Showing posts with label critique. Show all posts
Showing posts with label critique. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 19

How To Write A Product Review

I’ve talked before (see Links, below) about how I write a critique, but I’ve never written about how I do a general review. Time to change that!

Essentially, I see a review as a persuasive argument. Your review of the product gives, first, your opinion of the product and then why you feel/think the way you do.

So far so good. But a great review goes beyond this and uses the writer’s own experiences to shape a persuasive argument: “I think this product is lousy/great  … and so should you!” The stronger the reasons for your opinion, the stronger your argument.

For instance, let’s say that the Kitchen-Gadgetinator 2000 is, hands down, the best apple corer I’ve ever used. That would become my thesis, my claim. I’d back up this claim by listing its positive features. (For example, “The Kitchen Gadgetinator 2000 is fast! Most gadgets take two full minutes to core an apple but this dohickey takes under a minute.”)

Like any good argument, though, if there are negatives about the product they need to be discussed. If you love the product, why do you love it despite these defects? Conversely, if the product has many positive points, but you hate it anyway, why do you?

Be Personal

Talk about your experiences with the product. After all, your experiences are the reason you’re writing the review!

Even though the number one reason anyone reads a review is that they want to know the answer to the question, Would I like this, if you can get the customer to smile, if you can reach beyond the page and change your reader's emotion, then—no matter what kind of writing you’re doing—it’s good writing.

Who Is Your Audience?

Taylor your review to your intended audience.

If you love the product you’re reviewing, then chances are you won’t have to do much audience research. I love role-playing games. I watch game trailers as they come out and have more-or-less strong ideas about what makes a game great. And, of course, I have my own list of “the greatest games ever made,” a list which is pretty much guaranteed to be different from everyone else’s list!

But no matter how I feel about the product I try to talk to as many people as I can who have used it. It could be that my reactions to the product are idiosyncratic, or I just don’t ‘get’ it. If this is the case still write the review, but mention that you realize your opinion is in the minority.

Compare The Product To Similar Products

Say you’re reviewing a camera. You might think the camera is terrific, but talking about, say, two close runner ups will give your readers perspective. This is where a comparison chart of key features might come in useful.

Be Focused

You probably can’t—and wouldn’t want to—talk equally about all the product’s features.

- Does the product have a killer feature? If it’s a camera, is it smaller than all other cameras? Lighter? Etc.
- What are, in your opinion, the product’s most important features?
- Do these features work as advertized?
- What did you like about each feature? Dislike?


- What was your first impression of the product?
- What things are easier to do if you use the product?
- Was there anything you had a bit of trouble figuring out?
- Is there something you thought the product or service would do for you, but it didn’t? Or, alternatively, anything that came as a pleasant surprise?
- Did the product meet your expectations?
- Is there anything that surprised you about the product? Was the surprise good? Bad?


Generally, the only credentials one needs to write a review is your experience with the product. That said, readers would appreciate knowing a bit about you if the details are relevant to the product under review. For instance, if you’re reviewing a RPG game, your readers might be interested in which other RPG games you’ve played, which RPG game was your favorite, and so on. This information helps the reader understand your likes and dislikes and, I think, can help them get more out of your review.

Also, I think it’s much more fun to read a review that’s a bit personal and chatty. Don’t misunderstand, I want the facts, but I like it when they’re delivered in an entertaining and memorable way.

First Paragraph 

I try to (“try” being the operative word!) make the first line snappy, something to grab the reader's attention and showcase my writing style. I want to let the reader know this will be an informal, breesy, post—perhaps even a humorous post—and that they’ll learn something about the product in question that could be valuable to them.

Somewhere in the remainder of the first paragraph I’ll give the name of the product, I’ll also describe the product, what it does, how it can make a person’s life better, and so on.

At the end of the first paragraph I’ll inform my readers if I received a complimentary copy of the product for the purposes of review. Some folks do this at the beginning, in the first sentence, and that’s absolutely fine. Myself, since often the first sentence is what tells someone whether they want to read the review, I try and make my first sentence stand out from the crowd. I think as long as a writer is up front early in the review on about how they came by the product or service, that’s fine.

Ultimately, There Are No Rules

The only rule for writing well is that there are no rules. One hears this in connection with narrative fiction, but I think it’s just as true for review pieces. Which isn’t to say that certain ways of organizing your content don’t lend themselves more to being read and positively commented on.

How do you write a review? Please share your tips and tricks!

The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1
Writing A Critique: Reading Critically
How To Write A Critique: The Sandwich Method

Thursday, January 15

A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two

A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two

In my Last post, I examined Act One of the three act structure. Today, let’s look at Act Two. But, before we get to that, please keep in mind this is only one version. This is how I’ve come to see it. Doubtless, other people have their own way. Use whatever works for you.

I don’t think I’ve read or watched any story that incorporates each and every one of the points I’m discussing. But most genre stories have this basic skeleton: 

1. Call to Adventure (~10%): the protagonist accepts the story goal.

2. First Plot Point (~25%): the protagonist is Locked Into the adventure and enters the Special World.

3. The Midpoint (~50%): Complications and Higher Stakes, confrontation with the antagonist, new information.

4. Major Setback (~75%): Leads to the All Is Lost or Dark Night of the Soul moment.

5. The Climax (~95%): The showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist. The Story Question is answered.

Last time, we talked about the protagonist’s Call to Adventure and her entry into the Special World. Today, I’m going to talk about the first half of Act Two.

Act Two (25%)

As we saw, at the end of Act One the protagonist leaves the Ordinary World, leaves her familiar surroundings, and travels to the Special World of the adventure. We now come to Act Two and The Lock-In.

Plot Point One: The Lock-In

The idea or concept of a plot point was introduced by Syd Field in his eminently readable book, “Screenplay.” It’s the idea of a significant event, a complication, that spins the action of the story around in another direction. There are only two plot points, one at the end of Act One (The Lock-In) and another at the end of Act Two (The Major Setback).  

This complication has the effect of locking the protagonist into her quest. One of my favorite examples of this occurs in the Matrix when Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill and learn the truth he has been searching for all his life, the truth about the Matrix, or take the blue pill and continue life as before. Whichever choice Neo makes, there’s no going back.  

Act Two: Part One

I think of the Special World of the Adventure as being radically different from the Ordinary World the protagonist has just left. Metaphorically, it’s inside out and upside down (Kansas vs the Land of Oz). In this new environment, the protagonist’s strengths are now weaknesses and what were her weaknesses turn out to be strengths. Also, since the protagonist is radically unfamiliar with the rules of the special world, she doesn’t know how to behave and often acts like a fish out of water (e.g., Luke Skywalker in the Mos Eisley Cantina).

There’s a bit of mirroring here. Many of the things we said of the Ordinary World are also true of the Special World. For instance, the protagonist will often meet new friends as well as make new enemies. 

(Though I’m not going to say much about it, the B-Story often starts now and will involve these new acquaintances. To read more about the A- and B-Story’s I recommend Steven Pressfield’s article: The “A” Story and the “B” Story.)

