3 min read

Track your response to elements of craft

I'm participating in a book club for an anthology of short stories. The hardest part of every book club is this (emphasis mine):

Choose an element of fiction... that stood out for you as particularly important/developed in each story. Explain what you notice about how the writer develops that element and how you responded as a reader.

And similarly this — again, emphasis mine:

Which story did you most enjoy? What did you enjoy about it? Can you track your response to the story back to elements of craft, now that you look back on it?

This is really hard to do! What exactly do we mean by craft? We could track it to elements of fiction — but for me that's pointless. I'm interested in answering these questions from a writer's point of view. I want to know what my options are, what I can do. Tracking a response back to a level of "good characters" — that's not good enough, because I can't do anything with that. I want to know: "How'd they do that magic trick?"

Answering this is hard! There are lots of levels of craft to consider:

  1. Word choice, grammar, etc. What words did they use and why might they have done that? Are they making any unusual word choices? If so, that will probably be obvious and you won't have to ask yourself — it'll just be obvious. For example, maybe the narrator keeps referring to making breakfast as "the preparation" — why? What associations (loose or otherwise) does that have for you? What feeling does that create? We can ask similar questions about grammar, sentence structure, etc.
  2. Sentence-level. This is the nitty-gritty — what's in that sentence? Why is it written the way it is? What's the information content? What does it imply? What does it make me feel? How or why does it do all of that? Etc. Best to ask this only for a few favorite sentences!
  3. Paragraph-level. This is a weird one — I haven't thought about it much but it seems like it must exist.
  4. Scene-level, or prose-subject level. What comes between hard scene breaks, assuming there are such breaks? What are they actually writing about? What events? Are any parts retrospective, the narrator talking about things that happened back then? What events don't they write about? What objects? What people?
  5. Characterization. What are the characters like? How do you know they are that way? What specific lines of dialog or sentences or paragraphs or story events show you who each character is? E.g. This guy is logical, I know that because he is also the narrator and he spends several pages laying out the facts and debunking theories about what might have happened to this elephant that vanished.
  6. Ordering. The story is written in a certain order; how does the scene order work out? Is there a strict this-before-that and logical-causal this-therefore-that structure where one scene is prior to and causes the next? If some scenes break a temporal order and logical-causal — why? Why do we have to go back in time, what do we learn that changes how we understand the rest of the story? What do we learn? If it's not causal — then what is the connection between those scenes? (I'm using the word "scenes" loosely here — for this question, break the story up however you think makes sense or is interesting! That is probably a better approach than using some fixed definition of a scene — although you're welcome to do that if you want, and that will work too.)
  7. Surprise. How do things differ from a stereotype or from what you would expect? Characters, events, settings, etc. Can you think of any particular reason they are like that? What does it mean for the story that they are different? How does the story change compared with if that thing were more stereotypical or expected?
  8. Theme. What's it all about? Maybe multiple answers — might be easier to answer at a sentence, paragraph, or scene level and go from there. This is different from what the story is saying about its theme, if anything.

But this list is not exhaustive, and maybe useless. It's funny: By the time you figure out the right question to ask, you've solved almost the whole problem.