The Cadaver Wore Text (aka the Case for Plot Dissection)

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.

0

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.

Comments

  1. says

    For better or worse, I tend to steer clear of “how to write” books, in the same way I have generally stayed away from parenting books. So far, I have raised three intelligent and good people. I’m hoping my luck (and instincts) are similar as a novelist.

    0
    • says

      I’m a fan of instincts, as a matter of fact.

      I do like to geek-out, but I wouldn’t want people to stop their actual writing to go this route. Not if they’re having success. I simply wasn’t at this point, so I had nothing to lose. For me, it was a helpful endeavor.

      0
  2. says

    Although I’ve not had to dissect a cadaver, I did do a complete dissection of a frog and found how marvelously it was put together. It is the same with story deconstruction. I began first with short stories, and graduated to a short novel, and then a longer one. I esp. paid attention to flashbacks and how they were woven into the main story. Like you, I discovered what is good pacing. I think it’s one of the best things I did. And I will probably do it again if I find myself getting rusty on the storytelling.

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

    This!

    0
    • says

      Starting with a short story was probably wise. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to notice, and then to notice it. ;) Easier with a small volume of material.

      0
    • says

      I’ve read a lot of blogs whose authors assert their methods as though gospel passages… And I am loathe to admit, when I find relevance, that my own adherence to winging it and instinct is faulty at best. I think this blog actually gives good advice for editing. And I have to say… Damn it.

      0
      • says

        Brianda: Sorry, I think. ;)

        One advantage of having an unpublished author in WU’s lineup is that no one need feel compelled to follow my advice. It has to make sense for you and your work. (Personally, I think that’s true of all advice, but even more if it falls from my fingers.)

        0
  3. says

    I love–LOVE–your writing, Jan.

    Thank you for this post. You’re a kinesthetic learner; I’m an impatient learner . . . therefore (and I’m embarrassed to say this) I have never dissected a novel. I have wanted to; I’ve just always been too impatient to do so. Perhaps I’d be much father along in my own craft if I had!

    Thank you for breaking down these steps . . . it makes the idea of this dissection much more palatable.

    0
    • says

      Sarah, you’re writing regularly and getting feedback on your craft from industry insiders. If story mechanics aren’t stymieing you, don’t change course just because you like the concept. Your process is working for you.

      For what it’s worth, which ain’t much. ;)

      0
  4. says

    I can’t dissect books much as I try. I will read and “know” what works and doesn’t work: for me. I will think: “that’s cheating” or “that’s not right” or “something ain’t working for me here.” Then again, I’ve never read a book with the mindset to dissect it. Beyond my wonky brain, I sometimes think I am lazy when it comes to that. Maybe? Huhn.

    However, when it comes to writing my own books, I relate quite strongly to the perfectionism thang. My editor just said, “Try having fun with this next book – try not to fall into the perfectionism trap; don’t agonize so much over it!” and she said something that made me go Hmmm and to laugh: you are a good enough writer that you could write total shit and it would still be a good book.

    But if I wrote ‘total shit’ I’d freak out. If I find errors, I am discombobulated. If it’s not perfect, the world will explode! The sun will die! The earth will tilt on its axis and north becomes south and south becomes north – that’s before it explodes of course! Yet, as you say, I read other authors and find errors and if I am engaged, if I love the characters and want to follow them wherever they lead me, I don’t care about those errors.

    By the way, Alexander Sokoloff is brilliant! Love her!

    0
    • says

      “I will read and “know” what works and doesn’t work: for me.”

      This is my guidepost. In revision, I just know something is wrong and rewrite until I feel comfortable. This could be timing, characterization, structure, or anything else. It is almost always a mistake when a section stops me, but I end up accepting it and move on. That first impulse is almost always right. On my future revisions, anything that makes me feel uneasy a second time is rewritten.

      0
      • says

        @James, good for you! If that self-referential process works for you and your readers, more power to you. I can’t claim such skill. I can’t always write myself out of a corner. Sometimes I need to see the bigger picture, whether I glean that from a critique partner or, in this case, a book. Whatever works, right?

