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Tips for deconstructing a story

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I've re-plotted a particular work 8 or 9 times now, and I finally realized why none of those efforts have solved the problems in the story--i wasn't fixing the part that was actually broken.  I had deconstructed the story into its plot elements, when what I needed to do was break it into its emotional beats.  As it turns out, I don't think I actually know how to do that (at least not effectively, or I would have by now).

So... can anybody recommend a good resource or WE episode to learn better deconstruction techniques?

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Honestly, I think the best way to learn how to deconstruct a story is to read other successful deconstructions. The TV Tropes page has a long list of examples you can look into; the best deconstructions focus on both plot and emotional beats, making them good resources. 

If you want a few places to start, I'd recommend….

The Great Gatsby (deconstructs the American Dream) 
Kingdom Come (deconstructs the Dark Age comics antihero) 
Watchmen (deconstructs Silver Age superheroes)
The Giver (deconstructs utopias, and reads like a deconstruction of modern YA dystopias) 
Tuck Everlasting (deconstructs immortality, and reads like a deconstruction of Twilight and other modern paranormal romances)

All of those books pack a powerful emotional punch, making them good examples of how to deconstruct emotional beats successfully. (That was also a warning—there will be feels.

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Thanks, Twi. 

The links were informative, but unless I missed something, the articles don't address the question I was trying to ask. I think maybe I was using the word "deconstruct" wrong. I just mean analyzing and outlining the pieces of a story; I feel like I can do this for plot, but that I'm not good enough at breaking down the emotional arc. 

I arrived at this conclusion after listening to the party of Creativiy, Inc. where Ed Catmull describes diagnosing problems with Toy Story 2. The fixes they used had minimal impact on the plot but powerfully punched up the dramatic and emotional tension, and I'd like to read more examples or suggestions of how to do that sort of thing.

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Well, I've thought about it for a few days, and….

I have no clue. :mellow: 

The emotional aspect of a story is usually more subconscious for me. I'll add in the emotional beats as I'm writing, or as I'm charting it out in my head. And then I'll tweak it as need be, but I can't speak to my method or thought process any more than by saying that I'll look at a plot point or a reaction and think "Hm, this doesn't feel quite right" and tweak it until it does. 


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Thanks again for your input, Twi. I think the solution may be to ask my alpha/beta readers for more directed feedback. I know the feeling in trying to get across at each point in the story, but clearly some of those aren't having the right effect. Maybe figuring out which ones are broken will help me see how the whole thing needs to be fixed.

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When you are trying to break down a story into emotional “beats”, as you call them, you can either look at the story as a whole, or chapter by chapter, or look within a chapter.  Every chapter should have a main point (or multiple) that carries the plot to the next chapter or part of the story, through building character, narrative, or world, or some combination of it all.  Your climax should resolve the conflict within the story, and if you are having trouble with that, you can go and break it down through chunks of several paragraphs at a time, or paragraph by paragraph. 


So when you look deeper at the story, you should be asking the following questions:


What thoughts and impressions do you want your readers to have during and after reading?

If you have a plot outline marked out in acts, and within those acts, you have chapters, there should be some main purpose to each.

For example, in the lead-up to your climax, should readers be feeling anxious, tense, suspicious, confused, or thoughtful?
In the climax, or the “avalanche” bit if you plot like Brandon, do you want to feel triumphant, defiant, horrified, or shocked?

It comes down to knowing what genre you’re writing, what the readers’ expectations are, and how you will either use them or twist them to make the story better, deeper, and richer. 


If you have already written or drafted your story, and shown it to your alpha/beta readers,

What thoughts and impressions are they actually feeling?

This is where feedback comes in handy.

If there was something that you felt bothered you, some main emotional or dramatic linchpin, you can specifically point it out and ask your readers to state what they feel after reading in one or two words.  If you have no idea what is wrong but you know something’s wrong, you could ask what paragraph or chapter or sub-chapter/scene your readers felt was the most important or dramatic, and if there wasn’t one, the point where they felt bored. 


And then finally,

Why are they feeling this?

What words and phrases are contributing to this impression?  Is there a disconnect between your intentions and their impressions?

This is where you break down your story into its components, to single paragraphs if there are specific problems with your narrative that you wanted to address.  If you have written your story already, this is the place where you start tearing it apart and building it back, better.  If you have not written your story and it’s only plot outlines so far, you can do an inspiration bubble thing and map out what words and phrases you think sum up your intended emotional response.


There are certain words that give strong impressions to readers, due to their connotations and associations.

What emotive words are you using?

Examples: “despair”, “tremble”, “fierce”, “exultant,” “oily”,” “pensive”, “wondrous”. 

Each one sends a different mood to the reader.  If a sub-chapter, scene or chapter falls flat, perhaps you aren’t using the emotive language, or the right emotive language to carry across your intentions.  Use description and emotion to SHOW actions and responses in characters.  Emotive language is stronger than just saying, “he was brave”.


And what emotive imagery are you using?  These are phrases with strong associations, that build atmosphere and tension in individual paragraphs, colour your fictional world, and form an impression of the actions and setting within your story.

Examples: “his heart hammered”, “their skittering claws”, “violently garish”, “rode the clutch”.


I don’t think this is something that you absolutely need a tutorial on how to do, since authors have been doing this for years without the internet, and it basically comes down to what you’re feeling, and why you’re feeling it.  You gotta feel with it, man.  Don’t think, feel.  Then after you feel, think. 


The tl;dr of it is:  What response do you want?  Why or why aren’t you getting that response?



P.S. – I wrote an epilogue for the SA: Regency Romance story, if you haven’t read it yet.  It’s now officially finished for reals.


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  • 2 weeks later...

Brandon speaks about plotting in a lecture given at JordonCon 2010, which I have mirrored on YouTube here. He goes over a few different ways to look at plots, as well as his own method of building towards character moments.

The quick version is, instead of thinking of "plot elements" (which to me sounds like you are saying "things that happen") you want to try to think in terms of character moments. Emotional highs, emotional lows, and moments of decision. A great example of this is in Way of Kings ***spoilers aheaThis post has been reported for attempting to skirt the rules you can see Kaladin slowly drifting down until his moment of decision before jumping into the chasm, then he hits a character moment of "I still care, I'm going to fight back" and proceeds to unite bridge 4. The moment Brandon wanted to hit was that decision. Working backwards, what needs to happen so that will be impactful? Well you need your character on the edge of total defeat. What needs to happen to get there? He needs to show a few bridge runs as desperately hopeless. So this is exactly what Brandon did. Doing it as well as him is another matter.

You might actually have a problem with your larger narrative (at least I had this problem in my first novel) if you've outlined/planned it entirely in terms of "the things that happen." It is hard to squeeze character moments into a plot sequence that was not written with them in mind. I find things work much better for me when I design my plot around these character moments, much as Brandon describes.

Hope that helps.

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Thank you both for your practical and concrete advice. I think both are probably things that need fixing in this WIP. I have a few central "character moments" that aren't as powerful as I expect them to be because as the author I know all the pieces that haven't been communicated well enough to the reader. As Sheep says, I need to do what Sheep says and go through all of my moments and my build-up asking what what I want the reader to feel. At the same time, I have definitely focused more on the "things that happen" because that is where the story was most broken. All of my fixes have involved reworking the timeline or adding/removing events. That has either superseded or disrupted the character/emotional buildup that I already had or should have been improving. At this point I need to do a rewrite, not an edit, and this time around I will try to do what you suggest, Zmunkz, and start from the emotional payoffs.

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