Reading Fiction: A Brief Checklist

By Wayne Ude 

Five general suggestions:

  1. Read the story through once, quickly, without stopping, both to get a general sense of what it’s about and to see how readable it is. If you have to stop to figure out what’s going on (or, worse yet, to go back and reread), make an x in the margin at that point to remind yourself, but don’t further break your first reading to make extensive notes.
  2. Give the story a very careful second reading, in which you write as many comments in the margins as occur to you. On this reading, you may look for any or all of the elements discussed below.
  3. Ask yourself what seems to be at the story’s core: it could be a character, an event or series of events, a symbol or image, a theme, a relationship, etc. Attempt to identify those elements in the story which most effectively create the core, and those which seem less important or even irrelevant to the core.
  4. Look for elements in at least three categories: strengths, weaknesses, and undeveloped potential strengths. It’s a mistake in critiquing a story to focus only on strengths or only on weaknesses – either approach will lead others to regard you as a one-dimensional critic.
  5. Don’t be afraid to suggest radical changes in the story. One purpose of critiquing a story is to re-open the author’s mind to unexplored possibilities, and sometimes, in the process of rejecting a wild suggestion, the author will simultaneously come up with a better one. In other words, looking at something which the author knows won’t work may reveal what will work.

Some more technical suggestions:

  1. In what ways are characters created – through action and dialogue, through their thoughts, through others’ reactions to them, through the narrator’s commentary, through the quality of the language that surrounds them?
  2. Are important moments shown in scenes rather than in summary? What is the relationship between scene and summary – key moments should be in scene, but ten pages of summary and three of scene still isn’t likely to make an effective story even if the key event takes place in the story’s single scene. Do individual summaries go on too long?
  3. What point of view is used to tell the story? Is that point of view effective, or might another be more effective?
  4. Is the language consistent, or does it range out of control from very colloquial to very formal? Is the language appropriate to the characters? And beyond that: is the language doing anything special, anything that has you noticing and appreciating it? Is there a sense of an individual mind behind the words?
  5. Is the central character involved in relationships, conflict, action, or does s/he tend to go off alone and soliloquize at key moments? If the latter, is there a way to involve him/her with other characters? Further, does the story create or at least imply a society within which the central character moves?

Originally published in Southeast Writers’ Handbook: see our Books

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *