One of the things that professors of literature have been doing ever since they were invented is trying to analyze literature of all kinds. And one of the chief ways of analyzing something is to break it down into small pieces, label them, and then look for the patterns in how they fit together.
Breaking a story apart can be done in various ways. You can talk about structural units: sentence, paragraph, scene, chapter, section. You can talk about the different elements of story: plot, characterization, setting, backstory. You can talk about the different ways of presenting the story: dialog, description, commentary, dramatization, narrative. You can talk about the stages of writing that everyone goes through: thinking, writing, revising, proofreading. You can talk about dramatic or emotional units or structure: rising action, turning point, complication, climax, falling action, resolution. You can take any of the various elements or ways or units or stages and break them down into subcategories: point of view character, major characters, minor characters, walk-ons; types of description (static, active; sight vs. sound vs. smell; objective vs. subjective or filtered).
All these various ways of taking stories apart overlap. Rising action takes place across chapters and scenes full of dialog, plot, description, characters. Characterization happens during scenes, via dramatization, dialog, action and reaction. And the sentences and paragraphs and structure are there for everything – they have to be, they’re how we tell stories.
The terminology we use for analyzing stories isn’t totally standardized, but it’s not totally random, either. This doesn’t matter at all when you’re all alone trying to figure out how to fix your latest book; if you find it useful to define rising action as “any time the main character goes up in a balloon,” that’s fine. If, however, you try to talk about your fiction with other writers, you are likely to have a difficult time if you are using your own idiosyncratic definitions for terms that everyone else thinks they understand. You’d be better off making up a new term – maybe “balloon action”? – because even though you’ll have to explain what it means, the people you’re talking to won’t already have their own ideas about it, and won’t keep getting distracted or mixing up your meaning with the more common usage.
Analyzing stories and taking them apart to find out how they work is something I find fascinating. I’m reasonably good at it, and I learn a lot from it. But there are things I don’t learn, and one of them is what I need to do in my story to make it effective. I can pick up specific techniques for writing dialog or description from looking at the way someone else did it. Sometimes, I can even figure out that Writer X always does Y in a tense scene, or when X is trying to make a particular kind of point about her characters.
None of that tells me whether the same technique will work in my tense scenes, or for my characters. Sometimes I try it and realize that doing Y in this scene doesn’t make it tense; it makes it look as if I’m trying too hard. And when I notice this, I take it out immediately.
And the reason Y doesn’t work in my story often doesn’t have anything to do with the technique or the tension or whether I’m executing it properly. The majority of the time, it has to do with the rest of the story. Because as I said earlier, everything overlaps, everything affects everything else. It’s a lot like cooking; there are some ingredients that you just can’t use in the same dish – or if you do, you have to add them very carefully in a particular order, or they combine in ways you don’t want. If you add the milk to a cream sauce too fast, you get lumps; if you start by melting cheese and then try to add milk and flour and butter, you get a horrible stringy mess instead of a nice, smooth cream sauce, even though the ingredients are the same. (I tried that once in college. “Horrible stringy mess” barely begins to describe it.)
Even following a recipe sometimes doesn’t work, and you don’t know why. I had a miserable failure with a layered vegetable terrine that I made for the last tea we had here. I swear I did everything the same as last time, but the thing didn’t set up properly, and ended up more like a very thick vegetable sauce. We eventually decided that it had something to do with the humidity, but really, that’s just a guess.
Writing is like that, too. Sometimes all the analyzing in the world doesn’t help, and you get vegetable sauce instead of a nice, solid terrine, and you can’t figure out why. Do the best you can; come up with a theory that you hope will help you avoid the problem next time; and then let it go and move on.
And if you already know that you’re the sort of writer who isn’t helped by analyzing things, forget the analyzing part. When you know you want toast, it isn’t really helpful to take the toaster apart and line the pieces up on the counter in neat rows. Heck, sometimes when you want toast, the thing to do is stick a piece of bread on a fork and hold it over a fire, and forget about all these modern gizmos.