Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Essay: Advantages of Analyzing Stories

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

A friend had a recent blog entry on how irrelevant critiques are to a writer's craft. On one hand, he's right. You don't need to develop a critical framework to write stories. You don't need to be able to analyze stories and pick them apart in order to be a good writer. My perspective on things however is that I'm not a genius. I'm not that talented writer whose first draft is prize-winning and ready for publication. I have to work at stories and continually strive to become better. And one of the ways I accomplish that is by analyzing stories.

Before I go on, I'd like to clarify what I mean by critiquing and analyzing stories. If you're in a book club, the questions you'll probably be asking is what are the themes and motifs of the story and applying Formalist/Marxist/Feminist/Post-Modern readings. As a writer, I'm not interested in that line of inquiry as much as the technique. I won't be asking whether I liked this or that character but rather what makes the character compelling. It's not about whether I agree with the author's agenda but rather how the agenda is delivered and whether it's subtle or heavy handed. Everything's still subjective of course and there is no objective answer to these questions given a particular story, but that's the kind of analysis that I pursue, as opposed to the scholarly approach to criticism.

If you're just a casual reader, you don't need to develop this skill set. In fact, such critical thinking can hamper your enjoyment of certain stories as your awareness develops. It's akin to a member of the audience learning the tricks of a magician. When it's performed in front of you, because you're familiar with the sleight of hand and the position of the mirrors, it might appear dull and formulaic. That's not to say this is without its own advantages. When you do come across a remarkable story, the reward is that much greater as you're conscious of the intricacies of producing such a text. Even better is the narrative that's so effective that it causes you to momentarily forget all that you've learned and simply appreciate the story for what it is.

Likewise, if you're a "writer," this isn't a requisite. You can simply write your manuscript and submit them to wherever you feel appropriate. The editor certainly doesn't have a checklist asking whether you're capable of analyzing and critiquing stories. All they care about is your final output--the text--and whether it's up to par with their standards or not.

So if analyzing stories is "non-essential," why bother? For me, it's about improving. This is actually a two-step process. First is the analysis. Why is it important for you to be able to analyze stories and observe what works and what doesn't? So that we can improve. Why is it that one of the most common writing advices out there is to read a lot, whether those in your field or those outside of it? It's the polite way of saying "read this and learn!"

Simply reading a book or story however is how your mind learns unconsciously. Analyzing stories brings it to the fore, so that you're aware of your own processes: Maybe this story is great because of the dialogue. Why is that? How can we replicate it in our own stories? What are the pros and cons of such a technique? That's not to say you can't learn the same things through simply reading it. One of the habits I unintentionally picked up from reading Tom Swift novels was the inclusion of adverbs such as "he quickly ran" or "she defiantly shouted." I had to unlearn them in college and trained myself to settle for more appropriate nouns. Which just goes to show that you can learn the bad along with the good.

Theoretically you can attend a class or get a mentor to teach you these things formally. Well, aside from the cash flow problem, you need to look for such a teacher and the problem with some teachers is that they won't always have identical aesthetics as yourself. Maybe you both agree that establishing good characterization is the key to an effective short story but your teacher might not appreciate the fact that you plan on writing genre literature. Or maybe he or she thinks that one of your favorite authors is trashy and not worthy of respect. Face it, each writer has his or her own set of values and you'll have to discover yours on your own, either consciously or subconsciously. When you encounter the question who your writing influences are, you're facing this dilemma head on.

It's also in your best interest to be more conscious of your tastes and aesthetics because it's about training yourself to be observant. When someone asks you why do you like this story, you can shrug or give them a detailed explanation as to why you enjoyed it. This experience is like being attracted to someone. Your friend might ask why you like that particular girl or guy and it's your option to simply shrug and tell them "just because." Or you might wrestle with your feelings and discover it's because you have a fetish for their eyes, because they resemble your ex, or because they remind you of your mother if you want to get Freudian about it. You can certainly go with your gut feeling but that's living an unexamined life. And the same goes for writing. You can simply enjoy a story for what it is but you're missing out on how it can help you improve.

Granted, analysis isn't as easy as it sounds. It takes time to develop and you have to wrestle with yourself and ask questions. You might even have to reread a story multiple times in order to discover why it appeals to you. You need to practice and continually develop this skill but it's not impossible to learn. I've had lots of awkward moments but after numerous attempts, I'm getting better.

And then we enter the second step of the process. This is the part where we actually talk about the parts of the story we liked or didn't like. It's one thing to be aware of them, it's another to be able to express them in words. It can be summed up as articulation and if you're a writer who doesn't know how to articulate, well, you might want to try a new career. This is what writing is all about after all, conveying the ideas in your head to another person by making yourself understandable and citing specific examples.

Again, like analysis, this isn't easy for some people. It takes time and practice to develop. I write book reviews and this is where articulation comes in. I can't simply tell my readers "I liked this book, you should go buy it, period." I need to focus on what worked, what didn't work, and why. In the process, I'm expanding my vocabulary, learning to use the appropriate words, and finding more effective ways of communicating. Occasionally, I even find an apt metaphor to supplement my examples.

There are two process involved here. One is becoming conscious of your thinking process and the other is being able to verbalize it. Being competent in only one of them isn't enough, you need to be effective with both, at least if you plan on improving as a writer. Granted, each one's writing process is unique and some people are better off absorbing details through the subconscious, but if you're like me who wants to be pro-active when it comes to the craft, the ability to analyze and break down stories is one of my assets.

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