Article: Peer or Self Review of a Short Story
Using the following list, consider the following areas in your analysis of another writer’s story (you may also use this list to do a review of your own work, although it is better to employ a fresh pair of eyes – we are often our own worst critics):
What is the story about? You should be able to summarize the story in one or two sentences.
Does the story follow the traditional story structure?
BeginningèRising actionèClimaxèFalling actionèEpiphanyèResolution
If not, does the nontraditional structure work?
How is the story structured? (If you can’t figure out the structure, feel free to ask the author.)
Does the story involve a well-defined conflict that makes the story worth reading?
What is the conflict? (No conflict = no story. All fiction must be driven by conflict.)
Does that first sentence and/or paragraph reach out and grab you, immersing you into the story?
5. Characterization (protagonist and antagonist; supporting characters)
Does the protagonist, the main character, evolve during the course of the story, or is he or she a static character who does not change as a result of the unfolding events and his/her epiphany?
How might the author develop a better evolved protagonist?
Does the antagonist (an opposing force for the protagonist) create enough of a conflict for the protagonist? If not, how might the author develop the antagonist better?
Are all the supporting or minor characters necessary? If not, who might the author cut?
6. Verisimilitude (Believability)
How believable are the plot and events?
Does the overall plot line feel plausible to you, even if the author has written a ghost story, science fiction, or fantasy?
Does the author avoid resorting to cheesy plot devices, such as “deus ex machina” (in which a “god” or unknown force rescues the protagonist at the very last minute, without having been foreshadowed)?
Does the setting reflect the mood of the story?
How does the writer develop setting as mood?
8. Point of view (POV).
What point of view does the story use? Options: first person (“I”); third person (“he,” “she,” or “they,” “they” referring to someone who identifies as binary) singular; third person, limited omniscient (multiple viewpoints, usually two or three); third person, omniscient (all-knowing “God” viewpoint); third person, objective; second person (“you,” not used too often).
Does the point of view seem appropriate? If not, what POV would seem more appropriate?
9. Tense (Present, Past, Future).
What tense does the author use? In your view, is this the appropriate tense? If not, explain why.
Does the author mix past and present tense? If so, ask what tense the author has intended, and mark the lapses with a “9.”
Please note that stories written in the moment (present tense) will often flash back to past events in the past tense, and this is perfectly correct, so make sure that you don’t mark these passages as inconsistent.
(Future tense is rarely used in modern fiction, usually in conjunction with the present tense.)
10. Dialogue/Dramatic Monologue.
Does the writer incorporate dialogue (two or more speakers) or dramatic monologue (one speaker)? If not, might the piece benefit from some well-placed dialogue or dramatic monologue that reveals details about the speakers? Put a “10” where the author might consider developing dialogue and/or dramatic monologue.
How does the writer incorporate dialogue tags? Does the writer refrain from overusing fancy dialogue tags, allowing the dialogue to speak for itself? In other words, does the writer mostly limit tags to “said” or “ask”? If not, where can the writer develop dialogue better to avoid distracting dialogue tags?
11. Scene, Details, and Description.
Has the author included important story events in scenes that include dialogue, details, and description to show character and/or plot development? If not, mark those areas with an “11.”
Does the author summarize parts of the story that, while important, are not important enough to warrant an entire scene? Mark areas that should be summarized with a “12.”
Is the scope, or time frame, of the story narrow or wide enough? (One of the most common problem for beginning writers involves a short story scope that is too broad, which I refer to “I’m-going-to-start-at-the-character’s-birth-and-continue-until-he-or-she-dies” syndrome). Think “slice-of-life” for story scope. How well does the writer achieve a scope befitting of this story?
Is syntax (word order within the sentence) used in ways that we don’t usually hear or expect? If so, does the unusual structure work for this story? If not, mark “14a.”
Is the language direct?
Does the author use economy of language as opposed to wordiness? If not, what could be deleted? Mark suggested deletions with “14b.”
What kinds of imagery are used? (Imagery = use of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, as experienced through concrete language). (Mark “14c.”)
Has the author used any inappropriate word choices, including wrong words and/or clichés? Mark these words “14d.”
What passages could be rewritten to incorporate concrete language rather than abstractions? Mark these areas “14e.”
What could be suggested rather than told outright? Mark these areas “14f.”
Circle any “to be” forms of verbs (e.g., is, am, are, was, were, will, etc.). Could any of these passive verbs be developed into active verbs (in which the subject is doing the action)? Mark these areas “14g.” (Active voice is almost always more powerful than passive voice.)
Circle any adjectives and adverbs. Which of these modifiers could be cut? (Mark “14h”)
Does the author use appropriate sentence length to develop pacing? (Short, staccato sentences = fast pacing; lengthy, compound/complex sentences = slow pacing. In short, an author can manipulate pacing via sentence length. Authors often use sentence length variety to reflect changing pace within a story.) Mark inappropriate pacing with “14i.”
15. Surface Areas: (Punctuation, Grammar, Mechanics).
In dialogue or first-person narrative, the writer may be intentionally suspending the rules of proper English. If so, ask the writer about intent. Ultimately, is the result successful?
16. Peer Narrative.
A. In some detail, discuss overall strengths of story.
B. In some detail, discuss overall weaknesses of story.
C. In your opinion, what are the most critical areas that the author needs to consider when rewriting or reworking?
Keep in mind that successful writers often suspend “the rules” of writing fiction, and they do so intentionally and successfully.
However, most infractions are simply weaknesses in narrative, story structure, and dialogue and are outright errors.
Note: The author, now retired from academe, used this peer review list in her creative writing classes.
Much of this information is common knowledge in the field of creative writing and has been culled from several sources.
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