Another similarity between the Ordinary World and the Special World is that, on entering the Special World, the protagonist will have an initial goal, one that will soon take on new dimensions.

Tests & Trials | Fun & Games

As soon as the protagonist enters the Special World she will begin a series of Tests and Trials, mini adventures which highlight the strangeness of the Special World. Because her strengths are now weaknesses, and vice versa, she will fail quite a lot and in ways she couldn’t have foreseen. 

As the protagonist goes through her Tests and Trials she’ll often receive aid and advice from her new friends and be hindered by her new enemies.

Tests and Trials are often also a time of Fun and Games, a time of bonding through adversity. Through the period of Tests and Trials it may seem as though the protagonist looses sight of their story goal (and that’s fine, as long as the writer hasn’t). This is a time of bonding and—for the writer—of character building.

Often, at the tail end of Tests and Trials the protagonist has her first big success. For the first time she triumphs over her tormenters. There’s a brief celebration then, suddenly, the Big Bad rears his head.

Pinch Point One

Though not every story has pinch points, there are often two such points in a story. Pinch points bring the focus back onto the antagonist and his goal. We are once again reminded of the stakes and of how truly awful this could turn out for the protagonist and her allies.

The first pinch point ends the Tests and Trials as well as the Fun and Games; it reminds the hero why he is in the Special World.

The Plan

As a response to the protagonist’s increased awareness of the danger she and her allies are in, as well as the ticking clock that the antagonist’s appearance has either set off or reminded us of, the protagonist and her allies devise a plan to press through and achieve the story goal. 

(By the way, the pinch point doesn’t have to involve the antagonist directly, it could feature a minion of the antagonist, or perhaps simply show us the destruction the antagonist is capable of.)

The antagonist and her allies come up with a plan, a way to end the antagonist’s tyranny and achieve the story goal. Sure, the protagonist hasn’t done all that well yet in the Special World, but she has no choice but to continue, not if she wishes to achieve her goal and save both herself and those important to her.

At this point there’s often a group moment, perhaps even a romantic interlude between the protagonist and someone special. This is a time of bonding before the group makes the dangerous journey to the place of confrontation.

That’s what I’ll talk about next time! Till then, good writing and thanks for reading.

(This post was first published on as: A Story Structure In Three Acts: Act Two.)

Photo credit: Original photo: "Catwoman Light" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Tuesday, January 13

A Story Structure In Three Acts

A Story Structure In Three Acts

I’ve just finished a string of posts on the topic of critical reading (Writing A Critique: Reading Critically). While I was writing that series I got to thinking (again!) about the structure of genre stories.

Genre Stories

There are so many genres and sub-genres, the mind boggles at the thought of listing them all. But I wondered: What are the top-level genres? 

I don’t think there’s one canonical list of top-level genres. For example, some lists have thrillers as a sub-genre of crime while others hold that they are a genre all their own. It varies depending on the person who draws up the list as well as when it’s drawn up.

Here are what I think of as the top-level genre:

Action, Comedy, Family, Horror, Romance, Sport, War, Adventure, Crime, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller, Western. 

All of these have sub-genre. For example, in the romance genre we find: Historical romance, contemporary romance, regency romance, time travel romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, spicy romance, and I’m sure there are many, many, more. 

Each genre and sub-genre will have it’s own particular structure, it’s own conventions. Ideally, any post on story structure would look in some detail at each genre noting the unique aspects of each.

I’m not going to do that here. Though, at various times, I have discussed the genre requirements of mystery and horror, and I have puzzled over the essential difference between mysteries and thrillers.

So, rather than look at how each of these genre differs from every other—I’ll leave that for you—I’ll examine what they each have in common.

The Three Act Structure

What I’m calling the Three Act Structure forms the structural skeleton of the overwhelming majority of genre stories. 

But, honestly, I think that with a few minor adjustments we could just as easily think of this structure as the Four Act Structure. Simply treat the first and second halves of Act Two as acts unto themselves, rather than as two halves of a whole. (See: A Four Act Structure

Act One: The Ordinary World

I think that the beginning of a story is the most complicated. It’s where we set everything up. It’s a bit like dominoes. You set them up in a certain way, in certain patterns, and then let them fall. Or like train tracks. You set the tracks up in a certain way, a certain configuration, and then release the train. Or, to completely change metaphors, if we plant an acorn an oak will grow. Not a willow or a birch. An oak. 

That’s like a story. In the beginning we introduce the protagonist and show you her strengths and weaknesses, her deepest desires as well as her scars. Then we put her through the fires of adversity. By no means are her actions predetermined, but we are giving the story a definite direction. We’re giving the reader certain expectations. 

And that all happens in the first few pages!

Introduce The Protagonist Early And In Action

We’re often admonished to introduce the protagonist at the earliest possible moment—on the first page if not the first line. And it’s excellent advice. After all, the protagonist is who we want our readers to bond with, to care about and identify with. 

Further, how we introduce the protagonist is important. We should, we’re told, introduce her in action (see: Jim Butcher’s Livejournal). This puzzled me at first. Why? I wondered. What’s so great about action? But action, generally, implies a goal. A temporary one, sure, but a goal nonetheless. 

A baker, red in the face, is running out the door of his shop. Why? Well, he’s running after a shoplifter, or the shipment he’s just received is for the wrong thing, and he wants to grab the delivery people before they drive off. Or ... well, you get the idea. 

Action implies a goal, it makes the reader ask: why. And that’s a powerful hook. Further, we can see (show vs tell) that the goal is important to the protagonist in that moment. 

(Note: The protagonist doesn’t have to be tackling shoplifters! As long as they’re doing something: stuffing envelopes, chatting with a friend or lamenting the number of calories in a Bavarian Creme Donut.)

But we’re not done. The action should also tell the reader something important, something significant,∂ about the protagonist. I won’t ramble on about tags and traits in this post (I’ve written about them here and here) but the action the protagonist takes at the beginning of the story should tell us something significant about them, about the character’s essence.

And all right at the beginning of the story! 

Once all that is established I think stories are much easier to write, so I think the extra effort at the beginning is worth it—not to mention that it will increase the chances a reader will want to keep reading.

Introduce Your Cast of Characters

In the remainder of Act One we introduce all the significant characters. Anyone, that is, whose goals are important to the protagonist achieving her goal. 

It will occasionally happen that a significant character will be introduced in the first part of Act Two. In this case, it’s a good idea to, if possible, foreshadow the arrival of the character in Act One. (But, that said, do whatever works for the story.)

Call to Adventure

Also in Act One, the protagonist accepts the Call to Adventure and takes on the challenge that will occupy her till the Final Confrontation at the end of the story. Let’s call this goal her story goal. This goal defines the protagonist’s arc and becomes the story’s backbone, tying all the other character arcs to itself. (Example: Shrek)

The protagonist doesn’t always accept the Call to Adventure. Often she rejects the Call and must be talked into it, often by a mentor. If a mentor is involved they may give the protagonist something that will aid her on her journey. For example, in Star Wars IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his father’s lightsaber.

