Writing: Deconstruction is the sincerest form of learning



I’ve had this argument with a friend unfamiliar with the writing process, yet interested in writing, himself: It’s not plagiairism to use another writer’s framework. Plagiarism is lifting someone else’s work verbatim, plonking it down in your own piece without attribution, pretending it’s your own. It’s not only illegal, but a moral wrong.

What’s perfectly legitimate is deconstruction, taking a well-written novel, say one in the hardboiled genre for argument’s sake, pulling it apart and examining how a writer accomplished what he did. It’s perfectly legitimate making use of what you’ve learned about structure, character development, pacing, etc., in order to create your own book.


Simple Deconstruction

  1. Read a book you admire at least twice. More, if you can.

  2.  Outline the plot.

  3.  Write biographies of the characters.

  4.  Study the pacing. Note when it speeds, when it slows.

  5.  Really pay attention to the dialogue. How much of the plot relies on what the characters say to each other?

  6.  What is the POV? Why does it work in this book?

  7.  Highlight favorite sentences and handwrite them. Think about what drew you to them, what are their common denominators.

  8. Once you’ve deconstructed this and everything you’re interested in, read the book again.

  9.  Write about what you’ve learned.

  10.  Consider what would work in your own work in progress.

  11.  Use it.


There is no need to re-invent the wheel; it’s been around since the beginning. In fact, this is how writing is taught. What’s the advice most given to novice writers?

Read, read, read. Read a lot, and widely.

Why do you think established writers say that? Because it’s only by reading that you’ll absorb good writing. Once absorbed, the advice is write, write, write without ceasing.

Take Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, for instance. He’s 30 years into it as of this year, his characters iconic. If this is a genre you’re interested in writing, I recommend ripping his books apart, studying them, and making use of his formula.

Again, this is not plagiarism; it’s using an established framework.


Ian Rankin: worthy role model.


So, how does Rankin do what he does?

Early novels in a series establish the main characters, protagonists as well as antagonists. Foils to the main character are often brought back at intervals, woven in and out with regularity, though not in every installment. Think about Sherlock Holmes. He’s a sort of early hardboiled detective whose nemesis, Moriarty, drives him mad. Always just out of reach, the nemesis is fairly untouchable. It would be a bold move killing him off, though not unusual to make it appear he’s been killed off, resurrecting him later on.

Subsequent novels in the series touch on some of the background for the benefit of new readers, but they have to tread a certain line so as not to bore dedicated readers, who already know the early history. A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story. Readers who’ve followed his hero from the beginning will know it, and those new to his books can decide to go back and read his earlier stuff for context.

A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story.


After a certain point, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.

Hardboiled detective novels don’t vary much as far as portraying the main character: he is unlucky in love – usually divorced or soon to become so; he  battles vices like drinking and smoking and is often not  in the best of health, isn’t necessarily a hermit but does spend lots of time shunning company, battles depression, and is somewhat of a rogue – going off on his/her own, getting into trouble flouting the rules. It’s not uncommon for him to have co-workers as invested in his downfall as his nemesis. Ultimately, he solves the case on his own, facing down the villain in solo combat. And the revelation of the baddie often comes quite late in the book, the story twisting back and forth on itself to throw the reader off the track.

The flip-side of this is the thriller – you know who’s done the deed(s), but it’s a matter of catching him. There are variations in both genres, but this sums up their main constituent parts, methinks.


It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. – Ernest Hemingway



Detective series fiction is a popular genre, and can make you boatloads of cash if you’re good at it. Ian Rankin’s damn good at it, a perfect role model. He can turn out a Rebus novel in a mere few months; it would take the rest of us years. How does he do it so well and so quickly?

He knows the formula, and practices it over and over. This is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s what draws lovers of the genre looking for another book like the others in the series, adding aspects like new characters and developing established characters as real humans are wont to do. Rebus ages, lovers come and go. Already retired at least once, fans like myself badgered poor Rankin to bring him back.

John Rebus is beloved.

The same basic idea can be applied to other genre writing. Even literary fiction can be analyzed for form, though it’s not quite as easy. Basic aspects of good writing can be learned, and the best, easiest and fastest way is studying the work of writers you admire.

I’d like to take apart a novel for illustrative purposes and show you exactly what I mean. My reading and reviewing plate’s pretty full at the moment, but this is something I can do in the background while I’m working on other stuff. Once I’ve finished, it may make for a good, short series of posts.

I’ve cogitated on this quite some time. When I read a near-perfect novel, I think to myself “how on earth did he do this…?” The best way to figure it out is dividing a work into its component pieces, outlining then delving deeper into the construction of characters, and all its other elements. With extremely complex works, it could take ages.


Man Booker agrees – the book is a master work.


One example is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending. I’ve read that novel twice; it’s a rare jewel. Relatively short, deconstructing it would still take a good bit of time. Its intricacies are delicately laced. I’ve wanted to examine it since its publication, the year it won the Man Booker.

All writers model themselves, consciously or not, on the works of others. All books  contain the sum total of their author’s experiences and everything they’ve read. There’s absolutely no reason you cannot model your own writing on that of another author.

Again, just do not plagiarise. Study, but never, ever steal. You’ll be found out, plus it’s just, plain wrong.

But do study. Do analyze. And never, ever stop writing your own stuff.


One thought on “Writing: Deconstruction is the sincerest form of learning

  1. Fantastic, Lisa. How do people think most writers learned to write? I look forward to this series. I was trained to deconstruct as a critic but not as a writer, and I’ve just started doing this for writing’s sake in the last few years.


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