ( like a galaxy ) every particle ( atoms? ) a neon bulb and they vibrated like a huge friendly cicada universe. With that one word cicada, he’s come full circle reconnecting his cosmic revelation back to its ordinary setting of the backyard.
The magic in this paragraph is the word usage, phrases and the grammar that holds it altogether. He starts ordinary ( key to his build up – I will show you something extraordinary in the ordinary. ) And he’s not afraid to repeat himself : neon is used five times, bulbs four times, million(s) three times. In fact repeating himself creates a natural rhythm that gives this piece power. The rising revelation almost seems echoed in the choice of verbs which start rather ordinary – came, were, see, covered, seemed – but are then kicked up a notch – broke up, massed, make, vibrated. And by keeping the paragraph in one sentence he’s showing you the fast moving nature of a revelation. Not broken little pictures but rather an evolving image like looking at a cloud that is in one moment a horse, but now a unicorn, oh wait, now it’s a sea serpent.
Because words have the power not just to be what they are, but to simultaneously suggest something else, picking the right words allows for greater implications. Wolfe’s paragraph can be considered great for its use of words that are helping to form this cosmic revelation. From the simple use of repeating bulb so close to tree, the vision just doesn’t become stars hung on the tree, or lights on the tree since bulb is not just connected to light bulb but to flowers, it also becomes a tree sprouting stars. And with the use of millions, massed together, dust, particle we get ideas of the milky way of galaxies and atoms. Wolfe shapes, steers and paces our vision.
You can try this with any author. Any genre – this technique is not just for ‘great’ writing it’s for anything you happen to like or admire or can learn from. Here’s a snippet of conversation from Ruby Jean Jensen’s Mama -
Despite its flaws, this conversation is nicely worded, gives insight into the characters and paints a pretty clear visual. Best of all it’s got an interesting set up. Note the variety – 1st line is dialogue and action. 2nd is plain dialogue, no tag, no action. 3rd is dialogue with an interrupting tag. 4th is thought before dialogue. 5th is dialogue and a tag. 6th is action then dialogue and the last is dialogue with no tag, no action. In fact the variety gives spice to an overall ordinary bit of conversation. By giving Tommy’s tag an interrupting quality he appears to be a bit of a know-it-all. And rather than rely on anything that might include the word surprise -Jensen uses action – Elsea looked down at Dorrie – coupled with her dialogue to allow us to see her surprise rather than be informed of it. Imagine the dialogue without the variety -
“Who lives here?” Dorrie asked.
“Nobody lives here. But we’re going to be living here now, Dorrie, isn’t that nice? You’ll find all kinds of interesting things here. This is the house where my mother was born and lived, until she grew up, and where her mother was born and lived all her life.”
“That was our great-grandmother.” Tommy said.
“Was she a witch?” Dorrie asked.
“What a dumb question,” Tommy said scoffing.
“What on earth made you say that?” Elsea asked.
“It’s like the witch’s house in the woods.”
This version lacks shape. Sparse dialogue can work, but it doesn’t work here – not compared to the original. That’s another thing to consider when you’re studying your favorites, what works for one scene might not work for another.
Be flexible, experiment and try.
Test what you learn.