My Purple Notebook: Resource for Story Analysis

A funky purple notebook goes everywhere with me. Collected in it are new ideas for future stories and ways to improve my WIP. But, that's not all. Over the years my solitary notebook has blossomed into a digital and paper library chock full of information and advice from experienced and successful authors.

Today is a look at a set of guidelines to help in analyzing popular literature, a tool first recommended to me in the "Special Publishing Course," a correspondence course I took at the Institute of Children's Literature, ICL, in West Redding, CT. My notebook has become a resource that I turn to over and over again.

How Story Analysis Can Help

When I first began writing mysteries for children I needed a blueprint, guidelines to cover the bases. The Step Outline, from an article in ICL's "Rx for Writers," has been an invaluable tool. The article is by Kristin Wolden Nitz, author of Suspect, Defending Irene, and Saving the Griffin; in addition to books about sports. Nitz shared this valuable tool that she learned from her editor, Lisa Mathews.

Act I: Set-Up
 Turning point/story takes new direction/challenge revealed
Act II:
 Problem intensifies
 Temporary Triumph
 Darkest Moment
 Decision Time
Act III:
 Final Obstacle

Though in the article Nitz covered many aspects of writing a mystery, the outline was not explained fully. So, I interpreted it for my own use. Information from other sources filled in what I needed to know about the various parts of the outline. Then I split paper in half and under the outline steps, I analyzed several published mystery books that were similar to my story. On the left I jotted down a few words to describe the steps in the published book and on the right I took note of the steps from my WIP. When I studied the comparison, I could see the parts of my story that didn't move the story forward. I took them out. It was also a good way to make sure my story had structure, which is what the next section is all about.

Story Deconstruction

Larry Brooks, an author who offers advice to writers, has taken lit analysis to a whole new level for me. Larry's analysis of the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and the movie, offers a thorough approach to view one's own work. Two of many topics Larry covers on Stockett's work are touched on here: Four Parts of a Story and Subtext.

Four Parts: Shane Arthur, a guest author on Larry's blog, conducted a fascinating study of the four parts of The Help, in his July 5, 2011 article, "The Help - Seeing the Structure in Living Color. Literally." Briefly summarized, he highlighted each of the four parts of the novel with different colors; each part is about the same length. Arthur says, "Story unveiling in quartiles, each with a unique and separate contextual mission to fulfill. Coincidence?" Arthur thinks not.

Part 1 in yellow: Set-up
Part 2 in pink: Response--protagonist is reactive but unsure
Part 3 in red: Attack
Part 4 in green: Outcome

Subtext: Another article by guest poster Donna Lodge, "The Help" - A Guest Post About Subtext," on July 18, 2011, Lodge uses what she learned from Linda Seger's book, Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath," to dig into the subtle messages in The Help's dialogue. Subtext is defined in Seger's book as: " . . the true meaning simmering underneath the words and actions. It's the real, unadulterated truth. The text is the tip of the iceberg, but the subtext is everything underneath that bubbles up and informs the text . . . and conflict exists at this intersection of text and subtext . . ." Lodge offers Seger's  "simple but powerful idea: write the subtext under the text or in the margins (a second draft undertaking):


"When I get around to Miss Walter, she don’t take but one little old half a sandwich for herself.”

Subtext: Miss Hilly isn’t taking care of her mama. Miss Walter knows her daughter wants to move her to that nursing home, out of her own home. Miss Walter is afraid, and that makes her loose her appetite.
“Mama, take another sandwich. You are skinny as a telephone pole. I keep telling her, if that Minny can’t cook she needs to just go on and fire her.”

Subtext: Mama won’t cooperate. It’s Minny’s fault, not mine. Minny’s a bad cook and that’s why Mama won’t eat.
To read Arthur's and Lodge's articles and the others in Larry's series on deconstructing The Help, please visit Larry's Deconstruction Series. To find more information on The Help, browse through Larry's archives from May 2011 to August 2011.  Here is Arthur's article and Lodge's.

Please visit The Institute of Children's Literature for information on ICL and the institute's terrific program.

Next month: Tips on Writing Humor

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for children and adults, six short stories for children, and is in the final editing stages of her first book, a mystery story for 7-9 year olds. Publishing credits include seven biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Highlights for Children; Pockets; Hopscotch; and true stories told to her by police officers about children in distress receiving teddy bears, which she fictionalized for her column, "Teddy Bear Corner," for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office Crime Prevention Newsletter, Dayton, Ohio. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Heidiwriter said...

Valuable information! Thank you for sharing this with us. The 3-act analysis is a good one!

Linda Wilson said...

Great Heidi, I hope you can use the information. I for one needed structure. I found these tools helped tremendously.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what a detailed and valuable post. I'll share this post and bookmark it. Thanks so much for sharing!

Linda Wilson said...

That's terrific, Karen. I've become a firm believer in structure/good planning preferably before editing begins, and a good way to check a work when it's completed. The Help, Hunger Games and other works have been deconstructed by Larry Brooks and I do agree that their structure is flawless.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, structure is essential. Whether you're writing fiction, nonfiction, or copywriting, studying and analyzing the works of the pros is an excellent learning strategy.

Unknown said...

One of the most challenging parts of writing, in my opinion, is structure. Very helpful advice!! Thank you for sharing :)

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Tracy! Take it and run with it!

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