Using Your Favorite Book as a Guide

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford


We often hear that we should write what we love.  This workshop is going to take that advice one step farther: write what you love to read, and use what you love to read as a guide to your writing.

Find one of your favorite books.  For this first time I suggest you use a relatively small book.  Make certain it is one you love and perhaps one you have read often enough to know the basics of the story.

Step 1: Find the Storyline

First write only two or three lines to describe the most important aspects of what happened in each chapter.  There are rules, however.  Avoid names, place names, gender (neutral 'he'/'him'/'his' is best in this case, as long as you can think in terms of neutrality), and any other obvious tags that link characters or places to the book.  All you want to do is write down a general description of what happens.

If the book has multiple POV characters, focus on the main character and list only the steps that particular character takes.  Ignore subplots.

Here are the steps for the book that I chose.  As you write out the descriptions don't be afraid to twist or stretch the meanings of some of the symbols and items.

1.      Injured, escaped foreign prisoner begs help from MC.  MC must decide between turning escaped stranger over to a common enemy with whom MC has a tenuous peace or chance getting the stranger away.

2.     MC, still hiding stranger, tries to gather information about what is going on without admitting to any involvement.  Learns that enemy suspects involvement anyway.

3.      MC leaves area with escaped prisoner but is afraid they may have drawn attention.  Knows they are followed, but learns that one follower may be an unexpected ally. Tries to learn more about why enemy wants this person, but lacks cooperation.

4.      Tries to get more information from prisoner but finds mistrust instead.

5.      Sets up trick to make enemy think prisoner has been abandoned, and uses time to try to get closer to home and help.

6.      Tries to outrun enemy.  Prisoner more cooperative, explains that he has information enemy wants, but he will not give it.

7.      Takes refuge in another place, but people there know that they are bringing trouble with them.  Present stranger as comrade, not up for trade and outside of the area where he could be claimed by others.  Has trouble with own people over taking this stranger in.

8.      Is confronted by people from home who believe MC is traitor and bringing unnecessary trouble on them all, but are not strong enough to take stranger from MC and turn him over to enemy.

9.      Makes preparations for last part of journey home.  Hears that they may find trouble ahead.  Unexpected ally arranges to go rest of journey with MC

10.    Finally reaches home only to find that the enemy has gotten there ahead of them, but is still calm.  Own people less than happy about choices MC has made, but forced by circumstances to stand by those decisions.

11.    Summoned to council to explain actions; realizes that some of own people are in league with the enemy.

12.     Leaves in a hurry, heading for own powerbase and only people he can trust without doubt, though he knows they are under siege from own people and enemy.  With prisoner's help, settles matter.

13.    Learn that it was really just a diversion to get MC and prisoner away from more important battle.  Return and, with unexpected ally, turn tide of battle at council.

14.     Is at council to settle last debts of honor, bring charges against enemy, and see escaped prisoner treated properly and sent back to his own people.

Now that you have written out the steps, it's time to see what you can do to adapt this to a different story.  The changes you decide to make in the basics will, in turn, change the outline.

Step 2: Note the Characters

Now write out very basic information about the characters who are central to the story.  In this case, the characters are:

MC (Main Character):  Someone of at least middling importance back home, but with limited resources away from home ground.

Escaped Prisoner:  Someone unexpected and with knowledge which can provide something of value to whomever gets it from him.

Enemy:  Someone already in an uneasy truce with MC, who is trying to gain power to use against MC and to hide actions that others would find troubling.

Step 3: Choose a Genre

Using this basic outline, I could write just about any genre of book.  Fantasy, SF or Adventure/Thriller would likely be the best.  The gender of the characters is entirely open, as is the point of view.

If I were going to write a fantasy novel based on this outline, the opening might be something like this:

"Sir?" a voice said at the door, barely loud enough to wake him -- at least, if he had actually been asleep.

Sisanan of Toris sat up from the lumpy mattress and batted at the questioning hand of his companion for the night.  She started to protest, but a lift of his hand silenced her.  This was no dockside whore, though not one of the high court night birds either.  Nonetheless, she knew, when nobility signaled for quiet, to be so without question.

"Sir?" the voice said again.  He knew it this time.

"What do you want, Zie?" he said, annoyed at the untimely interruption.  His servants too often took advantage of his good humor.  He wouldn't be surprised to learn one had gotten drunk and arrested by the guard --

"Sir, a Farinin ship just made port, against the tide and under magic," Zie said softly.  "I ran to the dock to be certain -- it's seen battle, sir, and barely made it this far."

Farinin running for the Salisa docks?  Farinin battle out there -- Gods -- Sisanan lost all interest in anything but finding out what the hell had sent a ship of the mighty Farinin skulking into dock in the dead of night.

He started to get up, looked at the startled girl, and offered her a court-practiced smile -- nice enough, but with no real meaning.  "Stay here. Stay warm.  Have the wine there and eat what you like.  I should not be gone long."

"Yes, sir," she said in a small voice.

He had already grabbed his leggings and hastily pulled them on before digging the fine silken breeches out of the mass of bed clothing.  Not something he would like to go scurrying around the docks in, but he didn't have time to search the trunks for something more suitable.

Sisanan pulled them on and quickly tied off the breeches as he crossed the room.  He grabbed his shirt from the chair and threw back the bolt on the door, pulling it open.

Zie stepped inside with a quick bow to Sisanan and a nod to the girl, who, in a brazen show of false modesty, squeaked and drew the blankets up around her to the chin, so that all they could see was a patch of thin face, and gray eyes looking out from beneath dark hair.

