How to Critique Fiction

by Victory Crayne

Copyright © 1995-2012 Victory Crayne. All rights reserved.

See Also:
"Career Plan for Fiction Writers"

"How to Succeed in an Online Writing Workshop"

Writing Resources (links)

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How to Critique Fiction

by Victory Crayne

Introduction

Ever wonder how some critics can find some weaknesses
in your work whereas others gloss right over them?

You pour your energy and nine-tenths of your soul into a story. Night and day you wrestle with yourself over every page, every word at your keyboard, typewriter, or notepad. You are writing every day, aren't you? At last, you're finished! With nervous anxiety you take the next daring step - letting someone else, maybe another writer, editor, friend, or even enemy open to the first page and start reading.

You wonder - is this your masterpiece? Have you learned at last how to write a best seller? You really tried hard to do so much better on this one. You wait, as if standing in front of the judge at your murder trial. Will the verdict be 'Not Guilty'? Will the jury yell and wave their arms in praise?

Or - will you hear those awful words - 'GUILTY of Bad Writing'?

A professional learns to systematically organize their knowledge of how to write well. One area of knowledge is how to do a professional critique - a really detailed, rip it up and tear it apart critique, hitting it from all angles, until every weakness stands raw and exposed.

Here is a checklist of points and questions on many aspects of fiction writing that may be useful to you - or your chosen favorite critic - in evaluating works of fiction.

There are many different styles of critiquing, of course. The checklist and questions presented here are offered as food for thought, not as a strict set of rules. Very few people will try to answer every one of these points/questions.

After you finish your next piece, or part of it, set it aside for a few days. Then haul out this article, put on your Critic Hat, and go through these questions for your work.

See you on the Bestseller's List!

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Table of Contents

  1. The critique process
    1. Let the author know if this is not your favorite type of story.
    2. Write down your impressions as a reader.
    3. Try to give feedback on what could be changed.
    4. Give examples of improvements, if possible.
    5. Praise where praise is due.
    6. Never criticize the author personally.
    7. Critique as you would want to be critiqued.
  2. The checklist (things to look for)
    1. Opening
    2. Conflict
    3. Plot
    4. Setting
    5. Characterization
    6. Dialogue
    7. Point of View
    8. Show versus tell
    9. Format of the text
    10. Grammar and spelling
    11. Style
  3. Some tips
    1. Tell if it's not your favorite kind of story.
    2. Don't be afraid to critique something if you're not familiar with the genre.
    3. Read how other critiques are done.
    4. Consider the target readers.
    5. Give your relevant experiences (optional).
    6. Short stories versus novels.
  4. Recommended reading
    1. For fiction in general
    2. For science fiction
    3. Misc.Writing's recommended reading list
  5. Acknowledgements

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1. The critique process

  1. Don't read other critiques of this story yet.

    Doing so would likely bias your review. The author would much prefer your unbiased and fresh impression.

  2. Write down your impressions as a reader.

    Was the story captivating from the very first few paragraphs? Did you enjoy reading it? What type of person would this book appeal to? Do you think that the story or book has sales potential?

  3. Try to give feedback on what could be changed.

    Remember, the purpose of writing a critique is twofold: (1) identify the weaknesses in the piece and (2) offer some constructive advice to the author that might lead to improvement in the story. To just bash the story without providing something useful to the author is not really being professional.

  4. Give examples of improvements, if possible.

    When you give an example of a better way to do what you pointed out, you make your point much clearer to the author. As they say, 'an example is worth a thousand words'.

  5. Praise where praise is due.

    Did you remember to add some positive comments on the piece, where the author did something you thought was very good?

    "I feel I have a decent critical eye. But when I think I see a touchdown, I cheer. That's feedback, too. Why should all the mistakes find their targets, but the successes meet with only silence--leaving the poor writer, who has poured out her/his heart, with nothing but: no, no, no, ... As [critics], don't we have a responsibility to not only point out what needs changing, as we see it, but also what worked and why, so the writer WON'T change it and will be encouraged to produce more of the same?" - J. R. Lankford (Jilla).

