Learning To Be A Better Writer Through Reading

Recently, I purchased THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby, which has long been held up as a sort of Bible on craft for Hollywood screenwriters. I had seen a lot of praise for the book among fellow YA writers, so I decided to give it a try, especially because I haven’t ever read craft books.

My honest opinion? The exercises are helpful and have enabled me to delve deeper into my work and think about my plots and characters in a whole new way. But the examples are dated and I would rather see modern stories by women and people of color broken down and analyzed, instead of hearing about the same three “classic” movies over and over.

That said, I thought it was interesting that even though I have never read a craft book or taken a college- or grad-level writing class, I was already employing a couple of the techniques Truby discussed. I had learned them simply by reading widely and voraciously, and trying out different authors, styles, and genres.

At all of my public events, people always like to know: “What are your tips for new writers starting out? How can writers improve?”

And as well-trodden an answer as it is, “Reading widely, writing constantly” is always the response I give because that is how I learn and improve.

When you read books – and they don’t necessarily have to be in the genre and age category you’re interested in writing – you will see how other writers create a narrative. You’ll get a feel for their stylistic choices. You’ll observe the tricks they employ to get you to keep turning the page . . . or how they fail to do so. You will figure out what works and what doesn’t, and what elements to think about and perhaps adapt for your own process at the same time that you learn what not to do.

Here are a few observations I have made lately over the past six or seven months or so of reading many different books in different genres:

  • Conflict in a novel is absolutely crucial. This one is obvious, but I keep coming across books in which everything is just too easy for the main character. A girl who is unlucky in love just happens to have the perfect guy drop by, and that perfect guy hands her the perfect romance on a plate. A character wants to acquire an illegal weapon to save her kingdom, and just walks right in and earns the trust of every single person there, without much effort. I have fallen into this trap myself in the past, and am trying my best to be aware of it for the future. Conflict strengthens character, and without it, the story is too boring and predictable.
  • Read dialogue out loud. I’ve started doing this for all of my stories because of certain novels I’ve read where the language feels stilted and awkward and sounds like narration or backstory, rather than someone talking. This is essential if you write for teens, IMO. You may be a 35-year-old writer, but you definitely don’t want your 16-year-old character to sound like you. I think there’s some leeway in fantasy, because the characters often speak in a more “old-timey” way. But I always read dialogue out loud, no matter the genre, because it helps me make the speech sound more natural.
  • Give characters varying names. I find it so confusing when I’m reading a book and there are two closely related characters with similar names like John and Jonathan, Erin and Eric, Rob and Robin, etc. (George R. R. Martin, anyone?) For my own stories, I’m making a greater effort to pick character names that start with different letters. And I also like to have a “cast of characters” or a pronunciation section at the front of the book, if I can.
  • The twist should not be confusing. I love twists in mystery and suspense books that make you reel, because you recognize that the clues have been seeded in all along and you just didn’t realize it until you had collected enough of them and then WHAM! The revelation hits you. It should be clear, clean, and tight. I recently read a mystery where the Big Reveal was so intensely confusing that I had to stop reading that night and figure out what the hell was going on. It turned out, in this story, that the mystery hinged on a photograph of two people whose identities were switched. During the moment in which the main character realizes the truth, it was written in such a convoluted and unclear way that the thrill of the discovery was soured for me.
  • Reimaginings should bring something fresh to the table. I recently read CIRCE by Madeline Miller, which reimagines the character of Circe, the witch Odysseus comes across on his long journey home after the Trojan War, and in my opinion, it was magnificently, masterfully done. I think retellings are tricky because if they stay too close to the source material, it can get very predictable. Changing the game by bringing forward an event that isn’t covered much in the original story, switching up the ending, or even writing from the perspective of an unsung hero – as Miller did here, by reframing the story from Circe’s point of view – is crucial and makes for a really rich, fresh-feeling story, even if you know the mythology well.

What about you guys? Have you learned any interesting techniques and tricks from the books you’ve read? Feel free to share in the comments!

2 Responses to Learning To Be A Better Writer Through Reading

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 22 2019 at 8:35 am #

    You pretty much nailed it for me. One area where I failed to learn much through reading is the art of narrative, as opposed to action and dialogue. I hate description and exposition, and created my techniques of writing to avoid them. It took most of my traditional first million words for me to learn more effectively how to do the narrative parts of the story in non-narrative ways.

  2. James Sheen Mar 24 2021 at 2:17 am #

    Oh, you did a wonderful review of the book! Very succinct and very clear.
    I think I will read it in full after all. I totally agree with the opinion that you can learn a lot about writing by reading.

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