In his book On Writing—one of the best I’ve read on the subject—Stephen King argues that, “if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” With this, as with many of the other writing tips the native from Maine expounds on the aforementioned book, I agree.
After all, it seems obvious that writing—and particularly reading—a lot are the bread-and-butter of any writer who wants to become excellent at what they do. In any human activity practice makes the results more conscious and meticulous, so I consider that “write a lot” is one of the few self-evident truths when it comes to writing.
In this case the doubt that I’ve had for some time now has to do with the part about “read a lot.” Because in our current era of immediate access to an almost infinite amount of stories, and in the most varied of styles and “formats”—including books, of course, but also encompassing movies, TV series, animation, anime, comic books, roleplaying games, video games, etc.—the problem doesn’t seem to be that we read little—in the sense that we expose ourselves to few or not varied enough stories—but how to get the most out of those readings. Or, in other words, how to make our readings as fruitful and nutritious as they can be?
This is where deep reading enters the picture.
How We Read
In general terms, I’d venture that most of us are capable of describing the stories we read in general terms. For example: what happened on the story from beginning to end (its plot); who are its characters (and maybe even their roles); what is its physical, historical, and/or imaginative environment (its setting); and we may even be able to sum up what we think the story is about (its theme).
What most of us—at least in my experience—have problems pointing out are, instead, the story’s mechanisms. Or, in other words: we can say what’s happening at any given moment within the narrative, but now how or why it’s happening in this manner. And, even more important, we have little to no idea about how those mechanisms create emotional responses in us. What is it in a scene that makes us laugh or cry? What scares or worries us?
Following the previously mentioned examples, we may recite the events of a story but, are we capable of distinguishing why the writer has decided to put them in that order? And, if we exchange places between two events on the narrative, would that change its sense? What makes it that a given dramatic moment be better placed at a particular point in the narrative instead of another? This type of questions are, in my opinion, the ones we should be asking ourselves when we are reading. Instead of memorizing names or story facts, or arguing whether a dramatic event follows the laws of physics/History/etc. of the “real world”, I believe that our focus should be on identifying and being able to point out the underlying, but easily recognizable dramatic structures present in any narrative.
And, especially, how those structures awaken our emotions.
An Active Stance
In this sense, I believe it isn’t necessary to learn a specific technique or theory in order to develop a deep reading on any story. What we have to do, I think, is to become self-conscious about how the dramatic mechanisms of a story affect us.
In order to achieve that we only need to adopt an active stance when reading. That is to say: we have to avoid receiving a story we’re reading in a passive manner and, instead, we have to be aware of whatever is going on in the story and how it’s affecting us. For example: if a scene makes us cry, perhaps it’d be interesting to come back to read it and notice, at which point do the tears emerge? What happened exactly at that point in the story? Why are we crying from that point forward? What is the context? What was the writer’s focus? What did they highlight and what did they minimize? How did they build that dramatic moment?
Of course, at the beginning we may have to make a conscious effort to ask ourselves these questions but, in time, I hope that the act of asking them becomes second nature. In my experience, after a time it isn’t to read actively what’s difficult—but to stop doing it! One becomes accustomed to be an active reader and, therefore, one can always get something out of a story, regardless of whether ones likes it or not.
Even if one has never done this active reading consciously, in my experience doing so is something we do naturally. I say this because every time I’ve commented with someone the results of my active readings—i.e., my opinions—of a book, movie, TV series, animation, anime, comic book, roleplaying game, videogame, etc., the people on the receiving end have never stood there silently—but quite the opposite.
Sometimes their answers and personal perspectives on the stories we share are tinged with shyness and second-guessing but, on other numerous occasions, people get excited and end up expressing their impressions on those stories on a clear and definite manner. What’s best is that, even if one doesn’t agree with someone’s particular reading, this exchange of perceptions enriches everybody else’s readings. This it is so because it allows us to reaffirm our personal readings and, sometimes, even to discover that our opinions have changed after confronting them with someone that has a different reading.
Questions, questions, questions
Now, you who are listening to this maybe are wondering, but how do I do this? How can I start practicing active reading on a conscious manner? The answer is very simple: to ask questions.
So, the easiest, most direct way of engaging the active reading stance is to be constantly questioning what’s happening in the story. It’s possible not only to imagine what the story they’re telling us but, at the same time, to perceive how it is that they are transmitting it to us and what are our emotional reactions—if we are asking some basic questions. Some examples include but are not limited to:
- General questions. What’s going on in the story? What emotion is the writer trying to transmit? What emotions am I feeling?
- Related to the characters. What are the characters most dramatically affected at the moment? What characters have their emotions described or insinuated? How is the writer doing that?
- Related to emotions. How do I notice the emotion the writer is trying to convey? How do I know that I’m in the presence of a dramatic moment? How do you differentiate one dramatic moment from another?
- Questions of style. Where in the story can you notice the writer’s hand? What elements are only present in a particular kind of scene or related to a specific emotion? What decisions made by the writer are clearly focused on arousing an emotion? What things are they highlighting? What things are they omitting?
- Related to conflict/plot. At what moment in the story are we? Are we at the introduction, beginning, development, climax or maybe the dénouement? How can you notice that in the writing? What elements give away/insinuate the part of the story we are in?
Of course this list of questions is not exhaustive nor it does it pretend it to be. It is, in contrast, a starting point for the, I hope, many conversations you’ll have about your readings.
The Power of Conversation
Although I already mentioned it above, I want to make emphasis on this point. In my experience, sharing the results of our active readings is the best way of solidifying the practice and to realize that we don’t need a special permission to have an opinion about the stories we expose ourselves to. What’s more important, I think, this helps us connect with other people’s readings which, in turn, makes our own readings richer.
So, after practicing on your own, so to speak, I invite you to share your deep readings with your closest relations. And if you don’t have any—or if you want to expand your horizons—maybe you can use a social media channel to do so. To my surprise and delight, I’ve found lots of people with compatible or complimentary reading to my own on social media, something that has helped me expand my writing spectrum quite a lot. I believe that it’s quite the magic experience to write a tweet or Facebook publication and read other people who share your reading and, even better, some who enrich the conversation by sharing their own reading.
Don’t Fight the Trolls!
In this case, and as an addendum, I have to bring up the topic of trolls. In my opinion a deep reading is something quite subjective because, as I exposed above, it has everything to do with our emotions and our way of approaching a story.
If you think about it, I never mentioned in this article that the stories you apply a deep reading to have to be “good” or follow this or that criteria—and that’s deliberate. Personally I’m not interested in proving to anyone that my reading/opinion is the correct one. If someone reads/has a differing opinion from my own, they are welcome to it!
So here’s my final recommendation for now on this subject: convey you reading/opinion as best you can and, if someone starts trolling you, step aside and avoid confrontation.
It’s important that stories are the ones provoking strong emotions in us—and not people that are, on purpose, trying to make others feel bad.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article! You can help me out by commenting, sharing it with someone who may like it, or by becoming a patron over at patreon.com/nuevafantasy Just for $1 a month you can read new posts before anybody else does! Thank you in advance for your support.
This post was published thanks to the support of Paulette Rompeltien, Marley Clevenger, María Consuelo Gómez Martín, and the rest of my wonderful patrons.