What Can You Say
About a Book?

Ideas and Inspiration for Improving Book Talk
and Book Reviews

by Steve Peha

The Five Facts of Fiction

Book reviewers can review books of any genre, but most review fiction most of the time. There are many ways of looking at a work of fiction and good reviewers know them all. One tool that I use is called The Five Facts of Fiction. It’s a set of five ideas that, when applied to any novel, help the reviewer develop a complex critical interpretation.

Fact #1: Fiction is all about a character. Who is your main character? What does he or she look like? Can you describe your character’s personality? How did this character get to be this way? The more you know about your character, the better your review will be.

Fact #2: Fiction is all about what your character wants. What does your character want more than anything else? Why does your character want it? Some characters want a lot, some want a little. It doesn’t really matter as long as long what your character wants is extremely important. The more important it is, the more your character will do to get it, and that's what makes the plot so interesting.

Fact #3: Fiction is all about how your character gets or does not get what he or she wants. Is your character successful? Or does your character’s quest end in failure? Either way, it can still be a great story. The trick is to understand how your character succeeds or fails. What obstacles does your character encounter? What solutions does your character craft to meet the challenges of his or her world?

Fact #4: Fiction is all about how your character changes. How does your character change as a result of what happens? What was your character like at the beginning? What is your character like at the end? What has your character learned? What did you learn from reading the story?

Fact #5: Fiction is all about a world an author creates. How did the author create the world of the book? What kinds of people, places, things, and ideas did the author include? What successes, disasters, and conflicts does this world have? What are the good things in this world? What are the bad things? Complete the following sentence: “This is a world where…” Remember: the story is made up, but it is also true to its world.

The Five Facts of Harry Potter

Let's see how one of the wold's most popular stories — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J. K. Rowling — holds up to an analysis using the Five Facts of Fiction.

Fact #1: Fiction is all about character. Harry Potter: 12 years old, black tousled hair, bright green eyes, glasses, lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Naïve, kind, compassionate, curious. He is famous in the wizard world because, as an infant, he somehow survived an attack by Voldemort, the world’s most powerful evil wizard.

Fact #2: Fiction is all about what your character wants. Harry wants a family. Ophaned as an infant when his parents are killed by Voldemort, he is sent to live with his abusive uncle and aunt, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, and their obnoxious son, Dudley.

Fact #3: Fiction is all about how your character gets or does not get what he or she wants. During his first year at Hogwarts, Harry forms sibling-like bonds with Hermione Granger and the Weasley brothers. Hagrid, the school groundskeeper, is like an uncle or a big brother to Harry. Dumbledore takes on a fatherly role. Together, these people become the family Harry lost.

Fact #4: Fiction is all about how your character changes. In the beginning, Harry is shy, sullen, and scared, a miserable and hopeless victim of his unfortunate circumstances. At the end, Harry is no longer helpless, hopeless, and hapless. In his year at Hogwarts he has gained tremendous self-confidence and a better understanding of who he is and what his life is all about. The lesson of the story is this: If we’re lucky enough to find out who we really are, and if we have the courage to claim our true power and embrace our destiny, we can take control of our world instead of letting it take control of us.

Fact #5: Fiction is all about a world an author creates. This is a world where there’s always some supernatural something or magical someone around to save the right people when they are in trouble. It’s a world where courage is rewarded, friendship is valued, and good triumphs over evil. Harry lives his life stretched between the ordinary world of ordinary humans — or "muggles" as they are derisively called — and the extraordinary world of wizards and magic. Each world has its challenges and rewards for Harry as he struggles to find safety, happiness, and a sense of belonging in both.

Getting Started

Pick any novel you’ve read all the way through and still remember well. You can even use a movie if you want. Run it through the Five Facts of Fiction and see how your story holds up. You’ll be surprised by what you learn and how easy it is to develop a complex critical interpretation when you use this tool.