Most authors start writing because they love to read. They have overflowing bookshelves, overloaded e-readers, and when asked about their favorite book, probably can’t pick just one. Instead, they likely have a long list of authors and books they enjoy for various reasons.
But most of us have certain authors and books we revisit again and again, writers on our auto-buy list and stories so dog-eared they’ve had to be repurchased a few times. These are the books I want to focus on today, because they’re not just our inspiration. They can also be our teachers.
Think about a book you love – for our purposes, try to think of one in your genre. Why do you love it? Is it the plot? The characters? The way the writer describes a scene, so vividly you can actually see it in your head, like a movie playing? Most likely, it’s a combination of things, and the reasons you love it are as complex as the work that goes into creating your own story.
I’m a big fan of analyzing things to help me figure out why they work – or why they don’t. I do it with my own books, and I do it with others’ too. Sometimes, I can’t help it – as a writer, it happens instinctively as I read, and it can be a distraction from just enjoying the story. But when I get so caught up in a book that the analytical part of my mind shuts up, I know the author has done something right. And I know I can learn something by turning that analysis back on.
One of my favorite suspense novels is Lisa Gardner’s The Survivor’s Club. Every few years, I open that book and re-read it, specifically to break it apart and analyze what Gardner did to make me love it so much. And every single time, I get about halfway through the book and get so caught up in the story, I forget to analyze.
But not before I’ve picked out certain things that contribute to my love of this story: the interwoven plots, the complex characters, the great twist at the end. Of course, there’s more to it than that, and getting granular is where it becomes helpful for me as a writer.
Every author has their own voice, their own techniques and style that makes them special. So, when I suggest that you break apart what makes you love another book to learn from it, I’m not telling you to use those same methods in your own book. I’m suggesting that you look at it for inspiration, for the purpose behind these methods, and then make sure your book accomplishes everything you want it to – and everything it can.
Pick up a book you love (in your genre) and ask yourself:
- How do the scenes open and close? Where do they open and close? Are they long or short? Why do they start and end where they do?
- How do paragraphs open and close? What information does the author bury in the middle of the paragraph? What kinds of words do they highlight at the end?
- How does the author give you information about the character? What do you learn right away and what is revealed more slowly? Do you like the characters? Does that matter?
- Assuming the book surprised you the first time you read it (it should have), why did it surprise you? Dig in the weeds and see what the author did to hide the clues about what was coming.
- What does the author do to emphasize key points or themes in the book? (For example, they might repeat information, slow things down with more detail, return to a particular type of imagery or memory, etc.)
- How does the author use setting/atmosphere in the story? (Look at language choices, specific places where setting/atmosphere comes into play.)
- How does the author use foreshadowing? Find specific lines within the story that foreshadow what’s to come and evaluate whether you noticed the foreshadowing the first time you read it, how far away it was from the actual event, what type of foreshadowing was used, etc.
Once you’ve analyzed the hell out of the book, what do you do with that information? Since you know you don’t want to take someone else’s techniques and just slap them into your book, how is this helpful?
That’s simple: the book you just analyzed is inspiration. It’s a reminder of how effective you can make every single word, every single choice you make in your book. So, now it’s time to look at your own manuscript. Ask yourself:
- How do you open and close your scenes? Are you being as effective as you could be? (And by effective, I primarily mean: are you hooking the reader at every single point – especially chapter or scene ends – where they might choose to set the book down?)
- How do you use language to emphasize important things, and hide clues? Could your language be tightened or strengthened?
- How rounded and nuanced are your characters? Will readers care about them? (Readers don’t necessarily need to like your characters, but they do need to care in some way what’s going to happen to them, or they probably won’t finish the book.)
- How are you burying your clues and leaving red herrings? Could you strengthen this?
- What are the themes in your book? Could you weave your themes more tightly into your story (by connecting them to plot and/or character)?
- What role does atmosphere play in your book? Can this be amped up alongside the tension of the mystery?
- How much foreshadowing is in your story? Is it working as hard as it could? (By that I mean: Can you do something surprising with your foreshadowing – like leading a reader to believe one thing, then adding in a twist? Or can you use the foreshadowing to amp up the tension even more in a crucial scene?)
Using books we love as case studies reminds us of how often great writers do double-duty with their words: A line that seems to be about plot on its face also reveals something about character. A paragraph focusing on an element of the mystery that later turns out to be a red herring also contains a clue about the real culprit buried in the middle. Case studies also remind us of things we know, but can forget in the editing process. They can give us those “a ha” moments, realizations about gaps in our own stories.
But the best thing about using a story we love as a case study is that – for me, at least – it brings out my joy for creating and unraveling puzzles (which in many ways, is what a mystery is). It reminds us of just how much one story can do, and inspires us to make our own books as good as they can be.
Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.
To learn more about Elizabeth Heiter’s latest release, click on the cover below: