You know how when you were in high school, your English teacher would make you read Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (or was that The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)? And remember how you hated it when s/he asked you to find the theme of the story, whether it is that love conquers all (or maybe the inequal values of a Puritan society)? The discussions talked about what caused Romeo of the family Montague and Juliet of the family Capulet to ignore the bloody feud of their two families and fall in love, and why they were forced to go to such extreme measures in an effort to be together (and why it all tragically goes wrong for them). Remember that?
That’s what we in the English business call a literary analysis of a story. We look for patterns, we study themes and characters, and perhaps most importantly of all, we look for meaning. What was Shakespeare trying to say by having Romeo and Juliet needlessly commit suicide at the end of the play? What did he mean? And we’d do this for whatever we read. Literary analyses are at the heart of an English career.
Now it does have its uses outside of reading a book. We learn how to do this sort of reading because it helps us read more deeply into things as we grow older and need to understand hidden meanings in our own lives and careers. That’s why we learn to do it in school, because it is a skill that can be applied to many areas of our lives.
But I’m not here today to defend literary analyses. I’m here to talk about a different type of reading, one that gives a totally different perspective on stories and one that is rarely ever taught outside of a writing program, but one that is essential if you are serious about being a writer: reading as a writer.
Reading as a writer isn’t concerned with the “what’s” and “why’s” of a story (nor the “who’s”, “where’s”, or “when’s” for that matter). As writers, what we focus on is the “how’s” of a story. We don’t care what Shakespeare (or Hawthorne) had to say, but rather how he chose to say it. In other words, rather than looking at the literary elements that Shakespeare uses to get his points across, we instead look at the craft he employs to deliver those literary elements.
Broadly, we look at the form of the story. Romeo and Juliet is a play in five acts. Considering the time period, that doesn’t really tell us much, because most of writing then was either poetry or plays. Prose books as we know them just didn’t exist, so choosing to tell the story in play form rather than as a poem tells us that he intended this story for an audience. He wanted the masses to experience it, and since most people then were not educated enough to understand a poem, a play was the next best thing.
If we look at something a little more modern, we can see similar ideas in place. Take Harry Potter for instance. What is the form of the Harry Potter novels? Well, the most obvious pattern is that each book takes place over the course of a single school year. They begin with Harry getting set to go off to school and end with Harry returning home for his summer holidays. Everything that happens to Harry happens within the context of a single school year.
So why might Rowling have made this choice? Consider her intended audience: she wrote these books (initially at least) for a juvenile and YA audience—people to whom the context of a school year makes complete sense. Consider your own childhood, how often do you tell a story of something that happens to you and the story starts with “When I was in 6th grade…” or “My sophomore year…”? It’s a context that is easy for people to understand that is specifically a child’s context.
As you get older, those stories begin to start, “In my early 30s—I was maybe 31 or 32, or it could have been a bit earlier—perhaps 28 or 29—whatever, it doesn’t matter…”. Not quite as exact, is it? Sure, everything happening to Harry during the school year makes sense from a narrative standpoint, but it is also a calculated choice Rowling made because it is something that kids can easily understand.
Narrowing things down a bit, reading as a writer can teach us much about craft. We don’t care that Harry has to face off against a dragon. What we care about is how Rowling imparts on us the danger that Harry is in. We make note of how she says says “a jet of fire” rather than “the dragon breathed fire” and consider how the choice of words affects our understanding of the scene (Rowling, 2000, p.354). We catalogue every sound, every descriptor, every verb—frankly every word that is written on the page. We read so that we can understand how she gets her point across to us.
Why do we do this? The short answer is to learn. The longer answer is that the more we read and the more that study how other authors write, the more opportunity we give ourselves to refine our own writing style. Maybe we learn new writing techniques that we want to try out (The Unreliable Narrator, anyone?), or perhaps we learn some new words that we didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s just fun to examine the choices an author has made to tell his/her own story and consider how you might have done things differently. The point is that by studying other authors’ craft, we can more easily reflect upon our own and expand it in ways we never considered.
So give it a shot. Next time you sit down to read something, don’t pay attention to what the author has to say; study instead how it is that s/he says it. You never know what you might learn about your own style.
Rowling, J.K. (2000). Goblet of Fire. New York: Scholastic.