How To Analyze A Story
Gold prospectors spend hours sifting through sand out of a river, looking for little bits of gold. Finding gold nuggets is a matter of patience and luck. But it isn’t as easy for a writer to spot a story made out of gold.
How do you know if your writing is any good? After all, you may have spent years developing your craft through daily practice. You know that you have a great idea that hasn’t been done before and you think you’ve written a great story. But how do you really, REALLY know if its any good?
Is My Story Any Good?
One of the chief problems a writer faces is the fact that its nearly impossible to analyze one’s own work. If you were to give a beautiful painting to a man who is color blind, he wouldn’t be able to see beyond his limited value system. Writing is the same way. When you write, you do so at the peak of your ability, so how can you really tell if there are any problems with it? Give a child a box of crayons and he’ll go to town, drawing the best he can, but would it hold up to a real painting by a master artist? (Hint: Look at the tools you’re using).
Are Good Stories Just A Matter Of Opinion?
Take a look at the typical book on the store shelf, or watch the latest movie. How many times have you said to yourself, “The author blew it! This story could have been so much more than it is!” or “Why can’t they make a decent movie?”
Most people think that being able to spot a great story is subjective. After all, one person may like a story while the next may think its terrible, right? If this were true, then there would be no best sellers. There would be no box offic hits. The public knows how to spot a great story.
The fundamental reason for so many problems with being able to tell if a story is any good is that almost no one knows how to analyze a story properly.
Use Better Writing Tools
In order to analyze a story, you need a good understanding of how a story works. Most people are still using obsolete techniques like the Three Act Strucure System, which was designed for theater and is too vague to be of any use to a writer.
Look For The Deep Sequence Of Your Story
Also, too many writers use Event Sequencing instead of an organic plot which uncovers the deep sequence of the story. When you rely on event sequencing, you are guaranteed to have a surface, boring story. The deep sequence of the story comes out of the character’s need.
Theme is not Good vs. Evil
Poor understanding of how theme works in a story causes bad writing too.If your opponents are cardboard villains, then your hero will be too. Give your opponents a reason for what they’re doing and express it through a Moral Argument Scene.
Look At The Story Structure
The best way to analyze a story is to look at the structure. Changes in the story structure will have a huge impact on the quality of the story. In fact, these are the most important kinds of changes you can make.
Being able to tell if a story is any good is not a subjective matter. FIrst, go out and learn how stories work. Get the best book on writing: “The Anatomy of Story.” Recognize that story analyzis is a separate skill that you will need to develop. Ask yourself these questions:
1. Premise: Is your idea believable? Is it a single idea? Is it difficult to figure out what the premise is? Is there a larger theme that comes out of the premise? Theme is how a premise grows.
2. Backstory: Do you have an event from the past that is haunting the hero? Is it painful? Does it lead to a need? Is it the cause of whatever is missing in the hero’s life? Is the backstory present in some form throughout the story?
3. Your Hero: Is the hero likable? Is the hero too passive? Is your hero too reactive? The hero must drive the action of the story.
4. The Antagonist: Is your opponent the best person to attack the hero’s character flaw? Do you have more than one opponent to broaden the story? Have you (mistakenly) made your opponent evil? Is the opponent mysterious in some way?
5. The Heart Of The Story: Does your hero have a main character flaw which is ruining his life? How is this weakness hurting him? Is it a moral weakness? How does this weakness hurt others?
6. The Spine Of The Story: Is the story goal a clear single desire line? Is it specific? The more specific the better. Does it build in intensity? Do you have a second desire line that doesn’t come into conflict with the first goal? Does the story goal come from the main character?
7. Conflict: Does the conflict build over the course of the story? Do your hero and opponent both become more and more obsessive at winning? Do you hit the same story beats (boring) or is each conflict different in some way? Do you have some form of conflict on every page of the story?
8. Climax: Is there a battle at the end of the story which involves the hero and opponent? Is it the biggest fight in the story? Is there a conflict of values?
9. Self-Revelation: Is the character’s revelation a surprise in some way? Is it a moral revelation about how the hero harms others?
10. Exposition: Do you have too much exposition in the early parts of the story? Have you spread out the exposition throughout the story in a way that turns each bit of information into a revelation that will drive the story forward?
What to do now
Think about story analysis as a separate skill that you need to develop. Look at your story structure and improve it. Take the answers to the above questions and make changes. When asking someone’s oppinion of your story, its best to find a person that knows how a story works.
The seven most important elements of a story are:
Premise, Structure, Theme, Desire, Need, Conflict and Self-Revelation.
For more information on this subject, get John Truby’s audio course, Story Development.
– Mark O’Bannon