Thoughts on How to Be Critical of Stories in a Way That Makes a Difference

Some stories make me so mad.

It’s not just that these stories are all technically “bad” in some way. Indeed, there are plenty of deeply bad stories I pass on by with hardly a second thought. There are even plenty of “bad” stories I find amusing, or even some I adamantly like for any number of personal reasons.

But then there are the memorable few that stick in my craw. In these instances, I go from being able to offer a thoughtful, logical, unemotional critique of why the story didn’t work objectively, or perhaps why it didn’t work for me subjectively, to looking frantically for my flamethrower and machete.

I’ve been pondering this phenomenon for a few months, ever since experiencing yet another movie that submarined yet another of my favorite franchises. I wasn’t just disappointed; I was really upset. And yet, as an author myself, I also know what it feels like to be on the other side—a hapless creator facing down the emotional firestorm of a reader who gave (maybe) ten hours of their time to a story it took years of careful labor to create. If you’ve ever been the creator in that scenario, you’ve no doubt felt the sting of unfairness that someone should react with such strong emotions of ownership to something that is, after all and always, yours.

And yet they—readers and viewers—do react strongly. As readers and viewers ourselves, we all understand exactly what they’re feeling. In these instances of extreme criticism, the response isn’t simply to technical problems within the story; it’s also fueled by a deep sense of disappointment, betrayal even.

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts, Personality Hacker, offered a discussion on “How to Be a Good Critic,” which started out referencing movie reviews and ended up delving into the broader “criticism culture” in which we all swim these days when we brave the waters of the Internet. Listening to the hosts’ thoughts helped congeal some of my own maunderings.

What is it about some stories that unleash our inner critics’ wrath so strongly? Is that a bad thing or a good thing?

Where does this reality put those of us who are creators ourselves? Does our emotional criticism of others’ stories make us hypocrites when we know how much it can hurt? Or does the fact we are writers give us more right to be critical?

Whatever the case, can we possibly take what is, by its very nature, a negative act and turn it into a positive force for driving our own creativity?

4 Types of Stories That May Trigger Your Inner Critic

First, we have to recognize the different reasons a story may trigger our inner critics.

1. Stories That Are Technically Unsound

For starters, there are stories that are just plain bad—objectively, obviously, undeniably bad. Whatever their good points, they simply don’t work. The story structure is off or nonexistent. The plot is full of logic gaps. The characters are stereotypes who lack dimension and sound motivations. Or maybe the finer technique of presentation is lacking: the grammar or punctuation, the flow of the sentences, etc.

Stories that are really messed up on a technical level are rarely stories that trigger a massive critical response. We see at a glance these writers have no idea what they’re doing (and presumably don’t even know they don’t know). We pass on by without a second thought, much less an emotional response—in much the same way we would disregard a child’s scribbles.

Ironically, stories that are almost good are much more likely to trigger the emotional response. A story that aced everything except a major plot hole or that gripped us all the way through until it failed to stick the landing—that’s the story that will have us tearing our hair out.

2. Stories That Are Psychologically Unsound

Sometimes the problem with a story is harder to put your finger on. The structure, character arcs, theme, writing, et al., all seem skillfully rendered. And yet we’re irritated. Often, this is because the story fails to ring true on a deeper psychological level. Put simply, it fails archetypally.

Even if we can’t articulate exactly what’s wrong with these stories, we are still instinctively bothered. We know in our gut something doesn’t ring true. The general idea of the story may not even be at fault. Rather, the execution of believable cause and effect or character development may fail to bear out proper archetypal beats that resonate in our deeper, often unconscious understanding of life. As Julia Cameron quotes Adrienne Rich in The Artist’s Way:

The unconscious wants truth. It ceases to speak to those who want something else more than truth.

Stories are a symbolic representation of life. As such, they must work on a level deeper than conscious logic. This is one of the basic reasons recent reboots (of just about any popular series you can think of) fail so badly in comparison to their legendary and beloved ancestors.

3. Stories That Offend Your Worldview

Another obvious reason our inner critics sometimes come raging out of their caves is that our worldviews have been offended. This is the most subjective of all the reasons. Especially in these polarized times, stories are often judged less on their native worth and more on whether or not they fall in line with any given viewer/reader’s beliefs about what is socially and morally right.

Stories that speak honestly will always offend someone. As Studs Terkel famously said:

Just about every book contains something that someone objects to.

However, I believe any story that triggers outrage on this level is ultimately (and probably most potently) an offender in one of the other categories. The best stories resonate so deeply they sneak past our defenses and change our hearts before they change our minds. This is only possible with stories that ring true on every level—technically, logically, and archetypally.

4. Stories That Hinder You Rather Than Help You

Finally, there’s the category of frustrating story that may, in fact, be technically perfect. It strikes notes of universal truth. It may either agree with your worldview or prompt you to thoughtfulness about an opposing view. And yet, it still doesn’t work for you on a deeper, more insidious level.

These are the stories that offer you either nothing of value in your life—or offer you something of negative value. I’m not just talking about stories that are depressing, but stories that—subtly or not—offer messages of despair rather than messages of hope. These are stories of destruction, not stories of construction.

We all know what these look and feel like—because they’re everywhere right now. Even if we don’t immediately understand why we’re upset about a story (and so end up groping around for a more technical reason), our response may be a lashing out against messaging that make us feel disempowered, hopeless, and cynical.

