One of the students in my Fiction for Young Readers class asked what she should focus on when she’s reading the novels I assigned.
First of all, I read for enjoyment, of course; but I do analyze books as I read, and I do it on two basic levels. Think of a house. You’ve got the individual planks of wood (those are sentences); and then you have the entire structure (the story). When I’m reading on the sentence level, I’m looking at the quality of the writing: fresh metaphors, rhythm, sentence construction. When I’m reading on the structure level, I’m thinking about whether or not the story works and how it was constructed.
On the story level, I analyze by asking myself questions: What is the heart of the story? If you boil it down to its most basic form, what is the story about? Try to define this in just one or two sentences. Usually, the heart of the story comes from looking at what your main character is yearning for and what gets in the way of him/her. This is basic Aristotle.
Then I look closely at the climax. Stories that work have climaxes that spring forth in an organic and inevitable way from the story’s heart. Identifying and analyzing how a writer moves from heart to climax is a simple and excellent way to get STORY into your bloodstream.
Some great books that emphasize the importance of understanding basic story structure:
William Gibson’s Shakespeare’s Game (yes, plays work the same way)
Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis