How to Critique a Short Story

Sooner or later one of your fiction writing friends will turn to you and ask, “Would you read this story for me?”

You will think this is innocent enough.  But it’s not.  This little question is packed with emotion.

And if you don’t read or write fiction, you don’t understand the code behind the words.  The code reads like this:  Please take care when you read this.  It represents all the sweat, emotion, and working with words that I can muster. 

Got that?  That’s the first part of the code.

But the second part of the code is much more obtuse, and yet, extremely important to a writer who wants to get published.  The second part of the code reads like this:  Do you think I can improve upon my baby? 

Got that?  Not, your baby stinks, but maybe your baby needs a diaper change.  You need to give some concrete examples of ways the story can be improved.

What should you focus on in a short story that a writer can relate to?  The key here is honesty in the following areas.

Structure:  The structure is the bare bones of the story, and language fills it up.  Does the story flow well?  Is there a place or places in the story where story starts to slow down and your mind wanders?  Or is/are there places where you get confused as to what is happening in the story?

Language: Do the characters speak authentically and true to themselves?  Is it believable?  Or is it stilted or strained?  The language should sound very close to speaking dialogue.  I say very close, because we do not often speak in full sentences as you would find in fiction.  The idea with fictional dialogue is to make it sound as close to reality as possible, while maintaining the flow and direction of the story.

Character and Idea: Are the characters believable?  You don’t necessarily have to like the characters, but you should develop a relationship or a bond with the characters.  They make you feel something – whether it be love, disgust, fascination, repulsion, envy, lust, etc.  The wide range of human emotion.  And how do the character(s) relate to the idea presented in the story?  Do they react well with what the writer is trying to convey?  Or is the chemical reaction of character and idea falling flat?

Other Points:  Don’t be afraid to list other points that you are unsure of, or think need further clarification.  Also, don’t be afraid of listing points that you really like, either.

Remember that a critique is ultimately a measure of your objectivity.  It is not a matter of like or dislike.  You must get beyond that in a critique, you must serve the story, not your ideas of like or dislike.

If you would like some practice on critiquing fiction please visit Writer Dad or Steph Vandermeulen’s site, In Other Words.  Writer Dad posts his short stories on Fridays, and Steph has a short story area you can visit on her blog listed under fiction.

Photocredit: © Ellen Wilson

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