Analyze Your Favorite Stories

When I started writing I had no formal training.  I just knew that I wanted to write.  I had no aspirations that I could write the next Great American (or Scottish) Novel. But I did want to write entertaining stories with unexpected twists and surprises that would delight a reader and make them want to keep turning the page at the end of a chapter to see what was going to happen next.  I wanted to write stories that were at least as good as some of my own favorite books that I had read.  I enjoyed murder-mystery-detective stories during long flights back and forth across the USA on business trips.  So I got a few of my favorites out, by authors like PD James or Ian Rankin or William McIlvanney and did my own amateur version of analyzing or “dissecting” them. I just went through chapter by chapter and wrote down which characters were introduced, and which plot elements happened.  How did the chapter end?   Was there dialog?  If so, between how many different people? Was there a surprising twist or two in the story? How surprising was the climax?  Why was it surprising?  Was there a chapter or two after the dramatic climax where other details were explained?

After doing this for two or three different stories by different authors I realized that although there were no official “rules” about writing a murder mystery story (at least none that anyone had told me) there were, indeed, some common themes.  A few years later when I had my own wonderful literary agent and editor, she explained that there actually ARE some unwritten rules for this kind of story.  She said that you don’t need to follow them but if you don’t follow them, you ought to have a good reason because people who read those kinds of stories appreciate some of the familiar elements of a story.  I also remember hearing an interview with PD James, a marvelous and accomplished British writer.  She said that she found that the “rules” for writing a murder-mystery were actually quite “freeing” for her.  Working within a comfortable framework allowed her to focus on details of the characters and the scenes in greater detail. My editor said that for many murder-mystery stories some of the unspoken rules are these:

By the time you have read 50 pages you should have already met the murderer although you don’t know it yet.

Many murder-mysteries are written in the first person (in other words the reader goes through the entire story in the mind of the main protagonist [often the detective] and sees and hears everything that she or he sees and hears). Why? Because the main audience for murder mystery stories are people who like to read at the end of a busy day and may fall asleep in their chair, or in bed, or on the long plane flight as they are reading.  A story written in the first person is much easier to pick back up and not lose where you are in the story.

Many murder mysteries have short chapters that end with a surprise.  This is for the same reason.  Readers don’t like to feel like it is a chore to get to the end of a really long complicated chapter last thing at night when they are tired!

You need to provide enough clues along the way that a smart reader should be able to figure out whom he or she thinks did the murder.

You should not throw in plot details that are false clues that lead your reader astray and have nothing to do with the murder.  The classic example that is often used is that if your protagonist walks into a room and describes an exotic hunting rifle above the mantelpiece in great detail this had better have something relevant to do with the story and not be an irrelevant “red herring.”

It is okay (in fact advisable) to surprise even your smartest readers with an unexpected twist at the end so that the actual murderer is not the person they thought of but was someone else. But you should never throw in a ridiculous explanation at the climax of the story (like revealing in the last chapter that the murderer was actually the evil twin of a main character but there was no way to know that during the tale) unless you want your reader to throw your book against a wall and never read another story of yours.

There are many more “rules” like that, but you get the idea.  The point I want to make is that you should not be intimidated about writing.  Analyzing your favorite story into its main elements will give you ideas about the kind of shape and style of story that you like.  Do you like stories with a lot of dialog or a lot of action or a balance of both?  Do you like stories that jump right into the middle with you or stories that have long descriptive build ups?

And although I have mentioned some of the “rules” or “conventions” that you should follow… you are totally welcome to try ignoring or defying all of those rules for your own story.  Some humorous satires on the murder-mystery genre purposely break all the rules to see if that will amuse their readers!

When I started writing fantasy fiction stories, I analyzed some of my favorite fantasy adventures in the same way as I did with murder-mystery stories. I didn’t want to copy them or steal their ideas, but it is interesting to figure out how they are laying out the story and decide if the style is one that you like. How many characters were introduced in each chapter? Were they writing in the first person or the third person?  How much time did they spend describing the scenes? Did they dive right into the middle of the story so that the reader had to figure things out as it went along? I quickly developed my own style and “voice,” and had the confidence to trust that others would enjoy that too.

So I strongly encourage any of you who have a story inside of you to just let it spill out onto the page and see where it leads you!

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