So I took a fiction writing class last year, and my fiction writing teacher (who is wonderful!) has this great tool she introduced us to that she calls the Story Vivisection — because it’s kinda like taking a scalpel to a story to see what’s going on inside. I’m sure there are many versions of this out there and most of them will work great, but in the event that you don’t have one of these already, here. Have a present.
What the Story Vivisection is:
It is a list of questions that you can scan through after reading a piece of literature (including your own work or a piece being workshopped in your writing group).
What the Story Vivisection does:
It directs your attention to the workings of a story and helps you more easily identify what is going on with it — because there are so many things to forget!
–I have adapted Ms. Santo’s version a bit to better fit my own preferences. Feel free to do the same!
–If you don’t want to take the time to write out the answers, don’t (but if you do, have at it!). Just mentally answering these works too. This list just helps you remember things to identify within a work so you can see how other authors are pulling off a story and learn from it.
Pssst: Copy and paste + print as a bookmark for ease of access!
- Best word(s)
(Think most fitting/surprising/beautifully used)
- Best sentence(s)
- Inciting incident
- Rising action
- Falling action
- Pay off
(Why it matters)
(Who is the narrator — where is the voice coming from. What kind of narrator: omniscient, limited, unreliable, etc)
(1st, 2nd, 3rd: more than one?)
- POV character
(More than one?)
- What does the protagonist want?
- Why is this character the protagonist?
- How do you feel?
(Both in general about the story, and specifically about scenes)
- How do you think you were intended to feel?
(In other words, did the author pull it off well)
- What does the antagonist want?
- Ally of the protagonist
(Not necessarily their best friend — usually the person who gives them a kick in the pants to move them along their arc somewhere in the second half/last third)
- External conflict
- Internal conflict
(Arc. Typically character specific with a focus on the protagonist. Note the difference/similarity between the protagonist and antagonist arcs)
(Where, when, and atmosphere)
(Was it done well? Did you always feel oriented within given a scene?)
(Timespan in which the story falls. One hour? One century?)
- What part of the story do you picture most clearly and why?
- Why does the story begin when it does?
- Summary versus dramatization
(Make a note of which parts of the story were exposition and which were scenes. Was it a good decision?)
- How is this story different from others?
- Vivid or unexpected details that stood out to you? Figures of speech?
- Describe the voice and how it works (or doesn’t) for the story
(Is it linear or does it jump around in time? Is it built Brandon Sanderson-style as a trilogy mashed into one book separated by short stories, for example?)
- Did the protagonist succeed or fail in their arc?
(Did they change like they were prompted to, or did they decided not to — and how did it leave you feeling?)
I know this isn’t everything, and some of these may be extraneous depending on the work you are vivisection-ing. Adapt as you will. Also, comment if you have a good one I missed!
As ever, your book won’t write itself!