As a writer, it’s important to understand how to analyze the stories you’re telling in order to create them more effectively. In this article, we’ll show you how to deconstruct and examine any story so you can figure out something about the plot or characters – and what that means for your own writing.
Although we’re talking about ‘reading’ here, many of the following techniques can also be applied to the analysis of films. Therefore, ‘reading’ may as well be ‘watching’. Also, the following methods apply mainly to fiction. Nevertheless, they can also be used to construct good non-fiction – especially at Creative Nonfiction.
We’ve done this as a series of questions to ask about any story, which you can use as a reference guide.
What is the Deconstruction of a Story?
Deconstruction is tearing down or dismantling a story so that you can study it and figure out how it was constructed. There is a theoretical and highly academic body of work associated with the deconstruction of texts and literary analysis, but that is not our business here.
In story deconstruction, we do a detailed examination of everything involved in a story and how they relate together to get the story to function.
This is opposed to a more superficial analysis, where we look at the narrative, character, scenes, themes, symbolism, etc., in isolation.
Breaking apart a story, seeking to understand its mechanisms and gears, helps us as storytellers, writers, filmmakers, etc., construct our own stories – whether in literature or on screen.
Read the Work!
It’s best to start with recognized classics or established bestsellers. But, then, make sure they really are bestsellers and not the fakery you often see associated with ‘Number #1 Bestselling Author’ blah blah blah!
It’s better to start with a short story until you get familiar with this way of thinking about stories and apply it to a novel, for example.
Even in short story analysis, you can get clear about the genre and tropes. Start by reading the book as a reader! Set out to actually enjoy the experience!
This often helps you avoid having your analytical mind get in the way while reading and allowing your imagination to engage with the world the narrative is presenting.
If you actively enjoy the story, then you know it’s worth your time to go back and take a closer look and spend more time exploring it.
Ask yourself why it is so effective, what it is that makes it speak to people, makes them so afraid to put it down. Why are millions of people reading it? Why does it have such staying power?
Notice the effect the story has on you as a reader, then try to figure out how it is doing that.
There is a secret power to this: every time you read the work, certain themes, ideas, strands, and notions will get embedded in your subconscious mind.
Try, in a few words, to sum up, the story – try to state what its core thematic material/idea is. That idea can sometimes be hard to pick out from the story, but it will be somewhere in it. It has to be because this is the marrow of the story. The source of its power, the idea at the heart of its DNA.
But if the idea is not there, then there is no story there.
Once you’ve found the idea, put a marker on it, a word or two to remind yourself of it. Then, keep it in mind as you read on.
Evaluate the Craft
After the first read-through, we’re ready to dive into deconstructing the work.
Observe every detail. Think of the purpose of each element. Why is it there?
Also, think about all the elements from a practical perspective, e.g., as a writer or director, or screenwriter.
Deconstructing a work of art does not imply judging it as a piece of art, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t like a story (let alone love a story).
To analyze craft, think of the story as a meal. Small ingredients (pieces of the story) combine to create something almost intangible yet have an enormous emotional and intellectual impact.
A meal that you loved, or didn’t, or that inspired you, or left you cold, or made you sick.
Ask: What is the effect of the setting? The characters? The plot? The dialogue? The structure? The placement of the climax?
Draw diagrams of each part of the story and label them (if it presents with the elements). Make notes on what happens when and in what order. What is the overall design of the story?
Ask: What themes or motifs does the author use? What is the symbolism? What are the recurrent images?
Scan the Story Structure First
The idea is to get a broad overview.
Scan the story to see how it organizes its material. You could do this by working through the scenes one by one, a step at a time, asking yourself at each point: Has the story taken a significant change in direction in this scene? Is it building towards somewhere? Or is it toying around?
What does this say about the author’s choice in the fundamental way the story is told?
A significant change of direction in a story could be in the dialogue or the actions, the psychology of the characters, or technical detail, like a special effect, a new character type, a new aspect of the plot, a new location, etc.
The thread that unfolds in the direction of the story is known as its dramaturgy – its plotline. It can be an action to pursue a goal, or the attempts of some forces to undo another power, etc.
Other things you’ll want to note are:
Where is it set?
When is it set? Timeframe?
