How I Write: Dissecting frogs (or starting a new story)

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And what a timely subject for me. (Stars are aligning as I write.)

Sorry, I’m not going to give you in-depth details on what I normally do. I can say that so far, I’ve done the usual – the idea, researching, plotting, outlining.

But I’m not starting to write. I refuse to jump into a new story without bringing new skills to it. I want to figure out how I can improve.

My weakness? Structure and pacing (And yes, I’ve read great craft books, but, somehow, that doesn’t always translate.)

So, this time around, I’m choosing middle grade stories and dissecting them like a seventh grader would a frog in science class.


How to dissect a story:

  • Pull out your scalpel, and throw your head back for your best maniacal laugh.
  • Jot down what happens in each chapter as you read.
  • After reading, break the story into: Act I, Act II, Act II climax (big twist), Act III, story climax, resolution.
  • Record major plot points or clues.
  • Record the logline (found in the front of the book).
  • Record what you did and didn’t like about it.
  • Wipe the bloody ink on your lab coat and toss in the wash.

Four books have passed across my laboratory table. The next two are waiting nervously in a spare room. I could tell you the amazing things I’ve learned but it probably won’t do you any good. You will learn best hands-on.

Check out Alexandra Sokoloff for the break down of story structure. After all, I’m following her suggestion.

So, how do you start a new story?

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25 Responses to How I Write: Dissecting frogs (or starting a new story)

  1. Laura July 6, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    If you dissect enough books, you’ll find a pattern. In all the books I liked, certain aspects jumped out at me. And if there was a book I thought was weak, I could see exactly where the author could have made it better.

  2. kris July 7, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Wow, you’re good. I’m not sure I have the patience to dissect. In fact, I know I don’t at the moment. But maybe someday. I have tried to read books in my genre. But I haven’t taken notes or picked them apart. I like that you take your reading to a point where you use it to help your writing. Good tip.

    Can you show me how you do the maniacal laugh? Maybe a vlog or something? 🙂

  3. Laura Pauling July 7, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Vlog? Yeah, right Kris. I don’t think so.

  4. Ansha Kotyk July 7, 2010 at 1:28 pm #

    I dissected the first Harry Potter book. I resisted doing it for soo long, but it really is a necessity for any writer. You can only learn by getting your hands dirty!

  5. Stina Lindenblatt July 7, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    I identify what my weaknesses are, study my writing books again, and pay attention to the novels I read to see how the authors avoid making the mistakes I’ve made in the past. 🙂

  6. Laura Pauling July 7, 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Stina – Sometimes reading published novels is the best way to learn – and pay attention while we’re reading!

  7. Jennifer Carson July 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    great advice! I really want to start dissecting too–I actually liked biology class = )

  8. Jennifer Shirk July 7, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    I don’t dissect a story–but maybe I should. 🙂
    I just make sure there’s solid GMCs for each character and that will “usually” be enough. I love Alexandra Sokoloff but the process of breaking down stories into Acts I have yet to master.

  9. Susan R. Mills July 7, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

    I love how you said you don’t want to just write a new story; you want to take something new to your next story. That is a great way to look at it.

  10. Tatiana Caldwell July 7, 2010 at 4:30 pm #

    I keep saying I’m going to dissect stories, but I haven’t yet.

    What I DO do however is build my own, organ by organ. It’s like reverse dissection.

  11. Steven K. Griffin July 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

    Hi Laura – Starting a new story is a multi-step process for me. First, story ideas usually hit me at a random time. My latest story idea came in the middle of plotting my current novel. When I get an idea, I grab a notebook and start doing a brain-dump and write down everything I can relating to the story.

    Second, when I’m ready to start working on the piece, I take a look at the big picture of the plot and try to establish major and minor plot points. I can usually tell right away if a story has enough steam to be a full length novel or if I need to trim it down to a short story.

    After I have managed to build a high-level outline, I just start working towards more and more detail until I feel comfortable enough to start the first draft.

    My downfall is I probably OVER-plan things at the start, but it sure helps when you start banging away on the first draft.

  12. Laura July 7, 2010 at 4:44 pm #

    Jennifer – I’ve read books on the 3 act structure but I needed to dig in and really discover it so I could apply it. Just reading about it is not the same thing.

    Jennifer C. – I didn’t care for dissecting frogs. Stories are a different matter.

    Susan – I can’t just go on and write another story because clearly something is lacking.

    Tatiana – It works differently for everyone!

  13. PJ Hoover July 7, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    Dissecting really does help, Laura. You nailed it. I try to figure out what works and why it worked for what I need improvement in.
    Great post!

  14. Robert Guthrie July 7, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    I might put too much importance on what feels right. Probably why I always sucked in biology class.

  15. Heather Kelly July 7, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    This was a very good post. I need to pay much more attention to the three act structure. Thanks for the insight into learning before jumping right in! 🙂

  16. Catherine A. Winn July 8, 2010 at 12:26 am #

    I do study books as I read them but I’ve never actually dissected one. I’ll try it but it’s going to be a short one 🙂

    Thanks for all the links to the other writers.

  17. kris July 8, 2010 at 12:29 am #

    No vlog? Really? I think it would be awesome! Oh well. 🙂

  18. Laura July 8, 2010 at 1:25 am #

    thanks everyone for commenting! Sounds like some of you have dissected stories and others haven’t but maybe want to. I was at the lake this afternoon swimming – I’ll visit your blogs tomorrow!

  19. Jackee July 8, 2010 at 3:09 am #

    LOL! That is great. For me, I’m not sure if I stop laughing manaically through the whole process. :o)

    Thanks for sharind, Laura!

  20. Jonathon Arntson July 8, 2010 at 4:27 am #

    Great post, Laura! It’s timely for me too, so thanks for translating for me.

  21. Creepy Query Girl July 8, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    wow- I’d probably cut off an arm or a leg if I tried to do that. I usually do this but in reverse- with my outline. I make sure to record changes from the original while writing but the clues and plot points remain in the same chapters. So far that’s worked well.

  22. Tina Lee July 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    I love this post! Laura, as per usual, you wow me in your approach. I always learn something here and IT MAKES ME WANT TO BE WRITING!

  23. Susan Kaye Quinn July 9, 2010 at 1:59 am #

    I love this idea! Of all the MG stories I’ve read, it seems like there is huge variation in plot and structure. But perhaps, once dissected, there are strains of patterns in there. I just may have to do this before I start my next big MG project! 🙂


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