As writers, we read for more than just entertainment.
We read books to analyze what works, what doesn’t, and how we might bring our own stories to life.
The only problem is this: when reading a story with a lot of flaws, it’s easy to get so caught up in its weaknesses that we stop trying to find its strengths.
And that’s a big missed opportunity for our own growth.
What bad stories can teach us
To start, I want say that no story is all good or all bad. Every story has strengths and weaknesses, just in different proportions. So even if your opinion of a story quickly plummets, I promise there are still some things the author has done reasonably well.
For example, consider the Fifty Shades series by E.L. James. I read the original three with my fiancée (we enjoy reading bad romances aloud to each other while the other cooks, knits, etc.), and there are a lot of things worth criticizing, including but very much not limited to Anastasia’s baffling approach to making tea.
But criticisms aside, I will say this: the series does a reasonably good job of exploring the ever-evolving tension between Christian’s demand for submission and Anastasia’s desire for personal agency.
The story may not explore this tension as deftly as I’d like, but it does bubble to the surface throughout and adds an unexpected layer of intrigue to their relationship.
Now, on the one hand, I could have hate-read the Fifty Shades series and not tried to find anything redeemable in its pages. But there are two major benefits in striving to find the strengths of flawed stories.
- It makes the story more enjoyable to read, because you’re actively trying to find something to appreciate.
- It hones your ability to identify the moments of inspiration and craft that make stories worth reading — which is an invaluable skill when it comes to revising your own rough drafts.
Number 2, really, is the kicker. When revising stories of your own, you need to be able to identify what’s failing and what’s working, so that in addition to trimming away the flaws, you can expand on the things that make your story special.
Diligently seeking out the strengths and potential of all the stories you read, especially the bad ones, is the best way to hone that skill, because if you can see the virtues of a flawed story, you’ll be more than capable of doing the same in your rough drafts.
Does that mean you should intentionally seek out bad stories?
Of course not. Not unless you want to. But we all inevitably come across bad stories from time to time, and if you’re stubborn like me, you’ll generally try to finish them even when you’d rather put them down.
So you might as well learn something in the process, right?
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