Here are some guidelines for critiquing fiction, from a workshop I took a few years ago. I think you can even use some of these questions between your first draft (FastDraft) and the first revision to strengthen things.
Think about these items as you read over your story or novel.
Plot. Does the action make sense? Could it happen in the story world, or our real world if this is where it takes place? Sometimes you should try to block movements out. If you don’t have a willing third-grade class, D&D metal figurines on a chessboard can work for staging battle scenes.
Does everything on the page move the story forward and/or reveal important clues and/or character? Even when something’s there to inform readers about something they need to know, is it typically done in action? It’s hard to see sometimes when a good riff is superfluous (but then it doesn’t look so good when you start to judge it the next day.)
a) Does the story start at the right place (the best beginning?) You could be opening a novel with infodump, flashback, backstory, or simply too early, way before the inciting incident takes place. You need SOME of the “normal world,” but not too much. Conversely, you might be starting TOO FAR INTO the action and no one is invested in the boomCRASH just yet.
b) Is the pacing appropriate? Too fast? Too slow? Just right?
c) Is the plot a real plot (a character, in context, with a problem)? Are things happening which seem to have no discernible reason or purpose?
d) Do unconvincing coincidences try to pass for plot points?
“I saw Prunella at the A & P that afternoon. I couldn’t believe it when she told me that she had the other half of the key to the Ancient Peruvian Treasure Box which I had been seeking, the very one which had brought on Uncle Henry’s downfall.”
e) The ending. Is there a payoff? Loose ends tied up? Satisfies readers who have been all built up for a big showdown? Does the ending make sense? Is it satisfying? Does it arise from character and situation or is it “deus ex machina,” where the Cavalry suddenly comes riding in over the hill to save the hero and heroine? Most importantly: were the seeds of the ending sown in the beginning?
2) Hook. Is the beginning adequate to catch the reader’s interest? A proper balance of action, dramatization, and narrative? Sometimes more narrative is needed; there was a fad a few years ago to open novels with a few exchanges of unattributed dialogue. It also was trendy to make it all “exciting.”
“I’m going to kill you, LaTreena!”
“No, you won’t, be-yotch. Come at me and I’ll jerk those fat arms right out of their sockets.”
“Well, OK. How about if you just move away to Timbuk3 instead?”
You don’t need a hook that’s crazy and that you can’t possibly hope to ramp up and increase tension afterward without some kind of a dip. Multi-truck pile-ups, child abuse, rape, incest, etc., goes later, when readers care about the story and characters; I’ve noticed that on Gather and many agents’ “first lines” contests, readers are thrown into a situation from which they will instinctively recoil. Or at least *I* recoil. It doesn’t seem to faze these writers, though.
3) Characterization. Are the story people believable, likable, quirky, intriguing, interesting? If you have an antihero, did he or she “save the cat” early on so that readers can feel an identification or fondness?
a) Names should ideally be indicative of character. If you can’t be clever, though, at least have names be prounounceable. Readers hate to have to BLEEP over those weird names.
b) Meek, sensitive characters shouldn’t scream “Cowabunga” when startled and suddenly whirl, pulling out the nunchucks–unless it’s a comic piece. The Ah-nuld won’t wimp out if you cut in front of him in the grocery checkout line.
c) A viewpoint character cannot describe herself/himself and must not look into the mirror and catalog eye color, hair color/length, beauty, and so forth. Don’t worry too much about telling readers exactly how the character is dressed and how much they weigh, unless it’s integral to the plot.
Physical description of viewpoint characters needs to be indirect, via the reactions of others to the character and the character’s own interaction with the world of the story.
Okay, you can tell hair and eye color and whether someone’s unusually tall or thin. Otherwise, let the reader imagine himself or herself in that starring role.
4) Point of View. Whose story is being told and who is telling it?
a) Omniscient narrators are pretty much on the outs in the current publishing world. The omniscient narrator hops from head to head, from scene to scene, and from place to place. There is no single point of view or voice, other than the author’s.
b) First-person narrator. The first-person narrator can only tell what s/he experiences and knows. This can be a powerful but limiting voice. It is easy for a beginner to irritate a reader with an “arrogant” narrator. Many editors advise against first-person narration of stories told by people who are dead or in comas, unless it’s a horror or surrealistic story like “Johnny Got His Gun,” which is too depressing for anyone to read.
c) Third-person narrator–limited third-person point of view. Typically today it’s with very close-in psychic distance, so close that you don’t need “she thought,” but merely state the character’s thoughts along with the narrative (or italicize the occasional direct thought.) You can use more than one POV character, but don’t head-hop.
