Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Reading Critically For Writers

An inherent part of writing well is reading well. It’s not enough to simply take good books and read them and love them to pieces – we do lots of this already. Honing our skills as writers depends on how much we write and how well we read.

Writers grow by switching on the critical eye and analyzing why particular books worked. Book reviewers often summarize the important elements of the story and judge whether or not the story worked for them overall. Literary analysis is more dissecting the text looking for themes and meaning and reflections of the author’s troubled love life.

Writers, however, can benefit from looking into the seemingly simplest elements, the tiny threads that weave together and form the entire tapestry. We first learn to speak by listening to others and imitating vocal patterns. We learn to write by imitating what we read, and we learn to write better by reading more effectively.

Here are some things to look for as you read:

  • What scenes of the story read faster than others? What parts make you turn the page without thinking and what parts give you the opportunity to stifle a yawn? Look for sources of tension or conflict, especially if either is steadily rising. Look for points in the story where characters move the plot, or the plot moves the characters.
  • Sentence flow carries a narrative. Follow how the author played with sentence length in both slower and faster scenes. Study their techniques in speeding up or easing back on the speed of the narrative. When were longer sentences used? How about shorter? What effect did it generate?
  • Look at the dialogue on its own, without any surrounding action or tags. Just the dialogue. Can the characters be told apart by certain nuances with speaking patterns, idiosyncrasies, or colloquialisms?
  • How are the surroundings described? What sorts of things does the environment reveal without ever directly telling the reader? Clothes, food, building materials, and even character? How does this indirectly reveal the setting? The time and place?
  • With a particular scene that carries a very thick, defining atmosphere or mood, look for colors and sensations. Look for word choices that carry a subliminal effect, the way the narrator or characters regard their surroundings. Even easily overlooked signs such as body language can make an impact.
  • Study how the five senses are utilized, as well as how creatively the author approached using the senses. If the author used any clichés, then in what way? Were the clichés redone with a fresh take? Used in an unexpected manner?
  • How did each chapter or scene or section carry the rising action? What moved the story from point A to B and how did the characters reflect this?
  • If the story had multiple points of view, how did each point of view differ? What was the tone of the language used? How did the various points of view carry their weight in the story? How did those characters impact the plot?
  • Why did you like a particular character? What made them appealing or rounder? What sorts of qualities gave them dimension? What scenes really elevated them from the page and turned them into real people?
  • Why did you not like a particular character? What had you expected out of them? Where did they fail to deliver?
  • What are the subplots? How are the subplots developing beneath the central plot? By the end of the story, how were the subplots solved?
  • How did the author tie off the ending? Were all your questions answered? Did you throw the book at the wall or cradle it gently to your bosom? How did the beginning and the end tie together? What was your lasting impression of the book?

There are a ton of other questions to ask as writers read, but getting started is key. As the critical eye develops, asking these questions will become a natural part of reading and it becomes easier to see more and more of the threads that compromise the story.

The biggest problem I’ve had so far is that the critical eye doesn’t seem to have an off button!

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