Next time I’ll talk about Act Two. Thanks for reading!

Update: This post turned into a five part series. Here are links to the rest of the posts:

1. A Story Structure in Three Acts
2. A Story Structure in Three Acts: Act Two
3. A Story Structure In Three Acts: The Second Half of Act Two
4. A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three
5. A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict

Photo credit: "The Counter-Claus Caper 2014" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. (I have altered the photo somewhat.)

Sunday, January 11

How I Write A Critique

The Critique

To recap: There are two parts or stages to writing a critique. The first part—what I’ve been talking about the past few posts (see here, here and here)—is all about studying it, reading it critically.

Today I’m going to concentrate on taking the information we’ve collected through a critical reading of the story and arranging it, writing it up and presenting our views, our opinions, to the writer.

After I finish taking all these notes, after I finish asking myself all these questions about the text I’m reading, I’ll end up with rather a long document. I do not pass along all this information along to the writer! For one thing, it would overwhelm them.

The Audience for a Critique

Let’s step back a moment and talk about the tone of a critique. 

When writing a critique, I think it’s important to ask oneself the question: What sort of a story is this and, given this, what sort of critique would the author appreciate?

In a way, critiquing is no different than any other kind of writing, it’s just that with a critique your audience has been whittled down to one. In this sense a critique is very personal. It is like a letter, a passing of thoughts and feelings between two people.

One thing I attempt to always keep in mind is that, really, I (as the critiquer) have it easy in this exchange. I’m not exposed. It’s the writer who has, metaphorically speaking, just stripped themselves naked.

In this sort of situation the writer is often going to be sensitive—especially if they’re new or if this is your first time critiquing their work. (Often it is helpful if you can chat with the writer beforehand and find out what kind of critique they are looking for.)

Critique vs Review

One thing I want to make clear from the outset is that a critique—at least, how I use the term—is a very different creature from a review.

A review, first of all, is primarily for potential readers of the story. A critique, as I’ve said above, is only for one person: the writer of the story.

Although a review may be read by the author of the work in question, it isn’t written for the author, it is written for folks who are wondering whether they would enjoy reading the story. As such, the reviewer has a responsibility to—if I may put it like this—call it as they see it. They have zero obligation to think of the authors feelings. 

In what follows I’m writing about a critique, not a review. I’m going to focus on writing a critique a writer would like to get. Such a critique, IMHO, is tactful and presents both praise and criticisms as opinions as opposed to the universal voice of truth. After all, the only way one’s observations will do the writer any good is if they are accepted, and no one is likely to accept a truth offered in an insulting manner. 

Okay, enough preliminaries!

The Anatomy of a Critique

Just as there is no right way to write a story there is no one right way to write a critique. What I’m going to share with you is how I do things. That said, I haven’t yet gotten into any fist-fights with writers. So! Onward.

Begin with a general impression.

It depends upon the depth of my critique, but I’ll usually (critically) read the story through once and then open with an overall, general, impression. If, overall, I loved the story—if I thought it was a good read—I’ll tell the writer this. 

Even if the story wasn’t to my liking, I’ll find something positive to say. Perhaps I liked the dialogue of one (or more) of the characters, perhaps one of the descriptions was particularly vivid, perhaps one or more of the try-fail cycles were clever. Perhaps I liked how the stakes built throughout the story. Perhaps I liked the overall structure of the story. Perhaps I found one or more of the characters interesting. 

(Of course liking is not required when it comes to characters. For instance, I thought Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty on the TV series “Sherlock” was wonderful. Brilliant! But I didn’t like the character.)

For myself, when I can’t find anything laudatory about a story after a first pass, I look deeper. There’s always something, even if it is simply the writer’s enthusiasm. That said—and this has never yet happened—if I really can find nothing to put in the “I liked this!” column, I wouldn’t send the writer my critique.

The Body of a Critique

As I said, I’ll begin the critique with my general, overall, take on the story. I’ll begin by drawing attention to something I liked and then give a succinct one line summary of how I felt about the story as a whole. After that I’ll present a ...

Line by Line Critique

As I read through the story I’ll comment on parts I thought were exceptionally well done or, depending on the genre, I’ll mention what a certain clue makes me think about how the story will turn out. It depends on how in-depth the critique is going to be. If a friend wants a quick evaluation and his/her manuscript is pretty clean (no awkward bits, etc.), I’ll often skip this step.

I will also flag any text that struck me as awkward. If I didn’t understand something because the sentence was mangled or because the idea the sentence expressed didn’t seem to fit with what came before, I’ll indicate this.

Generally speaking, I’ll flag sections of the text:

- that I liked, 
- that seemed awkward or confusing, as well as 
- places where I lost interest. 

The End of A Critique

I’ll close a critique with a more general analysis of the story. I’ll mention details of scenes or characters, or perhaps of the general structure, that didn’t (or did!) work for me. 

- Were there inconsistencies in characterization? Was one character’s hair red in one scene and black in another? 

- Were any of the characters underdeveloped or boring?

- Were the character’s goals clear? Were the stakes clear?

And so on. (Since I’ve explored these questions in my previous posts—see the links I gave in the first paragraph of this article—I won’t repeat them here.)

I think the number one thing to keep in mind is what the writer was trying to do. Were they attempting to write a genre piece? If so, then it’s both appropriate and helpful to point out if and where the story departed from what a reader of that genre would expect. 

For instance, a murder mystery that doesn’t unmask the culprit at the end would generate quite a bit of ire on the part of mystery buffs. Also, if the story deviates from something like the three act structureand this negatively affects the story—it might be something to mention.

End Thoughts

I always open a critique with something positive and close with something positive. 

Beyond that, I usually try and focus on three things I thought the writer did well and three things I thought could, perhaps, be improved upon. Or, if I am writing a very short critique, I will confine myself to giving one thing I thought the writer did well and one thing I thought could use improvement. 

In this series I’ve written exclusively about genre stories. But, often, a writer just wants to write a story. They don’t have anything particular in mind and they aren’t planning on publishing anything. They wrote their tale for their own edification and no one other than their family and friends will ever see it. 

In this case there are no rules. What this person has written is a work of art (which isn’t to say anything about the skill with which the story was rendered). If I were asked to critique a story like this I would talk about what thoughts and feelings the language evoked in me; I would talk about whether I found the ending satisfying, and so on. 

That’s it! I hope you found something I’ve rambled on about useful. In any case, thanks for reading.

Question: How do you write a critique? Do you have a tip to pass along? 

This blog post, How I Write A Critique, first appeared on

Photo credit:

Wednesday, January 7

Reading Critically: Try-Fail Cycles (Part 3 of 3)

Reading Critically: Try-Fail Cycles (Part 3 of 3)

Today I’m going to finish up the critical reading portion of these posts. We’ll finish examining the anatomy of a scene by taking a look at try-fail cycles. Then we’ll look at an alternative to try-fail cycles. Finally, we’ll take the briefest of peeks at backstory and setting. And that’s it! 