        0
    • says

      @Kat, you’ve written how many beautiful books without needing to do this? If you decide to write in a different genre or your book requires a different structure, that’s when this technique may be helpful. Until then, sounds like you and your editor understand your brain.

      0
  5. says

    While I haven’t done this with my favorite books, I have recently taken an evening to dissect one of my favorite movies (one that I know had an influence on my work): Gladiator.The film has always evoked quite a bit of response from me, and I wanted to get a better handle on the when and why of my reaction to it. It was an enlightening undertaking.

    I’m glad you feel you feel you were worthy of the sacrifice of your subject, Jan, and I don’t doubt you were. I love the enduring battle between the mystery and the mechanics. Seems like it applies to my writing journey (muse vs. craft analysis and comprehension). I don’t want to lose the mystery of the experience of having story unfold on the page before me, but I do want to better understand the mechanics, so I can hone them to worthiness of my readers’ time and emotional investment.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Jan!

    0
    • says

      When I first started writing, I was devastated to find how much it changed my reading experience–perhaps one explanation for my reluctance to do a book breakdown. That hypercriticality seems to have passed. In any case, I still have great affection for these books, and I’d catch myself being lulled into the reader zone.

      Would love to hear what you learned in examining Gladiator. If it’s too long for here, perhaps in a blog post.

      0
  6. says

    I haven’t ever done a complete novel dissection where I write everything down, but the craft books that have helped me most have shown in example the things you mention above. Back in the first year of “writing for serious” I read Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure and he gives so many examples of exactly what you’re talking about. I think it unlocked the key of patterns in writing for me that our brains love so much. Not saying I can’t learn more, of course. Just that it helped me. :)

    0
    • says

      That’s one I haven’t read yet. Good to know, because in passing communication, I get the sense our brains process things similarly. Thanks, Lara.

      0
  7. says

    I use the table feature in Scrivener, and follow the basic format from Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Plot with some minuscule tweaks. POV cells (boxes) have color-coded backgrounds that visually help group who is where.

    Charts make it easier to compare info from scene-to-scene. If you have a lot of info, you’d better have a big monitor! lol. Index cards are easier to reorder.

    There is so much value in doing this–and I *love the extras you include in your breakdown, Jan. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pantser, understanding how to “see” my novel this way forced me to shatter some very resistant barriers, but once I did . . . well, it’s so empowering to view the work from this perspective. If one is truly “stuck”, it’s the best way to understand why.

    Really, really great post! Loved the opening. lol. My daughter felt exactly the same way you did. The students purchased scrubs from Goodwill to throw away after, because the formaldehyde permeates every fiber. Ick!

    0
    • says

      I’m still a Scrivener novice, but I love the ability to color code, etc. I’m a pantster with plotter envy, too, but this approach helps me.

      As for your daughter, I’d seen something about a medical graduation on your Facebook page. :) Has she picked out her specialty?

      I hear my medical school has changed their introduction to Human Anatomy. They have created some ceremony and ritual in an effort to recognize the donors’ contributions and make it easier on the students. Sounds like a good thing to me.

      0
  8. says

    I appreciate this post a lot. I might be the “perfect reader” since I get so lost in a story, I find it hard to dissect one. I’ve saved your list and will use it. Thank you!

    0
  9. Ronda Roaring says

    Jan, my dream is to walk into the woods, have a quick and painless heart attack and get eaten by the coyotes. Being more realistic, I donated my body to Upstate Medical. So now I know what students will be thinking as they stare down at my gray flesh, scalpel in hand. Perhaps I will be able to muster a laugh and scare them all out of their wits.

    Commenters have been trying indirectly to tell you something. I will tell you more directly: This isn’t medicine. It’s writing. Don’t dissect it. Just do it. Everything will be ok.

    0
    • says

      Hahaha. You’re a feisty one this Monday morning.

      I wrote a comment above to DD Falvo. You might find it interesting, since it describes some of the changes they’ve made to human anatomy. On behalf of your future students, thank you. I can’t say I remember my cadaver’s name with any certainty–I was 20 at the time and a newlywed, so there were many preoccupations. Still, as you can no doubt read for yourself, I didn’t forget her. And her legacy lives on in the many people who entrusted me with their care.

      As for your admonition to just write, I appreciate it. When it’s working, there’s nothing I’d rather do. It’s kind of like cooking, though, in that the twentieth time your cake falls in the oven, it’s time to try something new. ;)

      0
  10. Margaret says

    This has been an enormous help to me. Keep on blogging. You’re doing a tremendous service to those of us buried in the work who need to rise above it and get the big picture once in a while. And thanks for the link to Alexandra’s blog, a fresh discovery for me. I’ve long been a fan of Ang Lee’s version of Sense and Sensibility. I’m delighted to see it dissected from a storyteller’s point of view.

    0
    • says

      The (realistic) fear for most of us is that we can get stuck studying writing rather than doing it. But if you’re needing a fresh approach, I hope this helps. Drop me a line and let me know if it does, okay?

      Alexandra S’s blog is wonderful. I read every post. Glad you agree.

      0
  11. Lisa Threadgill says

    I did the anatomy/cadaver thing too, and I had pretty much the same sort of experiences. I’ve done some novel dissection, but only on books I merely like, not on any I deeply love. Not sure I could any more than I could do the dissection thing on a person I loved. I admit novel dissection is a valuable process, and it is a good thing to try if one hasn’t done it.

    0
    • says

      You have a medical background, Lisa? I’d love to hear more, if it’s not too private.

      I won’t reassure you about dissecting a favorite, because I think if I’d done this process a few years ago, I’d risk two things: feeling the bar was set impossibly high, and falling out of love with a much-needed source of joy. Either would be deeply painful. But at some point, I became a more generous reader and the potential benefits to my writing exceeded the risk. Maybe that will happen for you. Maybe not.

      Regardless, thanks for letting me know you found the process to be of benefit.

      0
  12. says

    Fiction dissection is fun, folks, once you get the hang of it.

    I first learned how through years of lit classes and writing workshops (where critique was a blood sport). I developed a simpler method than Jan’s. Identify and parse out the main elements: the threads of plot, setting, characterizations, and so on. Then ask, does it work? Why? Why not? (Start with short stories, much easier.)

    The key is to train your brain to notice the parts that make up the whole, and evaluate their function. These tricks are invaluable when it comes to your own work. Writing and dissection are two different skills, and it’s counterproductive to try to combine them. But in its proper place, fiction dissection can make an amazing difference in one’s craft. If you can’t do it, you’ll need to hire someone who can (a-hem, that would be a developmental editor).

    BTW, I once had occasion to visit UCSF med school and glance in at a dissection class in progress. I lasted less than 60 seconds before feeling faint and deciding to wait outside. Fiction dissection is SO much easier and I’ve never yet felt woozy with sharp colored pens in hand.

    0
    • says

      You made me laugh with your last line.

      In my limited experience, I have found I’ve become more efficient at the process. Good to hear I can expect this to continue.

      I would definitely consider hiring a developmental editor. I’m deeply stubborn and like to be self-sufficient, but there comes a point when those qualities are an impediment to progress. Why not get outside, personalized help if one can afford it?

      0
  13. says

    Wow! That’s really intense, but if it works for you, it’s right. I went through Grisham’s plot development process which focuses on story outlines and it was brutal. Took me a year to write one he thought would work. But that’s the way he makes his stories hold up for three hundred and fifty pages–anything that works!

    0
    • says

      I’m not familiar with that program. Is it an online course, Tony?

      I can see that outlining and plotting would be ideal for those who write thrillers or crime fiction.

