How to Critique: Part Three – Questions

By | July 26, 2010

I’ve already talked about the process of critiquing, both for general comments and for line edits (You probably want to read How to Critique: Part One and How to Critique: Part Two before you read this post). There are or will be other blog entries by other people on how to write plot or worldbuilding or exposition, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time on what those “should” be like in the story you’re critiquing. And, in any case, every story is different and every approach is different. Instead of a set of rules for what the story should be like, I’d like to focus on the process. Since the process will also vary somewhat each time, I just want to provide a guide to the questions I ask myself when I’m doing general critiques, questions you might find helpful as you’re thinking about the story you need to critique.

This post is a list of those questions, and a few suggestions for what to do with the answers.

Characters:

Do I find the characters believable? Do I care about them, positively or negatively? Do I believe that they would take the actions they take? Are they distinctive, memorable, three-dimensional?

Do the characters change throughout the story? Is the main character a different person at the end of the story, altered by their experiences and the choices they make (this character arc is essential to the story, so the answer should definitely be yes)? Do I believe that change?

Plot:

Is the plot convincing? Do I believe everything that happened would really have happened, given that situation and those people? Is the ending set up by the beginning? Does the pacing work, or does the story feel a) so slow it’s boring, b) so fast it feels rushed, or c) full of holes, so that it’s hard to tell what’s happening when? Could the story stand to be longer or shorter? Do the events of the story matter – do they matter to the characters and do they matter to the reader? Is the end of the story different from the beginning?

Setting:

How about the setting? Is it convincing, interesting, worth reading about? Is it a white-background story — could you lift everything in the story and put it anywhere, anywhen? Do the characters seem suited to the world as if they are really from it? Is it borrowed from traditional stock settings, or has the author made it their own? Has real effort been put in to make the customs, language, landscape, etc. fit together naturally?

The genre element:

Is the magical/technological element essential to the story? Does it work logically, or does it appear that the magic can do whatever the author wants? Is the fantastic element interesting and at least somewhat original? If the fantastic element were something else entirely, would it change the story (the fantastic element should be necessary to the plot; if you could replace zombies with unicorns, or worse if you could replace the magic with a completely normal automobile, then there’s something wrong with the magic/tech system)?

General reactions to the story:

Are there events, places, or people that could be cut from the story and never be missed? Does it need something else to work?

How do I feel after reading this story? Is the conclusion satisfying? Did I enjoy it? Did I care what was going to happen?

You should be thinking about most of these questions (and, of course, many more) as you critique. You’ll find the questions that work for you as you go along. As for answering them, just remember that your opinion counts, and your job is to make this the best possible story. If you have suggestions, offer them. If it felt flat to you, then you should tell the author that.

Whenever possible, as you answer these questions, you should be specific. If it felt flat – why? Were the characters unconvincing? Did the plot end in a way that was totally unsatisfactory? And if so, were the characters unconvincing because their actions were illogical, or because the dialogue was poorly written? Was the plot unsatisfying because it was unlikely, because it was depressing, because it didn’t resolve the problems the story introduced, because nothing happened? Try to be precise. If you can find examples in the text of when the characters behave illogically, bring it up. If you can think of some action that would have made the plot make sense, suggest it. You want to give the author as much to work with as possible.

Meanwhile, though it’s always helpful to be specific, and it’s usually good to give suggestions, that doesn’t mean you have to every time. Even if you don’t know quite why you felt a certain way about the story, it’s probably still worth mentioning. After hearing the problem, the author might be able to fix it even if you aren’t quite sure what the solution should be.

If you haven’t read the last two posts in this series, and you don’t know quite how to use this post, I suggest going to the two previous posts (Part One and Part Two) and taking a look!

And for those of  you looking for critiques of your own work, keep an eye out for Elena’s upcoming post on “How to find a good critique,” which will be up this Friday.

So what do you think? Do these questions help you? What do you ask yourself when you’re critiquing, or looking for a critique? Talk amongst yourselves in the discussion section! I’d love to hear your thoughts.