By Linda Busby Parker
In January of 2006, I published a piece in Writer's Digest titled "Read Like a Writer." That piece was reprinted in a 2007 publication titled Writing Basics. The thesis of the article is that fiction writing techniques can be learned through the process of reading. Sometimes writers feel guilty when reading instead of writing, but daily reading is an integral part of the writer's life just as is daily writing. By reading with observant eyes, the writer can study specific techniques that can then be employed in the writing process.
For example, a good reader can study the methods writers use in developing characters. How does the writer reveal a character's personality? Through appearance? Actions? Relationships with other characters? Through thought processes? Through the use of "reflector characters"(characters who pass judgment on or offer insights on a principle character)? Which techniques are the most effective?
In terms of plot, a keen reader can observe how the writer adds plot points and shifts directions in the narrative. How does the writer make these new plot directions flow smoothly into the story as a whole? A good reader looks carefully at transition sentences that connect various plot elements. A talented writer will use smooth transition sentences that might be missed on a first read. The mark of a skilled writer is how seamlessly the total story is pieced together from various plot points into a unified storyline. The mark of a skilled reader is to observe these elements of craft, study them, and learn how to use them.
Other techniques a good reader might study include dialogue and conflict. Does the conversation between characters sound natural? How does the dialogue reveal the characters' individual personalities? How does the dialogue push the plot forward? Does the dialogue serve multiple purposes for the writer?
In terms of conflict, a good reader might want to observe how the writer presents the core conflict? How quickly is the conflict revealed? How does the writer sustain and complicate the conflict? Remember conflict in fiction can be great or small--a family matter or a national crisis.
Reading can be entertainment for a writer, but it can also be a personal school for learning writing techniques. Abandon any notions that reading is a luxury--for a writer, reading is a necessity.
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