      0
  14. says

    Impressive! You did this? With more than one novel? As an attorney, I believed that our class of writers were the most analytical, over-logical folks on the planet. But a surgeon or med student… now that is what I call meticulous. What a wonderful idea. I am not ready for any sort of spreadsheet or software but the index cards and colored pens, now that is an idea I can wrap my tiny little perfectionist-cat brain around. Maybe I will get a box of crayons so I can feel more like an artist and make it playful. BTW I am not poking fun, I think its a fabulous idea. My only question is how long did it take you to dissect a novel in this manner (as opposed to, say, a dead body?). I think I need to do it fast but want to know how much of the deck to clear (aka the slab). Thanks for another practical post.

    0
    • says

      :)

      Want to pity my children? I’m married to an engineer.

      Yes, I did it with three novels. Not including the time spent reading, they each took hours. But I spread it out over time, and using notecards made this a simple prospect. I could do a scene or two while waiting to pick up my son, etc. I also became more efficient as I learned what I wanted to notice, and how to consume the book without being pulled in as a reader. (I’d read the books for pleasure beforehand.)

      Once you’ve got the cards done, it becomes a simple prospect to thumb through them and gather the shape of the book. (That’s when I learned the color coding would help.) And it’s not like the content expires. They’ll help me forever.

      It’s not fast, but if you’re stymied by scene or plot mechanics, why not study those who’ve done it well? I find it to be more immediate and practical than just reading another craft book. (I imagine it would be like a lawyer modeling their courtroom speech upon the pace and mannerisms of an admired teacher.)

      0
  15. says

    I’d love to see one of your example dissections of a famous book, of you’re willing to share.

    I’m afraid my brain doesn’t naturally veer towards a desire to dissect anything, but it might be a helpful exercise. Thanks for an interesting post.

    0
    • says

      Mari, as a matter of fact, I debated taking a screenshot for this post. But they’re all on double-sided notecards with color codes and Jan-speak. I don’t think they’d be of much help to anyone but me. (Especially if you haven’t read the books.) However, I heartily recommend Alexandra Sokoloff’s site as a way to see it applied to movies. She’s got an understanding and skill far beyond mine, and if you’ve seen any of the movies she breaks down, it will make sense.

      Hope that helps.

      0
  16. says

    I’m at the newborn-baby stage of a novel concept, which will be a series of thematically connected short stories set on a tiny island, so I bought Scrivener so I can better count the coconuts in my scenes.

    So far I have five story sentences—my, don’t stories look good when they are so young!

    I’m going to do more outline/plot dissection for this one than for other fiction of mine, but that certainly doesn’t mean that many a rogue wave won’t break over some scenes. Jan, I don’t think I can do the dissection of favorite books at the level you describe because that will cause me to resume my grad-school drinking, but parts of it can certainly be applied to my present work. Especially since it’s only 5 sentences.

    0
    • says

      I’m a fan of intact neural circuitry, so for heaven’s sake, don’t jump on the dissection bandwagon…er, gurney. At least not at this stage. ;)

      Baby stories are fragile things and deserve to be nurtured.

      0
  17. Lois says

    One tip: Do this with a book you’ve already read. I’m always too impatient to be analytical (much) the first time I read a book. I have even peeked at the ending so I don’t go crazy with suspense (don’t tell my husband).

    0
    • says

      Agree on the tip, though I’d add it’s helpful to have read it recently. Otherwise, it’s harder to nail the specific passages which resonated or didn’t work, then know to give them more attention.

      As for skipping to the end…I can relate. Had to do it last week with a thriller, as a matter of fact.

      0
  18. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Jan – So glad to hear that you got insights from the dissections that will help you with your own work.
    I was sick the day they covered outlining in second grade, and failed the following test. It still haunts me. ;-) It’s probably why I’m a die hard pantser, but given that I’ve had similar issues wrestling with a plot, maybe I’ll give dissection a try.