Finding the Gifts “Bad” Stories Have to Offer You (or, What You Can Do About Them)

I don’t like getting mad about stories. Beyond the simple fact that I would have preferred to have been glad about the story rather than mad, the negativity of über-criticism is a pretty icky feeling. Verbally blasting a creator for trying to put something out in the world (even if that something was objectively malformed) neither remedies the existing story’s problems nor counters them with positive solutions.

As writers (and humans), it behooves us to offer as much grace as we can to our fellows (because try as we might, we may write something just as “bad” on our next outing). However, it’s also incumbent upon us to evaluate both our responses to the bad stories and the stories themselves. Any time we experience an emotional response to something, we can think of it as our guardian muse tapping us on the shoulder and telling us there’s something here for us to learn. To writers, lessons are always gifts.

The next time you get mad about a story, consider why and what you can take away from it. There are two aspects to this: your logical response and your emotional response. Both are important to bettering your own writing.

Learn to Articulate: Why Is This Story Logically Bad?

Everybody’s a critic, as they say. But very few people—even amongst the creative community—understand what they’re criticizing well enough to be a good critic. Everyone is qualified to say whether or not they liked something. But writers must strive to understand why we disliked a story.

  • What about it didn’t work?
  • Where did the story craft fall apart?
  • Why was suspension of disbelief endangered?
  • Why did the thematic message seem so on the nose?

The more you understand about story theory and technique—and the more you practice them in your own stories—the more equipped you will be to recognize, analyze, and learn from the mistakes of other writers.

>>Click here to read: How to Grow as a Writer: 5 Logical Steps

Emotion As a Different Kind of Logic: Why Are You Emotionally Upset?

A story may elicit an emotional reaction—whether positive or negative—without the reason being immediately obvious. The story may initially seem excellent on a technical level, and yet you feel violently disconnected from it.

Emotion, in itself, isn’t logic. In fact, emotion can drive us to all kinds of wildly illogical reasons for why something is supposedly bad or good. That said, emotion always points to something. Never ignore an emotional response. But always seek to understand the truth of what it is. Most of the time when something triggers our harshest criticism, it is rooted in one of the following feelings:

1. Disappointment: The story let you down. You invested more of yourself in it than just your time and money; you trusted the author enough to enter their shared dreamspace. And that author let you down in some way—whether objectively or subjectively.

2. Disempowerment: You can’t change the story because you didn’t write it. And you can’t change the message the story is asking you to accept. The story left you impotent to respond, save through criticism.

3. Defensiveness: The story tried (and perhaps partially succeeded) to change you and your world—but not in a way you appreciated. It might have triggered deep-seated identity issues, either through its content or because you too are a creator (e.g., the emotion is rooted in fear that you may produce something just as suspect) or because you are part of a fanbase with certain expectations.

So You’ve Figured Out Why the Story Was Bad—Now What?

Analyzing the how and why of your negative reaction to a story may or may not help you calm down and return to a more rational and less attached mindset. Regardless, what’s your next step?

At this point, you should have gleaned the insights you need to at least offer a worthwhile critique of the story. You aren’t simply basing your criticism in your own emotional response, but in the reasons behind it. Depending on the medium, it’s possible publishing this critique may offer worthwhile insight into correcting the problems and moving forward. Or not. It might just add to the noise. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying:

Being aware of a single shortcoming within yourself is far more useful than being aware of a thousand in someone else.

Take what you’ve learned about your reactions to this story and apply it to your own writing. Identifying why a story offended you on a such a deep level tells you more about yourself than it does about the offending story.

  • Its technical missteps become guideposts for helping you write a more technically sound story of your own.
  • Its psychological inaccuracies give you the opportunity for both personal growth and a more conscious approach to the deeper underpinnings of your own writing.
  • Its shallow approach to sharing a worldview (whether you agree with it or not) gives you insight into the deep necessity for passion, truth, cohesion, and resonance if you’re to share truths of any worth with others.
  • Its deeper message—whether of negativity and destruction or positivity and construction—helps you refine what you believe about the world and what you want your stories to say about it.

***

Addicting as criticism can be—especially when driven by authentic and powerful emotions—it is only truly useful when we move past its inherent negativity to build upon what lessons it offers. When a story lets us down, it is so easy to get lost in the victimizing mentalities of disappointment, disempowerment, and defensiveness. But as long as we’re willing to do the work of following the signs, these emotions point the way uphill to a future of better stories.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What positive takeaways have you gleaned from being critical of stories that made you mad? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’m a subscriber and opened the recent e-letter post regarding story critiquing just now. As I was about to dig into the topic I came to a sudden halt at No. 1–Stories That Are Technically Unsound–because to the right was your book cover/link for Structuring Your Novel. I continued reading and reaching No.2 Stories That Are Psychologically Unsound there’s a cover/link to your book Creating Character Arcs. I stopped reading. My impression by No.2 was that the entire post was written to promote your books. It felt like someone promoting their work a bit too obviously. It’s normal to use your experience in a discussion but to interject your book multiple times right in the middle of it was, for me, too in your face. I can see summarizing the topic issues at the end and recommending particular books to read but I find it distracting when my attention is diverted from the discussion to the book for sale. Please, I’m not being obnoxious but the topic was criticism…

    • Eric Troyer says

      A valid point. But if you read Katie’s blog for a while you will find that she gives a lot of good advice. She does promote her books. And that’s fair. This blog is free. Promotion is the “price” readers pay for the subject material.