"You're sure that it's Farinin and that it's seen battle?" Sisanan asked, pulling the shirt on and tangling it in his own hair.

"Yes, sir, on both accounts," Zie said, and extricated the strands from the lacy collar.

Sisanin nodded.  Zie wouldn't be mistaken -- Zie, who had served on the Toris fleet until the Farinin sank most of it in an ambush of the Del Karis peninsula.

But the Farinin were their allies now, right?  Both sides had signed the damned treaty, and so long as the Farinin held to their side of it, the newly rebuilt Toris Fleet would sail clear of Farinin waters.  There would be no trouble.

But Sisanin didn't trust the Farinin.  No one really did, and there had been looks of mistrust and anger even before the ink on the treaty dried or the seals were set.

"I want to see," Sisanin said.

Zie nodded.  "Kelkir is standing down by the kitchen door, making sure the way stays clear.  We'll take dark cloaks.  The streets are mostly empty -- it's nearly dawn.  But the Castillian will have word of the arrival by now.  We want to get in and out before any of the local troops arrive."

Sisanin nodded, pulled on his boots and let Zie kneel down and lace them up -- far faster than leaning over and trying to do it himself.

(We can imagine from here that they get to the dock and find the Farinin searching for someone who obviously jumped ship.  Sisanin ends stumbling upon the mistreated prisoner, and decides that he would rather not do any favors for the Farinin.  Perhaps he had been their prisoner once as well, during the war.)


Rather than go on with this one, let's look at other possibilities.  Could you make this something other than sf or fantasy based?  Certainly.  How about some sort of contemporary adventure novel?

Fetid air tasting of rotting vegetation and stale water, suddenly filled with a swarm of insects that looked like a veil between him and the view of the San Carlos River.  Something had set the birds in motion, and David Gray grabbed his binoculars, his eyes narrowed as we watched.

Cocooned in his one-man tent, tepid water and limp crackers as his only food for the rest of the day -- not what Gray had imagined when the Agency recruited him for undercover work.  He had trouble even calling up a little thrill knowing that the Costa Rican government wouldn't appreciate knowing he hid here, watching the river for trouble.

There.  It looked as though some Nicaraguan insurgents had slipped over the border and were taking the river to sail down into Costa Rica, looking for trouble.  Unfortunately, David Gray would not give it to them.  After all, his own position here, hiding in the brush by the river, wasn't exactly legal either.  Observation.  Notes.  Those notes did eventually go on to others who might find them handy, but it would not be the villages along this river, who doubtless would have trouble before the night was out.

The Costa Ricans would have to take care of their own.  He just counted the small row boats, listened for anything he could hear and jot down, and prepared to hike along the edge of the river and maybe spot where they made camp before he went back and reported to his own Captain.  Routine.

Only this time the Nicaraguans had a prisoner in one of their little boats -- a young man, tied, blindfolded and gagged.  After four months of this damned stupid assignment, David Gray finally saw something out of the ordinary -- and he didn't like the change much at all.

(From here the story would be that he and the prisoner fall in together, escape to some place where they could reach the Costa Rican government and the American embassy, which would find this unwelcome since David Gray is obviously working as a spy of some sort within the country.)


Or maybe you could make this into a historical romance.  It would be possible to make either the main character or the prisoner a woman -- perhaps a slave -- and to set the story in a time frame anywhere from Sumeria to the American Civil War.

Each story would take different directions, and there is no doubt each writer would start to vary from the original plot line before too long as his own imagination took hold of the basic ideas.  However, having worked out the simple plot steps from the original novel, the writer would now have some idea of pacing and complications.

Step 4:  Choose the Lead

Until now we've been following the outline as far as who is the MC and who are the secondary characters.  However, there is no reason why the escaped prisoner (or slave, or abused child, or other escapee) can't be the main POV character.

You might choose someone outside the 'outline' to tell the tale.  In that early fantasy adaptation, there is no reason why Zie couldn't tell the tale. Or you could use multiple POVs, of course.

Who tells the story also directs the outline.  If Sisanan is not the POV character, than the direction of the story is going to be away from meetings of nobility.  The shift in POV will shift what the reader is shown as normal.  In the fantasy story, if we viewed Zie, we might start with him rushing up the stairs, cursing the young lord he serves for having taken another whore to bed.   Zie would be wet and sweating, and cursing the Farinin and Sisanan -- and knowing they have to get back to Loris now, because anything that sent a Farinin ship to port with that much damage would be a problem.  In this case, the story might not be about getting Sisanan out of bed and down to the dock to see, but just getting him moving so that they can leave town with the tide -- or out the gate, rather than by ship.

A first person story in the POV of any of these characters will be entirely different as well.

Step 5: Other Changes

What if the goal were not to rescue a person, but to steal information and get it back to 'the Council'?  This takes out one of the major players in the story, but most of the rest could still fall into the same basic patterns.

What if the prisoner were someone truly evil, and with powers of his own, and the trick was to not let him fall back into the hands of the enemy, but not kill him either, because that would have some sort of fallout as well.

What if? is the game you want to play now.  Each 'what if?' question that you choose will take you a little farther away from the original plot.  You do not want to write the novel you read, you want to write your own -- but you can learn from the work of the writer who entertained you.  Besides the plot, you might sit back and make a study of character presentation, or worldbuilding techniques or even how the author wrote fight scenes.

And then go write your own novel.