Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
It seems self-evident that writers must be (not should be, but must, be) readers. Every writer worth his or her salt will tell anyone who wants to write (or, more likely, thinks he or she wants to write), that, to be successful as a writer, he or she must also read.
Stephen King, for example, reads a couple of hundred books or more every year. In fact, his reading has caused him to discover, among others, Bentley Little, a horror writer of no small talent himself. As the many blurbs he has written to help sell other writers’ works indicate, King is as much a fan of other writer’s work as readers are of his oeuvre. His love of reading is shared by his wife and fellow writer Tabitha and their children, one of whom, Joe Hill, has followed in his father’s footsteps, writing horror novels himself.
Writers should read every novel or short story (or see every movie) at least twice (although several times more is actually recommended), the first time for pleasure and to get a sense of the story’s structure, of how it is put together, and of how it attains unity. The second time, readers who would also be writers should read for technique.
How does the writer describe persons, places, and things? How does he or she create and maintain suspense? How are transitions used to tie action and scenes together? Are flashbacks used? If so, why, and, again, how are transitions used to tie past and present together? What figures of speech (metaphors, allusions, irony, symbols, and so forth), either explicit or implicit, are used in the story, and how and why are they used? Why is the action narrated in this, rather than some other, sequence? What can be gleaned from the writer’s choices of words and images? How does he or she fully involve readers in the action of the story? Why is the setting important, if not essential, to the characters, plot, conflict, setting, and theme? What is spicy or memorable about the dialogue? If the novel is a murder mystery or a detective story, what clues does the writer drop, when, where, how, and why? Which are red herrings? If the novel is a horror story, what mythos, legend, historical fact, or scientific discovery or theory grounds the paranormal or supernatural incidents or characters in the everyday world of commonsense realism, and how does the protagonist learn the truth of the monster’s origin or nature so that he or she can banish or destroy it?
Almost every writer has weaknesses as well as strengths, and both aspiring and established writers can learn from both. One of King’s weaknesses is his inclusion of extraneous scenes and exposition in his overly long plots; one of his strengths is his characterization, especially of the young. One of Little’s weaknesses is his novels’ unsatisfying, tacked-on or inconclusive endings; one of his strengths is his ability to create, maintain, and heighten suspense, often through the powers of his descriptions of menacing places. As a reader, learn to avoid the mistakes of writers and to adopt their strengths.
Then, read the novel or the short story or watch the movie again to discover all the wonderful tricks of the trade that you missed the first couple of times you read or watched the story unfold.