      • I was just going to make a similar reply, Eric. I agree with you–Katie gives tons of valuable info AND material for free. This blog is like a free workshop in and of itself. No one should be offended by the layout of the blog if they’re coming here to get advice and improve their writing skills.

      • Such terrible practice 😉 –to provide a free sample which is complete enough to be useful in its own right, which may be sufficient for many of us, along side a more in-depth resource!
        I get that you don’t want to pay. The people who buy the book are paying for us to have this wonderful resource.

        (Of course I am not the one for whom it is sufficient. A lot of times Katie has left me mystified until much later, even though I can point to the part where she is answering my question. But that’s my own problem, between financial and intellectual resources.)

    • Yes, Katie is guilty of trying to make a living.

      • Katie puts a lot of hard work into providing this excellent free resource for the writing community. If she uses the blog to promote her own books that seems fair. All published authors need to market their books.

    • Yes, Katie does include links to her books in her postings. But I see this as an extension of the text links she embeds within her blog postings. These links to her past postings cover the current point she’s making in greater depth, or expand on the topic. So including links to her books makes perfect sense, since her books offer even greater depth of topic coverage that, for a modest price, are eye-opening and insightful. Many of us have benefited immensely from purchasing Katie’s books to help inspire and guide us, and to keep her doing what she does so well.

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      I find it hilarious that the first reply on a post about using criticism as a tool to better oneself is…a piece of criticism of the layout of the piece.

      This is the humor I need to get my week started on the right note. Thank you for this.

    • Well, you came to this site to read about Katie’s thoughts on story criticism of your own volition. Those links are yes, pieces of promotion, but they’re also additional thoughts on certain subjects. If you finished reading this article and thought it was interesting, she offered you links to go and see if anything else she has to say on this subject is interesting, which is something many of her readers appreciate. She made her thoughts more accessible … on a site about her thoughts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interestingly enough, last night I was pondering my own increasingly entrenched dislike of advertisements. I think we’re all growing more and more resistant, to one degree or another, to the constant buy-buy-buy messaging with which we’re incessantly bombarded in this ultra-modern society. Totally get that.

      However, I would suggest that any website, such as this one, which purveys–and sometime sells–information must necessarily point to its own products from time to time. As someone mentioned above, I sometimes include images of pertinent books as a way of indicating I offer further information for those who are interested. I realize most of you who frequent the blog regularly already know about my available books. But many people coming to the site for the first time do not.

      I am sorry the indication of the books’ existence was bothersome. But it would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I make my living off my books and, quite frankly, hope everyone buys one. 😉 (Although, just as honestly, if you’re interested in the books, but can’t afford them, let me know. There are ways…)

      • Richard Jones says

        Katie,

        If there is anyone who SHOULD NOT be sorry for including ads along with their content, IT IS YOU!. We’ve discussed this before and I feel your product and web content are worthy of even more promotion. The Internet is a vast swamp of get-rich schemes for every sort of scam, including publishing. Yours is one of the very few that truly does, “Help Writers Become Authors.”

      • Peter Linton says

        K.M. ~
        .
        I feel like I should NOW buy one of your books simply because you apologized for promoting them.
        .
        But I’m busy with my Outlining app.*
        .
        Perhaps I’ll have my revenge in a couple years when you buy a book from me.
        .
        😏 We’ll see…
        .
        ~ P
        .
        * Also took the plunge & purchased the upgrade to Scrivener. No regrets. Thanks

    • Richard Jones says

      Debbie,

      I feel Katie’s next article should be on how to deal with unsound criticism. In this case, your comments fall into:

      Defensiveness: The criticism tried to change you and your world—but not in a way you appreciated

      I’m more than a little offended you would take that attitude. If you feel this site is guilty of too much self-promotion, may I suggest NPR. There, you don’t have to put up with ads. The government just takes your money, regardless, and leaves you no choice.

      Of course, you could always support KM on Patreon to the extent she no longer needs to run a commercial outlet. Then you could absorb all this free advice without having to be exposed to the rest of her work.

      I do look forward to seeing your name, alongside mine, on her supporters’ page:

      https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/patrons/

      Regards,

      Richard Jones

    • I can really relate to your post. I have a good friend who wrote a novel, and it hit so many of these reactions in me: it was poorly structured, and it had a strong fascist vibe that shocked and offended me, and it’s affected our friendship.

      Without getting into too much detail, imagine rewriting The Handmaid’s Tale with all the same events, oppression, and characters, except the writer wants the readers to root for Gilead to succeed, and Offred to stop complaining and be a good handmaid.

      To be fair to my friend, she never read Handmaid’s Tale, so she has no idea how close her story tracks to it. But now that reviews are coming in, many people are seeing it the same way I did.

    • Maybe the post’s format in your email made it seem more in your face? On the website, I think it’s fine.

      Blogs are a unique form of communication that allows the author to self-reference. That means she doesn’t have to summarize every time. (Which I actually find more annoying.) She can place a link, as K.M. often does.

