Dissecting a Novel

Dissecting in Zoology LabBe A Novelist

Were you fortunate enough to have the joy and privilege of dissecting a creature either in your high school or college biology lab class?

My high school in a small Kansas town had no biology lab, but when I took a zoology class in college, it was a different story altogether.  Any number of creature-dissecting activities was in progress in the lab at any given time – each creature being a bit larger and more complex than the one previous.

In spite of being fairly squeamish at that time in my life (before the diaper-changing era), I discovered that I had a fascination with the dissecting process. I enjoyed learning how neat and orderly each was put together – from the insects, to the amphibians, to the mammals.

Be A NovelistDissecting in Novel-Writing Lab

In a similar fashion, I was taught early on in my writing career how to dissect a novel.  Have you ever tried it?  Just as with dissecting a frog or a fetal pig, dissecting a novel will reveal to you exactly how it is put together.

Hopefully, as an aspiring novelist, you are already aware of the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer.  Reading as a writer means you no longer allow yourself the leisure of skimming, or even relaxing with the story. Rather you are studying, digging, assessing, and yes, even dissecting.

Choose the Author and the GenreBe A Novelist

The first step is to choose an author that you love and admire and whose work you enjoy reading.  Their genre may be the same genre you write in, but not necessarily. I love (read that LOVE) Rosamunde Pilcher but I have never written in her particular genre.  Her pacing and her style fascinate me.

Various Methods

The act of dissecting a novel can be approached any number of ways. Some approach it merely by reading – often accompanied by voracious note-taking as the reading progresses.

Others type out a chapter or two (or more) of the novel being studied in order to soak up the feel of writing those same words in the same pattern and in the same style.  This can work as a magical moment for you.  It’s rather like having a tennis pro, or golf pro guide your hands while teaching you the intricacies of the game.

No need to fear that you will actually end up copying that author’s style.  The more you write your own materials, the more your own style will come to the surface. (It cannot not happen!) Even the best artists closely study the masters.

My Favorite Method

My favorite dissecting method is to use highlighter markers of various hues.  I go through and highlight action scenes, slower-paced scenes, transitions, alternating scenes and sequels, and so on.  You get the idea.  The more I delve into this exercise the more enlightened I become.  (Similar to digging down into the entrails of that frog to see how neatly every organ is arranged.)

It’s fun to then step back and survey the colorful panorama.  Suddenly, the patterns of speeding up and slowing down the pace are no longer hidden but clearly revealed. Also revealed are techniques such as smooth transitions, time breaks, POV switches, and cliff-hanger chapter endings.

Be A Novelist Give it a Whirl

If you’ve never enjoyed this experience I encourage you to give it a whirl. Being a student of your craft is imperative if you want to achieve quality in your art.

Dissecting a novel is great fun, and not nearly as smelly as a formaldehyde-soaked fetal pig.


I trust the teaching and instruction given in this blog post was helpful in your goal to be a novelistFor more in-depth writer’s workshops, check out the wide variety offered at the Be A Novelist Website.


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4 thoughts on “Dissecting a Novel

  1. Jack

    I loved the dissecting analogy. I, too, remember doing it in college — to frogs. One frog leapt out of my hands and hopped so fast he almost made it out the classroom door! Alas, I recovered him and, well, you know the rest of the story. I like to write notes in books, though I do sometimes use notebooks, too.


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