    "We all need to be told where we are very good as well as where we are very, very bad. We cannot grow, otherwise." - Pete Murphy

    "I think there's a sometimes overlooked purpose in critiquing and that is to identify the strengths in a story as well, to offer encouragement and positive reinforcement in regard to those strengths, thereby preventing the possibility that the author will change, for the worse, those things that make the story good." - Debra Littlejohn Shinder

  6. Never criticize the author personally. Focus your attention on the story as written.

  7. Critique as you would want to be critiqued.

    Ask yourself before you post or mail a critique: Is this an example of the way I would like to be treated?

2. The checklist (things to look for)

  1. Opening

    Do the first few sentences or paragraphs of the story grab your attention? Do they present the protagonist's main problem? Remember how you judge a book or story when you first see it in a bookstore. Don't we often base our decision to buy or not buy upon those first few sentences? Did this author grab your attention fast enough?

  2. Conflict

    1. By conflict, I do not mean lots of slam-bam action. Conflict is "The mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims. That is the kind of conflict that makes stories vitally alive." - Ben Bova in "The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells".

    2. Is there emotional conflict WITHIN the main character? Between the main characters? Emotional conflict is part of what gets readers interested. For example: love vs. loyalty; greed vs. duty; fear vs. desire; revenge vs. self-doubt.

    3. Are there too many or not enough conflicts?

      "The writer's job is to be a troublemaker! Stir up as many levels of conflict and problems for your protagonist (hero) as you can. Let one set of problems grow out of another. And never, never, never solve a problem until you've raised at least two more. It is the unsolved problems that form the chain of promises that keeps the reader interested." - Ben Bova.

      Until the end, of course, when all the conflicts should be resolved.

    4. Is there enough conflict between the characters? Is it expressed through action, dialogue, attitudes, or values? Were the characters sufficiently contrasted? Or did they seem to be totally satisfied with their roles? Did they have the potential to transform each other?

  3. Plot

    1. Was the main plot clear and believable?

    2. Did the main character have a clearly defined problem to solve? Did you feel by the end of the piece that this problem was solved or did the character become resolved to live with it?

    3. Were you able to determine the time and place of the story quickly enough?

    4. Did the story start at the right place? Did it end at the right place in the plot?

    5. Are there scenes which do not seem to further the plot?

    6. Were there too many flashbacks, which broke your attention?

    7. If the piece was a short story, were there too many subplots? If the piece was a novel, could it be improved by more attention to the subplots or have more subplots? Conversely, does it have too many subplots and you got confused about what was happening?

    8. Was every subplot useful? Did it add to the overall story or did the author seem to stick it in just for complexity?

    9. Pacing: Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep the reader's attention?

    10. Resolution of conflict: Did the conflict and tension in the plots and subplots come to some reasonable ending? Or did the author leave us hanging, wondering what happened? When you finished, were there things that you still felt needed to be explained?

      If the author did leave some conflict unresolved, did they indicate somewhere that future stories are pending?

  4. Setting

    1. Is there enough description of the background in the story to paint a picture that seems real enough for the reader? Did you feel that you were transported to 'that time or place'?

    2. Was there too much description so modern readers might tend to become bored? Was the description written with cliches?

    3. Did the author use good enough names for people, places, and things? Names help set the tone for a story. Were some names of people hard to keep track of? Did some names seem inconsistent with the character? Were the names too stereotypical?

      "The reader would have a tough time imagining a two-fisted hero named Elmer Small, but James Retief comes across just fine as a hero in Keith Laumer's stories. Similarly, Bubbles La Toure is hardly the name of a saintly nun, whereas Modesty Blaise is a sexy and intriguing name for a female counterpart of James Bond." - Ben Bova.

    4. Did the author convince you that people in that time or place would behave that way?

    5. Is the timing and order of events in the story consistent? For example, did John drive his new car on his vacation in chapter six but it wasn't until chapter ten that he bought it?

