Additional Critical Reading Thoughts

How do you approach criticism? Do you have a template or a strategy? Do you comment as you read? Some combination?

Some of the critiques on critique.org have been carefully organized around some (or all) of the following topics:

  • Setting
  • Character
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Point-of-view
  • Conflict
  • Tone (and, perhaps Style)

Five of these are pervasive in education material, especially in elementary education.

There are several lists of literary devices. See Literary Devices for one summary. All of the above elements can *also* be called literary devices.  

I think the useful idea is to recognize some essential elements, and a long list of devices, some of which are as simple as rhetorical flourishes. Is Alliteration as important as Setting? I don’t think so. I’ll keep tone/style separate because they tend to be pervasive, where other rhetorical devices tend to be localized to a particular passage, location, or character.

I’m not sure how helpful this kind of deconstruction is. On one hand, a checklist is helpful to be sure at least these topics are considered in a criticism. On the other hand, a checklist can also limit one to consider only these topics, ignoring other important devices.

It can be difficult to tease these elements apart. A character is often a product of their setting. The plot, too, is driven by the overall context in which the characters find themselves.

One of the arguments for some of these elements being truly independent is the way we can talk about changing one without changing the others.

  • We often talk about reusing a setting. It often bound to character and plot, but the binding can be loose. The core conflict can be spliced out of one setting and spliced into another.
  • It’s possible to reuse elements of a plot with distinct characters. It’s not entirely possible to separate plot and character, but changes can be made.
  • Of course we can stuff characters into new plots, to the extent that the character is willing to participate. We can also identify plot situations and conflicts that a character might simply ignore, leading to a boring story.

For the remaining elements, there are fewer, or no constraints on reuse.

  • A character can be used to explore multiple themes, and a theme can be part of many plots or characters.
  • POV can switch within a story or novel. And many stories can be trivially rewritten from other POV’s. In a few cases, POV is actually essential to a story; for example, an unreliable narrator can control the reader’s understanding of the story via POV.
  • The rest of the long list of devices may or may not be present, and contribute to tone/style. They can be added, changed, or removed without a substantial impact on the story.

My approach to critique.org has been driven by some advice on the web site. The advice suggests injecting comments in the text near the revenant words. Each part of the criticism winds up with a scope based on the original text.

An overview of Setting, Character, Plot, Theme, etc., feels a little reductionist after working through the text at a line-by-line level of detail.

Maybe I’ve spend too much time writing non-fiction. It seems like comments in context are more helpful than an overall “elements of fiction” summary. It seems like the summary could be vague enough that it’s hard to take action and make an improvement.

Clearly, participating in critique.org has been useful to me. It’s caused a lot of soul-searching and hand-wringing.

 © F. L. Stevens 2019