How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps

How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps

What if I told you the best way to learn how to create amazing plots and characters in your own stories was by purposeful osmosis? First, of course, I might have to explain that “purposeful osmosis” means reading lots and lots of books and watching lots and lots of movies–and consciously studying what it is about them that works. With that explanation out of the way, chances are you’re in agreement. But chances are, you’re also not entirely sure how to actually make this happen. Just how do you figure out how to study plot and character in other people’s stories?

Not too long ago, Wordplayer K.M. Updike (she of the rad initials!) emailed me, asking:

[What is] your process for studying the plot, structure, character arcs, etc., of the books you read and the movies you watch? I’ve been wondering for a while how one goes about studying the writer’s work as they read/watch.

This is an excellent question. After all, it’s easy for Stephen King to say:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut. Stephen King

Don’t get me wrong: this is a tremendous piece of advice. But it’s also pretty vague.

That’s it? We just … read? And the answers will, what? Come to us?

Yes, actually. To some extent anyway. The more we read and watch good (and bad) stories, the better our own storytelling instincts will get–without our having to do even one thing more.

But in the interest of upping our game here, how about we do a few things more? Today, I’m going to give you an actionable plan for how to study plot and character (and lots more) in your favorite stories.

1. Start With an Action Plan

The first step in being purposeful is, of course, to have a purpose. Often, you may simply want to observe the books you read and the movies you watch generally, letting the story’s own strengths and weaknesses guide your study. But it can help you dig down deeper if you have a list of things you want to consciously pay attention to.

I recommend a short list. The shorter, the better, in fact.

Why? Because your brain can only keep track of so many tangents at once (says the woman with twenty tabs open in her browser). You’ll get better results if you focus on one or two primary elements or techniques at a time.

For example, lately, I’ve been concentrating on dialogue (both because it’s something I’m working on myself and because I’m planning a series of blog posts on dialogue for sometime next year). I watch the ebb and flow of dialogue, taking note of what works and what doesn’t. What’s the effect–and why did the author intend it?

This isn’t to say, of course, that you can’t also take note of anything interesting, in any category, that reveals itself. But only consciously follow certain rabbits down their holes.

2. Arm Yourself With Highlighters and Pens

Jane Eyre Writer's Digest Annotated Classic K.M> WeilandThis is for serious studiers only. Seriously, I only do this one when I’m in full battle mode (e.g., like when I was dissecting Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, so I could write about its brilliant techniques in Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic).

This is where you’re going to want to divide your studying into a few more categories–one for each color of highlighter. Go through the book, highlighting appropriately, whenever you find an interesting passage. Write notes with abandon in the margins. Then, when you’ve finished, go through again and type up your notes, expanding on them to fully record your reactions and new knowledge.

I say this is only for serious studiers primarily because this is a fast track to interfering with reading-as-pure-pleasure (and also to making a mess of your paperbacks).

Jane Eyre Highlights

This is rigorous studying at its best and will require your full brain power. No reading-to-get-to-sleep when you’re doing this.

3. Break Down the Structure

The surest way to get a grasp on plot and story structure is by consciously breaking down the structure in books and movies–as I do regularly for the Story Structure Database. How do I do this?

Start with an easy shortcut: divide the total page count of a book or the total running time of a movie by eight. Why? Because the major structural moments happen at each eighth of the story:

1. Inciting Event (12%)

2. First Plot Point / End of the First Act (25%)

3. First Pinch Point (37%)

4. Midpoint / Halfway through the Second Act (50%)

5. Second Pinch Point (62%)

6. Third Plot Point / Beginning of Third Act (75%)

7. Climax (88%)

For movies, I use my handy dry-erase board notebook to note the approximate minute of each turning point, so I can easily watch the run time and take note of what’s happening.

NuBoard Story Structure Thor Dark World

For books, I use little Book Darts bookmarks to mark the appropriate page at each turning point.

Book Darts Patrick O'Brian Truelove

This way, I’m not totally adrift within the story. I can watch the clock or the page count and know to be on the watch for the respective structural moment roundabout there.

This is a fabulous way to grasp story structure as a whole and, just as importantly, to understand how the various structural elements can manifest in vastly different ways from story to story.

You can study my (and others’) many examples in the Story Structure Database. If you try it yourself, please share with us! The Story Structure Database is interactive and always open for submissions.

4. Examine Your Reactions

Whenever you finish a story, give yourself a moment before rushing off to the next thing. Just sit there and think about your reactions to what you just experienced. Ask yourself:

  • How did the story make you feel?
  • What did you like about it?
  • What did you dislike?
  • Do you think it was an objectively good story?
  • Did you dislike it anyway? Why?
  • Do you think it was an objectively problematic or even bad story?
  • Did you like it anyway? Why?

