I expect we’ve all been there. Maybe you even got into the story before you read that one line that jerked you clean out of any suspension of disbelief to say, “REally? REALLY? WhY woulD yOU do IT ThaT waY?”
Well, as a writer, I’m here to tell you that you should probably read some more of those. While reading the great writers can do tremendous things for your writings, there is something to be said for analyzing the faults of bad writing to understand where you might be falling short, too.
I recently read a short collection of Longfellow poems, he writes of secret sorrows and disconsolate rain, of glorious nature and human tragedy: he is a good writer. As I tumbled through his concise directions and clean descriptions, I saw flaws in my own tangled prose.
While I was toddling through a couple of different pieces of poorer fiction recently, I discovered that the opposite effect was equally informative. See, when you start noticing the flaws of works, it has a sort of mental strengthening. Instead of asking “How did they get it so good?” you say, “I see where this has gone so wrong.”
In simple terms: you cannot build a cathedral if you do not understand what holds up the ceiling.
Novels are constructed in much the same way. The plot is the structure of the novel, the characters are the supporting elements, and the setting is a floor on which everyone walks. If any single one of those three key elements is missing, your reader is going to notice. As a writer, knowing these three puzzle pieces and how they commonly fit together is key. As a writer who reads, understanding the necessity of each lends itself to accurate diagnosis of writing flaws.
When you’re shooting through the pages of a story and you realize that you haven’t cared about any of the characters for over ten pages, it’s a sign that something about the novel in which you are standing is leaning at such a precarious angle, one might experience heart palpitations and other anxieties upon. When you start saying things like, “Wait, the snowman she created was sentient? So she can create sentient life? She’s God? If she can create sentient life with no side-effects, why does she struggle with glorified handcuffs?” It indicates that the reader might be wading around in the foundations without any floor to stand on. How about “I thought they said that they hadn’t seen each other for four years, how did he know…” And if there’s no resolution, it’s apparent that you have a wall buckling under the weight of the plot. (In this metaphor, inconsistencies are like molding rafters or water-damaged side-walls – do keep up.)
Knowing what makes things break, and knowing what makes things strong are both important in construction and engineering. The same goes for stories. They’re built with equal care, they shelter minds instead of bodies, and when they fall down unexpectedly, I tend to cry.
I think reading good writing and analyzing what makes it so good is just as healthy as doing the reverse service to bad writing. Go forth, read!