  5. Characterization

    1. Did the people seem real? Or were the main characters stereotypes or one-dimensional cardboard characters?

    2. Were the facts about the characters accurate and consistent?

      "It's very important in building characters to make sure your 'facts' are accurate and consistent. If you mention in chapter two that your sister's birth sign is Leo, and then in chapter twelve, you have her celebrating her birthday during a snowfall (unless she lives at the north pole [or in the southern hemisphere]), credibility will be lost. Even if the reader doesn't key in on exactly 'what' is wrong with the picture, he/she will have a disquieting sense that 'something' is." - Debra Littlejohn Shinder

    3. People do not exist in a vacuum. They have family, friends, a job, worries, ambitions, etc. Did you get a sense of enough of these, but not too much, for the main characters?

    4. Did you get a good picture of the culture, historical period, location, and occupation of the main character?

    5. Did you get enough of a sense of paradoxes within the character? Enough of their emotions, attitudes, values?

    6. Backstory: Were you distracted by too much background information of a character at one time? Did the author seem to dump a lot of information on the background of a character in one or two long speeches, or did we learn about that character here and there in smaller pieces?

    7. Did the protagonist undergo some change in the story?

    8. Could the story have been improved by adding more details of the protagonist's or another character's reputation; stereotyped beliefs; their network of relations to other people; habits and patterns; talents and abilities; tastes and preferences; or physical description of their body?

    9. Does each chapter/page have enough sensory description? Can the reader easily sense what is happening physically to the main character? Were there enough words of sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste?

    10. If the story used a person as the antagonist (villain), did they seem real too? Or did they seem so evil or one-sided that they were more like ideal villains? Did they have some redeeming qualities too? Did the villain seem to be a hero in their own mind?

    11. Every reader has their own taste in how much characterization they like. Did this story have too little or too much characterization for you?

  6. Dialogue

    1. Did the words from the mouths of the people in the story seem consistent with their personalities?

    2. Was there too much or not enough dialogue, in your opinion? Usually writers err on the side of not enough dialogue.

    3. Did any character tend to talk in long monologues?

    4. Were you able to sense the conflict, attitudes, and intentions of each character in their dialogue without the author telling you of these directly?

    5. Were you able to detect any exchange of power that is sexual, physical, political, or social?

    6. Did the dialogue seem easy to speak? Can you 'hear' it? If it sounds unusual, you might suggest that the writer try reading it aloud.

    7. Does the dialogue seem TOO MUCH like normal speech, with too many incomplete sentences, pauses, restarts, profanity, cliches, etc. that it was distracting?

    8. Did the author use dialect that was too heavy, making it difficult to read?

    9. Does each character have their own speech rhythm, accent (if necessary), vocabulary, and even length of sentences?

    10. In an exchange of conversation, can you easily tell who is speaking if you didn't have their names or gender attached to their sentences?

  7. Point of View

    1. Was a given chapter or section written from one person's point of view? Are there too many points of view in the story?

    2. Did the story skip around between the first person or third person point of view (POV)? Were the changes in POV signaled clearly? There is nothing inherently wrong in changing POV, as long as it is not done too often.

    3. If the story was written in the third person POV, as most stories are, did the story stick with the omniscient (all knowing) POV, use a limited POV (where we don't know everyone's motives except by clues from their words or actions), or did the author mix the two? Did the author's choice seem right to you?

      "The key point is to get the reader to engage in a contract in which the writer offers: 'I'm not going to show you everything in the character's head because that would spoil the story for you. Instead, I will reveal things as we go along but I promise that I won't cheat.'" - Trevor Lawrence

    4. When the POV changed, were you able to quickly sense who the new viewpoint was from?

  8. Show versus tell

    1. When in the POV of a character, did the author describe what his/her senses showed, e.g., sight, sound, smell, touch, taste? Or did the author just tell you the dinner was very good?

    2. Did the author describe exactly how the people acted?

    3. Was there too much abstract language where specific details would have made a greater impact on the reader?

    4. Were there many instancesere of words like "very", "much", "really", "great", or "nice" when a more detailed description would have been more colorful?

    5. Did we get the chance to interpret what the characters were feeling or did the author just tell us directly? For example, I once wrote: "Two weeks later, after more hours than he cared to remember, Jet felt very, very tired" and let it go at that and missed the opportunity to describe his fatigue instead.

