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!

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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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.*

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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