eyeI managed to enter med school without attending a funeral or viewing a single dead person. So at age twenty, as I boarded the elevator which would take me to my first practical session in Human Anatomy, and with it my first encounter with a cadaver, I roiled with emotion.

Though we didn’t speak of it, I could tell my classmates were in a similar state. (Even then, the “code” was to maintain emotional control in front of one another.)

I recall the jostling, the nervous laughter when the elevator doors parted and we were struck by the scent of formaldehyde. (An oddly sweet aroma which lodges at the back of your throat.)

Then we poured into the lab with its harsh fluorescent lights, the blue cards bearing each cadaver’s name, age, and cause of death; the sounds which seemed sharp and outrageously loud in the cold room.

I had many questions as I approached the plastic-draped body.

Would I vomit? Would I learn enough to be worthy of the gift our donor had bestowed upon us? Or would I lose respect for the whole person when focusing on the nitty-gritty of the parts?*

For all the uncertainty of that morning, I never doubted its necessity. I had to acquire certain motor skills. Who better to be my teacher than the willing and generous dead?

Given that understanding, and given that I’d read multiple craft books urging novel dissection as a means to understand the mechanics of fiction, I’m not sure why I resisted as long as I did. However, last winter, after wrestling with the same plotting issue in my novel for months, I became desperate.

I dug out resources, analyzed three favorite books in the genre I write, and found it such a worthwhile investment, I’ll do it again.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Familiarity breeds a lack of critical assessment.

I’d read one book three times and revisited certain scenes in my mind perhaps fifty. Despite that, I had little comprehension about what its author had done to make their work successful, still less about how to replicate their techniques. Nowhere was this more evident than when I looked at the next three points.

2. Better understanding of pacing.

The rhythm of the scenes was different than I recalled, particularly with respect to scene length, which wasn’t necessarily correlated with emotional impact.

3. Better understanding of subplots.

This was what had me particularly stymied: how to interweave subplots and use them to drive the protagonist and antagonistic forces together, both sequentially and then simultaneously at the climax.

4. Better understanding of mechanics at the level of scene.

“Scene” is generally described as a unit of conflict which takes place in real time in one geographic location. It holds its own rhythm and shape. Many writing teachers say it should end on a disaster (setback) or discovery.

After deconstruction, it became easier to spot the structural difference between scenes which were engrossing and necessary, and those which dragged or were downright superfluous. Even better, though I’m a pantster who can’t write an outline to save my life, I’m writing first-draft scenes with better skeletons.

5. Dissection as anti-perfectionism technique.

I’d aimed relatively high in my novel selection: bestsellers, critically regarded books, and books which were precious to me. While I didn’t expect to encounter craft perfection, I was surprised by the quantity of slips or missed opportunities. (For example, an author who wrote mostly in deep third person would have repeated spells of omniscience. Opening or closing sentences lacked oomph. Or long past the novel’s midpoint, when we’re told the reader should have been introduced to all point-of-view characters, they’d parachute in a fresh voice to solve a plot problem.)

But when I cared about the characters and the story, these flaws disappeared. Books don’t have to be perfect to be marvelous.

If you decide to proceed with a plot dissection, I used a personalized amalgamation of techniques described in these references.

In plot analysis, you’re going to look at the scenic patterns in books you admire, and which share structural similarities with the story you’re trying to write.

Per scene, this is the information I recorded:

  • scene number in the book
  • chapter
  • scene length (page count or percent of ebook)
  • setting
  • name of the point-of-view character versus their antagonist(s)—I color-coded names for ease
  • 1-2 sentence synopsis
  • what I liked about the scene
  • what fell flat
  • symbols or motifs
  • subplot involved?—color-coded for ease
  • first sentence
  • last sentence
  • net emotional effect of scene (e.g. disaster, discovery, stakes increased?)
  • purpose of scene—I copied Bell’s system of action, reaction, setup, deepening

The Mechanics

  • If you tend to be a visual learner or cope well with software, you’d probably do fine with a spreadsheet. (Microsoft Access, Google Drive, etc. ) Each scene will get its own horizontal line.
  • Alternatively, you could use virtual index cards in programs like Scrivener (PC or Mac), Storyist (Apple app), or 3” X 5” Index Cards (Apple App)
  • While software helps with portability and tidiness, if you’re a kinesthetic learner like me, you’d probably do better to buy a stack of index cards and colored pens. I like being able to write at angles, write down key insights, and get sensory cues to a scene’s relative “depth” in the story.

Now I’d love to hear from you. Have you conducted an extensive plot dissection? If so, what information did you collect? Did you find it a useful exercise?

*No. I’d like to think I made her sacrifice worthwhile. The battle to maintain balance between mystery and mechanics would be an enduring one in my medical career.

About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.