  9. Format of the text

    1. Was it easy to read or were the paragraphs too long or the lines too long (not enough margin)?

    2. Would it help to put blank lines between paragraphs? If the piece is to be read on a computer monitor, adding a blank line between paragraphs will make it much easier for your critics to read. Note: when you submit the final version to print publishers, it is best to adhere to their manuscript format (no blank lines between paragraphs).

  10. Grammar and spelling

    1. Was the English readable? Were there too many grammatical errors, misuse of punctuation, run-on sentences, etc.?

    2. Did you point out any typos or misspelling? How many times have you missed that in your writing because you passed over it without seeing it? Were there so many such errors that they made reading the piece difficult for you?

    3. Did the author use too many exclamation points (one of my weaknesses)?

    4. Were there any cliches in the narrative? For example, I once wrote "fruits of mother nature" and "thoughts burning in his mind", both of which are cliches. In dialogue cliches are okay if the character would speak that way.

    5. Did the author use melodrama? For instance, I once wrote: "With tears in her eyes and barely able to speak, the head nurse dialed the Chief of Staff. There would be a lot of crying tonight." Can't you just hear the violins in the background?

  11. Style

    You may wish to comment on the style the story was written in, e.g., humorous, wordy, sparse, literary, homespun, technical, etc.

3. Some tips

  1. Let the author know if this is not your favorite type of story.

    This may help them better understand your viewpoint. Things you do not like in the story may very well appeal to a fan of that genre.

  2. "But don't be afraid to critique something, even if it's 'outside your genre'. There are certain things that are important to ALL types of fiction, and any good writer/critiquer should be able to pick them out. I get some of my best critiques from people who 'never read science fiction'." - Joan Shapiro

  3. Read how other critiques are done.

    "I think reading critiques in general -- perhaps about other unrelated stories -- can help a new critic see how it's done. For example, I agree to critique a story -- and because I don't know any better, I spout off personal preferences ("I don't like female heroines!" or "Do you really have to use religious imagery? Religion turns me off." -- when those things may be central to the story and nothing more than my own tastes). Reading good critiques may help a newbie learn that a pro offers objective advice about more tangible problems (character development, grammar, advancing the plot, use of dialogue)." - Anthony Boyd

  4. Consider the target readers.

    Do you as a critic have a good idea of the type of readers this author was writing for? Before you criticize something that you may not like personally, ask yourself: who are the readers this author wants to write for? Is this appropriate for that audience?

  5. Give your relevant experiences (optional).

    If you have some experience or knowledge that is very relevant to a comment of yours, you might mention it. For instance, when I found the description of a device in a computer to be in error, I pointed it out to the author, suggested an alternative that would be more plausible to computer sophisticated readers, and qualified my comments by telling her of my years of computer experience. By the way, she thanked me.

  6. Short stories versus novels.

    1. When critiquing a short story, remember that every word must count. Are there sentences and/or paragraphs that don't appear to contribute substantially to the story and maybe should be thrown out?

    2. Are there too many subplots? In short stories, one subplot may be okay, but two or more is often just too much.

    3. Did the author go overboard on flashbacks? Generally in short stories, flashbacks should be used very sparingly.

    4. Novels, however, not only allow more room for expression, talk, details, and moods, but readers of novel expect more.

4. Recommended reading

  1. For fiction in general

    1. "Characters and Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card

    2. "Creating Unforgettable Characters" by Linda Seder

    3. "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" by James N. Frey

    4. "How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II" by James N. Frey

    5. "Art of Fiction" by John Gardner

    6. "Becoming a Novelist" by John Gardner

    7. "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass

  2. For science fiction

    1. "How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy" by Orson Scott Card

    2. "The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells" by Ben Bova

    3. "The Writer's Guide to Creating a Science Fiction Universe" by George Ochoa and Jeffrey Ogier

    4. "How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction" edited by J. N. Williamson

5. Acknowledgements

The author wishes to express sincere gratitude to the following people who have contributed valuable ideas to this document: Anthony Boyd, J. R. Lankford (Jilla), Trevor Lawrence, Pete Murphy, Christopher Olson, Joan Shapiro, and Debra Littlejohn Shinder.

*** END ***

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