      These particular topics, however, are ones she’s been thinking about and writing about for years. She’s explored them from many different angles. Her posts have become vast and varied, with too many individual articles for a link to be helpful. So she took time and energy to organize it into a book. Why would she not reference it as a whole? It covers what she’s thinking better than, “You know, everything I’ve ever written about story structure.”

      I have seen blatant plugs for an author’s books in blog posts, and it can be annoying. On the other hand, I’m reading their post because I’m interested in what they have to say. Why should I be surprised that they offer it to me in book-form as well?

  2. Great article. I’m a member of a reading group and we meet monthly to discuss a specific book which means I read novels I might not normally read. Our best discussions are when half of us love the book and half of us hate it. We end up having to defend our opinion and articulate exactly what it is that has led us to form that opinion. interestingly people may see things in a story that have passed me by. It’s a useful exercise for a writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s awesome. I have a pet project I’m playing with that would give me the opportunity to start interviewing a wide variety of people on what they connect to in stories–and what they don’t.

  3. As a fan of history, my pet peeve is a work of historical fiction that distorts history in a misguided effort to correct it, leaving readers not with a deeper understanding – more complex and more nuanced – but merely with one similarly shallow, just more narrowly focused in a different way. This has driven home for me the advice I’ve seen in so many great writing references: that it’s a trap to confuse theme and message. The former encourages us to explore a topic and have the courage to see (and trust the reader to interpret) competing viewpoints. The latter leads us to treat readers, in John Gardner’s words, as “poor dumb mules who must be hollered and whipped into wisdom.” To commit to a message is to create a darling that can’t be killed, with all the consequences of which we’re so frequently warned.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, I totally agree on this. So much historical fiction lately (mostly movies) has been ghastly in this respect. History is only valuable to us if we’re able to face its truths honestly.

      But then again, I love Gladiator, and it’s not exactly accurate. :p

  4. One book in particular sticks in my mind. It was a debut book by a young author. It seemed a coming of age story in the vein of Captains Courageous, Cruise of the Dazzler, or any of Heinlein’s juveniles, The heroine was a callow youth who leaves home and family to take a job on a spaceship. She was likeable enough, the setting was had potential, and it was smoothly written. I had hopes. However, the story lost me when the protagonist was never challenged. I kept reading on, hoping that the protagonist would face a crisis that she would have to grow to surmount. It never happened and at the end of the story she was the same nice kid she was when she entered. That wasn’t a flat arc, that was a flatline. It left me frustrated and disappointed. Lesson learned — Failure to pay attention to your protagonist’s development leads to ruin.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is what happens when good characters are in stories that lack plot. It’s a sad waste. The good news, though, is that if the book is still in the editing stage fixing it usually involves adding a lot of really fun scenes!

  5. Louis Schlesinger says

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post. Money quote: “Take what you’ve learned about your reactions to this story and apply it to your own writing. Identifying why a story offended you on a such a deep level tells you more about yourself than it does about the offending story.”

    In a nutshell, perhaps write more to understand than to be understood. For me, that’s a greater challenge than the lofty bar of creating good story.

    Yet is it not ironic that, as readers, we revere misunderstood heroes?

    I appreciate the quotations you use in your posts; so, I’ll add one of my own in this comment. “With malice towards none and charity to all …” (From Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address). If I want my readers to empathize with my lead character, empathy is the least I can offer to anyone who tries to do the same.

  6. Eric Troyer says

    I mostly listen to audiobooks (almost always when I’m alone). When I find myself yelling at the author I know I’m not enjoying the book. Two big things that irk me are telegraphing with a sledgehammer (especially the telegraphs that are “here’s a new person and I’m going to tell you if he’s good or evil) and characters that act in ways that don’t make sense for their character.

    However, I also find that those books have something good enough in them for me to care. I’ve listened to books that do similar things but I don’t really care. Those books are just poorly written overall.

    Generally, I find that I learn more as a writer from poorly written books than from well written books. Really good books pull me into the story so much that I’m not thinking about the writing techniques. Not so with books that have major flaws.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s that old saying about how even bad publicity is better than no publicity. Stories we passionately hate are usually stories that did *something* right in order to make us care at all.

  7. I find it more and more difficult to fully enjoy a movie, TV show, or a book these days — probably a result of studying the craft. I have come to the conclusion there is no perfect creation (nor should there be) and that what I find missing or lacking in a movie or book, someone else might not even notice–or they might love that aspect of it!

    • oops, hit reply accidentally. I wanted to go on to say that as long as the writer/creative team stays true to the essence of the story then I’m okay with a stumbling here and there. One thing I can’t forgive is remaking an original story and changing the heart of it. That makes my blood boil.

      Great post!

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        I have this theory I’ve been working on that when stories work on a deeper, archetypal level, we’re often much more able to forgive the surface technical flaws. But even glossy, well-executed stories won’t work if the underlying archetype isn’t there–and by “archetype” I’m talking about a foundation even deeper than just proper story structure and character arc. Hoping to post on these ideas soon, after I do some more research.

