I recently asked about criticism regarding short pieces of fiction. What about longer works like novels? Surely no one can sit down and agonize over individual word choices in a larger work the way they can over something as short as three to four pages. So how do you approach longer works? What else do you do differently? What are your main concerns when reading over it to give feedback? Is size alone the only difference in such approaches?

3 Answers 3


While @wetcircuit and @Liquid make important points, I'll once more try a step by step list.

There are two options when analysing a novel: either it's an academic assignment, or it isn't. If it's the former (and the mark really matters to you), read the whole thing once, then read it again and take your sweet time going through all the details. And then re-read it a third time if need be. If it's the latter, you once more have two options: either your focus is having fun with the read, or your focus includes being able to give accurate feedback or a deep analysis/review. I'm going to assume the latter is the case.

1. Prepare yourself

Get a notebook to jot down your impressions as you read. Make a list of what you have to consider: narrator, characters, time and place, action, description, symbols, style.

2. Theme

Sometimes, one knows the main theme when going in (most love stories and spy-action stories will have the same basic one). If this is the case, you can add theme to the list of things you're keeping track of.

If you don't know the theme, do not try to identify it from the get go. Let the story develop and reveal it to you stress-free.

3. Chapters

Read one chapter at a time, and stop for a reflection at the end of each.

3.1 narrator
Identify the type of narrator and see how much impact it has on the tone of the story.

If it's a third persson narrator, check if the POV is focused on one or more characters. See how that POV shifts and how it affects the read.

Was the best POV chosen, or another character would have made more sense? If there are multiple POVs, is there a confusing head-hopping approach or is there a logic to it? And does it work?

3.2 characters and action (including time and space)
Who did what, basically.

Look at how the characters are presented and described. Look at their importance both for the narrator and for the action. Start wondering about their motives and their character (do their actions match their ideas/ideals?).

As you advance in the book, map out the action. Identify the main plot and the secondary plots and see how they are weaved together. Pay attention to time jumps (to the past and to the future), how the events relate to one another (think in terms of what causes what), and how they interact. See how space is dealt: are there locations in the plot that are negative or positive? How is it described? Get a feel for the rhytm: is it slow or fast paced? Are there slow moments that help to up the tension or is it the speed of events tht creates it? How do the events affect the characters and make them grow (or not)? Do the characters' motives change?

If you want to be fancy, make an actual map where you jot down which plots are dealt with in which chapters and then show off cool graphics proving that the plots are balanced throughout the book.... or not. You'll be accused of nitpicking, but! Everybody loves cool graphics.

3.3 Description and Dialogue
When there are descriptions, pay attention to them. Is there something meaningful about one of them? Are there colours or moods that are insisted on? Are they too long or too short? Do they use metaphors, images, etc? How are adjectives used?

Analyse dialogues carefully (but not word by word). How do words match the thoughts of the characters? Are the dialogues solely to advance the plot, solely to characterise the characters or a mix of both? Is there balance between dialogues and narration (eg.: unbalanced walls of dialogue)? If the dialogues are long, is there a balance of direct, indirect and free indirect speech to avoid monotony?

3.4 themes and symbols
Allow the theme and symbols to manifest themselves at their own rhythm.

To be honest, you can do the above with little to no writing (if you have a good memory). You can also analyse some dialogues and skip others. You can ignore every description save one that caught your fancy. However, if there's a chapter that feels particularly good - or bad - I strongly advise you to re-read it to identify what caused that impression.

If the objective is to give some feedback, a relaxed approach may be better. If the objective is as much feedback as possible, treat each chapter as a short story and then see how the chapters build the greater picture.

Surely no one can sit down and agonize over individual word choices in a larger work the way they can over something as short as three to four pages.

You can agonise about anything, but that is usually the author's privilege in a novel. Seriously, there are moments when it's right to agonise over word choice. If you're going through a dialogue, keep an eye out for 'said / asked / shrugged / ...'. If it's a description of an important character / landscape / dress, then check if the words convey the right feeling. Again, how thorough you are depends on what your aim is.

