You Can Say That Again: How rereading your favorite books can make you a better writer
My husband rarely reads the same book twice. Once he has finished a book, he doesn’t get the same pleasure out of reading it again, and he’d rather move on to the many other books piling up on his to-read list. I, too, have a long list of books waiting for my attention, but I also have a few favorite books that I return to over and over again. Rereading these books feels like coming home after a long time away, like tucking into a plate of my favorite comfort food. But rereading a book can do more than supply that “ahhhh” feeling. If you’re an author, it can also help make you a better writer.
If you are drawn to a book so much that you are willing to spend time with it even though you already know what is going to happen, the author must be doing something right. And since you are already familiar with the characters and the plot, and not so caught up in what’s going to happen next, you can pay closer attention to what the author has done to hook you so strongly. You don’t have to dissect the book like that pig you studied in high school biology to uncover its magic. You still want to enjoy it while you read it! But if you pay attention to just a few things, you can learn a lot about how to entrance your future readers.
1) Why do you love the main character? Often, we fall in love with a book because we feel a strong connection to the protagonist. Pay attention to the methods the author uses to introduce you to the character, to let you know who the character is and what they believe in. How much do they tell you and how much do they let you figure out for yourself, based on how the character interacts with other characters? What is the “voice” of the character like? Does it appeal to you because it is similar to your personality or because it’s different? What is it about the character that makes you pull for them, that makes you hope they will get what they wanted by the end of the book?
2) How does the setting contribute to your love of the book? I am drawn to Southern fiction. I love descriptions of the lush vegetation. I love the language that Southerners use, the languid drawl that comes from living in oppressive heat. Look at how the scenery in your favorite book is described. How does it make you feel? How does it inform the characters, make them who they are? How does the setting affect the plot? This can be something obvious, such as a thriller about an avalanche that is set in mountainous terrain. But it can also be subtle, something that stems from the culture of a place. The “bless your heart” Southern attitude can lead to much social angst, the basis of many a plot line.
3) How does the story’s pacing keep you interested, even when you already know what’s going to happen? Does the author alternate fast-paced scenes with slower-paced ones, or is there a steady buildup of tension through the entire book? How does the author use scene (action that we are experiencing firsthand) and summary (action that is condensed and related to us) to give us the information we need without bogging things down? Compare the parts of the book that make you think, “Oooh, I love this part” from those that you consider skipping over. While you may be more likely than a first-time reader to skip these parts because you already know what happens, it is still instructive to see how they differ from the scenes that you love to reread.
4) What is it about the plot that excites you? You do, after all, already know how it ends. There’s no suspense anymore, so there must be something else that keeps you coming back. Does the protagonist conquer an evil antagonist, or is the battle she is fighting more internal? How does the author mesh the internal and external struggles of the characters? Where in the book do the major obstacles appear and how worried are you that things won’t turn out well for the hero of the book? (Admit it; you still worry, even though you know how it all turns out.) Does the character’s struggle appeal to you because you struggle with similar things or because the story transports you to a different world, a different way of living?
You don’t have to look for all of this at one time. Like I said earlier, you still want to enjoy the book. This doesn’t have to feel like an English lit homework assignment. You just want to dig a little deeper, pay a little more attention to what draws you to this book. If you have more than one book that you like to reread, you could focus on different aspects of each book. Maybe you reread Jane Eyre because you love Jane’s quiet strength. So reread that particular book with a focus on character. If you love John Grisham’s books for their nail-biting intensity, focus on pacing when you reread The Pelican Brief. Or maybe, like me, you keep returning to Interview with the Vampire for the lush, New Orleans scenery. Reread this one with a focus on how the author describes the setting and how it affects the story.
With just a little extra attention, you can turn your favorite book into a master class on writing, giving you one more reason to come back to it over and over again.