How to Review

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Title: How to Review
Creator: Paula Smith
Date(s): September 1982
Medium: print
Fandom: has a focus of Starsky & Hutch
External Links:
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How to Review is a 1982 essay by Paula Smith.

It was printed in S and H, a Starsky & Hutch letterzine, issue #35.


As I said last issue, we—that's reviewers and readers—decide whether a story works on the basis of its craftsianship, freshness of ideas, acuity of insight, depth, range, and honesty of emotion, thematic unity, etc. A brand-new idea or an arresting way of looking at Starsky and Hutch lakes a story interesting, whereas a misplaced or dishonest emotion, such as Hutch laughing at Starsky falling and breaking both legs, makes a story distasteful.

Craftsmanship, or technical competence, is the one indispensible ingredient in the Good Story. Craftsmanship refers to good plot, characterization, setting, point of view, style, theme, and tone. We don't always notice when these are present, but we are painfully aware that something is wrong when they are not. Technical competence is the bones of a story. Without it, the poor invertebrate flops around pitifully and the critic stomps it only to put it out of its misery.
Good characterization means the major characters (and preferably all of them) are "human"— consistent, three-dimensional, non-stereotyped, sympathetic, and believable. The thing that drew most of us to STARSKY & HUTCH in the first place was the characterization of the two cops: they had their faults, consistent with their virtues, but were both likable and believable throughout the series. Within our fandom there is another problem to watch out for: Langsam's Law, or "Don't Make Him Say That." Don't make an established character do or say something out of line with his established character, or if you just, give good, solid reasons why. In "Starsky and Hutch Are Guilty" Hutch says, "I don't have a brother," so don't write a story with Hutch's brother Fred teaming up with Nick Starsky unless you make it clear why Hutch said such a thing.
Truly original ideas are rare anywhere, and most stories only combine old ideas from various sources, sometimes without the author's awareness. Stories that do nothing but rehash an old plot for the seventieth time, or are virtually carbons of another story, movie, or book, are boring and a waste of everyone's time. Only if you can offer a new outlook, or present a different aspect of the characters do you make a story your own and a delight to read. This calls for insight, both into the characters you're trying to write about, and into life as it is lived. By paying close attention to the ways people really act and presenting this clearly and concisely, you bring your story closer to life.

Honest, appropriate, and sufficient emotion is the heart of a story. There can be heartless stories, just as there are metaphorically heartless people. But they are not liked, nor usually appreciated as such as their virtues would otherwise make them. On the other hand, overly sentimental props—dewy-eyed puppies, bare-bottom babies, and rose-covered cottages for two—can sugar out your readers. Romance is fine, treacle is not. An inappropriate emotion can wreck the point of the story, turning pathos into bathos, humor into stupidity, and a lightning bolt into a lightning bug.

Of course, there are such things as guilty pleasures. Even the most hard-nosed critic has a favorite story that she knows is drek, yet loves to read and re-read. Stories whose whole point is sex or hurt-comfort are the aost common cheap thrills.We like them because they are heroin-dose jolts of crude titillation, and like heroin, they can be addicting. This doesn't aake them art, but it does help to understand why writers keep writing them and readers keep reading them. Like cream cheese marble chocolate fudge brownies, they are a pleasant indulgence, but you can't base your whole diet on them.