The Evaluation of Writing and The Deconstruction of Creation

Creation and deconstruction are two sides of the same coin. Stephen King recommends that you put as much time into reading as you do into writing. I put way more time into the reading portion, but I don't do it in a particularly critical or systematized way. I want to change that.


When I first started public speaking my ability to give a speech evaluating someone else's speech lagged behind. I went to another member of my Toastmasters group that is a professional speaker and teaches college courses on public speaking. He gave me a format to use that was both flexible and gave structure to my evaluations. That is what I am looking for in evaluating writing.

The first thing that we all evaluate is whether or not we like a work; whether or not we think it is good. We don't always, and probably usually, know why we like or don't like something, but it is important to recognize the emotions we are experiencing because of a work. Trying to make that process conscious will always be an ongoing endeavor, but I believe there will be some frameworks that I can use which will help.

In the course I took from David Mamet he mentions three questions that he uses which may be helpful. Who wants what? What happens if they don't get it? Why now? I think these are three solid questions, but I think that they may be more valuable for the creation part of a story rather than the deconstruction. Still, it is something to keep in mind.

Aaron Sorkin mentioned the four things he is alway thinking about: intention, obstacle, stakes, and tactics. This seems to be a good set as well. Similar to Mamet's questions it appears to be best suited to breaking down scenes rather than entire pieces. To a certain extent I need something that is able to evaluate an entire work and a part of that work. It could be that I need to integrate and/or modify a few frameworks.

I have also taken great course from James Patterson, Brandon Sanderson, and Shonda Rhimes, but I don't think there is anything in particular that is systematized enough to make it extremely useful. It is possible that that is the real situation that I will need to adjust to, but for now I will continue the search. Sanderson does have some useful frameworks, and a large amount of great advice and perspectives. In his class he presented the basic idea of the intersection of character, plot, and setting. At that intersection conflict is necessary and created. Stating the character, plot, setting, and conflict seems useful, but more as a synopsis than anything.

Martin Turner presents the idea that the best and most satisfying drama is created by using a double reversal and colliding narratives, some of which may not be explicitly presented. I think these are very useful things to keep in mind as specifics, but not as a general framework.

Stephen King presents a lot of great info in his book "On Writing," but because his process is based mostly on intuition it seems that a lot of his thoughts are rather hidden in his subconscious. He starts with a situation and just goes from there. This is called many different names but I like George R. R. Martin's label of gardener, as opposed to architect as the writer that outlines and plots. The best works of C. S. Lewis, including all seven of the Narnia books, also just began as pictures in his head and he developed them from there. This is similar to the way "A Song of Ice and Fire" was born by George R. R. Martin and they way I came up with the structure for the plays I recently wrote a blog post about. It seems to be a part of human nature to see a single image and build a story around it. Many writing prompts indeed use that exact idea, but with an external rather than an internal source; I think the internal source is better. C. S. Lewis also mentions in the article "It All Began With A Picture . . ." that "...you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books." I think that is true, many of the processes are usually subconscious.

Dean Koontz presents a nice set of instructions for writing in "Writing Popular Fiction." He posits five specific areas that must be strong for a book to be successful in genre fiction: a strong plot, a hero or heroine, clear and believable motivation, a great deal of action, and a colorful background. He elaborates on each of these areas in a clear way, and I think there may be something here. With these five areas and specifics to go with each one we may have a great way of deconstructing the great (and not so great) creations.

Aristotle still has a lot to offer in the area with his book "Poetics." I think that some of the observations he has may inform our evaluation, just like King's, but are not wholly sufficient in themselves.

Orson Scott Card has some good books available on writing. I think that his most systematized idea may be more useful for criticizing a work rather than creating a work. The MICE quotient stands for milieu, idea, character, and event. It is a way of discerning where a story should start and end, and what its main focus should be.

Another framework I've heard of that seems more suited for breaking down scenes rather than entire works is "someone wants but so." I think it could be useful to adjust it to "someone wants because but so" to emphasize the justification and motivation for action.

Along a similar vein I have presented the idea of using intention/action/sensation as the three things to be included in scenes to make them come alive. Motivation may be a better word to use than intention as it is more encompassing.

Sol Stein includes a great many wonderful tips and tricks about writing in "Stein On Writing," but these are the tips and tricks that seem like they need a framework to fit into.

Kurt Vonnegut included a great list in the introduction to "Bagombo Snuff Box." He calls it Creative Writing 101 and it goes like this:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut says in the very next paragraph that a great writer he knows broke every rule except for the first, but still, it may be a useful list for my purposes.

The only one of those that really seems to suit my purposes would be Dean Koontz's five points. Many of the others, all of the others, are useful and important ideas to keep in mind, but not necessarily great frameworks to organize those ideas around.

Good content, bad content, bad presentation, good presentation; that is the structure that I use for evaluating speeches. Inside of those broad categories can go everything that I know about speaking and everything that I observe would be useful to this specific speaker in this specific context. It is dangerously flexible, and yet works the best of any speech evaluation format that I have ever encountered. The quality of the evaluation fluctuates greatly while using this because it is the knowledge and observation skills of the evaluator that must do all of the heavy lifting, the framework is just there to give it enough structure to be coherent and useful to the speaker. Can I create something similar for writing?

Structure and style seem to be the two parallels to content and presentation that I can find. How an author specifically uses words is a huge subject, but an important subject. Of course there is also the plot and how the plot is carried out. Those two can be great for a general framework to put other specifics in as I continue to learn, and depending on the specific context. I could use these the same way and do: good structure, bad structure, bad style, good style. This would work great for spoken evaluations, but with written evaluations I feel that I could be a little more specific and maybe add in some additional qualifiers such as subject and substance. Subject is important because to a large extent it determines whether or not you are even going to read the first sentence. Substance is about whether or not the work sticks with you, if it resonates, if it changes you, and your mind keeps coming back to it. The works I consider the best have that quality.

Out of all of the things that I've looked at I think there are two frameworks that may work the best, either Dean Koontz's five points of popular genre fiction or my own subject, structure, style, substance framework. I may run a trial to compare them.

Next, I have to determine what I want to study. I believe I have a decently concentrated list, maybe it is a bit long.

The recent "Poldark" television scripts. I love the show and the scripts are very readable. It seems like something that I can go back to over and over again. I've looked into other television shows, but even the ones I really like (such as "Breaking Bad") are not necessarily something that I want to go back over on a repeated basis. I've taken a look at the "Poldark" novels and I didn't care for the writing style, it seemed a little too descriptive at first glance.

"Replay" by Ken Grimwood. I've read this book around a dozen times already with more to come. I consider this the greatest books of all time, so I definitely want to study that one.

"Fevre Dream" by George R. R. Martin. It's a great one off book. I love Martin's structure and style. How he brings characters to life is just amazing.

"A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R. R. Martin. Both the books and the scripts are worth studying. It doesn't get more epic than this, and the material is top of the line the entire way through. Martin is my favorite living author.

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. I read these books right before the first movie came out and I remember really liking them. First person present tense is so rare, but this was well done. The books haven't stuck with me really well because they were immediately overshadowed by the movies, but I think there may be something interesting here. If nothing else, it is probably the best place to see first person present tense done well. "Twilight" would be another good first person series to have on the list, but I don't like the writing style of "Twilight."

"Harry Potter" by J. K. Rowling. I haven't actually read these books yet, I know, it's crazy! Technically I read the first book with my mother when I was young, but I don't really remember it. I have looked at the writing and Rowling is a very good writer. I really like the movies, so I am sure the books will be even better. Definitely something worth studying.

"The Chronicles of Narnia" by C. S. Lewis. I just started reading these books and I love that there are three levels of meaning behind them, and I like the style. I've tried starting "The Lord of the Rings" and didn't like the style. I figured that Tolkien was superior to Lewis and so I never even looked at the books before. They have been recommended to me a bunch of times and I finally took a look and saw what I was missing. I like the movies that they have made as well, I wish they would make seven movies for the seven books.

"The Dice Man" by Luke Rhinehart is a maybe because it is so unusual. I both like it and think that it may not be that useful to actually study.

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. It's a book that my mind seems to wander back to on a repeated basis. I like charismatic characters. I even have a top three list of nonfiction books about the study of charismatic personalities: "Prophetic Charisma" by Len Oakes, "Charisma" by Charles Lindholm, and "The Spellbinders" by Ruth Willner. How do you create such a compelling character as Kurtz without him even being in the story, except for the very end? Maybe Conrad can show me how.

"Siddhartha" by Hermann Hesse. I love this quick and varied journey through life. I felt like I had gained experience just by reading this book.

"The Sorrows of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I felt like I had lived through another youth that I could understand after reading this, even though it is in another time and place that I shouldn't be able to connect to. I also like the first part of "Faust" by Goethe, but I like "Young Werther" more.

"Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk. This is a book (and movie) that will mess with your mind. I read the book after seeing the movie and didn't think it had been diminished at all, and I actually think the book and movie are on par with each other.

"Candide" (and "Zadig") by Voltaire. I fell in love with this story when I was very young. A certain amount of melancholy overcoming optimism coincides with my personality, and I really liked the fast paced adventurousness of it. Also, Voltaire is just witty. I also like "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde because it is witty, but I don't want to re-read it, so I won't be studying it of course.

"Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis. I feel like I've personally met a person with an unusual personality because I've read this book. To some extent I feel the same way about some of Steven Pressfield's books, but I don't necessarily want to read about historical battles over and over.

"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson (and "Treasure Island"). In general, I think the writing of Stevenson is usually undervalued. He takes you to unusual places with unusual people which gives you an unusual experience as a writer. I would like to like works such as Frankenstein and Dracula as well, but I haven't been able to be drawn into them when I've started them.

That seems like a good list to me. It's a huge list really. I was supposed to be narrowing it down, oh well. A good plan of attack would probably be to pick one of the smaller ones and use both my structure and Koontz's structure to evaluate it. It seems like a rather daunting task now, but I think it will be fun.

You are welcome to join me in the adventure at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

Also, I am working on developing my Patreon account as an alternative way to finance the creation of my writing. Look for further developments there soon: patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin

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