1. Head-hopping: switching back and forth between different characters’ thoughts and opinions without waiting for a scene or chapter break.
2. POV slippage: telling something that the POV character couldn’t possibly know.
d) WRONG point-of-view character. Sometimes stories are told from the wrong character’s point of view. This is an error in plot, related to the point-of-view issue. If the author more fully understood the story’s plot, he or she would have automatically and easily chosen the appropriate character to “tell” the story.
a) Tone. Is a serious story being told in a flippant tone? Or a comical story told in a plodding, self-conscious style? Most common, especially with younger writers: inappropriate irony, otherwise known as “smarting off.”
b) Anachronisms or Freudian slips. In historical stories, are characters using modern phrases? Do inappropriate comments slip into the narrative? For instance, in a tense scene of financial intrigue, does one character suddenly say to another, “I wuv your see-through blouse”? Are characters acting appropriately for their ages and stages in life?
c) Usage/Confusion errors. The gerund problem is among these. “Pulling on his boots, he leapt to the door with his gun.” These actions can’t be simultaneous, as the great Damon Knight pointed out to be on the old GEnie service. Gerunds used in this manner can confuse the timestream. Misplaced modifiers and split infinitives also fall into this category. Sentence fragments aren’t always the best way to go, though a few can be fine.
d) “Taking the reader for granted.” Otherwise known as “The urge to explain.” The great phrase, “RUE” or “Resist the Urge to Explain,” was popularized in _Self-Editing for Fiction Writers_ by Browne and King.
“I’ll never darken your doorstep again, you thieving hussy!” Digory slammed the door furiously. He was angry. He had never been so angry in his life. Man, was he ever pissed. He threw a punch at the wall.
You don’t need all three of dialogue, narrative summary, and action. Trust your readers to figure some stuff out.
Thirty years passed, during which Bridie never looked at another man.
That’s narrative summary. It telescopes time. Readers don’t have to hear all the details of her suffering over that time, and they’re moved forward to the present story action. Way better than a bulky action scene that isn’t needed.
e) Variation in sentence length and sentence structure. If you can’t hear the music of cadenced prose, learn.
f) Check for the business-ese “Memo Writer” trap: excessive use of passive voice. But before you accuse a sentence of being in passive voice, know what it is.
When writing about the past, or indicating various moods, past-perfect verbs are very useful, and they have nothing to do with “passive voice.” “Bob hit the ball” is in active voice, wherein the actor is known. “The ball was hit by Bob” is in passive voice–the object comes before the verb and the actor may or may not be named. “The grades were given out” is proper if you don’t need to emphasize who handed them out.
6) Dialogue. Conversations should be realistic and serve to advance the plot. Good dialogue is not Memorex-realistic, though; it may seem so, but it encapsulates the information instead of rambling around the way real people do. It should advance the story, reveal character, and echo with portent. (At least two out of three.)
a) Avoid “Maid-and-Butler” speeches (named for Moliere, who used to open plays with the servants gossiping about the master, who then burst on the scene as the star of the show) wherein two characters tell each other things they already know. You’ll see this when authors try to work in backstory or to explain concepts they think the reader won’t understand. Also called a sneaky “infodump.”
Bob stuttered. He had stuttered since he was seven and the Burnsey boys had whipped him behind Old Man Gruenpfluegel’s barn. It was hopeless to get information out of him in less than five minutes.
b) Is the dialogue fitting to the character?
A Texan redneck speaks one way, while a Yankee lawyer talks another way. “Magrette, thy lips are sweet as the nectar from a honeyed buttercup.” “Hush yo’ trap, dude. You wack.”
c) Dialogue tags and their abuses. Watch out for things other than “said,” “whispered,” “shouted,” or “muttered/murmured.” Even those can get in the way.
7) Originality and creativity. This is going to be the most important part.
Unfortunately, I can’t codify that for you. You’ll know it when you see it!