When I beta for someone, I look at every detail because that is what I feel my job entails. I often look at the use of parallel and contrasting structures / events within the book, individual chapters, paragraphs or sentences. I jot down important characters' physical and psychological descriptions to make sure they're consistent througout the work and, yes, I do make cool graphics. I once used a graphic to prove a secondary character deserved its own arc because it nearly had more appearances than the MC.

Of course the author has to make clear if they want their work nitpicked or not. Some people welcome a 'why did you have the character look at the horizon with beady eyes', while some are only interested in having plotholes pointed out.


I tend to judge stories on the success of their theme.

Characters create relatable and enviable anchors to follow through a story, while Plot is the sequence of story beats that are arranged to invoke and subvert reader expectations. Characters are usually a relatable hook, and plot is constructed to entertain, but the theme is a larger overall effect of the story that is not endlessly variable just by shifting around the details, it's a broader immutable structure that emerges from the synergy of the story components – hard to define exactly what is "theme" but most can recognize it when they see it.

Short stories do not have room to fully explore a theme. They often work as vignettes or a tableau – a slice of the theme which does not evolve, but just illustrates the concept. There may be room for a single twist that proves or subverts the theme, raising more questions than it answers. That twist typically comes at the end of the short story like a punctuation mark on the theme.

In a novel, I expect the theme to be explored in multiple ways. Several characters may represent various aspects of the theme, or the theme effects each differently. A novel may be able to fully abstract the theme, or transition to an unexpected theme, creating an analogy that feeds back onto the story. Themes of failed morals can be followed by a theme of redemption, themes of excess can be followed by themes about consequences.

There is also more time for a main character to repeat a theme, to show it is a lesson they need or cannot learn. The theme may be a hidden structure of the story that supersedes character and plot. The full exploration of the theme is what makes the novel feel finished. We know the story is over when the theme has played out or has looped back to the beginning.


Is size alone the only difference in such approaches?

My answer:

It's not about size, it's about a sense of scale.

Short pieces are like snacks; easily eaten and digested. A bad one will leave a bad aftertaste in your mouth; a good one will leave you wanting for more, or, if it's really good, make you wonder at the writer's ability that condensed so many ingredients in such a small thing.

Novels, though, are a different thing. Unless you are an editor, you won't read a novel a day, and after all they are not supposed to be consumed on the spot. Hence, novels have a larger scale; they give you more time to breathe, and they need more time to breathe, also.

In a short story the author must set things straight in a short time. Characters must be explained, stakes must be clarified, something resembling an arc must rise and fall in a given set of words.

In a novel you have whole chapters to explore the very same concepts and - possibly - much more.

Surely no one can sit down and agonize over individual word choices in a larger work the way they can over something as short as three to four pages.

To be honest, I wouldn't fret over individual word choices in any case. But it makes kind of sense for a short story, since your words are limited. Word-choice sets the tone; if your upper limit is 1000 words, you've got to be careful with them (consider poetry an even more extreme example).

But then again, being so sharply focused on word choice in a novel doesn't make sense and is dangerously close to nitpicking. Not because novelists don't need to worry about style or lexicon (they do, as all writers) but because there is a bigger picture to look at.

A single page of a novel, or a single chapter, may be faulty or badly written. But setting aside particular cases (e.g., you don't want your prologue to be that chapter) the overall novel can still be good. A bigger, more articulate structure will tolerate some faults. In other words, a novel is more than the sum of its chapters, and more than the sum of each individual scene.

So, when inspecting a novel, I'd keep an eye on the writing, of course, but I'd be more lenient. Things like character arcs, subplots, worldbuilding, branching narratives, theme and so on all can take advantage of a novels longer span.

  • 2
    For an extreme example of caring about word choices, P. G. Wodehouse used to stick the pages of his novel-in-progress round the walls of his workroom, higher or lower depending how well they were working. With his relentless revising, refining, and polishing, he aimed to get each page up to the picture rail before publication. (Ref.: Douglas Adams' introduction to Sunset At Blandings.)
    – gidds
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 16:55

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