How to Read Fiction

One of the great pleasures of life is to lose yourself in a novel. To reach that magical point where the characters and plot are no longer abstractions on a page but your closest friends. That urgent state in which the exterior world fades and the narrative world brightens into vivid reality.

Some have appropriately referred to this as “story grip,” a bittersweet malady that sweeps readers into plot-induced comas. One literary critic compared this curious state to falling in love. The time and attention given to the first few chapters suddenly transform a casual acquaintance into a passionate affair.

Photo Credit: CountYourBle$sings via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CountYourBle$sings via Compfight cc

Reading fiction is a constant source of pleasure to most of us. Even when we are too busy to read much of anything, we usually have a novel on the bed stand or coffee table, waiting patiently.

Pleasure is indeed one of the key gifts of fiction.  And this pleasure can be enhanced by following these six steps when reading fiction.

  1. Lose yourself in the story. The very first thing to remember when reading fiction is to enjoy the story. The pleasure of reading is one of the main reasons we read fiction, so don’t neglect it from the beginning. As you begin a new story, enter fully into the plot. Let the story work on you. Don’t worry about analyzing the story at this point. In fact, you can’t analyze it until you’ve actually read it. If possible, read the story in one sitting, or in as short a time as possible with attentive reading. This keeps the plot and characters fresh in your mind. The longer the pauses between readings, the more detail you forget. And in fiction, details tell the story.
  2. Focus on important characters and the conflict. Every story has characters. Every story has conflict. The main character (the protagonist) wrestles with some problem, either with another character, with his circumstances, or with himself. To make sense of a story, you have to identify the main character and the central conflict. These two elements are the story’s core, the wave you ride through the narrative. All of the other characters, events, conversations, and actions serve to develop the conflict to its climax and resolution.
  3. Annotate what stands out. Read the story with a pencil. When a character commits a definitive action, or makes a revealing comment, or the narrator gives some important detail, mark it with your pencil. Just make a quick mark and keep reading. Don’t worry about analyzing the annotation at this point. You are marking it so that you can come back to it later. Think of your annotations as flags marking your path through an unknown forest. Annotating helps you mark key details without distracting you from the pleasure of the story.
  4. Find the theme. As you read, you will begin to notice patterns of repeated words, phrases, images. These patterns usually connect with the central conflict. Mark these patterns as you notice them. They point to the story’s theme, the main idea or concept the author seeks to convey through the story. Themes become easier to identify the more you read, but every story has one. Even postmodern authors who write stories without any discernible theme are communicating the theme of the unreliability of knowledge and the ambiguity of experiences.
  5. Put it all together. When you’ve finished reading the story, take some time to think through what you’ve read. Reconstruct the story in your head. Read back through your annotations to refresh your memory of the story’s details. Then answer these questions as fully as you can:  1) What was the story trying to say? 2) How did the various pieces of the story work together to say this? 3) Did the story say more or less than the author intended? Do the story and the author disagree? These questions will help guide your analysis of the story.  They should lead to an insightful, charitable evaluation of the story.
  6. Apply the story. The story isn’t the only thing being evaluated, though. You have just finished reading a story that makes certain claims about the world and how humans should act in it. This story has made claims about you, and you must deal with them. Before shelving the book, you must answer these questions: 1) What is this story demanding of me? What do I need to change about myself based on what this story says? 2) If the book is wrong in its claims, what argument can I offer as an answer? 3) What specific, measurable steps can I take to change myself based on my reading of this story? These questions get to the heart of reading—the real benefit behind books and stories. Reading should change us, not just entertain us.

If the literary critic is right, and reading fiction is like falling in love, then what kind of lover are you? Do you read fiction merely for momentary pleasure? Or are you a more thoughtful lover, paying careful attention to your beloved’s words, and seeking to become a better person for their sake?

Though I’m stretching this metaphor a bit, the point I’m trying to make is an important one. Selfish lovers ultimately destroy themselves. If you want to truly enjoy the pleasure that fiction has to offer, then learn how to court the books you read. Read with forethought and attention. Let the story speak its piece and change you into a better human.

Question: What’s the most important thing fiction has taught you?