CHAPTER by CHAPTER
Our writer‘s group raised the question recently, “How do other groups critique novels, chapter by chapter?” With several authors bringing novels in for critique, we wanted to know if we had the best process in place.
So, I took the challenge and decided to do a little research of other critique groups. I found the process other groups used were as individual as the groups themselves, but the content and the components required to make a well written chapter, varied not at all.
My writing group has been invaluable. However, after my research I realized we’d glossed over or failed to mention a number of elements in our critiques. Seems we’d gotten into a rut, mentioning the same glaring things from one critique to the other. It was time we started digging a little deeper into our critiques and being specific.
Let me explain.
How many times have you walked into a book store and picked up a book, opened it to the first page and began reading? If you bought the book after reading the first few paragraphs or page, you were hooked. If not, you put the book back on the shelf and picked up another one.
To keep the book from going back on the shelf is exactly what an opening line, sentence or paragraph is supposed to do. Did the opening line hook you? Did it make you want to turn the page or buy the book? Of all the chapters, chapter one is the most important chapter of a novel. I was reminded to pay more attention to the details and dig deeper when critiquing the first chapter, not only the opening line, but the introduction of the main character, the setting, voice, and the POV.
The main character deserves a closer evaluation than whether we like them or not. Are they believable? Readers want to understand the conflicts, problems, and obstacles placed in the character’s way. They want to connect with, cheer on, fear for, and worry about the character. So, evaluate the character from a readers perspective.
The inciting event is “something” that happens which propels the character into action and the story forward. This is the one thing that turns the character’s world upside down and on which all other action or reactions are based. Is the inciting event clear? Did it work, and is there a clear transition into the next scene or chapter? In subsequent chapters or scenes, you should see the domino effect from the inciting event, leading to more complications. Does the event make sense based on what you know about the character so far? It reminds me of Newton’s Law: For every action there is a reaction. So, talk about this in your critiques.
Which leads me to stakes, conflict and tension; every scene should have one of these elements. In order to keep the story moving and the reader interested, the author must raise stakes for the character or increase the tension. Without them, the reader will be bored to death. All of which is worth mentioning in a critique.
You don’t want the reader to lose hope for your character or have the sensation they’re racing through the story; is it a fast or slow read? That’s why pacing is an essential aspect to good critique. A well written story will have some periods of narrative for down time. Look for the action and active verbs and evaluate whether the backstory is done naturally and only as necessary. I had glossed over this aspect of the critique before, but understand now, how crucial pacing is to the novel as a whole.
Dialogue is rarely overlooked in a critique but, the tendency is to look at dialogue tags or the use of passive voice, but there is much more than tags to evaluate. Is the dialogue difficult to read, incongruent with the characters, too stiff or confusing? Does the dialogue move the scene forward? (When the dialogue doesn’t move the story forward, consider its merits and don’t be afraid to recommend the author cut unnecessary dialogue).
Voice is one of those hard to define things for many people and is often overlooked in critiques. However, voice is very important. Voice is the way the story is written. It creates the mood and tone of the story. The question to ask is, does the voice reflect the right mood and tone for the story? Is the voice cohesive and does it work? This is something rarely mentioned in critiques, but voice does matter. I recently had a short story rejected, and in the letter, the reason was, “…the tone of the story wasn’t what we were looking for….”
The end of the Chapter (break) cannot be ignored in the critique. Transitioning from one chapter to the next is critical in determining whether the reader will continue and turn the next page. One of the things to evaluate in a critique is whether the chapter break was placed strategically. Was the tension high? Did the reader receive new information? Did something happen leaving the reader in suspense? Did you want to keep reading?
A thorough critique can be a time consuming process. To help improve our methodology I recreated a checklist for our group to utilize as a reference tool. We use it as a reminder to be specific when critiquing fellow writers. You or your group may use a different process, but feel free to utilize the checklist on the link below.
Please leave a comment and let me know what you think about the checklist. I’d love to hear from you.