  8. I love this article. I realized recently that I’m much more critical of stories that I read nowadays, and it’s caused me to ask the question: do I have a good reason for being critical of this story? Being able to articulate the reason for why I didn’t enjoy something has helped my book reviews IMMENSELY by forcing me to be more thoughtful about the books I read. I find a lot of truth in your article. Thanks for sharing!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s nothing I appreciate more than a well-iterated review—probably because they’re often hard to find. :p

  9. Maybe I’m picky, but I often start a novel and abandon it in the first chapter. These stories don’t upset me and I’d be hard-put to tell you the title of any of them. But I read one book that I enjoyed. Read every word even tho I’m an incorrigible skimmer. The ending was sad but satisfying. Then I turned to the epilogue, and the author totally invalidated the ending, turned it into a “never mind, I didn’t mean it.” I was furious.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m learning to be pickier too. I have such a hard time *not* finishing a story once I’ve started. But there are so many books and movies and shows out there right now that the potential for wasting our time goes up a little every day. Much better to spend our time on those stories that truly mean something to us.

  10. Me: *still fuming about Rise of Skywalker* Can I say “THIS” a million times?

  11. Stories that make me mad are generally traditionally published in my genre that are so flawed (usually because they break the “rules” in a bad way and/or are so unexciting) I’m forced to wonder how it got past the “gatekeepers“ and how anyone could think it’s praiseworthy. The same goes for highly popular, well-rated self-published or indie published stories that are the opposite of unique and/or were never seen by a copy editor.

    I have such a critical eye that it’s extremely hard for me to find books that interest me, aren’t filled with cliches, lack unlikable characters doing outrageously idiotic and/or completely unrealistic things, aren’t the same as countless other stories, are written by someone with an exceptional grip of the English language, and that don’t bore me with excessive description of mundane activities/scenes that don’t pertain to the plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. But as someone wise (whose name I’ve forgotten if not his words) once said: This is a sign of your own good taste. 🙂 That means you get to apply that good taste to your own stories!

  12. Once again, I find your insight extraordinary. Thank you for the tools to help understand what works and does not work for a story.

    However, I wanted to make a point about your “Bad Movie” experience. If we set our magnifying glasses down for a minute and try to look at the bigger picture we might see something else. We should not forget that the sales of books and movies in particular center around profit. That means that there is an intended audience and as much as we might like that to be us, it simply isn’t always the case.

    Movies in particular are such a case. They cost orders of magnitude more to produce than a book. As such, what works for the reader usually does not work for the screen. As a lover of science fiction I cringe at most movies because of the faults in the science or plot holes, but I realize that I am not the audience these films are trying to reach. Maybe that was the case for the bad taste in your mouth for the film you watched. The financial bottom line is what’s most important and the intended audience may not be so critical about plot holes or technological blunders, psychology, or emotion. They just came to be entertained. Is that a bit shallow? Maybe, but if it generates profit, do the investors and producers care? Probably not.

    Nevertheless, as you wisely pointed out, “bad” films and books can often teach us much about what works well, what doesn’t, and how we interpret them on a deeper level. Our biggest critic is usually ourselves and if we can learn how to analyze other people’s work, maybe we can see our own offerings in a clearer light. Thank you for your help to set us on that path.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Very true. This particular “bad” film did, in fact, bomb at the box office. But there are plenty more than I would deem “bad” that do exceptionally well financially.

    • Stacey Bradford Schaller says

      As a filmmaker, I do understand your point, but also, as a filmmaker, Katie’s critique is more valid than perhaps you’re realizing.

      When you’re filming a franchise, the existing fans are your key audience. They are the “cash cow” that makes film profit possible. Attracting existing fans to the next episode or the remake is fairly easy compared to building a new audience from scratch. Marvel and Pixar have been masters at attracting and satisfying their fan base.

      Perhaps the best franchise ever to electrify the fan base was Lord of the Rings. While some changes were made to the original story, Peter Jackson was very careful to stay true to the heart of the books, and landed a perfect ten.

      But a producer is a fool to infuriate his core fan base. Disney did that with the Star Wars franchise. Narnia was another franchise with a large fan base that was tremendously disappointed with the second and third films. Their disappointment translated into actually killing the film franchise (very unprofitable situation).

      This, I think, was what Katie was referring to. When filmmakers demolish the core of a much loved story, they aren’t guaranteed a new fan base, but they can be certain to offend their existing base. Those moves don’t tend to work in filmmakers’ favor. And when they do those things, it is clear that they either do not understand the story/franchise or they don’t respect it.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        It will be interesting to see if the new Amazon LOTR series gleans from Jackson’s fidelity to the source material.

        • I generally pride myself on being a curious, open-minded, and thoughtful consumer of content, so when a book, show, or movie upsets me, it’s startling enough that I end up doing a lot of self-examination to find out why.

          In some cases, there’s an easy answer. I can think of two examples of series that I loved all the way through until the end, where they killed off several of my favorite characters, including the protagonists. I definitely felt betrayed and have not re-read or re-watched them since. This would probably fall under the personal disappointment category, because whether those deaths resonated with the theme was not as important to me as the characters having their version of a “happy ending.”

          However, there is one book that has stuck in my craw for years, and I find it incredibly difficult to articulate why. I think this would fall under offending my worldview. The book is called The Sparrow, and it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a soft sci-fi that bills itself as Christian fiction and promises a deep, life-changing exploration of faith and doubt, as if the protagonist is some sort of modern day Job. It gets rave reviews all over Goodreads, but I found it repugnant. It’s been years since I left the faith the book is exploring, but I’m still so disgusted with the reveal, and I still can’t put my finger on what it is about the particular debasement of the character and the reasoning behind it that I find so infuriating. It’s one of those books that haunts me, and NOT in a good way.

