The Count of Monte Cristo is a great example of how a writer uses plot to build suspense (above)
So you’ve decided you want to be a writer…… Congratulations. Anything you read from this point forward will now be ruined. Just kidding. On a more serious note, it will benefit your writing to read as much as possible, as long as you read critically, and try to recognise good and bad things about the text. You may enjoy reading more once you know more about the craft, as you will feel satisfied when you notice something which could have been better, and inspired when you notice little bits of magic, and you can note and give reasons for why they were magical. Here are some critical questions which you could ask whilst reading, which with practice you will be able to use to proof and improve your own work.
1. What is it about? – The first thing you should ask. Is there a strong theme or plot to the text and does the writer stick to it throughout the book? Based on the books title and cover how far does the book go towards meeting the expectations of the reader?
2. Is it relevant and applicable to your own life? – How do you feel you can relate to the book? Did the characters feel real and believable and how did this affect your enjoyment of the book as a whole? Was the book a true and honest representation of life, and was it meant to be?
3. What were the writers motives behind writing the book? – And how does this show in the book? Is it an article of self reflection or is there political and religious messages behind the book? Was it just written to thrill the reader? Does the writer display any hidden bias or untruths?
4. How is the narrative of the text written, and how does this compare to other texts? – Is it mostly dialogue? Who is the narrator and what role do the play in the story? Are they passive or active, and does the narrator change? To look at some examples, ‘Arthur and the Seeing Stone’ by Kevin Crossley Holland contains a large amount of dialogue in the beginning. Because of this the narrative is a little hard to follow early on, but eventually the narrative picks up and the suspense does start to build. It would better capture the attention of the young audience it’s aimed at if it built faster. However it is an interesting format for a book, split into 100 short chapters, and it is well researched. The narrative of the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series (the books of A Game of Thrones) by George R. R. Martin is written from the first person of a different character for each chapter. The character’s paths cross and run together, and you get to see some scenes from different character’s perspectives which helps to build suspense.
5. What are unnecessary parts of the story? -Would cutting them out help or hinder the plot in any way? Did they give any insight into different aspects of the characters or could they be cut down in any way? This is perhaps the most important question. Writers should always respect their readers time and attention, and not waste it by including unnecessary scenes, keeping the read fast paced. For example, in ‘The Guest Cat’ by Takashi Hiraide, it goes into great length about grieving for their Guest Cat when it dies, and gives some background on how the book came to be written and published. Some readers may like to read about this, however it does not add any more tension, humour, explanation, or twists to the story, and considering the book is already very short, feels a lot like filler.
6. Is there any commonly used similes or metaphors used? – As a writer you should always be looking to cut out any turns of phrase which are clichéd, or unoriginal. It is very, very difficult to used rich descriptions, adjectives and metaphors effectively, and when done well is the sign of a GREAT writer. For example in ‘The Twin Towers’ by J. R. R. Tolkien, the Ents (tree people) are described as being so strong, that their ‘punches can crumple iron like tinfoil,’ and they can ‘tear apart solid rock like breadcrusts’. This really helps you to imagine their brute strength, and is a prime example of Tolkien’s masterful use of similes.
7. Which parts of the book are pure magic? – Are there any parts of the book where the writer perfectly describes a scene or character? In which parts does the language used feel fitting for the occasion and why? Is there any moments of heart-wrenching honesty, or perfect poetic prose? Read the book with a pencil behind your ear, and underline these, so they are easy to spot when you are flicking back through the book for inspiration.
8. What keeps you reading? – How does the author build suspense? What questions are you, the reader, compelled to ask at the beginning, and keep on reading to find the answers to? How are you introduced to the characters, and how much do you get to know about them? What is intriguing about it?
If you practice asking and answering these questions, you will be able to justify what makes a good and a bad book, and determine which structures and techniques you can take from a book to apply to your own work.
What questions do you ask when reading a book?
What is your favourite book and why?
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