Within the answers to these questions lies your greatest opportunity for growth as a writer. If you can distill your often nebulous feelings about a story down into logical facts about what made you feel that way, you will then be able to add other authors’ effective weapons to your own arsenal.

I use this technique after every story I read or watch. It’s where I get the ideas for fully half the posts on this site.

5. Transcribe the Prose

This trick is especially useful if you’re trying to crack the code of, not just great storytelling, but great writing. What is it about some authors’ prose that makes it sing so effortlessly and powerfully? The whole point of great prose is that it’s flawless: we’re not supposed to think about it, we’re not supposed to see the cracks where the pieces are joined together. If we saw the cracks, that would defeat the whole purpose.

As a result, simply reading great prose isn’t always the most effective way to learn how to write awesome prose of your own. What you need to do is sit down with a notebook and pen and a favorite book–and start transcribing passages. I recommend doing this longhand, with an actual pen, since this will slow you down and force you to think about and absorb each word and punctuation choice.

Transcription of Favorite Authors K.M. Weiland

I used to do this every day, and it never failed to amaze me how it allowed me to suddenly see the building blocks the authors had used in crafting their prose. Their seemingly inimitable mastery of wordcraft was suddenly within my grasp. It was something I could learn–and that you can too!

Afraid Studying Will Ruin Your Reading? Don’t Be

Although you can learn from other authors, such as me, who break down stories and share what they’re learning in blogs and books, you’ll get more out of the experience by also doing it yourself. Start approaching your book reading and movie watching purposefully with an intent to logically identify and utilize the tools handed to you by authors you love.

But what if it ruins your reading and watching?

It’s true, it might. Some authors use these practices and find themselves growing hypecritical. But, frankly, it shouldn’t. The more I learn to identify how other authors are using the craft, the more I appreciate their stories. Give it a try. You’ll transform both your appreciation of stories in general and your own writing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What methods have you used to figure out how to study plot and character in your favorite stories? Tell me in the comments!

How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Have you discovered L-Space?

  2. I intially discovered your blog looking to structure a better written story. Today I’m using this article and your book on the topic of outlining, to plan and structure my 2016 personally and professionally. The voice of the teacher and coach sitting behind your writing is as enticing as ever.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent! Those are the kinds of New Year’s goals that actually see accomplishment. I wish you all the best!

  3. Jessica Renfro says:

    I’ve been looking all over for a post like this! I’m a visual learner so I think it would be helpful if I studied one of my favorite novels to see how the author applies the three act structure.

    P.S. Your website is so helpful! You explain structure in a way that’s easily understandable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m so glad you’re finding the site useful! I’m a visual learner myself, so I love the whole experience of color-coding notes and such while studying books.

  4. I absolutely love this post. I come back to it again and again. <3

  5. Good post. I’m a big movie buff, so I’m not unused to taking notes and dissecting stories I love. When I become enamored with a movie, I usually rewatch it with a notebook in hand and try to answer questions much like you suggest in step 4. “Why did I find this scary despite there being no gore and blood?” “What makes this character’s arc so interesting and how does it develop over the course of the story?” “Why do I feel sympathy for this villainous character?” This also works with movies that you like but find flawed or movies that absolutely don’t work at all– you just learn so much.

    For me, this makes me enjoy my favorite stories even more. I love seeing how they work. It actually inspires me to want to take more time to create, as I am a very impatient write.

    I haven’t done this with a book yet though– except for Wuthering Heights, which I’ve pored over in my mind for years now. I should though… I just don’t want to write on my paperbacks though!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Weiland shares her five step plan to analyze your favourite books (A.K.A. read like a […]

  2. […] How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps […]

  3. […] How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories – I will always fail at one of the reading tips mentioned in the previous link — Skim — because I read not to escape, but to study the craft. At least most of the time. Anyone who browses my Goodreads shelves will find some cheap thrills tucked amongst the classics and bestsellers. That said, I mentioned K.M. Weiland’s books in my previous post and this blog post of hers has some great actionable tips for getting the most out of your reading. I’ve employed some of these techniques in analyzing other books this past year and will be modifying my approach to include some of her tips here. If you’re a student of storycraft, then you really ought to be following her blog. […]

  4. […] before how we can use examples to learn beat sheets, and K.M. Weiland has a post about the ways we can analyze other stories to learn more about storytelling. In her post, she talks about marking up print books, but the process can be even easier if we use […]

  5. […] Book’s Inciting Event: It’s Not What You Think It Is and How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps by K.M. […]

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