How to read like a writer (step 1 to becoming a master storyteller)

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I’m often shocked to hear some novice writers say that they don’t read much. I heard this on Reddit recently (I’m paraphrasing):

I want to be a writer, but I don’t like to read books — I prefer to play video games.

Many video games can reveal storytelling technique. The same goes for screenplays and audio dramas and telenovelas. But there’s no way around it: A writer of fiction — short stories, novellas, or novels — must read books. And lots of them.

But how?

I still remember, as an adolescent, first reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (my dad had an old Scribner Library paperback edition). I’ve reread it since, still enjoying it as a reader – but also as a writer, studying its fictional craft.

Reading like a writer is different from reading like a reader or an academic (as we’re so often taught in school).

As a writer, you must read with your brain split in two: one half relaxes and acts like a reader, reacting viscerally to each twist and turn; the other half keeps a keen eye on the choices the writer has made and how those choices — or techniques — create an emotional effect.

In other words, you allow yourself to feel what the story does to you, and then investigate why that happened.

This requires close reading. Before we get to a close reading of “The Apple Tree” by Daphne Du Maurier, let’s look at writerly questions you can ask when you read.

The questions writers should ask while reading

Below are questions to ask while reading fiction, whether that’s a novel, novella, or short story, organized into 5 categories:

1. First and last impressions

  • Close your eyes and think of the story. What image comes to mind? Why do you think that’s the strongest image?
  • What feeling does the story leave you with?
  • What questions are you left with?
  • Did any parts of the story make you stumble and fall out of the fictional dream? If so, why do you think that happened?

2. Structure

  • When does the story begin? When does it end?
  • What is the inciting incident or catalyst of the story? What happens to disrupt the status quo?
  • What major turning points can you see — such as a midpoint or a climax?
  • What formal breaks are used in the text, and how do they show structure or affect the flow?

3. Characters

  • Why does the story focus on the main character and not another? How do you feel about the main character? What about the secondary characters?
  • What is the main character’s story goal and how does it change by the end?

4. Narration

  • Why use this point of view? If the story relies on multiple viewpoints, why do you think that’s the case?
  • How would you describe the style of narration — or voice? How does this voice affect the telling of the story?
  • How do keys words and sentence structures add up to a distinctive voice? What language is particularly vivid? How do words and sentences change during the story to create different effects — e.g. slowing the pace, increasing tension, adding uncertainty, introducing comedy?
  • Which parts of the story are shown in a scene and which are told via summary? Why do you think these choices were made?

5. Takeaways

  • What techniques can you identify that you can add to your writing toolbox?

As a beginning writer — or even one with more experience — it’s worthwhile to keep this list handy as you read. And you can add to it, of course, if you have other questions you find helpful.

Wait, what? I have to analyze the books as I read them — this sound worse than my English class in school.

Personally, I enjoyed English class, but I know many people lost their desire to read in school. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you pick up a new novel, read a paragraph, stop, check the list above, answer each question, then move on. That would deny the readerly half of your brain the pleasure of the fictional dream.

(In fact, it’s crucial that you strengthen your readerly muscles, the ones that allow you to laugh and cry and scream in the right places.)

How to approach novels, novellas, and short stories

  • Ideally read a novel all the way until the end to get an uninterrupted, first impression. Alternatively, stop after 1-3 chapters (depending on their length), and then go over the questions above.
  • Read a novella or short story all the way through, reviewing it afterward with the questions in mind.

Your dual reader-writer vision will get stronger over time, and you should start to notice that your unconscious is processing the questions, even as you stay emotionally engaged in the story.

But I’ve heard writers say they stop enjoying books because they’re so aware of technique, and they see nothing but problems. Is that true?

Don’t fear. I can’t speak for others, but in my experience — and I read widely, everything from experimental literary fiction to pulp mysteries — I still enjoy stories where I see shortcomings.

Sure, there is fiction I can’t stomach now that I loved many years ago, but that’s part of developing as a writer, reader, and human being. Lots of readers who don’t study the craft of fiction have the same experience. The more we read, the more discerning we become. Good thing there’s an endless supply of story out there.

Reading up, down, and across

That endless supply of story leads to my next belief:

We should all read widely.

It’s important as human beings, because it broadens our minds, and potentially make us more empathetic, open-minded individuals (by improving our social-cognitive abilities).

As writers, it’s doubly important, because it helps us build a repertoire of techniques — a box full of amazing tools.

Here are some examples:

  • Technique: Write a crowd scene in a story without creating a muddle.
    • Check out: James Joyce’s “The Dead” (classic short story)
  • Technique: Establish a sympathetic but unreliable narrator.
    • Check out: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (literary fiction)
  • Technique: Create an oppressive, gothic setting — but modern (not e.g. Dracula or Wuthering Heights)
    • Check out: P.D. James’s The Black Tower (mystery)
  • Technique: A first-person coming-of-age novel, where the protagonist suffers cruelty and isolation.
    • Check out: Robin Hobb’s The Assassin’s Apprentice (fantasy)
  • Technique: Write a story about grief in old age.
    • Check out: William Trevor’s “Cheating at Canasta” (short story)

If you only read in your own genre and only the writers you are most familiar with, you’re limiting your access to tools. A carpenter whose toolbox only contains a hammer and a flathead screwdriver cannot attempt any but the most basic jobs.