What kind of society is it? Worldbuilding elements?
What is the ‘default’ behavior?
Who is the villain?
What is the main character’s goal? What is their desire? Does someone support them? Who are the other important characters?
What will they face along the way of attaining this goal?
What catalyzes the plot? What is the plot like? Is it a simple story? Is it a complex story?
What is the premise?
What genre is it?
How does the story start?
How does the story end?
What are the main themes?
Is it symbolic?
What is the major theme? Are there other themes? These are the big ideas of the work. The takeaways. Sometimes explicitly stated, often not. For example, good vs. evil, the value of compassion, the power of Nature, the corruption of power, the senselessness of revenge, etc.
Point of View? What is the perspective from which the story is told? First-person? Third-person? A mix, where is the narrator is part of the action?
Is the point of view being used deliberately to withhold information, to make the plot more compelling?
Identify the Principal Characters
There is a lot here because characters are THE fundamental element of any story. They are the primary linchpin, the connection to the work. Characters are what the story is about. And they usually evolve as the story unfolds. So you have to give them special attention.
Therefore, character analysis is a critical part of story deconstruction.
The protagonist is the reason why the story exists. The reason, the justification is the story. But, of course, the other gears of story are important. Sometimes they are even crucial, but they are always in motion because of the protagonist.
What personality traits do the principal characters have, and what roles do they play?
What do readers learn about the characters?
How are they characterized? Physically? Through dialogue?
How are the characters related to each other?
To what extent are the characters realistic?
Are they archetypes? If so, which?
Is the protagonist a round character, i.e., interesting and layered?
Is there a flat character in the story (mono-dimensional, usually with just one or two traits to make them just about work!)?
Which of the characters are crafted as a dynamic character (undergoing significant internal change)?
How is the character development achieved?
What are the protagonist’s flaws?
Are they heroes? Or villains? Or somewhere in between?
Who is the main character? What are the flaws, and how are they described? How do they change? Be sure that you understand the role they play in the story.
Do we like them?
Do we hate them?
What is their relationship to the other major characters? What is their arc?
What is the character’s condition upon starting out in the story? What is the relationship between that condition and that character’s ambition?
Where does the major character end up?
Did the character’s attitude or beliefs change by the end of the story?
What is the character’s world like?
Does the character have a role that is different from what their role in the world would suggest? Or is their role in the world in line with how they are perceived?
What is the main character’s goal?
Does something happen to them that makes the central character change their mind about their goal?
When a significant event occurs, where does it take them? Toward the desire? Away from it? What does this lead them to think and feel?
What does the main character have to learn, and what is the change?
What is the moral of the story? Whatever it is, it is related to the specific traits of the main character.
Plot – Does Anything Jump Out in Each Chapter or Sequence?
The plot is what happens in the story. The basic structure, comprising thoughts and events. Each important story event helps to keep the story moving forward.
What is the story about?
What are the main storylines? How do they connect?
What are the primary turns and twists?
Can you summarise the plot in one paragraph?
What is the main Conflict/Problem for the hero to solve?
How does tension work? Frustration? Approaching enemy? Awareness of the monster? Random attacks?
Check the Ending – We Are Looking for How the Story Drives Towards It
The end of a story is, in my view, a critical story element because without a compelling ending, you don’t have a story worthy of attention.
Does the title of the work in any way connect to the ending/resolution? How?
How does the ending affect the character? What have they learned?
What does the character’s final situation tell us about the hero?
What is the moral of the story in the end?
What is the tone? Does the tone change? Why? How?
Check the Opening – How Does It Get the ‘Narrative Train’ Going?
What is the first scene?
What is the strength of the opening scene? How does it create interest?
Remember that we are looking for the seeds of the story. Therefore, the scene’s purpose should not be confused by the ’emotional response’ of the viewing/reading experience.
All of these things should be accessible to emotional response.
What is the tone or mood of the first scene?
What is the hook? What makes the reader (or viewer) want to read (or watch) more?
What is the tone or mood of the work at the end? How does this compare to the tone or mood in the inciting incident?
How do readers find the beginning and finish of the story? What are their expectations/feelings about the story?
How is the pace? What creates tension? Doubt? Fear? Anticipation?
If there is a change in tone at the end, how does it affect the characters?
