How to Read Like a Writer (5 Tips)
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to become a better fiction writer is to read lots of fiction. But I think it goes beyond that. I think, to become a better writer, you can’t just read a lot. You have to learn and practice how to read books as a writer. Not as a reader
And the two skills are definitely not the same.
Which is why for this blog post, I thought I’d break down my 5 top tips for learning to read fiction like a writer.
Before we get into the tips, let’s first talk about the key differences between reading like a reader and reading like a writer, and the ideal mindset to be in when you do the latter.
When you read fiction as a reader, you’re usually seeking an enjoyable experience. Entertainment. You’re trying to guess what comes next, living on the edge of your seat, feeling thrilled by the twists you didn’t see coming (or maybe even frustrated that you didn’t see it coming!)
However, when you read fiction as a writer, it’s essentially not about entertaining yourself, it’s about educating yourself. It’s about trying to figure out what the writer did and (most importantly) why.
Why did the author put this scene here? How does this character reaction service the entire character arc? What does this piece of worldbuilding do to immerse the reader? What purpose does this scene serve to the entire plot?
These are the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself as you read fiction as a writer. It doesn’t mean you can’tread fiction as a reader anymore. It’s just that when you sit down to study a novel, for the purposes of learning from it and honing your own craft, you’re going to be approaching the process differently. You’ll be wearing a different hat.
So, let’s put on our “writer” hats and get studying!
Tip 1: Read the novel as a reader first
Yes, I’m sorry to say, to read a book effectively as a writer you have to read it twice. First as a reader, then as a writer. The books I break down for the Save the Cat! examples and beat sheets are all books I’ve read at least twice. It’s nearly impossible to identify all the intricate details of what the writer has done if you don’t know the ending of the book and where the characters are heading.
So the first step is always to read the book first. But this is when you get to read it as a reader. For entertainment. So, enjoy yourself! Let yourself be surprised, shocked, thrilled, lulled into a false sense of security only to have the rug ripped out from under you! Then, once you have the full picture of the story in your mind, turn back to page one and start again.
Tip 2: Try to identify the beats…at the least the 5 “foundation beats”
Once you have the full picture of the story in your head, on the second read, you can start to see how things fit together. You can start to identify the structure of the story.
If you follow the Save the Cat! method, this could mean creating a beat sheet for the book. It doesn’t have to be a fully fleshed out, polished beat sheet like the ones I include in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, since it’s only for you. You can just do more of an outline, writing bullet points for each beat. Or if the idea of finding and identifying all 15 beats overwhelms you, just identify the “foundation beats:” Catalyst, Break into 2, Midpoint, All is Lost, and Break into 3. Because the foundation beats are the “single scene” beats, and the turning points of the story, they tend to stand out the most when you’re reading and are the easiest to find. (Read more about the foundation beats here!)
Crafting a beat sheet will help you identify how the author structured the story and how they used major turning points to pivot the plot in different directions. As your read and “beat,” ask yourself things like:
- How did the Catalyst break the status quo?
- How did it eventually lead to a Break into 2 decision?
- How is the Act 2 world different from the Act 1 world?
- Does the Midpoint feel like a false victory or false defeat?
- How were the stakes raised at the MIdpoint?
- What was lost at the All is Lost? Was there a whiff of death and what was it?
- What “plan” was created at the Break into 3
Forcing yourself to identify these things and even write them down will go a long way in helping you understand structure in general and then you can take these insights and apply them to your own manuscript
Tip 3: Identify the “Before” and “After” Character
How does the main character change in the novel you’re analyzing?
It’s helpful to compare a Before and After snapshot of the hero. You can do this simply by making a list of the character’s problems and flaws (external and internal) that are presented in Act 1 of the story and then see how each of those things have been improved upon (or not!) by the end of the novel.
