Read it Twice

When approaching art from the deliberate practice standpoint, I believe it’s important to view it multiple times. To get the most out of a story as a reader, you should read it at least twice. To get the most out of a t.v. show or a movie from a storyteller’s standpoint, multiple viewings are essential. Why?

It’s simple. The first time you watch/read something, you’re seeing it as a consumer of the art.

One example: I’m currently reading Ted Chiang’s excellent novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects. While I’m thinking about several things while reading it, my main concern is on whether or not Ana and Derek are going to get together, or what will happen to Jax in the wake of continuing technological evolution coupled with Jax’s growing maturity. I notice things in the back of my mind as they happen, like “hey, here’s the end of Act 1” or “Ahhh, I see why he put that sentence in the story earlier.” For the most part, however, I’m concerned with the story, and my critical, editorial self is in the background.

If I were using this story as deliberate practice, then I would read it a second time. Second readings, and even third and fourth readings, produce greater and evolving insights into a work. When you already know what’s going to happen, your mind isn’t as engaged on the emotional aspects of a story. And, if you want to be a writer, you can consciously train yourself to pay more attention to things like structure, plotting, characterization, setting, and how all of them come together.

The same applies to t.v. I’ve been watching many episodes of House recently, and (SPOILERS EMININENT) just watched the season 2 season finale. This episode is perfect for what I’m talking about. In this episode, House gets shot. On a first viewing of the episode, the viewer is concerned with House, especially because House is having increasing hallucinations as the episode goes on. At the end of the episode, it becomes clear that everything that happened was a hallucination, and the entire episode takes on a new light.

As a first-time viewer, it’s impossible to view this story in a critical light — you can’t even know what’s going on until you’ve seen the entire episode. And it’s only then that repeat viewings will generate further insight not only into the story itself, but in why the writers made each decision they made.

Special things happen when you view the art in question subsequent times. When your mind isn’t thinking about what’s going to happen to this character or that character, it notices other things. Why is this scene in the movie? Couldn’t the director have gotten the same emotional response without it? Why is this sentence here? Hey, this sentence rhymes with this one.

The point is this: no matter what, the second read or viewing or whatever frees your mind to see things as a builder of stories, not an impartial observer. I’m not saying read everything multiple times — that’s just ridiculous. But when studying the craft, pick a story you know is done well, and go over it multiple times.
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