The first post in this series: Reading Critically
The second post in this series: Reading Scenes Critically

In my next post I’ll talk about how to write a useful critique that a writer would like to receive.


Scene Level Analysis: Try-Fail Cycles

I had this part of my post written and then, yesterday, came across a talk Jim Butcher gave in 2013 for the Space City Con. (part 1 is here, part 2 is here.) JB talks for less than half an hour at the beginning of each part, the rest is Q & A. Part 1 is about scenes, part 2, sequels. It’s great stuff, I highly recommend it. 

One thing JB talks about, and something you’ll come across in almost every scene—at least in genre novels—is the try-fail cycle. After all, it would be pretty boring for readers if the protagonist had a goal, there was some sort of opposition to this goal and then the protagonist either gave up or achieved the goal. 

At the beginning of the cycle, the protagonist tries to surmount the obstacle. Usually, her first attempt fails, as does the second. The third will either fail completely, partially succeed or completely succeed. But, whatever the outcome, the third attempt should be different. (Heidi Tighe has written a wonderful blog post on this, so—if you’d like to read about a great example of try-fail cycles from Breaking Bad—go check out her post: Four Elements of a Try-Fail Cycle.)

But that leaves us with a question. At the very end of the scene—that very last try—should the protagonist succeed or fail? Actually, there are four possibilities to choose from:

a. Total Failure: Does the protagonist achieve their scene goal? No!

This is a great way to end a scene! In the sequel we would then cash out the stakes and show the negative consequences for both the hero and those who were important to her. Then she would have to scrape herself off the floor (perhaps with the help of friends and allies), formulate a new plan and try again.

One of the most common pieces of advice offered to writers is to throw as much trouble as possible at the protagonist—and then triple it! Why? Because the way the protagonist reacts to adversity will show us who she is. It will skin her like an onion, showing readers the layers of her personality. It will (changing metaphors) whittle her down to her essence. Want to know who a person is? What they’re really like? Look at how they preform under pressure, when everything is going wrong. 

b. Total Failure with complications: Does the protagonist achieve her goal? No! AND there is a messy complication.

Everything we’ve said about (a) holds true here, but we pile even more trouble on the hero. Not only did his final attempt fail, but now it will be more difficult for him to reach his goal.

c. Success: Yes! The protagonist achieves her goal.

The hero achieves her scene goal. Often when this happens (unless it is the final scene in the book) it turns out that achieving the scene goal doesn’t get her closer to her story goal—although she had every reason to think it would!

For example, let’s say our protagonist found a way to overcome her allergy to the rejuvenating cream (this continues my example from last time). At the end of the scene her skin glows with youthful vitality. In the next scene, when she gets to the audition, she discovers that the modeling agency wants a more mature looking model, so her youthful glow actually works against her. Once again, the goal of her securing a modeling contract is in jeopardy AND now she has next to no time to fix matters, thus ratcheting up the tension.

d. Partial Success: Yes! The protagonist achieves her goal, BUT there is a messy complication.

The hero achieves part of her goal. She achieves something but also experiences a disaster. 

This can work fine as well. After all, it makes sense that a price must be paid for success. It makes sense that one can’t get something without first giving up something. I’ve written two articles on this, if you’d like to read more about try-fail cycles:

Questions to think about when reading critically:

- How does the main character of the scene attempt to surmount each obstacle put in front of her?

- Do the stakes build throughout the scene?

- Does the character’s success or failure connect up to the scene goal?

Questions to think about when writing a critique:

- Not all scenes have try-fail cycles, but if a scene does, was each iteration clear? By which I mean, was it clear what the obstacle was, how the character tried to overcome it, why they failed, why they tried again (as well as why they tried again the way they did), and so on.

- I mentioned this before, but I think it bears repeating: Is there a clear resolution to the scene as a whole? At the end of the scene is it clear whether the character has attained their scene goal? (Note: Some scenes can end on a cliffhanger. This occurs when a scene ends just before we know the answer to the scene question. Of course that’s fine. Everything will be cashed out, it’s just that the cashing out will be delayed.)

- Is it clear how the scene goal connects to the story goal?

- When the character doesn’t achieve her goal, are the stakes worse than she thought? (They don’t always have to be, but the stakes should gradually increase throughout the story.)

Alternatives To Try-Fail Cycles

The try-fail cycle isn’t all there is. As Orson Scott Card points out, there are other ways of progressing through a scene. (See: Uncle Orson's Writing Class: Novel Length: August 2, 2000.)

a. The Conflicting Objectives Cycle.

Conflicting objectives are “Things that are worth doing, that need doing, which sidetrack the characters and distract them from their quest.”

b. The ‘This Can’t Happen!’ Trick

 OSC writes: “Then there's the This Can't Happen trick (Gandalf dies?) that ‘changes everything’ and causes the group to reconfigure (again, some of them being distracted as they go off on sub-quests).”

c. Unequal Commitments

Not every character is going to be equally committed to the story goal. And that’s as it should be. “[Y]ou need characters who are not equally committed to the main quest (think Boromir) or who have other quests that only they can perform (think Aragorn).”

d. The Protagonist’s Conflicting Emotions About The Quest

Even the protagonist is going to, occasionally, have his doubts. He’s going to have “conflicting feelings about having undertaken the quest in the first place, and about putting other people's lives at risk. (I'll go off by myself, says Frodo, because this way I'm only bringing destruction down on myself [Actually, this was deeply stupid, since the friends were his main hope of avoiding being killed by the ring-wraiths; but Tolkien made it all come out anyway <grin>].)”

Alternatives to try fail cycles: something to keep in mind:

OSC cautions that the thing to keep in mind, here, is that whatever you do has to advance the story (in other words, whatever you do “to make us care more or worry more about the characters”) it has to arise “out of who they are” and it must eventually transform them.

Other Elements: Backstory

The goal in introducing backstory is to:

a. Give backstory only when the reader needs to learn the backstory. The trick here is to make the reader want to learn the backstory.

b. Give as little backstory as possible. That is, give only as much as will make the scene intelligible. Ruthlessly cut the excess.

- Is this true of the book/manuscript you’re reading? Are you showered with details you don’t need to know or, alternatively, do you often feel that a character’s behavior lacks motivation?

Other Elements: Setting

Is the setting interesting? Memorable? Is it unusual, exciting, exotic?

A Bird’s Eye View: How Do The Scenes Fit Together?

After I finish reading a story, I’ll spread my notes out on my desk (this includes my notes on each scene). Then I’ll look at how the scenes fit together.

- Do the stakes continually increase from scene to scene?

- Are the stakes interesting? The stakes will be interesting if they connect to a character’s deepest desires as well as their emotional scars/vulnerabilities. This works especially well if the character’s vulnerabilities are similar to the readers vulnerabilities.

- Are the scene goals connected to the story goal? (I mentioned this earlier, but I thought I’d list it here as well since it is very important.)