Reading widely equips you not only with technique, but also with a mental register you can refer to when you need to find the right book to emulate.

But I don’t have time to read widely. I hardly have time to read in my own genre.

I can relate. But trust me, it’s worth the extra effort. If you struggle to find time to read widely, check out short stories and podcasts — they might be a better start than tackling a long list of novels.

Reading widely means you:

  • Read across genres (e.g. romance, westerns, horror, domestic realism, sci-fi)
  • Read across time (e.g. ancient Greeks, Victorian novels, modernists, contemporary)
  • Read across cultures (e.g. writers from abroad and subjects differing from your gender, ethnic, class, sexual, or religious identification)

Every word you write is a choice. The more you read, the more options you have at your disposal — the more ways to affect the reader.

So, let’s take a look at some choices made in a published work of fiction.

Reading “The Apple Tree” closely

Let’s take a close look at the opening paragraph of a story — “The Apple Tree” by Daphne Du Maurier:

It was three months after she died that he first noticed the apple tree. He had known of its existence, of course, with the others, standing upon the lawn in front of the house, sloping upwards to the field beyond. Never before, though, had he been aware of this particular tree looking in any way different from its fellows, except that it was the third one on the left, a little apart from the rest and leaning more closely to the terraceLorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

How do you feel reading this paragraph, imagining the scene? Personally, I got goosebumps. There’s something terribly wrong about that tree standing apart from the others, and since we’ve had the mention of death, it can’t be good.

Let’s look at it line by line.

It was three months after she died that he first noticed the apple tree.

The story begins with a deliberate sense of time. But it’s not, “It was October 3rd, 1967,” or some other date. Notice that the time is related to “her” death, which immediately suggests the death will be central to the story. As will the apple tree, which is mentioned at the end of the first sentence.

Note also that the narrator — which, at once, is established as third-person point of view — refers to the other person as “she.” Not by name. Not as “his wife.” But simply “she.” It shows we are deep within his perspective, yes, but maybe it also hints at his feelings for her. He can’t even speak her name.

And all of this happens within the first sentence, because the author has made deliberate choices.

He had known of its existence, of course, with the others, standing upon the lawn in front of the house, sloping upwards to the field beyond.

This is an odd way to describe the trees: He had known of their existence. It suggests they are strangers to him, even if they are in his backyard. Could they have belonged to his wife?

In this sentence, we get a sense of the lay of the land: There is a lawn in front of the house and it slopes upward toward a field beyond. No description of other houses. This might be remote. The protagonist might be fairly isolated.

Never before, though, had he been aware of this particular tree looking in any way different from its fellows, except that it was the third one on the left, a little apart from the rest and leaning more closely to the terrace.

This is the inciting incident or catalyst for the story. A change has occurred to disrupt the main character’s status quo. The trees ought simply to be trees, three of them standing side by side. But the protagonist seems to think one of them now looks different, and it’s “leaning more closely to the terrace.” That suggests movement. Movement toward him.

Why three? That number is deliberate. Three together suggest order, but two with one “a little apart” hint at disorder — it’s imbalanced and unsettling.

We don’t know exactly where the viewpoint character is standing yet. Is he on the terrace or inside a house? At this point, I imagine him looking out a window, probably because the story begins with observation of a yard and that suggests looking through a house window. (In fact, the next paragraph will reveal that he’s standing by a window.) But even this is a choice the writer has made — perhaps to put us deep into his viewpoint while also making us feel uncomfortably disembodied. Where is he? How close is that creepy tree?

Did you notice the voice in the paragraph? The commas that create little interruptions, little rhythms of uncertainty, hesitation. Also, the confident of course in “He had known of its existence, of course…,” soon undermined by the though in the next sentence: “Never before, though, had he been aware of this particular tree…”

Now read the paragraph again and consider the choices the writer did not make.

  • Viewpoint: The third-person point of view gives us something different than first person. A first-person narrator traps us in his perspective, making objectivity difficult and easily suggesting he might be unreliable. Is he going crazy? Instead, we have greater trust in what he sees. Also, there’s baked-in vulnerability to the third-person point of view. First-person narrators must almost always survive the end of their story.
  • Setting and descriptions: The writer did not choose just one tree. Or a tree that comes alive as the man watches and starts crawling across the terrace. Or a small lawn surrounded by other suburban houses, complete with neighbors raking leaves and kids playing ball.
  • Did you notice other choices the writer made?

We’ll stop here, but the point is that we can get a lot out of reading fiction and thinking about not only what was done, but also what wasn’t done. Sometimes what wasn’t done can give us ideas — especially if we read fiction and notice a choice we didn’t think worked at all. Maybe another choice would have worked better. Maybe we should try it ourselves.

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