          • This reply was meant to be to the article itself, not to this particular comment. Sorry about that!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            What you mention in the last paragraph is particularly the kind of story that intrigues me. I’ve certainly run into my own fair share of similar experiences–stories I found violently repugnant for one reason or another, but which drew a general consensus that drew quite different conclusions. These are always stories that leave me puzzling through deeper questions for a very long time afterward.

          • K.M., if you ever read The Sparrow, I would be *very* interested in your thoughts!

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            You’ve made me curious about it for sure!

      • Thanks, Stacey. You are bang on about serving your core followers first.

        I am sure there are many reasons a sequel can flop: external muddling, group think, or just a culture shift in the fan base. It’s easy to critique, but I suspect the whole profession is a lot more difficult than is appears in the rear-view mirrors.

  13. I stopped for a while and thought about the comment that the writing may disagree on some level with what you believe. In the current world I find myself consistently at odds with people’s stated beliefs. So it would seem anything that I write which was truthful would be likely to arouse passionate resistance in any average audience.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Well, as James Garfield said: “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” :p

  14. I’m finding it easier-and more enjoyable-to be understanding of writing that makes me cringe. I’m grateful for learning what doesn’t work, and more curious about how it can serve me to improve or fix some writing of my own. As you mentioned, understanding what we’re criticizing allows us to be clear on why we didn’t like it, and, rather than narrowing our perspective, it opens it to possible solutions. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’ve named an important trait here: curiosity. It’s often more difficult to be open and curious than it is to be closed and upset. But curiosity is not only how we find the gifts, it’s a gift in itself. I’m glad you mentioned this. It’s a good reminder for me as well.

  15. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    Great post. I ran across the following comments (below) from William Faulkner, in 1950, as part of his Novel Prize speech activities.

    It really blew me away and simplified it for me. I can hardly watch US streaming services for all the utter violation on this “fear factor” that has destroyed so much of writing and story telling for me. I am choosy in book selection and go to Britbox for tv. Mick Jagger nailed it as well in a blistering and somewhat disturbing Stones tunes a few years ago called Gloom and Doom.

    I love what Faulkner is saying. I want to do what he says. Stones also posted below. It is not for the squeamish.

    Here is what Faulkner said (we are so fearful and numb we are losing the ability to write with feeling):

    https://lithub.com/20-pieces-of-writing-advice-from-william-faulkner/

    It is just as applicable today as it was in 1950.

    On writing towards truth:

    “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

    He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.” (from Faulkner’s 1949 Nobel Prize banquet speech)

    Rolling Stones

    (A little rough, but one heck of a message)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Faulkner quote is *so* good. I hadn’t heard it before. I’m going to go read the whole speech. It feels really poignant to me right now.

  16. I didn’t even notice the advertising until it was pointed out in the first post! (I had to go back and check.) I was totally engrossed in what you were saying; wasn’t distracted. 😉

  17. A very insightful post as always. The responses to the blog post not only made me smile but reiterated the points raised. I’ve noticed myself becoming more critical of other’s writing as my experience and confidence have grown. It was getting mad after trying to read a notably famous book that inspired me to write again, so I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful for criticism given to me by members of my writing group, for without their ‘constructive criticism’ I would not have, and continue to, grow as a writer. From a writer’s perspective, I believe we should embrace ‘constructive criticism’ whilst remembering that everything is subjective.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      We hear the phrase “constructive criticism” so often I think it’s easy for us to grow numb to what it really means. But the moment we contrast the words “constructive” and”destructive,” the true and nurturing value of constructive criticism comes back into focus. Constructive criticism encourages change, and change is never easy. But it is a positive force, never a negative one–a tool for building, not for tearing down.

  18. Sharyn Lodge says

    Could not agree more. I love reading but, unlike my husband who will stick with a book through hell or high water, if I’m not grabbed in the first couple of chapters, I give up.
    Bad grammar and poor spelling annoys me, but if it’s a really good story I will stay with it.
    Stories that ‘ring true’ are a must for me – even if they are fiction, even if they are total fantasy, there still must be an element of ‘yes, this could really happen in that kind of world’.
    I don’t mind having my beliefs and world view challenged, but something that I find incredibly annoying is when a writer had not ‘captured’ a place that I know well.
    There is a novel – a very famous one that won a prestigious prize, and is currently being made into a movie – that is set on the West Coast of New Zealand, and it’s probably an excellent story.
    But I could not stick with it.
    Why? Because I was born and bred on the West Coast of New Zealand, and not one element of this story rang true to me. The atmosphere was all wrong. The characters were all wrong. The only thing that was recognizable to me was the scenery.
    Yes, it is an historical novel. But those of us who were born on the Coast more than 50 years ago were still very close to that history (European history is still very young in New Zealand). We were brought up on tales of our grandparents and great-grandparents and what it was like when they first arrived. This book told of a West Coast that was completely foreign to me.
    Funnily enough, if the writer had set it somewhere in the United States (which is unfamiliar to me) I probably would’ve enjoyed it. But I just got annoyed with it and put it down, and I haven’t looked at it since.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I write historical novels on occasion, and this is one of my greatest fears–particularly because sometimes this lapse of verisimilitude feels inevitable. There will always be a reader who knows the material better than the author (unless the author herself truly is an expert). It provides all the more incentive to put in the work on research. Even if you get some things wrong, it wasn’t for lack of intention.

