Read Like a Writer to Become a More Compelling Storyteller

Active reading, reviewing, and asking the right questions can help you create and consume at the same time

Read Like a Writer to Become a More Compelling Storyteller
Image by AlessandroSquassoni / 158 images on Pixabay

Active reading, reviewing, and asking the right questions can help you create and consume content at the same time

Are you someone who is fascinated by stories and loves to read?

If your answer to the question above is yes, I have a trick for you that will teach you to be a better writer just by consuming content. This is a simple habit you can cultivate and incorporate into your daily reading to become a more compelling storyteller.

In this article, I am going to teach you how to read like a writer.

When you read like a writer, you pay attention to the plot devices and twists the author used so you can deploy similar techniques whenever such situations arise in your stories. The idea is to carefully examine each passage, each scene, and keep a note of the methods so you can use them in your writing.

Subconsciously, I had been reading like a writer for several years, without realizing that there were books and established guides based on this technique. Only when I familiarized myself with all the resources available on Reading like a Writer online, did I realize my method was somewhat different from the ones devised by other writers.

It has worked great so far for me. I am sure it would work for you too.

In this article, I am going to tell you everything I know about how to read like a writer and share a step-by-step guide so you can do the same. But before that, here is a quote by Francine Prose to get you started-

Every so often I hear writers say that there are other writers they would read if for no other reason than to marvel at the skill with which they can put together the sort of sentences that move us to read closely, to disassemble and reassemble them, much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine by taking it apart.

This article is going to teach you exactly that: how to take a book apart piece by piece and understand the mechanism of what makes it work. Since I mostly read fiction, the points are structured around novels. However, if self-help or technical writing is your niche, you can interpret these points with the point of view of non-fiction as well.

The following is based on my experiences, presented in a way to help you understand clearly.

How to read like a writer

The foremost thing is to be mindful of what you are reading. Pay attention to each word you read, and consciously try to understand why the author used that particular sentence or phrase in that specific position. Take your time to flip through the pages. If it helps, read only one book at a time. And most importantly, don’t hesitate to underline, highlight, and take notes.

1. Highlight and bookmark

Highlight the parts in the prose that hit you the hardest. Bookmark the scenes that make you feel. Keep doing this for the whole book, and once you are done reading, come back to each scene you bookmarked and ask yourself what is it about that part that you liked so much.

Like me, if you have never taken a course on creative writing, here is a quick summary of the five elements that make up a scene-

  1. Inciting incident: The big event that kicks off the scene.
  2. Rising action: The rising stakes and the escalating conflict that makes it essential for the lead character to take some action.
  3. Crisis: The moment that raises a big question of, “Will they, won’t they?” Crisis leads to the time when the lead character is forced to make a decision.
  4. Climax: The part where the audience gets an answer to the question raised in the crisis. This shows the reader what kind of person the lead character is.
  5. Resolution: The scene after the climax, where the reader gets to see how the lead character’s world was affected because of the decision they took in the climax.

When you come back to the scenes you highlighted, try and understand which elements of the scene worked for you and why. Look for a method to incite emotion in the reader that you can use in your writing.

2. Analyse the characters

Every time a new character is introduced, ask yourself these questions-

  • What makes the character unique?
  • Do they have a distinguishing physical trait or a repeated catchphrase that makes them stand out?
  • What is the usual mood of the character?

Your answers to these will help you take apart the magic of the author. You can then actively work towards using it in your own story the next time you write.

3. Dissect the dialogue

While writing fiction, dialogue can make or break your story. The readers will not be able to connect to your characters if their conversations sound unnatural or forced. When you are reading a novel, try dissecting the dialogue and answering the following questions:

  • What is it about the dialogue that makes it sound natural? Do the characters use short sentences, local influences, or are stopped mid-way by other characters?
  • Do the characters make gestures that go with the emotion they are expressing? Maybe they are fiddling with their thumbs, indicating they are either distracted, waiting for something to happen, or lying.
  • What do their faces express? Are they refusing to make eye contact?

Try and understand the tricks the author uses to make the reader know what the characters really mean, irrespective of what they are speaking.

4. Think BIG and examine the overall structure

While you read, look at the bigger picture and try to see how early the author introduced Chekhov’s guns and where were they placed.

How was the foreshadowing done?

How long did the author stretch the tension and how was it effectively done that didn’t bore the reader?

5. Identify character growth

When you reach the end of the book, look back on the characters and see how far they have come. What is it about the opening scene and the closing scene that is drastically different?

Pay attention to which tools the author used to make this transformation apparent to the reader.

6. Revise and review

These are the steps that you need to follow on your first read through the book. Once you are done, revisit all your notes. Go through your highlights and bookmarks and observe how your perception changed over time.

How did the author manage to do that?

Can you apply a similar trick in your next story?

Ask the right questions

After you finish the first round of bookmarking, highlighting, and making notes on the book, take a deep breath and keep the book away for a few hours. Once you have stayed away from the writing long enough to have stopped thinking about the plot, here is a list of questions you can ask yourself.

Take a pen and paper and write down the answers to each item. Dissect the methods of the author like your life depends on it. This should help you see some positive results

  1. Which aspects were powerful in the book? Was it the dialogue, the character development, or the fact that you learned new information? Remember the flavour this book left on your tongue and try to recreate it the next time you write.
  2. What was it about point one that made it powerful? Summarize your answer in one sentence, highlighting only the critical point.
  3. How did the author manage to achieve that power? Was it a well-constructed mystery that took you long to decipher? Or were there specific writing tools the author used that made you like the book (“show, don’t tell,” sentence structure, metaphors, change in points of view to keep up a break-neck pacing, etc.)?

Take your time to think of the answers. Once you have them, read them through over and over again until you have internalized the author’s superpowers. The next time you write, try to recreate the magic.

Don’t be afraid to mimic another author’s voice. The lessons you learned from their book, infused with your unique voice, will result in a magic that is entirely different from, and yet, magically reminiscent of the book you just dissected.

I am leaving you with another quote to ponder upon:

“Most of us find our own voices only after we have sounded like a lot of other people.”
~Neil Gaiman

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