That’s it for reading critically! Next time I’ll talk about how to write a critique a writer would be happy to receive.

Photo credit: Karen Woodward.

Monday, January 5

Reading Scenes Critically

Reading Scenes Critically

Today I continue my two part series on reading critically. I had hoped to wrap things up today, but that’s not going to happen! Last time we talked about two levels of textual analysis, macro and micro: the story and the scene. Today let’s continue discussing scenes and what to look for. Let’s dive in.

Scene Level Analysis: Character’s Goals

Each significant character in a scene will have a goal and each goal will have stakes attached. That is, each scene will make clear what will happen if the protagonist achieves her goal and what will happen if she doesn’t.

Further, these consequences should be real-world consequences—concrete rather than abstract. We need to see and feel what happens to the character as a result of her emotional reactions, her decisions and actions. Also, these consequences shouldn’t just affect the protagonist, they should also affect those she cares about, those she feels responsible for.  

(Of course, in the beginning of the story the consequences may only affect the protagonist. After all, if everyone she ever cared about is affected right at the beginning there’s nowhere to go! The stakes should grow over the course of a story, so it’s fine to start small.)

Note regarding scenes and sequels:

In this article I’m concentrating on scenes rather than sequels but since I just discussed stakes let me make one comment. Often one uses a sequel to show the stakes being cashed out, to show how both the protagonist’s life, and possibly the lives of those he cares about, have been changed. (For more on sequels see: The Importance of Sequels and The Structure of Sequels.)

Scene Level Analysis: Character’s Motivation

Imagine that a character, Xan, is in a rowboat fleeing from a man-eating shark. He’s rowing to the shore, really putting his back into it, sweat soaking his clothes. In this scenario the shark (and accompanying bloody loss of life) is Xan’s motivation to reach his goal, which is the shore.

- In your scene, what motivates the main character’s action?

- What is the main character’s goal? Where are they headed?

- What obstacle (or obstacles) oppose the main character achieving his/her goal?

In my example, Xan was fatigued, worn out. That’s an obstacle to him reaching the shore. Or we could make the obstacle a bit more solid and have him hit a reef, one that shatters his rowboat. The possibilities are only limited by one’s imagination. 

Scene Level Analysis: The Antagonistic force

The antagonistic force is something that conflicts with, or opposes, the protagonist. This force can be a person, a place, a thing, an idea, or mental state. Further, if the antagonistic force is a person, then that persons’ goal must oppose the protagonist’s story goal such that if the protagonist achieves her goal then the antagonist cannot, and vice versa. 

In the example, above, the antagonistic force was a shark. Why? Because it opposed Xan’s goal of reaching the shore and because their goals were mutually exclusive. Xan’s fatigue and the reef are obstacles. Even though they weren’t placed there by the shark, they aided it in foiling the protagonist’s plans.

Obstacle vs Antagonist. One might wonder what makes one thing an obstacle and another an antagonist. It’s a good question; I think it largely depends on the context. In my example, above, if there had been no shark I might have thought of the reef as an antagonistic force rather than simply an obstacle. To my mind, antagonists tend to have agency, or we tend to attribute agency to them. Obstacles tend to be physical and specific. 

The Local Antagonistic Force

The Big Bad of a story is the protagonist’s ultimate opposition, but the Big Bad won’t be in every scene. However, the protagonist’s attempt to achieve his goal should be opposed in every scene. 

Let’s call this scene-specific opposition the local antagonistic force. For example, the protagonist could want to try out the latest in anti-aging creams so she can win a modeling contract (the story goal), but she can’t because she’s allergic. If she puts the cream on, her skin will become red and scaly. 

In this example her allergy is the (local) antagonistic force that prevents her from achieving her goal. The Big Bad of the story, on the other hand, could be another model she’s competing with for the modeling contract, one who will do whatever it takes to succeed. 

Questions To Ask When Reading A Scene Critically

Drawing upon all that we’ve said, here are a few questions to ask when reading a scene critically:

- Who is the main character of the scene?
- What is the main character’s goal?
- What are the stakes? What will happen if the main character achieves his/her goal? What will happen if he/she doesn’t?
- What is the antagonistic force in this scene? That is, who or what prevents the main character of the scene from achieving his/her goal?
- What are the concrete obstacles put in the protagonist’s way?
- How does the protagonist try to defeat these obstacles?
- Is the protagonist successful?

Here are a few points to consider when formulating a critique:

- Was it clear who the main character was?
- Was the main character’s goal clear?
- Were the stakes clear?
- Was it clear who or what was the local antagonistic force? That is, who or what opposed the main character in the achievement of his/her goal?
- Was it clear what obstacles were thrown in the character’s way and was it clear how these items (events, etc.) could prevent the main character of achieving his/her scene goal?
- Was it clear how the character dealt with these obstacles? Did he/she triumph against them or did they defeat him/her? (I’ll talk more about this next time.)
- At the end of the scene, was it clear whether he/she achieved his/her scene goal or not?

A Caveat

I’ll talk more about this when I discuss how to sift through this mass of information and use it to write a critique. But I want to stress that the questions I’ve shared, above, are only meant as an aid in reading critically. 

There are no rules. Stories don’t have to have try-fail cycles. Characters don’t have to have clear-cut goals. Actually, let me take that back. There are two hard-and-fast rules when it comes to writing: To be a writer, you must read. To be a writer, you must write. And that’s it.

With that out of the way, let me say that the stories I had in mind while writing these articles were genre stories. Generally speaking, readers have more expectations when it comes to genre stories than they do for literary ones (though I admit that the dividing line between genre and literature can be blurry at times).

What I’m saying is: Please do feel free to put everything I’ve written aside, read a story, and respond from your gut. Your heart. I’ve written these posts because ... well, I know that, for myself, I often would appreciate a framework. 

This is especially so when I feel that there’s something wrong with the story but I just can’t put my finger on it. In those cases, sometimes it helps to do a deep reading of the material while keeping questions—questions such as the ones I’ve raised here—in mind.

That’s it for today! I had hoped to finish talking about critical reading today, but I’d like to cover try-fail cycles. Also, I want to touch on both backstory and setting. I’ll pick this up again on Wednesday. 

Till then, just write!

Photo credit: I took this picture!

Friday, January 2

Writing A Critique: Reading Critically

Writing A Critique: Reading Critically

This title should read “How I Critique A Story” because that’s what I’ll be writing about, but it just didn’t have the same ring to it!

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year is to do more constructive critiques of others work—and to submit more of my own work for critiquing!—so I thought I’d write a blog post about  ...  well, not so much about how to write a critique, but about how to read critically and, from one’s close reading, how to develop a critique.

This post was originally about 2500 words so I’ve divided it into two. Today we’ll look at how to read critically and on Monday we’ll finish up that discussion and talk about transforming one’s notes into a critique.

Writing A Critique: Reading Critically (Current Post)
Reading Scenes Critically

Reading Critically

Before we roll up our sleeves and dive in, let’s talk about levels

There are two ‘levels’ to a story: the story itself, and the scenes (and sequels) that make up the story. Let’s call these two levels the “story level” and the “scene level.”

