Why I Review Books and Films (among other things)

Cookbook HelixThere are millions of reviewers out there, all typing out their opinion on whether a book or a movie is any good. And people want to read them because they are wondering if that book or that movie is in fact worth their time. The quality of these reviews differs greatly. But the questions, is it any good, and, what is it about? are what most of these reviewers are writing about.

But I’m not like these reviewers. I am not like them because I am reviewing for a different reason. So if you are reading for a different reason too, then you’re in the right place.

My reviews are short studies of how a story is told, how it is written and why the writer wrote it the way they did. I am doing this because I am an autodidact and I am teaching myself how to be the best writer I can be.

Do you want to know how good writers become great writers? They study. Hard. Some do it as part of a formal eduction. Some others do it without realizing they are doing it.  And some, like me, self-teach knowing full well what they are up to.

I read slowly. This year I will probably read more books than I have ever read in a single year. My target is only twelve. I read slowly because I am analysing. Sometimes I am analysing each and every word choice. But I basically pay attention to each granular level of the writing from single word up to whole book, the style, the structure, the unfolding of the story. And I am also looking at individual character paths and character development, the ebb and flow of the tension, emotion, mystery, what questions the reader is thinking and whether the writer intended this, or not…And this last one is perhaps most important, because I try to get inside the head of the author. Why does he make the choices that he makes? What influences him? Can he get inside his reader’s head? Where did his ideas come from? What went through his mind?

Because if the writer is worth reading then something did pass through their head, hopefully a lot, and you have the clues right in front of you; the traces of his thoughts. With a little effort you can become a fly on the wall as the author or screen-writer sits at their desk, ideas passing through their head before being selected and turned into words. Words that are also chosen just as carefully as the ideas they convey and the characters they show you.

Despite only reading a small number of carefully selected books a year — chosen to aid my study, but also to entertain — I do sometimes, much to my frustration, come across one that is badly written. But I try to finish it because it is an opportunity to understand what made the book bad and to explore how it could have been written better.

And it is the same with movies. As much as I love the cinema, I prefer to watch at home where I can pause, rewind, watch again, think…and then conclusion reached, allow the movie to continue at the standard pace till something else captures me. Getting a movie wrong is easier, I feel. There is less room for error; less space to redeem one’s mistakes. But I watch good movies over again, until watching stops being productive to my learning.

So my reviews, as I have said, are studies of the DNA of a story. Often my reviews don’t contain much in the way of spoilers, because I am not focused on telling you what the story is about, I am focused on telling you how it was told.

Image credit: hjl on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.