Critique Technique, part 3

I wrote last time about keeping track of how a piece of writing makes you feel when you’re reviewing it. In this post, I was going to explore why it made you feel that way but I discovered I should introduce another topic first: “Is that what the author wanted me to feel?” Both questions—that one and “How did this piece make me feel?”—need to be followed by the questions “Why did the piece make me feel this way?” and “Why did the author want me to feel that way?”

Now, of course, you can’t have perfect knowledge of the author’s intent if you’re not the author  but some elements of common sense can apply. For example, if a scene seems like it’s supposed to be sad but it’s making you giggle, that’s a problem. Conversely, if the scene is supposed to be funny and you’re not even getting the slightest hint of a chuckle out of it, that’s a problem, too.

You will always have some kind of emotional response to a piece of writing. ALWAYS. “Emotional” doesn’t mean extreme emotion—uncontrollable sobbing or rolling-on-the-floor laughter. Boredom is also an emotional response. So are frustration, confusion, delight, even sexual arousal. “Emotional” covers the full range of reactions.

What factors drive or create your emotional response? First and foremost, character behavior.

  • What are the characters doing, thinking, saying, and feeling?
  • How are they interacting with each other, their environment, and their situation?
  • Are their behaviors consistent with or contrary to their situation or environment?
  • Are their behaviors what you expected, or did they surprise you?

Other things will affect your emotional response, too. Setting comes to mind, as do the story’s structure, the writer’s tone, even story’s pace, but the primary driver will be the characters.

To summarize, then: your job as a reviewer is to capture for the author where he or she:

  • Got it right—where the writing, the intent, and your response all came together; or
  • Got it wrong—where what the author wanted you to feel isn’t what you felt; or, perhaps most important,
  • Left you confused or not knowing what to feel—where the intent was unclear, the intention and the writing didn’t match, or the intention was clear but the writing didn’t accomplish it.

Then, you need to identify why you responded that way. This requires that awareness—”right now I’m feeling [emotion] because [the characters are doing/saying/feeling/thinking X, for example]”—and the ability to write that awareness down.

Finally, when the writing isn’t successful, you should try to suggest to the author how he or she ways he or she could achieve that success.

In later posts, we’ll get into the details of characterization, structure, setting, pace, tone, dialog, and narrative that will help you explain your response in more detail. As a new reviewer, however, this much is enough for you to be helpful to your fellow author.

What techniques do you use to track your emotional response to a piece of writing? Share them in the Comments below.

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