Like, here’s one I break down in my Complete Novel Revision Course in the lecture about character transformation:
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Small spoilers below)
At the beginning Eleanor is:
- Has no friends
- Scarred by the tragedies of her past
- Coping with those tragedies through alcohol and a rather delusional fantasy life
By the end, Eleanor is:
- Seeing a therapist
- Coping with her past
- Seeing things as they really are
- Facing up to what happened to her
- Starting a new romantic relationship
These quick snapshots will help you identify and see character transformation on a macro-level, which is a lot easier than analyzing it chapter by chapter or even scene by scene. So if you notice the character is plagued by guilt at the start of the novel, jot that down in the “Before” snapshot and then see if you can identify any change to that problem by the end. Are they still plagued by guilt? Or have they gotten over it?
Tip 4: Label the Backstory
Backstory and flashbacks are one of those storytelling devices that are hard to implement well. We want to dump it all in at once, when really it should be more finessed than that.
Backstory should be doled out gradually, over time, in an intriguing way. Which means revealing it little by little–only enough to give the reader enough context to understand and appreciate what’s happening to the character (internally and externally) at that moment of the story…and always leaving them wanting more.
My first indication that an author has implemented backstory well is when I’m itching to read more of it.
My first indication that an author has not implemented backstory well, is when I’m skimming over long backstory dumps in the story, trying to get back to the main story.
Once again, a great way to learn how to implement backstory well is to study others who have done it! At the very least, it’s helpful to identify the areas of the story where the writer delivered backstory. This could be a full-on flashback, a memory, or even exposition (when the writer tells the reader something important about the backstory.)
If you don’t mind marking up your physical book, you can use an actual highlighter for this, or just some colorful sticky notes. If you’re reading an eBook, the highlight feature is built in. Take note of how the backstory is weaved in, how the writer transitions in and out of it, how sporadic or non-sporadic it is, and also what the writer is withholding, making you desperate to learn more.
If you want to take your backstory study a step further, you can even create a spreadsheet. (Bear me with me here!) Build a spreadsheet (in Excel, Google sheets, Numbers, or other app), label each row as a chapter in the book and then record what you learned about the character’s backstory (if anything) in that chapter, and maybe even your analysis of why that piece of information was revealed here.
If the book has multiple main characters or points of view, you can use the columns to keep track of each one. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But it’s a lot of illuminating work that will help you start to see patterns in what makes for effective backstory.
Tip 5: Identify the Goals of Key Scenes
All stories should have goals. And many writing teachers (myself included) will also insist that every scene should have a goal. Even if it’s as small as getting a cup of coffee or sending an email or finding a book in the library.
A scene goal helps the reader understand why this scene is in the story and how it serves the plot. If the reader can’t understand that, even on a subconscious level, the story will feel like it’s dragging in that moment, because the scene lacks purpose and connection.
So here’s a challenge: Go through the book you’re analyzing scene by scene (or chapter by chapter) and start identifying the goals of each scene. Or at least each key scene. Like the major scenes where big plot points happen.
You can even add this to your spreadsheet if you want!
Once you identify scene-level goals, you’ll start to see how they connect to form and impact larger story-level goals. Storytelling is all a big web of goals. And when you write them all out, your eyes will be opened to how these goals feel like links in a chain.
And if you want to take it a step further, you can also identify the conflict of each scene. Like scene-level goals, scene-level conflict doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be big enough to make the scene-level goal difficult.
Like a long line at the coffee shop where the character is trying to get coffee, a temporary wi-fi outage preventing the character from sending the email, the book the character is looking for is already checked out from the library, and so on.
Add these scene-level conflicts to your spreadsheet and watch how the story unlocks, the curtain is pulled back, and the magic is revealed.
So those are my 5 tips for how to read fiction like a writer.
I will warn you, however, once you pull back that curtain and start taking a look at how it all works, it might be more difficult for you to read like a reader in the future. You’ll start seeing these same patterns in books you’re not trying to analyze. It won’t ruin books for you forever, it’ll simply change the way you experience them. But in the end, it’ll make you a better writer. So hopefully it’ll all be worth it!
If you want to dive deeper into scene-level goals and conflict, backstory, character transformation, and structure, check out my Complete Novel Revision course, streaming on-demand now in the Writing Mastery Academy.
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