Critique Technique, Part 4: Authorial Intentions and Tracking Your Own Responses

I wrote in the previous article 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 identifying 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  (and sometimes not even when you are) 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. Or, if the scene is supposed to be funny and you’re not getting even the slightest hint of a chuckle out of it, that’s a problem, too. On the other hand, a scene that’s doing what it was meant to do—and doing it well—is, from a writer’s perspective, a joy to read, even if it’s making you bawl your eyes out or scream in fright. Especially then.

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 laughing. Boredom is also an emotional response. So are frustration, confusion, delight, even sexual arousal. “Emotional” covers the full range of reactions.

Driving Factors

What factors drive or create your emotional response? First and foremost, character behavior. Ask yourself how you are responding to these factors.

  • 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?
  • How emotionally engaged are you with the characters? How much or how little do you care about them and what is happening to them?

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

Capture Your Response

Woman reading a book
Image courtesy of Marin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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;
  • Got it wrong—where what the author apparently wanted you to feel isn’t what you felt; or,
  • Left you confused or not knowing what to feel. Perhaps the intent was unclear, or the intention and the writing didn’t quite match.

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 capture that awareness and write it down.

Finally, when the writing isn’t successful, try to suggest to the author how he or she might achieve what you think they meant to.

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.

Your Thoughts

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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