Welcome back to my mini-series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.”
I started this series because the advice “writers should read” isn’t explained often enough. Writers can spend hours and hours reading without learning anything about how to write if we don’t know what to look for.
Last time we looked at openings. This week we’re looking at plot.
Like last time, I have a few requirements for you for the books you pick.
I want you to pick out three of your favorite books in your genre. While there are skills we can learn from books outside our chosen genre, if we’re trying to learn to excel within our genre, then we need to be reading what we want to write.
The books you pick for this week should be ones you’ve already read. You won’t be as likely to be distracted by the story if you’ve already read the book, and this exercise works best if you already have a general idea of the overall plot.
They should be books written within approximately the last five years. Learning how to write from a book that was popular 15, 20, or 100 years ago isn’t necessarily going to help us with writing today. Conventions change and writing has evolved a lot over the years, in part because readers have more distractions competing for their attention.
Try to stick to the first book in a series or a standalone book again. I mentioned this last time, but books that happen later in a series can be a bit different. You’ll need to look at those separately (which is a good exercise as well).
Pick books with a high rating on Amazon and a large number of reviews. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Trying to select books that many other people are loving gives us a better measuring pole to make sure this book is really as good as we think it is.
Now for each book, take a look at the following things:
(1) How far in does the “key event” hit?
I’m calling it a “key event” here so that this doesn’t devolve into a debate over terminology. Basically you’re trying to find the event that people reading your genre will expect and want to see early on.
- If you’re writing a mystery, when does the first body drop?
- If you’re writing a romance, when do the hero and heroine meet?
- If you’re writing a fantasy, when and how does the writer cue the reader in to the fact that this world is different somehow?
Calculate this as a percentage based on the page where it happens compared to the length of the book. This will give you a “truer” result than if you just look at the page or chapter number.
You’ll likely find a range. For example, in a cozy mystery, the first body usually drops somewhere between 8-11% in the first book in a series.
Now compare it to your book. If you’ve ever gotten feedback that someone “couldn’t get into” your book or that your book “felt rushed,” it might be because you didn’t meet their expectation for where they subconsciously thought the key event should happen.
(2) Compare what happens in each book at around 20-25%, 50%, and 75%.
These are your major plot points. I call them the Commitment Point (20-25%), the Flip Point (50%), and the All Is Lost (75%). (The percentages are approximate.)
This isn’t a post about plot, so I won’t go into a ton of detail here (later this year my book Plot and Structure should be available), but I’ll give you a quick overview.
The Commitment Point is the spot where your protagonist commits to pursuing their goal and can’t turn back without serious consequences. James Scott Bell calls this the first Doorway of No Return.
The Flip Point is where the stakes or the protagonist’s perspective on what’s happening in the story changes. (It “flips.”)
A lot happens around the All Is Lost, but the main element that I named it after is the fact that usually at this point it seems like the protagonist cannot possibly achieve their goal.
That’s a general overview, but how these plot points look in each genre is different.
Let’s quickly compare a cozy mystery to a contemporary romance just as an example.
In a cozy, our amateur sleuth makes the decision to investigate the crime. Her story goal is to find the killer.
In a romance, the hero and heroine often start the relationship.
In a cozy, the stakes are usually raised through a threat to her “life.”
In a romance, the stakes are often raised through the first “I love you,” the first kiss, or the first time the characters have sex with each other.
All Is Lost:
In a cozy, there’s often a false resolution of the crime. The murder seems solved, but it isn’t really. The true killer is still at large.
In a romance, it appears that there’s no way the hero and heroine can possibly end up together.
Within each genre, there’s still a lot of room for creativity and developing a surprising, interesting plot, but we need to be building plot points that fit with what readers in our genre crave.
(Jami Gold recently wrote a post about genre expectations that I highly recommend you read as well.)
(3) How does the writer hook you from one chapter to the next? Why do these hooks work?
That why question is back again.
Chapters are the natural place for readers to stop, put the book down, and possibly never pick it up again.
Look at the last sentence/paragraph of each chapter. How did this particular writer make us want to keep reading regardless of how late it was or what other responsibilities we had?
Now look at the end of each of your chapters. It’s hard to be objective, but does each chapter end with an irresistible hook? If it doesn’t, you should be able to find a better place to stop your chapter or come up with a stronger hook based on what you saw in the books you analyzed. If you can’t, it’s time to question whether you might have a bigger problem with your plot. (But that’s another post for another time.)
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