Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

Today's author, Reyna Johnson, is a college sophomore who dreams up stories and delights in putting them on paper. She currently resides in Southern California. 

I'm sure you've heard that if you want to write well, you've got to read. Don't think I'm about to challenge that oft-repeated maxim, because I'm not. It's perfectly true.

It's just not complete.

In order to write well, you must do more than just read. You have to read well. You have to understand why what you read affects you the way it does. You have to understand why you care deeply about the fate of one character, but could not care less about another character. You have to understand why you read one book over and over, but cannot stand another. In short, you have to understand what separates good writing from bad.

So how do you go about this? The key is asking yourself questions about the different elements—such as plot, character, and style—that work together to make a story. The first step is identifying the plot of the story, something you likely already do. Ideally, you should be able to mentally chart the events in the story, and each should lead logically to the next. If you can't, what changes could you make to the plot so that its progression is logical?

Plot is great and all, but nobody cares about events without characters. A good character is more than just a name and a collection of facts. Think of your favorite character. Chances are, this character reads like a real person whom you know, the way you know your friends. You know what he would say or do in a given situation and what his values are. Next time you read the book featuring this character—or any other character that leaps off the page—pay attention to how the author crafts the character. How does the character behave? Think? Dress? Walk? How do these characteristics differ from those of other characters in the book?

Oftentimes, characterization is expressed through dialogue. Good dialogue both advances the story and stays true to life-like expression. Pay attention to conversations around you. Compare them to those in the books you read. As you do, you'll get a feel for what elements are intrinsic to natural conversation, and thus will gain a better understanding of what constitutes a realistic conversation. When you read a snippet of dialogue that strikes you as unrealistic, go one step further and try to figure out why. In what way does it stray from authenticity?

The way a story is told is very nearly as important as what is told. A good author tailors his phraseology, and pacing to create the most impact for his audience. Compare Tolkien's differing styles in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The former is a children's book, and Tolkien adopted a more informal, conversational tone, almost as though he is telling a child a bedtime story. The latter is more serious, and Tolkien's style changes, becoming grander and more formal. When you read, notice the word choice. Why does the author choose to phrase something one way, rather than another? How would the emotions evoked in a scene change if the author had written in a different style?

Lastly, pay attention to the theme, or the conclusion a story draws about life. Themes can be tricky because a single story often has multiple themes, not all of them intentional. Christian writers in particular tend to have difficulty in this area. Because we often come to the table with the intent of delivering a message wrapped in a story, it is so easy to let the theme overrule the story. A story that falls into this trap becomes preachy. And nobody likes to read a sermon when they're expecting to read a romance or thriller or comedy, just as few people want a rollicking adventure story when they sit down to study a sermon.

But like all else, there is a balance. The theme is what gives a story its weight and purpose, so to chuck it entirely is also a grave error. When you read, try to identify the theme. Is it presented in a way that's both unobtrusive and powerful, or does it lumber around the plot like a three-legged buffalo in a flowerbed?

Reading well—like writing well—takes practice. Chances are you won't be able to pick all these elements out and process them the next time you read a book. But after awhile, you'll notice you analyze stories more, and therefore have a better understanding of how to best craft your own stories. You will have moved from simply reading a book to using each story to improve your own writing.

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