Story Level

First, a note on terminology. By “protagonist” I mean the main character in a story. Which character is the protagonist is obvious in a story told from only one point of view, but many stories are told from multiple points of view. In this case I refer to each POV character as a main character. In this case, while each main character will have their own story arc there will still be one arc that draws all the others together. I call this character the protagonist.

Significant characters are characters who are important enough to the story to have their own goals, their own character arcs, within the story.

Clear as mud? (grin) If you have any questions about how I use these—or any other—words or phrases, please do ask.

Story Level: Characters

- Who is the protagonist? If there is more than one main character, is one character more important to the overall arc of the story than the rest?

- If there is more than one POV character, is one of these more important to the story than the others? If so, generally this character has the initial POV as well as the final POV. Of course, there can be exceptions, but, if so, ask yourself: why? If you can’t think of a good answer, this might be something to note in your critique.

- What is the main character’s goal? 

- If there is more than one POV character, what is each POV character’s goals? How does each goal connect up to the goal of the main character?

- If the protagonist achieves her goal, can the antagonist? (And vice versa.) The answer should be a resounding “No!”

- What are the stakes? What will happen to the protagonist if she doesn’t achieve her goal? (Ask this about each of the significant characters.)

- Are the characters memorable?

Jim Butcher talks about how to create memorable characters in his excellent article: Characters. Briefly:

a. Does the character have an exaggerated feature? This feature can be physical, mental or emotional. Exaggerated traits are both interesting and memorable. 

b. Does the character act believably? That is, do they (a) have an emotion which leads to a (b) reaction, which leads finally to a (c) decision?

c. When the character is introduced—the very first time your readers see the character—is she (a) introduced in action? Does this action clearly and sharply typify the essence of the character?

- Is the protagonist introduced before any of the other characters? This isn’t necessary, but if another character is introduced first, ask yourself what doing so adds to the story. Would the story gain by having the protagonist introduced first?

Characters and story threads or story arcs

- Is there a story thread for each significant character?

- Does each story thread have a clearly defined goal?

- Does each story thread have clearly defined stakes? Each story thread should have stakes attached to it, depending on whether the (significant) character of the thread attains their goal. Further, these stakes should increase over time.

Story Level: Genre

- Is the genre clear? Are the special rules of that genre met?

Each genre has its own rules, it’s own structure. For example, if a story appears to be a murder mystery (a murder occurs at the beginning, this event incites the protagonist to sleuth about trying to uncover the miscreants identity, and so on) but there’s no reveal at the end, and so we are left wondering who committed the crime, then that’s a problem. 

Why? Because anyone who reads this book because it’s a murder mystery will expect the story to obey the rules of the genre. Readers will expect the sleuth to not only figure out who committed the crime but to reveal who committed the crime. Also, the murderer should either die at the end or be brought to justice. This allows for peace to be restored. (The meting out of justice brings things full circle, back to the peace and security of the Ordinary World.)

If the story isn’t brought full circle, the average reader will regard it as unfinished and may even be tempted to throw the book across the room. (If it’s an ereader, that could get pricy!)

Critiquing: Scene Level

Often, perhaps too often, we only talk about the story goal, the initial (or final) stakes, etc. But, really, a reader never really reads a book, they read a series of scenes that, when strung together, forms a story.

Scene level analysis: Character

- What are the names of all the characters in the scene?

- What are each character’s tags and traits? For more on tags and traits see: 

- What role does each character play in the scene?

About Character Roles

There are two ways of looking at this (there are likely many more than two, but these are the two I use most often):

a. Archetypes

In “The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Christopher Vogler listed a number of archetypes especially relevant to story development. To read more about this, I recommend the short article Vogler has on his website. It lists all the archetypes and explains what he means by the hero’s journey. (See: Hero’s Journey.)

Generally, while a character may exemplify more than one archetype over the course of a story, she will only exemplify one at a time. For example, while a mentor may turn out to be a nemesis, in the beginning scenes they will act as a mentor and in the latter as a nemesis. You get the idea.

b. Tropes

I’ve found that tropes are much like archetypes, but more finely grained. For example, rather than speaking of a character as a mentor, one speaks of either a trickster mentor, a stealth mentor, a sink-or-swim mentor, an evil mentor, and so on. A list of mentor tropes can be found here: mentors. (For more on tropes, see: Story Openings: Tags, Traits and Tropes.)

Scene Level Analysis: Plot/Structure

- For each significant character in the scene, are they a significant character or a minor one?

Minor characters walk on and off the page without leaving a ripple. That is, they don’t influence the story; they don’t connect up to any of the significant character’s goals in anything other than a trifling way. Examples: the waitress who serves your protagonist coffee, a taxi driver, and so on.

Minor characters have very little page time and often don’t even get a name.

For me, the dividing line between major and minor characters is this: Does the character have a goal? If yes, is this goal related in some way to the protagonist’s goal?

For example, a waitress might have the goal of getting a big tip and will try to achieve this by flirting with your protagonist, but if this goal has nothing to do with the protagonist’s goal—or any of the goals of the other significant characters—then she’s a minor character.

Of course, when you’re reading someone else’s manuscript, the writer can fool you. Perhaps the waitress really was the antagonist in disguise and she just put slow working poison in the protagonist’s coffee. 

That’s it for today! Next time I’ll continue to look at how to read a text critically. I plan to close with some tips for how to write a critique that the writer will appreciate receiving.

Till then, good writing and reading!

Photo credit: Image based on: "Molinos La Mancha" by Hugo Díaz-Regañón under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Tuesday, April 23

How To Write A Critique: The Sandwich Method

How To Write A Critique: The Sandwich Method

Today I read Jody Hedlund's excellent article, 5 Tips For Finding a Competent & Compatible Critique Partner. If you are looking for a someone to give you feedback on your stories, it is well worth the read.

As I read Jody's article I remembered a post by Nathan Brandsford from a few years ago on how he (NB was an agent at the time) evaluated a manuscript and whether it was necessary for him to like it. (It wasn't.)

I didn't find it--I'll pass along the link if I ever do, it was a great article--but I happened across this one by Rick Daley on how to write a critique.

Rick Daley: How To Write A Critique

Rick writes:
I recommend the sandwich approach, where you start with a positive point, give an honest opinion of what doesn’t work for you (may be multiple points), and then end with another positive point or words of encouragement. I’ve found that the sandwich approach helps put recipients at ease (especially if they are hungry). It makes people more receptive to constructive criticism and keeps them from getting overly defensive. If you are taking the time to provide the feedback, you should want the person to actually do something with it.
Excellent advice! I encourage you to read the rest of his article: Critiquing Critiques.

Other articles you might like:

- How Robert J. Sawyer Writes A Novel
- Walter Benjamin's Advice To Writers
- How To Create A Villain Your Readers Will Love To Hate

Photo credit: "Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - A Plumpish Proportion" by familymwr under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, December 10

The Dark Art of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

The Dark Art of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

Yesterday I was going to write a post about how to critique prefaced by a few words about what I mean when I say a story is good. Well, the preface grew and grew and became a post all its own. Today, though, I will talk about critiquing. (For part one in the series see: The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?)

Story Elements

A story is boring if it doesn't elicit emotion; in other words, if we don't care about the characters and what happens to them.

A number of things go into making a story interesting and I've talked a lot about them over the past while. Stories have themes, arcs, deeds of daring and (occasionally) cowardice. Good stories have strong protagonists and strong antagonists. Good stories can whisk us off to other places, other times, even other universes.

Three Ways A Story Can Go Wrong

To conclude, there are three ways a story can go wrong:

1) An unintentional departure from the rules of grammar
2) Infelicitous word use
3) Boring story (one or more story elements are either mangled or missing)

(I discussed the first two points in part one of this series, yesterday.)

How To Critique

When I say, "how to critique" I mean how I critique. There is no One Right Way so do whatever feels right to you, whatever you're comfortable with. I've spent a lot of time setting the foundation for explaining why I do things this way rather than another, but your mileage will vary.

What To Include


I only talk about a departure from standard grammar if I am explicitly requested to. Although there are exceptions.

For instance if a writer uses "affect" as though it meant "effect" or vice versa, if they (and here I am self-consciously using 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she') used "advice" as though it meant "advise", and so on. Why? Because that sort of word misuse kicks up a lot of static.

That said, if the writer qualified "unique" or used "decimated" as though it were synonymous with "obliterated" I would keep silent. Why? Because from the context I think it would be clear what the person meant and because the error is widespread.

But that's me. I know it is painful for some folks to let any departure from standard grammar go unmentioned.

Here's a trick I wished I knew years ago:
When you give someone your story for critique be specific about the kind of feedback you'd like.
If having someone comment on grammar drives you nuts, then, when you give someone your manuscript, tell them you're not interested in that level of feedback.

If someone wants to point out all my silly mistakes, that's fine, but I never request it. My manuscript is going to a line editor and I trust her to catch everything. Also, asking for a critique with this level of detail is asking someone to do a lot of work.

By the way, on the subject of grammar, an excellent book is: Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. The book is hilarious! And highly informative.

Word Use

As with grammar, I only talk about awkward word use if the writer specifically requests it. And, honestly (and this is true for grammar as well), I might just decline to give that sort of feedback. I'm not a line editor, I don't have that skill set. Knowing your limitations is part of giving a good critique.

 Where I would be torn--and this is part of the reason it makes me SO LONG to do critiques--is over constructions like:

"I love you," he said huskily.

Gah! Where does one start?

I'd probably say something along the lines of 'show don't tell' and 'as a rule of thumb, I try to avoid using an adverb directly after "said"'.


There are wonderful people called developmental/story editors--they probably have other names as well ("angel", "saint")--who will look at your manuscript and give you a detailed analysis of your story's elements along with tips on how to improve them. This is a LOT of work and they charge accordingly.

Critiquers are busy people and I don't request this level of feedback. If someone wants to talk to me about my protagonist's arc and says they think it's weak and suggests how it could be strengthened, I'm all ears. But I would never expect that level, that depth, of analysis.

How I Critique

If accept a manuscript to critique I'll tell that person four things:

1. Was the meaning clear?

I will flag any constructions that seemed awkward to me, that I had to re-read before I realized what was being said.

2. Were you bored?

I will indicate where my attention waned, the places where I wanted to put down the manuscript and do the laundry.

3. Did you believe it?

I will indicate anything that seemed unbelievable or implausible. Anything that didn't work for me. For instance, let's say I'm reading about a fight between a 300 pound, six foot eight inch tall linebacker and a five foot four inch tall chess champion. And the chess champion wins.

I'm not saying the fight couldn't work. It could. But you see the challenge. It's almost like a contest between you, the writer, and the scene.  I'll tell you if I think the scene won.

4. Was it cool?

If I read a passage and think, "Wow! That was cool," I'll tell you. I like it when critiquers give me this kind of feedback because I cut a lot of passages as I revise a manuscript. If someone thought a passage was especially good I'll flag it and save it if possible.

By the way, I added "Was it cool?" after I took Mary Robinette Kowal's workshop, "The Mysteries of Outlining." Thanks Mary! :)

Before I leave, here are two rules of thumb I use:

Find at least one thing nice to say about the story.

Try not to say more negative things than positive.

That's it!

If you take anything away from this article please let it be this: Find out what kind of feedback the writer wants, preferably before you read their manuscript.

If someone hands you their story and they don't specify what kind of feedback they want then ask. If I ask and the writer says something vague like, "I'm interested in what you think," or "It doesn't matter," then I give them the four point analysis I just covered.

Oh. One more thing. Someone asked me the other day what they should do. They were given a manuscript to critique by a new writer and it was ... well, it probably looked like the first story any of us ever wrote! Which is to say, something that is a long (LONG!) way from being publishable and which will, mercifully, end up living (or should I say lurking) under the bed.

"What should I say to them?" this reluctant critiquer asked.

Given my two rules of thumb (say at least one nice thing and try not to say more negative things than positive ones) situations like this can be challenging. Then I realized that there's always one nice thing you can say: Good for you, you wrote something! You had an idea, you turned that idea into a story and you finished the story. That is awesome!

Now do it again.
The more we write the better we get. In the beginning my biggest fear was that someone would read my story and tell me: Stop writing! Just stop. Put down the pen and back away sloooowly. You're horrible and you're not going to get better.

Thankfully that never happened. Instead, people encouraged me. I try and do the same.

#  #  #

If you'd like to share the criteria you use to do a critique, please do! There is no right and wrong in this area and wisdom is often found in a multitude of opinions.

(By the way, this will be my only post today. I'm taking a day trip down to Seattle. To ... er ... research. Yes. Research. Nothing to do with shopping. Nope.)

Other articles you might like:
- The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?
- 12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate
- Editing & Critiquing

Photo credit: "Ancient Dragon" by ToastyKen under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Sunday, December 9

The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?

The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?

This was going to be a post about critiquing with a short introduction about what we mean--or what I mean--by "good writing". That post turned into the first of a two part series on critiquing!

Today I'll discuss what makes a story good. Or, more to the point, what can keep a story from being good. Tomorrow I'll talk about how to critique a story, or at least how I do it.

The Difference Between "I like it" and "It's good"

Everyone has their own idea of how to critique. If something I mention resonates with you, great! Use it. If it doesn't, that's fine. Forget it.

Use what works for you.

A critique is, at its core, an evaluation. An appraisal. But in order to appraise we must have a measure. For instance, in order to say whether a man is too fat or too thin we must know the correct weight for a man of his age and height.

But evaluating a story is very different from evaluating weight. Saying whether a man is too thin or too fat belongs to medical science but writing is an art. And the arts do not admit of the same kind of measure.