  19. This blog post perfectly explains why some novels do not click with me.
    I can see the disappointment and the disempowerment in me as a reader.
    Another excellent post, K.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Recognizing what’s going for us as readers makes us better at choosing the kind of stories we’ll like. Plus, it just makes us more aware of our human experience!

  20. Your blog certainly triggered a lot of responses, not all of which I’ve had the time to read. I would like to break a lance here for your deeply intelligent remarks, as well as for your rich and beautiful prose. If a linguist were to make a research on your word usage, I am pretty sure she could prove how many points you stand above the average.

    Thank you for your excellent insights. I’ve recently watched a couple of movies that made me emotionally negative about them. This happens when what you define as suspension of disbelief ceases, because the the mechanics in the backstage have got exposed, so to speak. Such as when characters and scenes are stereotypes. One such example was for me 1917, where .Germans were necessarily wicked, when action reminded me of videogames, when motivation was weak.

  21. Lance Haley says

    Katie –

    This is a very interesting perspective, and one I have had to deal with in the process of writing my novel.

    However, what I keep holding onto is the fact that controversy sells. And a well-written story serves to compound the effect (which is why I intend on doing numerous edits with the help of professionals).

    Just ask J.D. Salinger after writing Catcher in the Rye. Or Salman Rushdie after he published Satanic Verses. I’m certain Rushdie and Salinger both knew there would be monumental fallout from their respective books’ publications. How could they not? And both said to themselves,”ces’t la vie.” They felt compelled to write their stories. A writer’s got to write what a writer has to write; wherever their muse takes him/her.

    I feel the same way regarding my endeavor. The few people who know what it’s about have essentially said, “it’s a very novel concept (pun intended), but you are going to piss a lot of people off.” I tell them, “that’s part of my motive.” Most readers will either love it or hate it. While it will make others think deeply and consider things they would not have otherwise.

    That’s the point of the exercise. Damn the consequences. Censorship and criticism is often times a good thing for an author. Whatever the negative reaction, that’s alright by me. At least I will have spoken my piece.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand.”–Pablo Picasso

  22. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    I don’t ever recalling reading a flamethrower book. With me it didn’t get to that point I simply stopped reading it.

    For me the upside of reading books that didn’t satisfy was I decided to write my own book. At this time I was reading fantasy and I was disappointed that none of them measure up to Tolkien or Stephen R. Donaldson.

    I don’t read book to criticize, but to be entertained or to learn something. However I do believe in criticism in the hopes it will prevent trash or to encourage creators to do better.

    As someone living on a limited income I appreciate Ms. Weiland’s forum. I know that getting information and inspiration from other sources will cost an arm and a leg and I need my arms and legs.

    So, Ms. Weiland go ahead and saturate your forum with ads and I will either buy what I can afford or just ignore them.

  23. There is a writing website that posts a lot of good content for fantasy writers … but I find myself reluctant to read it. In fact, I’m thinking of not reading it anymore at all.

    Why?

    Because it is so negatively critical.

    The articles seem to focus most often on examples of “bad” writing, and they seem like they are not only critiquing the work, but “out to get” the creators as well. The examples are usually of very successful stories, and while I don’t mind hearing about flaws in popular works, the way in which it is done …

    It just leaves me feeling discouraged as a writer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I hear you. We all need constructive criticism and hard truths in order to grow. But these can be shared in an environment of caring and positivity, born from a desire to each help our fellow become greater so that we all may benefit. When that environment is instead one of tearing down and negativity, so much more is cut away than just “bad writing.”

  24. I’ve made the mistake of letting my emotions get into my critique. I felt so bad afterward and apologized later. But apologizing did not fix the damage I had done. I’ve also been on the receiving end of an emotional critique and it made me stop writing for an entire year. Both experiences have taught me something, though. As the one giving the critique, I am extra careful now (and your tips will help me improve my critiquing further). As the receiver, I try to get beyond my emotional response and look deeper into what they are trying to say.

  25. On stories with destructive truths, I’ve been on the receiving end of a book with a destructive message, a book promising to teach me proper Chinese (I had poor grades and Chinese is a mandatory subject in typical local Hong Kong schools like mine) but promotes anti-Christian values. My book review of it tried to warn others about it, but the fallout resulting from that book review has held me back from opportunities I’d have taken if not for the paranoia/fear invoked by it, such as future employers not hiring me should they believe in those who trolled me online. Yes, there is a popular book by Andrew Grove called “Only the Paranoid Survive”, but “survival” and “life” are worlds apart.

    In The Creative Penn’s recent podcast episode (#476) on writing female fight scenes, I learnt that bad guys tend to harm former victims because such victims can be identified. Quote:

    >> There was actually a really interesting study done in the UK a few years ago where they took a bunch of mugging victims and they walked them around the room with motion capture sensors on them, so they turned the bodies into basically stick figures and assessed how they walked.

