James Scott Bell is the author the award-winning thriller Final Witness and of several how-to guides, including Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. In “7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (& How To Avoid Them)” — a recent online Writer’s Digest article, he listed some helpful questions that writers who want to improve their craft can ask when analyzing successful stories:
“How does the writer make me want to turn the page?” This is a great question to ask yourself when you are reading a literal page turner. Some authors sprinkle cliff-hangers throughout their chapters. Others use the pulsing rhythm of their sentences to drive their story forward. How does a writer who really draws you in compel you to keep reading?
“Why am I drawn to the lead character?” In a novel, you are going to be spending a lot of time with the main character. So when a writer creates a protagonist who really grabs you, it’s definitely worth pausing to try to figure out why. Is it simply that the character is immensely likable? Is it because he or she has a flaw or vulnerability
that instantly makes you sympathetic. Or is the main character unappealing, but absolutely fascinating?
“When are the stakes raised?” This question is full of promise and definitely worth asking. If you can pinpoint the moment when a story’s stakes are ratcheted up, it can reveal about how a novel is structured. When the author ups the ante in a book, the whole story suddenly shifts — it seems bigger, more exciting, more compelling.
Are the stakes raised early in the story? Is the shift obvious or subtle? As a reader, does this make you connect more deeply with the main character because what he or she is battling is bigger than you initially thought?
“How does the writer integrate minor characters?” Secondary characters play a number of important roles in a novel: They can serve as a foil to the main character, be the focal point of a subplot, and/or be a channel for delivering critical information. Whatever role(s) they play, it’s worth analyzing what specific function they serve and how they are introduced and summoned up at key points.
“What makes a scene work?” Scenes are a story’s building blocks; deconstructing them to see what makes them tick in a novel you admire is certainly a fruitful undertaking. Why not pick a few powerful scenes and see how the author creates the impact they’ve had on you? Does each scene tell a mini-story. Does each scene add something crucial to the story — like a single pearl on a necklace?
“What’s the key to conflict?” Conflict is the lifeblood of drama — it’s the friction that makes sparks fly in a story. How does the author of a novel you admire build and sustain conflict? How does he or she pace a story so that the conflict ebbs and then builds again? How does he or she use conflict to propel a story forward?
“How does the writer handle dialogue?” Some writers use dialogue sparingly; others use huge swaths of it. Some writers write lean dialogue; others lard theirs with descriptive clues that reveal character. How does the author you admire employ it?
Great questions to ask when reading other authors to sharpen our craft. Write on!