One of the luxuries of my job as a teacher of literature is the joy of exploring books and stories in depth and detail. Maybe you enjoyed this in high school or college, but haven’t felt as engaged with books as you’ve gotten older. My advice? Join a book club! But in the meantime, you can dive in deep with the next novel you read. Here’s a list of five questions to consider that will invite you to a thoughtful engagement with any story. If you’re a member of a book club, these might be good questions to share with your group.
Why did it start there?
Authors make choices, and this is among the most important. How would the story have been different if the author had chosen to begin telling the story at a different point in the story’s timeline?
Why that point of view?
Is the story told in first person or third-person point-of-view? It’s a critical decision to make and has so many implications for a story. How would the telling of the story be different if the author had chosen a different POV? With that in mind, why do you suppose she chose the one she did?
Why that protagonist?
I love starting my 12th grade Creative Writing course with a reading of Peter Benchley’s Jaws for many reasons. One of them is that I think it’s a fascinating question to consider: Why did he choose to center the story on Martin Brody, Amity’s Chief of Police? He could have chosen to focus the story on Matt Hooper, the Woods Hole Oceanographer, instead. But because Jaws isn’t really about the shark (I think), Brody was the perfect choice. And so, here’s a question: Why did the author choose the main protagonist that he did? How would the story be different, better, or worse with a different focal character?
What doors did the author leave open, but unexplored?
Chapters in Michael Ende’s legendary fantasy novel, The Neverending Story, often end with the line, “But that’s another story that shall be told another time.” Where did the author create potential springboards for other stories? Can you identify a juncture in the plot where another book could begin? Why would you enjoy reading it? Do you think there’s a reason why the author chose not to develop it more?
Could you Tweet the message?
Books have thematic messages—they speak to us. They have what Edgar Allan Poe called “effects” upon us as readers: emotional or intellectual or just plain visceral. Want an interesting exercise? Try composing a tweet (140 characters or less) that expresses the thematic message or effect of the novel. Can you do it? The brevity really makes you distill your thoughts.
So try taking these questions to your next book club meeting! (And, of course, if your club is looking for something to read, consider one of my books. I’ll provide discounted copies and a visit to your group, if you wish. I love meeting with readers.)