    0
    • says

      Post Traumatic Outline Disorder, huh? Seems to be going around. ;)

      Short of getting personalized help from a trusted critique partner or editor, if you’re stuck, IMHO it’s worth a shot. Would love to hear whether it actually helps when/if you do.

      0
  19. says

    I admit: not only am I a die hard plotter, I am addicted to systems… looking for patterns in everything. Your points dive quite a bit deeper than I normally do — strangely enough, I’m a “pantser” when it comes to theme and symbols/motifs! — so it’s been interesting to consider investigating that in some of my favorites. Great post!

    0
    • says

      I might have known this would appeal to you, given your chart-lovin’ tendencies. ;)

      The symbols/motif thing is something I started noticing as I conducted interviews–honestly the first time I’ve thought critically about books since university. When they’re done well, they make me gleeful. I can’t explain why. But it became a no-brainer to add them into the template.

      0
  20. says

    “Familiarity breeds a lack of critical assessment.”

    This is such smart insight. What prevents us from casting a critical eye on our own work can prevent us from doing the same with a well-worn book authored by someone else.

    I do remember going through books and charting scenes for external and internal change. That was an interesting exercise–revealing a lot about pacing and also what I found most compelling.

    Wonderful post, Jan!

    0
  21. Nina says

    I’ve been dissecting plots from novels and films for years, mainly because I’m interested in non-linear narrative and finding out how others authors/filmmakers make this work succeed. I love the idea of causality – of how one thing has consequences down the line – and in presenting things more like the way we think i.e. all over the place.

    0
    • says

      A poetic orientation, Nina. I’d love to know whether there’s a correlation between a preference for non-linear structure and learning style. My husband despises non-linear story lines, but he likes to learn sequentially.

      0
  22. says

    Ever since 4/12/2012, the day I first read the interview, “Tension on Every Page”, my desire to understand how this word affects the stories I love so much has grown. After a bit of education on the term it has become the main ingredient I search for in stories. I was doing that anyway but just didn’t know it. Never thought about until recently, but I wonder if it’s the reason why, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo left so slow in the beginning.

    Once I get a good grasp on understanding how tension truly affects stories, I’ll add other ingredients to focus on during my novel dissection. I still see other concepts, but they are not my primary focus for now.

    I have a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time.

    Dissecting novels will take a long time to master, if there is such a thing.

    0
    • says

      Micro-tension is another craft issue that fascinates me. Don’t think you can go wrong by getting a deep understanding of how to bring it in to uninspiring prose. Good for you.

      0
  23. says

    I tried to do a dissection of the narrative voice of one of my favorite novels. It was illuminating, but tough! I kept getting sucked in to the story, but that was what made the voice so successful for me. Figuring out how it was accomplished, luckily, took away none of the charm.

    0
    • says

      That’s gotta be a hallmark of a good book; you go in intending to analyze the words and are pulled into story anyway. I’m glad the analysis didn’t dilute the magic for you. Win-win.

      0
  24. says

    I’m an intuitive writer, so I get the wiggins about dismantling my books, but this *is* helpful for looking at novels written by others. Oddly enough, I began doing this with one author after I purchased 10-12 copies of her backlist on the Kindle. After tearing through half of the books, I began noticing patterns in her writing and the types of elements that kept me glued to the (e-Ink) pages, as well as why a plot/plot device worked in one novel and why it didn’t in another. Since I write in the same genre as this author, dissecting her work helped me tease out the elements I loved in my own manuscript.

    0
    • says

      That’s probably an even more effective way to isolate and understand specific elements of structure, because you’ll be minimizing the effect of an author’s voice. (Not to say voice and structure are divorced from one another, because they aren’t, of course. But this would allow you to drill down to structure, I would think.)

      0
  25. says

    They’ve made changes to the human anatomy? I missed that memo. Still, it might explain a few things… ;)

    Now that I’m a screenwriter I tend to dissect movies as I watch them. It gives me a sense of the kind of characters and action I need to put into place in my scripts…or how to ‘Frankenstein’ it all together if you prefer. :D

    0