It’s one of life’s truisms that reading widely and critically is essential if you’re serious about writing. You don’t need a degree in literature to be a critical reader; a lot of it is good, old fashioned common sense, and you’ll have most likely been reading this way naturally for years already, so naturally in fact that you might not be aware that you’re doing it. The next stage, especially if you’re beginning to write your own fiction, is to focus much more consciously on the individual components of narrative structure, and to apply this knowledge to your own writing.
The trick is to not just consume a piece of writing for entertainment – important though the pleasure of reading for itself is – but to actively deconstruct.
You can usefully break down a narrative as follows, asking these questions of the text in order to interpret and understand it:
- Premise – What is the story about? What drives it forward? What does the protagonist need or want?
- Theme – Does the piece have an existential or ideological position? Is it commenting on some particular aspect of the human condition, or asking some kind of question? What was the author trying to say? Is the piece symbolic or allegoric? How? Is the theme successfully communicated?
- Genre – What is it? Is it realistic, fantastic, sci-fi, horror, romance, crime, historical, family saga, experimental, comic, tragic? Is it a genre hybrid? Does it use genre conventions; does it combine aspects of different genres? How? Why?
- Story and Plot – What is the story? Is there some sort of conflict or crisis? Can you describe the story type – is it, for example, a ‘rags to riches,’ ‘quest,’ or ‘overcoming the monster’ archetype? Remember that the ‘story’ is the events as they occur chronologically, whereas the ‘plot’ is how the author has chosen to arrange these events as a prose narrative (so ‘plot’ is much more about structure, while the ‘story’ is the idea).
- Structure – Is it linear or non-linear? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Are they in this order? Is there a framing narrative? How is the story set up/introduced? Is there an inciting incident?
- Style – This is a difficult concept to pin down, but for now just think about your responses to the ‘voice’ of the story and the way it uses language. Is it a ‘strong’ style? Is it unique, appealing, or unappealing? Does it remind you of anyone else? Do you think the author is some sort of literary stylist, or more of a pragmatic storyteller? (So is form as important as content?)
- Pace – How does the piece progress in time? Identify sections of ‘fast’ telling (diegetic narration), when information or events are summarised, and ‘slow’ telling (mimetic narration), in which events are dramatised in ‘real’ time in the scenic form of action and dialogue. Do you think the pacing on the story is effective, too fast, or leaden?
- Point of View – First, second or third person? Multiple or limited points of view? Is the author omniscient? Is the choice of point of view effective?
- Setting – Where are we? Why are we here? How does the author convey a sense of place?
- Description – How does the author describe places, people, feelings, and ideas? Is the language fresh – that is, effective, original, aesthetically pleasing?
- Characters – Who are these people? How do we know what we know about them? How does the author establish and present them? Do they feel authentic? Can we relate to them? Is there emotional depth? Can we identify dramatic need? Who is the ‘point of view character’?
- Dialogue – How is speech reported? Does the dialogue advance the story, does it feel natural? Are there sections in which you feel some dialogue would have been effective but was not used, and vice versa? Are voices active or passive?
- Context – How might era, culture and location of its production be reflected in the text? I know a text should speak for itself to a certain extent, but if you have read other work and/or biographical or critical material by or about the author, can you make any connections? Similarly, can you identify the application of any literary trends or other possible influences?
- Intertext – Are there any other texts being referenced or quoted? What are they? Why and how are they being used?
- Climax and Denouement – As my old UEA colleague Dr Ian Nettleton puts it, ‘Where’s the boom?’ Is there closure/resolution? Is there epiphany? Is there a revelation?
Annotate as well. If you’re reading your own paper copy, don’t ashamed to write all over it. (I started doing this in the sixth form and have never lost the habit – it drives my wife crazy.) In each case, think about why the author made this particular choice, and evaluate, asking of the text: Is this idea, scene, character, dialogue, description, device, or technique effective?
Finally, always consider your response as a reader: Did you like the piece, why, or why not? Were you overwhelmed, underwhelmed, or just whelmed? Have you learned anything that you can apply to your own fiction?
In understanding the writing of others, you will more fully understand your own.