Rosemary wrote: "Thank you so much for sharing what you learn and know with your fellow writers :) I read each post and learn a bit more each time! I have a request for you if you don't mind...can I ask your process for reading a story to learn craft from it? You've mentioned writing down scenes, plot points, etc. Are there any guidelines, or an order you recommend? Thanks Ksenia!!!"
I'll share all I know, Rosemary! Not my statement, by the way, about reading like a pro. It was my writing mentor who said it. He saw my notebook (pictured above) and said, "Hey, you read like a pro!" Do I? Dunno. So blame my mentor for this gracious epithet. It ain't mine. Anyway. Back to your request.
It all started because I got pissed at myself for not developing as a writer faster and started looking for ways to improve. One of those was also pointed out by my mentor. "You're going to keep floundering around, or do you actually want to learn how to become a commercial writer?" Yes, I agreed, enough floundering. So I started learning plotting, and that led to trying to figure out how others plotted, and that led to dissecting books as I read them. How does the story open? Why? What's the inciting incident? The crisis? The climax? How many scenes are there? How are they spaced? How many pages? Does the crisis fall square in the middle? No? Why? What are the patterns? And so on.
After a few tries I realized I couldn't do it without some kind of note-taking, so I got myself a little graph-paper Moleskine notebook that I can take with me (as I always read when I'm on the go) and started devising a system for tracking plot twists and whatever else I saw while I read.
Here is how I do it.
In the picture above you see a dissection of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Client by John Grisham. On the left is the column with scene numbers (they're not necessarily chapters; a chapter can have several scenes, whereas a scene is a unit of action happening in the same place and at the same time), on the right the column with page numbers, and in the middle one-line summaries of each scene. By the way, as an added bonus, doing this exercise prepares you to write your own chapter outline (or summary, or synopsis, or scene beat sheet—whatever you want to call it) to see where your story works or doesn't BEFORE you write down a single word. And summarizing effectively is a very valuable skill.
Once I start reading a book, as I finish reading a scene, I jot down its number, one-line summary, and the page it ended on. I go like this through the whole book. When I'm done reading, I go back to the beginning of my notes, read through them and determine the five major plot points: inciting incident (shit happened!), complications (shit just got worse), crisis (two bad choices—either way I die; what to do?), climax (fuck it, I'm gonna fight for my life), resolution (I did it! I survived; now what?). Once I locate them, I circle the corresponding scene numbers to see how they're spaced. In contemporary books the inciting incident happens almost at the very beginning, and the climax tends to occur almost at the very end—no more long introductions or long conclusions like in the literature of the last century. But it all depends on the genre and the pace you want your book to have, and lots of other factors. So it's fun to compare. Also, I circle other major turning points that don't fall into the five main ones. Sometimes they are subplot turns, sometimes there are two inciting incidents (typically, the opening hook and the first problem), three or more complications, a couple climaxes (sometimes they come in bits, to build tension), and so on.
Then I look for genre conventions. If it's romance, there is always the first-kiss scene. If thriller, the first body. If horror, the first scare. I also underline the breaks the author made—for parts. Why? In what places? How many pages is each? I then compare the percentage of the acts' length. Does the first act take up 25% of the book? More? Less? Why? Does the second act take up 50%? Third the last 25%? These are standard percentages when it comes to the three-act structure (the second act is usually broken in two by the crisis in the middle), so I look for deviations. They tell me where I can bend the rules too.
The more I read, the more patterns I start to see. In some way what I learn from this process is unquantifiable. It's intuitive. Yes, I gather the numbers and do this weird math, but really I try to sense where the story has the most impact on me, and what kind of structure has let it accomplish that.
One other thing. I look at the number of characters. I was surprised that most books don't have very many though it seems like they do. They might mention a ton of people, but the major players are few, 8-10 or so. Often less. And most of them are introduced at the very beginning. If you hope for your reader to develop any kind of affection for your character (or hate, for that matter), it's crucial you start talking about them early to have enough time to build a relationship between them and your audience. One of best ways I've seen it done is in The Silence of the Lambs, about which I'll blog next (what it taught me, reading and retreading it; and it taught me a great deal). If you have this book, open it and read the first chapter (or read it on Amazon in the ebook) and see how every major character is introduced in this very short chapter, including the killer and even his victims. And you're hardly aware of it when reading it. But the seeds are planted.
So it's things like that I learn. Tricks. Rules. Methods that worked for someone else. I see them, try them in my writing, and move on. If they work, great! If not, no biggie. I'll keep reading and learning.
I hope this helps, Rosemary. If you have any more questions or need clarifications, fire away. I'll answer as many as I can.