The Skill List Project: Reading Analytically

[Note: The following article was written in March 2011. It’s here because I’m migrating old posts from a different site to my current one.]

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time around, we talked about Reading judiciously. At the end of that posting, I made the rash promise to show “judicious reading” in action: I’d pull apart a sample piece of writing to see what we could get out of it.

Theoretically, a writer should be able to learn from any passage of prose. We could, for example, look at the infamous Eye of Argon, a piece often mentioned when people talk about atrocious writing. “Eye of Argon” isn’t a book, but it has enough awfulness to fill a trilogy.

But let’s not take cheap shots at the work of an earnest amateur—heaven knows, I wrote some really wretched stuff when I was starting out. Instead, let’s look at an actual SF classic. To avoid violating copyright, I’ve decided on The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, available at Project Gutenberg and practically every library in the English-speaking world.

A background note: the book was published in 1898. Wells had already written The Time MachineThe Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, so he’d laid the groundwork for…well…most of modern science fiction. (Yes, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, et al. got the ball rolling, but Wells was like an interstellar portal through which science fiction jumped into whole new worlds.) On the other hand, Victorian readers had seen “England invaded” stories before—the late 1800′s saw a rash of “military thriller” novels in which Britain was invaded by Germany or France or some other bunch of detestable foreigners—but Wells was the first to use extraterrestrials.

Let’s see how he did it.

Reading Like a Writer

The book starts with a quotation from the astronomer Johannes Kepler:

But who shall dwell in these worlds if they be inhabited? . . . Are we or they Lords of the World? . . . And how are all things made for man?–

Never underestimate the effectiveness of a quotation, especially from a long-dead person with a reputation for authority. It makes you sound like someone who knows things; it gives you credibility. Now here’s the first paragraph of the actual text:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

What stands out most about this passage is its heightened language: the use of lengthy complex sentences and high-blown words like infusoria. This is over the top, even by Victorian standards…and Wells was perfectly capable of writing more simply. (Compare the above paragraph with the straightforward opening of The Invisible Man.) So what is Wells up to? And does it work?

I think Wells is doing several things simultaneously. First, he aims to establish an elevated tone for his story. At its heart, this is a book about invasion by Martians: a lurid topic, and there are plenty of lurid episodes as the action unfolds. Wells wants to avoid descending into lowbrow territory. He’s telling the reader, “This isn’t cheap titillation. This is stuff you should really think about.”

Second, Wells is introducing us to his narrator: a highly-educated man given to soliloquizing. You can’t tell from this single paragraph, but the book is told in the first person by a man who writes philosophical articles. You can see a hint of this in the sentence, “It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days.” These aren’t the words of a detached third-person narrator; they suggest a specific man looking back on his past. I also think Wells is setting up for a tone-of-voice transition over the course of the book—this man, who makes his living from being a public intellectual, is eventually going to be reduced to a craven fugitive hiding in wrecked buildings and scrounging for half-rotten food. By elevating the character at the beginning of the book, Wells can increase the depths of the character’s fall.

Third, and very importantly, the paragraph conveys a sense of menace. The Martians are inhuman geniuses who view humans as if we were bacteria. Earthlings are naïve and complacent, believing themselves to be smarter than anyone else. This is not going to end well for humanity. And of course, setting up a sense of foreboding is a tried and true technique for starting a story: you hook the reader by suggesting that something awful is about to happen. People will keep reading to see how it turns out. (I can’t stress enough how useful a sense of foreboding can be in stories where it’s appropriate. Make the reader shiver, even if the plot’s action starts out subdued.)

Finally, let’s go back to that bit about the Martians viewing humans as bacteria. The first time you read it, this just seems like a simple metaphor tossed off for dramatic effect. But once you know how the book ends (spoiler warning!), you have to tip your hat to Wells for mentioning micro-organisms in the very first sentence. Comparing humans to germs is a clever bit of business, and in hindsight, it means something much different than it seems initially. I love it when a writer gets sneaky.


I imagine most people reading this post have done this type of analysis before—you were forced to do something similar in high-school English class. But it’s one thing to look at prose when a teacher is asking you to jump through hoops for marks, and quite another to do it for yourself when you’re trying to learn to write.

Let me offer a set of questions suggested by what we just looked at. In any passage of prose, what is the effect of the tone of voice? What do you learn about the character and viewpoint of the narrator? What mood is established by the content (apart from the bare narrative facts)? Is the writer playing tricks you can learn from? If you look at questions like this, you can learn a lot from both good and bad prose.