Writers, ask yourself these 8 questions when you’re reading
As writers, we have to approach the reading experience in a unique way. Not only are we reading for enjoyment, but to learn from skillful authors. I call it “reading with an eye for craft.”
I’m a big proponent of rereading your favorite novels, because it’s a valuable learning opportunity. In a previous article, I mentioned that rereading trains writers to identify the elements of a strong story. It’s also a way for us to better learn our personal preference.
Reading with an eye for craft takes practice, so here’s a list of specific questions to guide your rereading (using what I hope are recognizable examples in fiction!):
How does the author get you to care about the main character?
A beginning question might be, why do you care about the main character? When you’ve answered that question, take a step back to think about how the author has endeared you to this character.
Notice I haven’t asked, ‘why do you like the main character?’ It’s not about likeability. There are plenty of awesome novels starring unlikeable protagonists. How does that work? We don’t have to like a character to sympathize with their goals.
You’ll want to keep an eye out for that moment in the first few pages or scenes in which the main character “saves the cat.”
This is a reference to the popular screenwriting book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This moment happens early in the novel, and while it may be something small, it’s critical for cementing the readers’ empathy…
“It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.” ~ Blake Snyder, Save the Cat!
Take Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, for example… she’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy heroine. But in the first few pages of the book, she takes risks to provide for her younger sister.
This works on so many levels — but especially because it foreshadows the “big” turning point of Act I when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. (“I volunteer as tribute!”) And we’ll follow Katniss wherever she goes.
The protagonist may be cold, unfeeling, sarcastic, bitter, you name it — but the “save the cat” moment will illustrate some other characteristic, or a glimpse into their psyche, that inspires us to root for their success.
So long as we’re invested in seeing the protagonist get what they want, we’re hooked for the rest of the story.
What do you admire structurally? What do you appreciate about the way the plot unfolds?
Think ‘order of events.’ Why do you keep reading? It’s the author’s job to keep you hooked from beginning to end… one thing leads to another, and you can’t put it down.
Harry Potter is a great example of structure. Except for “Deathly Hallows,” the first six books follow the same timeline — each novel opens with Harry at the Dursleys’ for summer break, and then we follow him to Hogwarts for another school year.
As a reader, I appreciate the familiarity of this timeline. When I open a Harry Potter novel, I know what to expect.
And yet, it’s not so formulaic that any of the Harry Potter plots feel predictable — in fact, it’s the opposite. There’s so much room for J.K. Rowling to be creative, even within the boundaries she’s set.
How did the author set things up for the climax or plot twist? Did you pick up on something you hadn’t before?
Foreshadowing, my friends! Now that you know how it all ends, are you able to pick out the signposts along the way? These are the small details you may have missed the first time around, but now you know are significant to the “big reveal” at the end of the book.
When you read The Hunger Games for the first time, the climax is shocking. Throughout the course of the book, you know there are only two options for Katniss — either she wins the games, or she does not (i.e. she dies).
And, yes, while it’s true she survives (that’s no spoiler, there are multiple books!), the ending is still a twist on what us readers expected.
When you reread the books, the climactic moment is less of a shocker because Katniss’ earlier acts of defiance stand out like neon signs. These are all hints at what is to come.
“I started as a playwright. Any sort of scriptwriting you do helps you hone your story. You have the same demands of creating a plot, developing relatable characters and keeping your audience invested in your story. My books are basically structured like three-act plays.” ~ Suzanne Collins
Has your opinion of a particular character or plot point changed?
You might think there’s no way this could happen — your mind is made up, and your opinion is not going to change.
But it’s interesting when it does happen, and it’s usually for one of two reasons: (1) you know something more now about a character than you did before, or (2) you’re approaching the novel with a new perspective (as a result of new experiences or growth).
When we learn something more about a particular character, it’s usually either that a ‘good guy’ is actually a villain, or a ‘villain’ is one of the good guys. It’s a lot of fun to reread and pick out those nuances you misinterpreted before.
The classic example of this is Snape from Harry Potter. When you’ve read the books and you (finally!) know the truth, you can go back to the beginning and read through this lens.
Another of my favorite examples is The Darkling in Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone. What you think is a classic love triangle is something else entirely, and unfortunately I can’t say more than that (trying to avoid spoilers!).
I couldn’t not mention Tamlin and Rhysand in Sarah J Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses. Maas pulls a bait and switch that originally left me feeling frustrated — but when I reread the first book with an eye for what I now knew, my perspective completely changed.
And, of course, sometimes you’ve changed. The characters are the same, no plot-altering information was revealed, but you’re in a new season of life and you view the events of the story in a new light.
Maybe you sympathize with a character in a way you couldn’t before. Maybe a character’s actions make you angry in a way they didn’t before.
How did the author “break the rules” to surprise the reader?
Great writers must master the rules before they can break them. The authors you reread break the rules, and they do it well.
In Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass series, one of her characters begins to go by a new name in the third book. Like, a completely different name.
And from that point forward, even the third-person narration refers to this character by the new name, rather than the name the reader has become accustomed to since book 1. THAT takes guts. It’s a risk; Maas risks confusing readers, or losing their buy-in. And yet, it works.
In a way, she creates two identities for this character, even though they are still the same person. And as a reader, it helps create a contrast between who the character is now and who they were at the beginning. I didn’t have any trouble following the character’s story from that point on.
If the book is part of a series, how does it fit into the larger series arc?
I love book series because I get to spend more time in a story world with characters I love. There’s more room for exploration and growth, and readers have an opportunity to get to know the characters on a more intimate level.
That said, the potential pitfall of a series is a middle book with a sagging plot, as the author attempts to get the characters from Point A to Point B (i.e. books 1 and 3).
The best series are the ones in which each novel plays an important role in the character’s journey. There’s a clear arc for each of the books, while together they make up the big picture series arc. The character must be changed in some way by the events of each book.
Each of the Harry Potter books, for example, captures a new season in Harry’s life. When you reread the novels, it’s clear how each book ups the stakes for Harry’s survival and the battle against Voldemort.
In Book 1, Harry enters into the wizarding world for the first time. He hardly knows anything about the villain who murdered his parents and gave him his lightning-shaped scar. By Book 4, he’s trying to prevent Voldemort from coming back to life — and by Book 5, convincing the magical community that Voldemort has returned.
These are a few questions to keep in mind as you reread your favorite books. Rereading doesn’t have to be a scientific exercise, picking apart the book in a clinical way — it’s about developing a familiarity for the story and the characters so storytelling patterns jump out at you.
As writers, we need to learn to identify structural elements and understand what makes stories great. That’s how we’ll develop our own unique writing style and voice. So go forth and reread… without feeling guilty for “wasting time” ever again.