    >> Then they got a bunch of bouncers and muggers to watch those videos and decide who they would mug if they had to. And every single time in that study, the muggers and bouncers picked the people who had already been mugged at some point in their life.

    >> So basically what it was saying is that they already walked like a victim. And it was visible to people who knew what to look for.

    More and more people are scared of more and more things, from the coronavirus to cybercrime (recent example e.g. impersonation cyber crimes — “Feminist Chatbots”, 18/02/2020, BBC Digital Planet) and how robots affect employment (recent reference: “A robot future and how to handle it”, 18/02/2020, BBC Business Daily), and many of us here in Hong Kong fear that the things afflicting us (especially since last year’s stuff) won’t be over, and people are stocking up and even stealing from supermarkets and scamming others to get food, masks and other necessities.

    On the bright side, crises produce opportunities. Perhaps healing ourselves from injurious books means that we carefully ponder ideas, be they written, visualised or spoken, rather than knee-jerk react to them. Now that I’m working from home to keep away from the coronavirus, it’s amazing how slow and mindful I’ve become without the daily commute. A doctor at my church encountered a patient carrying the coronavirus, and he was quarantined, but he caught up with friends and family and missed messages through his phone (“Coronavirus quarantine came as a shock to Hong Kong emergency doctor”, South China Morning Post — interestingly, the journalist is also a member of my church as well). Therefore, readers and writers and anyone alive now need to learn to make not just the most of… not just the best of… we need to make the *most best* out of every opportunity, if that makes any sense.

  26. Rod Schmidt says

    A couple of notes:

    – Anger is often a response to perceived boundary violation. So, when angry, ask: What boundary violation does my Unconscious perceive to have occurred?

    – One mathematician famously dismissed another mathematician’s paper with the comment: “It isn’t even wrong.” (The point being, I suppose, that in order to be wrong you have to actually say something.)

    – About emotion having its own logic, see: Seven Laws of Magical Thinking

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great point on the boundary violation. That’s a good metric for self-evaluation in emotional reactions.

  27. Abigail Welborn says

    This is so timely for me! I had waited with great anticipation for the sequel to one of my favorite books of 2019—which became perhaps one of my top 10 books all time—but when it finally came out, I was devastated. The writing was superb, but the characters didn’t behave at all like I wanted them to. I recognized that my disappointment was about my expectations. I definitely felt all three—disappointment, disempowerment, and discouragement. I wondered how I could have missed the foreshadowing in book 1 that would’ve suggested they would seemingly forget all the lessons that they learned. Every time I looked at or thought about the sequel, I felt viscerally angry all over again. I even wrote an outline for how I would have written the sequel! 😅

    Incidentally, it also helped me understand the difficulty of working on something big. There’s no way to please every Star Wars fan (as it would be difficult to please both the Reylos and the rest). As a side note, it’s amazing Endgame pleased so many MCU fans.

    Thank you for giving me something constructive to do with all my energy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yeah, there’s one particular book of that sort that springs to mind too. I’m still bummed about it, because the first one was so *good.*

  28. I find that my inner critic starts screaming when I read about wilting female protagonists, the ones who always take back the cheater. My characters would never!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I find that scenarios like that are often because the character is serving the plot rather than vice versa.

  29. Good stuff Katie, just reading this now (break from coronavirus news) i have found learning from books i don’t like or have issues with helpful and it can guide my own writing. I think as much ad i want to appeal to others i want to enjoy my own book. I don’t want to be critical for the sake of it so at times i test my views by searching for what others have said as it can balance my views.
    i think though sometimes when i really don’t like something and get angry its because im secretly jealous that someone gets published with bad flaws.
    But i have learnt lots too from trying to be objective including observation of bad 3rd parts to trilogies.

  30. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    Now that I’m thinking of it, one of the lesser reasons I started writing was not just because I desire to emulate good authors, but because I thought I could do better than the bad writers. I don’t recall feeling jealous because they were getting away with bad writing. To be honest, if you asked me at that time why it was bad writing I probably couldn’t give a good answer I just knew it was bad.

    I know that this may be off the thread, but I want to mention it while I’m still remembering and because I think it’s worth while for writers.

    There is a guy named, Chris on youtube that runs videos titled Comic Tropes. Yes, I know comic books by most aren’t considered to be literature. But I believe in good storytelling regardless of the media. And yes, there is a such a thing as good storyteller skills in comic books and this includes the penciler, the inker, the colorists, the letterer, as well as the writer and editor.

    Chris goes through bad and good comics. He can be funny in his sarcasm, but he is fair and objective in his critiques. I find he has a number of intelligent insights to give that can be applied to writing fiction. I really believe we writers can learn some good storytelling skills from Chris’ Comic Tropes.

  31. Really needed to read this right now. You’ve summed it up pretty well. I wrote a scathing review of a book I had read recently but I decided not to post it. I had bought the book at a signing event and had read only positive reviews about it. Yet reading it irked me on a much deeper level than usual. Yes it was technically flawed, characters were stereotypes and it fell like the author thrown the full force of tropes in South Asian Literature into one book. Yes, the pacing was off, the writing was too on the nose, and the only resounding message the book gave was that the rich and powerful get away with everything. The voice of the young protagonist mirrored the irreverence of the author himself. It presented a worldview contrary to my own. Ultimately, it was the realization that I felt disappointed in the author, that led me to keep the review private.

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