Does the story hook me and then hold me?
This is the first question I ask myself after I’ve read the story in its entirety. Fiction ought to effortlessly suspend the reader’s belief, and if it’s done its job the details won’t matter.
If the story hooked me, I ask why. Did I like the character? Was the setting so imaginative that I had to know more? The initial conflict of the story should be on the first page.
Is the conflict compelling?
Let’s say a story starts out, as it should, in the middle of the action: Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!
This is pretty cool, but it’s not yet compelling. Why should I care if space whales, or anything, attack a transport carrier?
Our hero paces back and forth in the Arrivals section of the Vega system, twirling the engagement ring in his hand. He will propose as soon as she arrives on the transport carrier.
Oh shit, space whales have attacked a transport carrier traveling to Vega!
Isn’t that better? I don’t know much about the characters yet, but I’m already on their team. I want to read on.
Is the ending fair?
There’s nothing worse than rooting for a story and then getting to the end and feeling cheated. The stakes have to be high enough to pull the reader through the narrative. The characters have to pay the appropriate costs to re-affirm those stakes. No coincidences or accidents, unless those coincidences/accidents get your hero into trouble.
Characters with nothing to lose are not characters worth reading about.
Is the story bad, or am I biased in some way?
When I first started writing reviews for Tangent Online, I confessed that I was sick of zombie stories and would be tempted to give them bad reviews. I wasn’t chided for this opinion; rather I was told to be honest and to back up all my opinions. A bad story does not deserve a good review, but I’m not supposed to eviscerate the writer either.
This means that if a zombie story gets assigned to me, I start my review with something like, “While the undead are not fresh in smell or in concept, this author takes a familiar-trod tale and elevates the reader with wonderful prose that pulls them through.”
That said, don’t write zombie stories. Please.
The story is bad. How do I convey this?
There’s usually something good in every bad story, so my strategy is to pick those things out and use them as a buffer around the Big Bad Review. I do this because I’m (sorta) nice, and because it’s a good exercise that ensures I’m not missing anything.
Am I being honest?
Reviewing is no good if it is without self-reflection. I’ve learned some things about my personal tastes and about what makes a story one that resonates.