##Look for the basic plot structure – ABAB, ABCABC, nonlinear?
ABAB (beginning a middle, and end) – this is the classic structure. You have a story with a beginning, middle, and end leading to resolution.
The inciting incident sets up a goal for the hero to attain. This is what begins the plot. There is a central conflict or struggle that creates tension and keeps the characters moving toward their goal.
It is not always apparent to the hero what the thing is that blocks their path to the goal. The hero overcomes each thing that gets in the way of the goal. And the final conflict with the villain/problem. This is resolved, so we have a sense of conclusion and resolution of the protagonist’s desire in the overall plot.
Branching Plot Structure – we have one main story going on, with some off-shoot stories.
Disconnected plot – we have many distinct happenings, connected only by the main character(s).
An invented structure can take many forms, such as re-tellings, oral stories, or just a conversational flow that connects events and scenes.
We can learn new things from this, though, like form is not what makes it likable. It’s the power that is within.
Nonlinear structure – the beginning is not in the ‘beginning,’ and the middle is not in the ‘middle.’ Instead, the story unfolds as different things get uncovered.
The author may connect everything (for example, a murder in the town connects the main character to the murder because we know one of the characters more personally). The reader may go back and make connections otherwise (for example, we read a story and learn more about someone than the characters within the story). There may be some things we don’t know how they are connected and perhaps never will.
A multiplicity of endings: We might have one or many conclusions to the story. There could be one primary way it ends, and some other endings could ‘overlap’ it. The primary purpose is to leave the reader thinking and reflecting.
The plot does not always follow ‘real life, and there is no ‘perfect’ structure. However, it is just one way to structure a story that audiences may respond to.
Do we have a Plot or a Story? (If it has little plot but a strong story, it may be better as an essay, blog, article, poem, play, etc.)
The story is about a character’s experiences and the character’s reactions to these experiences – a moving series of events in the life of a character.
The plot is about what happens in the story. With little or no reference to what the character feels and thinks at the moment. Just what happens.
More Ways You Can Analyze the Work
There are a bunch of other literary devices you can look out for. These literary elements can play essential roles in the way in which a story functions.
Foreshadowing: does the author use hints or clues to seed what will happen later in the work? Again, pay attention to the word choice the author uses.
Symbolism: is something used to stand for something else? For example, the shoe in Cinderella may not be just a shoe!
Figurative language: what kind of metaphors does the author use?
Irony: are characters (or the narrator, for that matter) saying things in a way they don’t mean, with deliberate intent?
Foil: is there a necessary sidekick? A Ron Weasley? A Samwise Gamgee? What role does the sidekick play? Fellow traveler? Moral compass?
Allusion: is a reference made to help the reader/viewer connect with the material? Or the overall work.
Imagery: what is being used to indicate states of mind and feelings? Pay particular attention to your own emotions when reading a passage. If it moves you, note it down!
Tone: this flows from the author’s attitude towards the story, the material within it, and, importantly, the characters. Humorous? Disdain? Sarcasm? Bitter? Celebratory?
An interesting question is whether the tone reflects what the author feels about the material and story or whether it feels contrived. If the latter, what made you think that?
Stating the Controlling Idea (Hypothesis)
This is a broad statement. The main idea that ties together all the above concerns the proof you have discovered through your analysis. You are looking to state what the value and purpose of the literary work are.
The thesis statement is the central POINT is around which the entire work pivots. Which, more often than not, will be unexpected, perhaps iconoclastic, and sometimes gets us to exclaim, “of course that’s right!”
The thing we thought we knew turns out to reveal a deeper meaning.
How Deconstructing Stories Can Help You
The main advantage of deconstructing stories is that it will help you plan and write your own or next stories! You will become a better fiction writer, or director, as a result.
The Limits of Story Deconstruction
AI Analysis is taking story and book analysis to the next level. The best I have seen is Marlowe, used by Authors’ AI. Even at the basic level, the amount of insight is impressive.
For example, check out the analysis of the Da Vinci Code to get a sense of what it does at the unfettered level.
You can find endless templates to fill in to help you with story analysis. What matters is the sense of the story that you assemble in your mind!
Otherwise, you risk taking an overly robotic approach to stories and how they are constructed and told!