This doesn't mean writing can't be evaluated, it means the metric for evaluation isn't objective in the same way as it is for science. I think that, like beauty, the worth of a story, the value of a story, resides in the eye of the beholder.

Example: Movies

What do you think? If you disagree with me, let me try and persuade you. Think of a movie you loved. Chances are, if you picked 10 random people out of a crowd at least two of them wouldn't even like that movie.

Does that mean you're wrong to love that movie? Does it mean you were foolish to spend your money to see that movie? No! Of course not. Tastes differ.

Even great works of literature like "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde have their detractors.

In fact, I would go so far as to claim that for any creative work you'd care to name, there will be folks--sane, reasonable people--who don't like it.

And that's fine. That's the nature of art.

Why Bother With Critiques If It's All Relative?

You might wonder, if the worth of a story really is in the eye of the beholder, why do we bother with critiques? Isn't it impossible to say, "That story is good" or "That story is bad"?

Yes and no.

We know what we like. We know whether a story was interesting, whether it was difficult to read, whether we were able to suspend our disbelief (whether we 'bought the premise'), whether it made us feel inspired.

And, in certain ways, humans are pretty similar in what they like and dislike.

It's All About Emotion

Really, what are we asking for when we give someone a story to critique? Scratch that. What is it that we, as storytellers, want to know? We want to know whether the story grabbed that person's attention. Whether it rocked their world. Whether it made them feel something. Anything!

As Stephen King said in a recent talk to a group of students at the University of Massachusetts:
“I’m a confrontational writer. I want to be in your face. I want to get into your space. I want to get within kissing distance, hugging distance, choking distance, punching distance. Call it whatever you want. But I want your attention.” (Stephen King: My mother-in-law scares me)
Perhaps a better question than "Was the story good?" is "Did the story move you emotionally?", "Did it grab you?"

I used this quotation from Chuck Wendig in my article yesterday about how to create a great antagonist, but it's so good I'm going to use it again:
I hate that I love Hans Gruber. I love that I hate every Nazi in every Indiana Jones movie. For #$%$’s sake, make me feel something. (25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists)
So what we need to ask is whether there is anything that a story needs to have in order to elicit emotion. Is there some one thing that is absolutely essential for a story to stir the emotions of readers?

I don't think so.

Now hold on, don't throw anything at me yet!

There are some things that will turn readers off, that will prevent your stories from eliciting emotion. We'll take a look at those in a moment but first I have to tell you what writing really is:

Writing is telepathy.

Writing Is Telepathy

If you think I've gone completely batty you can blame Stephen King. It's his analogy from On Writing.

I hope Mr. King will forgive me for quoting extensively from his book but this is a terrific concept every writer needs in their toolbox.
And here we go—actual telepathy in action. You’ll notice I have nothing up my sleeves and that my lips never move. Neither, most likely, do yours.

Look—here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot-stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. (To colorblind receivers, the red tablecloth is the dark gray of cigar ashes.) Some may see scalloped edges, some may see straight ones. Decorative souls may add a little lace, and welcome—my tablecloth is your tablecloth, knock yourself out.

.... The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room … except we are together. We’re close.

We’re having a meeting of the minds.

I sent you a table with a red cloth on it, a cage, a rabbit, and the number eight in blue ink. You got them all, especially that blue eight. We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy. (Stephen King, On Writing)

Good And Bad Transmissions

Think of an old-fashioned radio. There are two reasons my grandparents turned off their radio.

Static. If there was a lot of static then whatever was being transmitted, music for instance, sounded horrible. The radio would get turned off even if it was playing everyone's favorite song.

Boring. If no one liked the song the radio would get turned off even if the signal was clear as a bell.

This corresponds to the two major ways stories can go wrong:

1) Static = Unusual grammar and infelicitous word choice

2) Boring = Boring

How To Test For Static

Unsure if a certain word or sentence or scene is static? Ask: If I removed it would the meaning be unchanged?

a) The cat was very fat.
b) The cat was fat.

I prefer (b).

As for sentences and scenes, ask whether they push the story forward. If they do, great! If they don't, cut them. Kill your darlings.

Unusual Grammar Adds Static

Writers sometimes consciously decide to not use correct grammar--in dialogue for instance--because this can help communicate something about the speaker.

That said, in general, the rules of grammar are there for a reason. If you follow them your writing will be clearer and easier to understand than if you don't.

Clear writing = no static.

Clear writing is good.

Anything that prevents your writing from being clear is bad. Why? Because, continuing with my radio analogy, it adds static to the signal and makes it harder to hear the song.

Infelicitous Word Choice Adds Static

Every writer has their bugaboos, their pet peeves. These are mine:

Very unique
- "Unique" doesn't admit of degrees. Either a thing is unique or it isn't.
- "Very" is an adjective that, generally speaking, can be taken out of a sentence without changing its meaning.

- "Decimate" is not a synonym for "obliterate".

English is my first language and yet I am continually learning, continually amazed by the complex and evolving nature of language--and of my often frail grasp of it. Everyone makes mistakes.

Remember, even if there is a tiny bit of static in the channel folks aren't going to turn off the radio as long as they like the song.

Creating A Clear Channel

I've compared writing to a transmission, or to the channel through which a transmission is made, and discussed various ways the signal can degrade.

Now I'd like to talk about clear channels; zero static transmissions.

I'd love to be able to say, "If you do this and that and the other thing, then your writing will be awesome. But then, of course, machines could do it and we'd all be out of work!

No, the best I can do is give you examples of writing that reaches into my soul and makes me want to write like that.

Neil Gaiman, M Is For Magic

Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.

Horror stays with you hardest. If it brings a real chill to the back of your neck, if once the story is done you find yourself closing the book slowly, for fear of disturbing something, and creeping away, then it’s there for the rest of time.

Ernest Hemingway, Hills Like White Elephants

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.
‘What should we drink?’ the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.
‘It’s pretty hot,’ the man said.
‘Let’s drink beer.’
‘Dos cervezas,’ the man said into the curtain.
‘Big ones?’ a woman asked from the doorway.
‘Yes. Two big ones.’
The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She put the felt pads and the beer glass on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.
‘They look like white elephants,’ she said.

If you haven't re-read Hills Like White Elephants recently, perhaps you'd like to. I just did, it took me five minutes. Each time I read it that story amazes me. Especially how I know what the characters are talking about even though they never say it. That story is all about subtext, about what is not being said. Brilliant.

As I wrote at the beginning, this was going to be a post about how to critique prefaced by a brief discussion of the nature of stories. (Sigh) I really do have trouble writing short!

I'll talk about critiques and critiquing tomorrow. Till then, happy writing! :-)

Update: Here's a link to The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 2: Formulating A Critique

Other articles you might like:

- 12 Tips On How To Write Antagonists Your Readers Will Love To Hate
- Editing & Critiquing
- The Albee Agency: Writers Beware

Photo credit: "Le Jour ni l’Heure 2225 : autoportrait avec un glossaire, Plieux, bibliothèque, samedi 12 mai 2012, 24:28:31" by Renaud Camus under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.