One of the best resources an author has in learning the craft is something most writers have done for years: taking in others’ stories. In fact, a love of books and story is likely what drew many writers into the field in the first place.
But expecting casual pleasure reading to automatically strengthen and improve your own writing is like looking at a Monet and thinking you’re learning how to paint a masterwork.
Even if you already read analytically, assessing a story’s strengths and weaknesses—even habitually dissecting books, movies, or shows after reading or viewing (in a way that probably drives your nonwriter friends and loved ones up a wall)—is just step one.
That’s the equivalent of an editor’s first cold read of a story: It gives a good general sense of what’s working well and what areas may benefit from strengthening or developing, but it’s not until the subsequent deep-dive analytical passes that an editor can determine on a practical, granular level what may not be holding together as well as it could, why not, and how an author can make the story as effective as possible.
Attaining that kind of analytical objectivity in your own work is one of the biggest challenges of self-editing. You may be “filling in the blanks,” that unconscious gap between the story on the page and the one that’s vividly in your head.
But learning to analyze books, movies, TV shows, and other forms of story offers you the built-in objectivity of an editor that you may lack with your own work. Once you learn to spot these elements in other people’s stories, it’s vastly easier to see your own with that same objective clarity.
That doesn’t mean you have to break out your red pencil and become Max Perkins. Ironically, objectively analyzing a story’s effectiveness starts with a highly subjective tool you already have at your literal fingertips: yourself and your own reactions.
Step 1: How are you affected?
The first and simplest way to start parsing out what’s making a story effective or not is to notice your own impressions of it. Think of this as the way you might sum up a book or movie or show you especially liked (or didn’t) to a friend: Did you like it? What about it did you like (or not)? Why? It’s like a mini review:
“It was tons of fun—I laughed all the way through, but it has real heart and packs an unexpected punch at the end.”
Try to be as specific and exhaustive as you can at this initial stage of assessment about your reactions to the story. Did the characters feel real, their tribulations and foibles hilariously recognizable and relatable? Did you care what happened to them? Was the plot one great, unexpected twist after another, the situations more and more engaging or precarious? Did you love (or hate) the dialogue, the action, the relationships? Did the story keep you guessing the whole time, surprise you with its ending, leave you feeling satisfied?
Keep asking yourself what stuck with you from the story, what affected you, and how it made you feel. This is the equivalent of the initial cold read a good editor does of a manuscript—what I call “feeling the story.” You’re not thinking too hard about anything at this stage, just paying attention to how the story made you feel.
Once you have your general impressions of the story in mind (or written down, if you work better that way), you can start to circle in a little closer.
Step 2: Where are you affected?
Once you know what’s affecting you, go back through and pinpoint where in the story specifically those feelings and reactions were elicited.
When did you first feel hooked into the character and care what became of her? Was there anywhere you put the book down and didn’t feel strongly compelled to pick it back up (or pressed pause)—or places where you couldn’t stop turning page after page? If you were on the edge of your seat, or felt emotional, or disengaged at any point, where was that in the story?
Identify the specific places where your reactions and impressions were elicited—what part of the story, what scene, what line, even what word. Sticky notes or “flags” can be helpful here to mark these areas (for step three, below).
The key is to be as specific and granular as possible: “I was all-in on the protagonist in act one” is helpful; “The scene in chapter two where we see how careful she is with someone else’s dog while pet-sitting really hooked me” is better; “The moment she tasted the can of dog food before feeding it to her friend’s beloved pet made me love her” is clearest and most useful of all.
Step 3: Why are you affected?
This is where you’ll start to turn your subjective impressions into objective assessment. Your reactions to a story aren’t happening incidentally; good authors use craft techniques intentionally to create the effect they intend. That’s why studying how they do it yields such high rewards in applying these techniques to your own writing.
Using your reactions and the specific places that elicited them, dig deeper: What exactly elicited your reaction, and how did the storyteller achieve that? In answering these questions, be specific and concrete.
Sticking with the (slightly gross) example above, let’s say, for example, that you were won over to the main character by her pre-tasting the dog’s food. Exactly what about that enchanted you—what did it indicate about the character that made you like or care about or invest in her?
Did it suggest she is considerate and respectful of what matters to others? Did it show how seriously she takes being entrusted with something a friend loves, or how conscientious she is about responsibility, or even just how much she loves dogs (more than enough to win over avid dog lovers, trust me)? Did her hilariously awkward, unexpected action indicate to you that she tries incredibly hard to do things right, or finds plucky solutions to unexpected problems, or is willing to do absolutely anything to get a job done?
With your answers you’ve just identified a whole host of techniques you might use in your own writing to make a character come across as relatable or intriguing. Craft tips like “Make readers invest in your main character” may be excellent writing advice, but they’re a bit general and vague.
But actually analyzing in this way how other stories and storytellers do this successfully (or not—paying attention to what doesn’t work in story can be as enlightening as what does) is how you learn, viscerally and concretely, how to put your intentions on the page.
If you learn to notice your own reactions to other people’s stories and dissect every element that causes a response or reaction in you, then you begin to build up a repertoire of techniques to use in your own writing to effectively convey the story you intend to tell. You train your editor brain in a way that makes you a better storyteller—and a better editor of your own work.
Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers. She is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing, and leads seminars and workshops for writers around the country. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she’s also the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren’t (Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.