Dissecting Books: Reading as a Writer Part 4

Read Like a Writer Part 4By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to my series on how to dissect books to understand how and why they work. In other words, how to “read as a writer.” (Here’s where to find Part 1 [openings], Part 2 [plot], and Part 3 [characters and theme].)

This week we’re going to dig down into the nuts and bolts of how the writing comes together on a line-by-line basis.

I’d recommend you stick with the books you selected last time because you’ve already vetted them, you’re familiar with the content, and you’ll already have an idea of what some of the best passages are.

Pick a passage from one of the books (select about 1000 words) and type it into a document.

The exercise I’m going to suggest might seem a little strange at first, and it can easily be misunderstood. I’m not saying you should copy someone else’s work. I’m not saying you should try to mimic someone else’s voice. You’re simply trying to see how a well-written book works and feels on a sentence-by-sentence level. These are books you love, so they should be books you can learn from.

One of the best ways to develop a feel for how accomplished authors write is to type out their words. You’re not going to stop there, though. Once you’ve typed out the passage, you can print it out and highlight the different elements. Choose whatever colors you want, but you’ll need five.

Here are the elements to highlight:

  • Dialogue (externally spoken, not internal dialogue)
  • Body language and action (e.g., shaking hands, a facial tick, running across the room)
  • Setting and description
  • Visceral reactions (the internal sensations our body experiences when we feel emotion)
  • Character thoughts (often called internal dialogue or internalizations, this can include narrative and bits of backstory)

Now lay the pages out in front of you. Look for patterns.

Do you see any large chunks of color? Probably not. If you do, how has the writer kept your interest? Or why did they lose it?

How have they woven the elements together?

Do you see any colors that tend to pair together? You’ll probably see visceral reactions and characters thoughts often show up side by side.

How has the writer used the elements to build on each other? When an author wants to bring out a strong emotional reaction, they’ll often combine many of the elements and use them to enhance the emotions they want the reader to feel. Notice which moments are considered important enough to be developed using multiple techniques.  

If you spotted a passage that felt slow, can you now see what might be causing that? If a passage felt rushed, can you now see what might have caused that? It’s not always about learning from the good. We can also learn from mistakes.

To take this to the next level, print 1000 words of your current project, highlight them, and compare. Make sure you’ve chosen similar sections. For example, don’t compare an action scene with an emotional reaction scene.

This can be an eye opener.

That brings us to the end of the series. If you want a copy of this series that you can download, sign up for my newsletter. I’ll be making it available to my newsletter subscribers as a PDF in the near future.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Internal Dialogue.

Image Credit: Lynn Lopez/freeimages.com