Tuesday, February 28, 2012

10 Questions I Ask the Voices in My Head While Reading

Book reviewers have an individual (or not so individual) approach when it comes to assessing a story, and because of this, reviews are highly subjective.  Some reviewers have general outlines or criteria, while others use a formulaic checklist.  Then, there are the book report summary types (my least favorite) and finally, the free-stylers.  I’d place myself in the free-styler category.  Although my reviews consist of an overall impression, they’re generally influenced and feature discussion about key writing elements. 
  • Character
  • Desire
  • Thematic Significance
  • Conflict
  • Change
  • Truth or believability (Yes, even in fiction)
  • Focused writing

When it comes to literature, I cannot seem to separate the writer from the reader.  And, why should I?  Elements are what I consciously or sometimes unconsciously look for when I’m reading.  Of course, I can enjoy a good tale for the sake of entertainment, but in order to be truly content and invested, I crave a multilayer thematic work. This often occurs when several elements are successfully satisfied.

So what separates the stars from the duds?  In the end, everyone wants to know what divides the bad, good and the great books.  Just like most things in life, it’s complicated.  However, I will share ten questions I ask myself when reading and evaluating a story. Note:  This is not a comprehensive list!  Below are several of the repeat offenders that needle my brain.  Depending on how I answer, it will ultimately affect a book’s overall rating and review.
1.    Why should I care?  This is the big “So what?” question.  Why is the story important? I don’t care what the genre is or the topic, but I do need to understand the overall purpose. I must be able to conclude on my own (not be told) why as the audience and reader, I should care.

2.    What are the themes?  I identify the general and sub-themes.  Is the story multi-layered or blanketed (i.e. love verses the impact of violence on youth in Detroit)?

3.    Do the elements play a specific importance and hold relevance in how they relate to the theme?  The best stories make use of every detail.  Nothing should be taken for granted.  The author starts with a blank canvas and can add whatever they want. I’m looking specifically for relevance.  This may include choice of clothing and setting, to the reason why an ashtray resting on an oak table was mentioned.  “Filler” will be noted and extraneous details dismissed and assumed they were planted to be misleading or deceitful. Golden rule: If it doesn’t function to support the story and makes know difference if removed, for Heaven’s sake, delete it during editing.  A rose is not simply a rose – not in fiction writing.  As a fiction reader, this is what I examine closely.  If a writer takes the time to include details or introduce a character (even minor) by the end of the book I should know why.  These are pieces of a puzzle and a good writer will use every nugget towards building thematic weight and expression.

4.   How does the social commentary relate to our present world? I'm looking for links to past, present and future.  How are they connected and how do they relate.  I should be able to string significance together.

5.    Is the author breaking the mold or making use of classic/established styles? This refers to the author's voice and confidence. Is there an awareness of 'voice' and is the author maintaining it consistently throughout the entire story.

6.    Regardless of genre, is it believable?  Meaning, believable within the confines of the story. Given what’s on the page, do I buy it?  Even the most far out, strange stories will be supported by credible information within the pages and grounded in some kind of structure that is implied and made apparently clear and established.

7.    Point of view and does it work?

8.    Does the author make the best use of when to zoom in on a scene and when to pull out? Dimensions. Not the outer space kind, but what I refer to as the wide-angle verses close up.  This also refers to scene development and timing. Staying too close can get exhausting for the reader and limit perception.  I call it ‘the talking head syndrome’ and remaining in wide angle creates a distance and separation, which can give the impression of being told, rather than experiencing the emotion or action. Detachment will ultimately negatively impact the “Why should I care?” question.

9.    Is the dialogue authentic?  I don’t care if the sentence is grammatically correct. If it makes the character sound like a robot and conveys little or nothing about them, it’s useless.  Is it genuine?  Moreover, would this character say and think these things?  If he/she is the type who would swear, I better read it or I won’t believe it.  A gosh darn from a god damn it character makes me cringe.

10. Has the author unknowingly or intentionally inserted his/her own beliefs, values, morals and opinions into the text and/or censored the content or characters?  Did they play it safe and lessen the emotional tension?  This tends to occur with sensitive or highly controversial themes and topics.  I’ll actually highlight passages and paragraphs noting, ‘Oops, author’s voice.’  It’s similar to an actor breaking character.  For me as a reader, this is like a big green booger has been flicked on the page. Ewwww! 


  1. Great post! I would consider myself a freestyler too. Oftentimes I will pull out one element from the book and spend a good chunk of my review examining it. But I always try to address (or at least consider in my own mind) characters, plot, believability, writing, etc.

  2. Charlie, you have almost posted a how-to. Those are such valid points, and they are just as technical as any grammar constraint.

    Good books should 'feel' and 'sound' comfortable. Pristine grammar and proper punctuation are useless in a flat, antiseptic narrative style.