So you all probably know by now that I am in the midst of planning my next novel, but it’s going to be a bit different than my first two. Something totally out of my comfort zone and the first in a series.
Once I had a good idea of my characters, I started to think about the plot. But this aspect of novel-writing has never been my strength. The pacing, the stakes, the tiny details that are embedded to come back as major plot points later. It’s something I need to practice. And what better way to learn than by studying novels by one of the masters of both plot AND characters?
And for me that person is Sarah J. Maas.
But when I sat down to reread A Court of Thorns and Roses, I wasn’t quite sure how to start. What I would need to look for to teach me how to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.
This prompted the series that I kicked off last week on how to read like a writer. Now that you know what to expect, let’s break down some of the more specific questions you should ask yourself while reading.
Focus on the scene-by-scene details…
Some writers devote one scene per chapter, some include a few. Regardless, each scene has to drive the story forward. Here’s what to look for in each scene:
- Character development: When was the last time a book told you who a character is? I doubt you’ve read one. Instead they show you through their dialogue, actions, internal thought and reactions. Consider how and how often a character reveals details about themselves – and others – in each scene.
- Goals: Yes, your main character likely has one big overarching goal. But if you look closely, there are micro goals that change from chapter to chapter. Pay attention to when they change and how they move the plot forward.
- Motivations: Real people don’t just act aimlessly, so don’t expect fictional characters to either. Not only do a character’s motivations reveal their character, but the resulting actions impact the plot. And don’t forget about secondary characters! They have feelings and secrets too.
- Obstacles: No plot is complete without something standing in your hero’s way. There can be one scary antagonist, but to go along with the micro goals I mentioned above, there will usually be tiny moments of conflict. Notice how the author does this without it seeming like an obstacle course.
- Ratio of dialogue to description: One of my writing strengths is dialogue, but I’ve noticed that I tend to cram too much in there. Sarah J Maas often times has pages of internal thought and description as a time, and it’s a good example of something I can study and learn from.
- Intensity: Note the intensity of a chapter and determine it’s purpose. For example, there’s almost always a lull before an action scene and then another softer scene for the character to recover/react.
- Your reading speed: This is HUGE way to see what’s working and what’s not in a novel. If you are checking your watch and losing focus, something is wrong. If you’re speed reading to find out what happens, they’re doing something very right.
There’s an article over at The Write Practice that gives fantastic advice on how to not only identify what was powerful in a scene but why and how. So instead of trying to paraphrase, I’m just going to encourage you to go to take a look.
…But take note of the big questions too!
As seen obviously, the individual scenes are obviously important. But if you look at them independently, you don’t have an actual story. So when you’re finished reading, ask yourself these questions to break down the overall plot:
When do the big plot points happen in the story?
In A Court of Thorns and Roses, there’s a unique sensation because about halfway through where the reader things everything is close to wrapping up and working out fine. Then BAM!
Suddenly e have an entire new sequence of adventure and conflict that wasn’t expected. I loved that while reading and by paying attention to where those big points occurred in the story, I can try to emulate that structure in my own.
How has the protagonist changed from the beginning of the novel to the end?
An obvious question but one to ask yourself nonetheless. Big changes are usually caused by tiny changes, but this one in particular it’s often good to start with the big. If the main character changes from reckless to strategic by the end of the book, you can go back and look for the when, how and why.
When did the story hook me?
There’s a reason agents only ask for the first ten pages when you submit. Because if you don’t hook a reader then or soon after, they will put the book down. But there’s a difference between being hooked (wanting to read more) and being emotionally invested (NEEDING to read more). Jot down the pages when you noticed those changes.
Why did the author do the things he/she did?
We writers have devious minds, and most things aren’t done just for the hell of it. There’s a reason they made their main character a palm reader instead of a baker or made their antagonist do one thing while saying another. Asking “why?” and thinking from that perspective can help do the same with your stories.
How would I have done things differently?
Beyond the MOST important question to ask yourself, and if you are truly reading like a writer, I can guarantee you will have at least one thing you’d change. No book is perfect, but by studying each novels successes – and failures – you can truly improve your own storytelling craft.