How to Improve Your Story by Reading the Right Books

Guest post by Iris Marsh.

In this guest post, indy writer and editor Iris Marsh describes how reading novels comparable to your own project can help you hit genre conventions and scenes the audience expects. 

Iris is an editor for indie authors and the author of the YA urban fantasy novel Illuminated. Iris feels everyone has a story to tell, and she loves to help other authors hone their story so they can share it with the world. To her, building the confidence of authors is key. That way, they don’t just have a better story, but they also feel more confident sharing it. Check out her website for tips and her free self-editing course. 


You’ve written your story, yet you feel that there are several moments missing. The middle seems rushed or too slow. Or perhaps you’re unsure whether the climax packs the punch you were looking for.

You do know this: the story needs some editing.

But how do you know what’s missing? How can you identify what you need to improve?

Reading a few books in your genre can give you the answers you seek. By comparing them, you’ll find out what elements they have in common and how you can apply these to your own story.

Doing this is a great practice either before you start writing (to help you plot your story) or after you’ve written your first draft (to find out if your story hits the right moments).

In this article, we’ll discuss which books you should pick to read, what you should pay attention to when reading, how to compare what you’ve read, and how you can use this information to improve your story. 

Which books should you pick?

The first thing you need to consider is your genre/main plot. In this case, genre doesn’t mean “Historical Fantasy” or “YA dystopian”—those are genres useful for marketing. Here, we mean the genre of your plot, such as romance, crime, or action.

If you don’t know what your content genre is, consider the final climax of your story. What’s at stake here? Can the protagonist lose their life? Their soul? Love? A sense of justice?

If you’re still unsure, you can also look at the global inciting incident: what moment in your story kicks off the main plot? What’s at stake there? This should mirror what’s at stake at the climax. For instance, the protagonist meets their love interest (love is at stake).

Find books that have a similar climax and inciting incident: ensure that similar things are at stake. Meaning: if love is at stake in your manuscript, you want to pick a book where love is at stake as well. Be careful though, romance is a subplot in many books. Make absolutely sure the story revolves around the romance, not something else.

Once you have a few options, pick the ones that you thought were really good. If you haven’t read the book yet, simply look at their reviews: is it rated quite high? Is it a popular book? If so, then it’s safe to say it’s a book that works.

Choose two or three books to read.

What should you pay attention to?

When you have your books, it’s generally a good idea to read them for fun first, if you haven’t done so already.

After that, you can make notes as you read. Write down the following [or make a Beemgee project of it!]:

  • a short summary of each scene
  • all the characters and the role they play in the story (for instance, the best friend sidekick, a mentor, or a character who switches sides)
  • how the author builds conflict and tension: what elements are added?
  • anything else you notice, such as a prevailing ambience or mood throughout the story.

In essence, you’re looking for the conventions and expected moments in the story.

Conventions & expected moments

So, what are these conventions and expected moments? These are the elements your reader will expect in your chosen genre. This isn’t something conscious, but something that comes with reading many books in a certain genre.

Conventions are the more abstract things within a story: the types of characters, a certain mood, or the clues you have to put in. For instance, an action story often has a mentor to guide the protagonist or train them. A crime story will have clues and red herrings to help the reader figure out who the criminal is.

Expected moments are just that: moments your reader expects to happen in some shape or form. For instance, the reader will expect the protagonist to be facing down the villain in the final climax in an action story. Whereas a romance reader will expect a moment where the two love interests meet.

Compare notes

Once you’ve read your books and made notes, it’s time to compare them.

It’s important to realize that some of the things you’ve noticed are part of a subplot, not the main plot. If you’ve chosen books with different subplots, this will be easier to notice.

As I’ve said before, many books have romance subplots. It’s not unlikely you’ll find overlap between books on conventions and expectations that are part of the romance genre. This can be helpful if you’re also writing a book that has a romance subplot. If not, writing these down as elements of your chosen genre won’t help your story.

If you’re unsure whether something is part of the main plot or the subplot, ask yourself: what purpose does it serve?

For instance, if the convention is part of an action genre, it’s purpose is to raise the physical stakes. This can be finding a mentor to train them in a certain skill, so they have a better chance at survival.

Once you’ve found points of overlap, try to make it as abstract as possible. For instance, thrillers often have false endings: a moment where it appears that the climax is resolved. Or a romance story has an expected moment where a love interest proves their love in some way. When you’ve written this down, try to make a distinction between expected moments and conventions.

And there’s your list of things that should be in your story to make your readers happy.

Improve your story

Now that you have your list, go through your story again and check whether you have these conventions and expected moments.

You may find that you’re lacking a few or that the ones you have aren’t as strong as they could be. Use what you’ve seen in the books to come up with different ways to enhance the convention or moment.

Once you’ve gone through your list and have reworked your story, you’ll have a much stronger manuscript.

Header image by Clarissa Bell on Pixabay

Use Beemgee to analyse your favourite novels:  

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