Critiquing Scene

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A critique is an analysis of the weaknesses and strengths in a scene.
A critic should always remember that when she’s doing a critique, she’s a reader, NOT a writer.

Start a critique at the most basic level: the key conflict.

• Does the reader know who the protagonist is? Does the reader know what the protagonist wants (her goal)?
• Does the reader know who’s keeping the protagonist from that goal, who the antagonist is? Does she know what the antagonist wants?
• Is the outcome of the conflict clear? That is, does the reader know who won?

After that, the most helpful thing the reader can do is give reactions.
• What wasn’t working? What was confusing or annoying? Where did it slow down and start to bore her? Where did it go too fast and start to lose her? What is she missing in the story?
• What parts moved her, excited her, made her want to read more? What worked and must be kept in the rewrite?
• What expectations have been set up for the next scenes?

A critic should never cross out words and write in something that she thinks is better; that’s basically telling the writer that the critic can write her story better than she can. It’s not helpful because the chances are great that the critic’s voice is not the writer’s and that she doesn’t understand the story at the deep, unconscious level the writer does. At best, it’s insulting and at worst it can ruin a story for a uncertain writer who starts to follow the false leads the critic gives her.

EXAMPLE:
Miss Muffet

Critique

Notice that nowhere in the critique does the critic try to solve the problems (“maybe change the curds and whey to chocolate ice cream”). The critic’s job is to point out the problems, the writer’s job is to solve them.

One last thing for writers reading critiques of their scenes: Don’t respond to your critique or discuss it with the critic until twenty-four hours after you’ve read it. You will automatically defend your choices and reject parts of the critique if you respond right away. Read the critique, consider it overnight, and then take a cold hard look at your scene. This is good advice for any kind of feedback including editorial letters and reviews. The only difference: You never, ever, ever respond to a review.

Troubleshooting

If you’re having trouble getting critics to give reader reaction instead of invasive writing advice, find readers who aren’t writers to critique your work. You’ll get purer feedback.

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit main post.

14 thoughts on “Critiquing Scene

  1. Thank-you so much. As a writer and a reader – and sometimes asked to critique. I’m not always sure what to say or not – or how much. This makes things so much clearer, cleaner, and more objective – less ego. Thank-you so much for jotting down this quick bit of awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gene M says:

    This is great, from the POV of both the writer and the one doing the critique! If the key conflict is the starting point for critique, is there a hierarchy or checklist for moving on to critiquing the other aspects of story? Where would you go next?

    This post helps me understand how you critiqued Nita’s story over on Arghink. I’m loving this!

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    • There’s a difference between critique and revision.

      In a critique, you want to stay as global as this outline. The writer needs to know the impact on the reader, if the major idea of the story–who it’s about, what to expect next–is working.

      A revision is a lot more detailed because it’s a writer analyzing her own work or an editor analyzing something for publication. So a revision would be where the writer would go next, but it would be some of the things we’ve already covered: where are the turning point, do the scene escalate, how is this paced, and a lot more.

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      • Gene M says:

        Thanks for the clarification between critique and revision. I’m sure there’s a word for the process well-meaning, ‘critical’ readers engage in when tearing someone’s work apart to the smallest detail: I’m guessing that word is kinda unprintable!

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  3. ginjones says:

    I’ve started — for both planning/editing my own scenes and critiquing others — to add one more question: is the protagonist DOING SOMETHING toward her goal. I know it’s implied in the other questions, but it’s an issue that many of us (definitely me included) have trouble with, and it seems particularly an issue in the romance genre, where a lot of stuff is legitimately going on inside heads/hearts, as opposed to, say, a thriller, where there’s more focus on the externals.

    You can have a protagonist who, say, wants to go for a walk with her dog. So, she has a goal. Then, for someone who hasn’t remembered (or bought into) the need for an external antagonist (which I see all the time when critiquing), it’s possible to answer “who’s getting in the way of walking the dog?” with “the protagonist herself, because she hates walking.”

    So the entire scene is the protagonist talking to herself: must go for a walk, but don’t wanna go for a walk. If you add in, “does the protagonist take an action toward her goal,” it helps to bring that sitting-and-thinking aspect into the limelight. The protagonist has to at least get up and go look for the leash. And then you can get “who’s keeping her from getting the leash?” answered with “bad luck.”

    I guess it never ends, with all the elements so interwoven. But for me, it’s important to look for an action taken toward the goal.

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    • That’s why the “Who’s the antagonist/What’s her goal?” is in there.
      If the reader/critic answers, “She’s her own antagonist,” you know you’ve got a problem.

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  4. Excellent advice. I’ve learned a lot from my critique partner who always adds a smiley face or a hee hee to a part she finds amusing, or a suggestion like “dig deeper” because I can keep emotion on the surface level if not reminded. If I surprise her she lets me know. In fact I no longer work with anyone else, as I’d found my beta readers were less than helpful in just telling me they loved the story. My editor is great and pulls no punches.

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  5. As per last week’s discussion, do you want to edit ‘needs developed’ to ‘needs developing’ or ‘needs to be developed’? It would jar for me in a non-fiction book, I think. (It’s in here twice.)

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  6. carolc says:

    This is excellent. I’m going to print it out and tape it beside my monitor the next time I critique.

    One thing I have found is it’s a good idea to ask the writer what she’s looking for in a critique before you start. Some don’t know, but others are very clear in what they do or do not want. I beta read for one writer who specifically asks for suggestions, because she says it makes it easier for her to understand exactly what was not working for this reader.

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    • When Lani’s eldest daughter started giving us her stories to read, she’s say, “Tell me what you like.” I thought that was smart. Sometimes you just need to know what works.

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  7. CateM says:

    The wait 24 hours to respond to feedback is especially good advice. When I did theater we had a saying for when the director was giving feedback at the end of a scene/ rehearsal – “take the fucking note” – because your instinct is often to explain it instead of trusting the director and fixing it. It sounds like wait 24 hours is the writer version.

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