The Curse of the Critique Button?

I’m cursed. I can no longer watch a movie, attend a play, read a book, or (now) enjoy television without the writer in my head critiquing. And while that means I’ve finally internalized many craft lessons, it also means entertainment is much more complex. Last week, when I started griping about the slipping plotline on The Following, my man just rolled his eyes and nodded.

This was something I first noticed several years ago and, because I used to direct community theatre, I thought it was a result of directing experience. I found that I paid more attention to what other directors did in terms of lighting, costuming, and set construction. That was bad enough. When I became hyper-aware of choreography, line delivery, and how actors developed their characters, I realized writing was the culprit. I’d translated craft lessons first into my directing, then into how I watched a play.

Then, it was books. It became nearly impossible to shut off the critique in my head when I read. That aggravates me because I love to read. I focus on favorite authors but run out of books. That puts me on a search for new authors which sometimes means I grumble for a while—until I find the joy of a new discovery. I’ve learned, over time, to overlook small things but it still gets to me when I come across unmotivated characters. Especially because that makes me look closer at my own characters and necessitates editing. That’s a good thing, in the end, but it does make me complain. Ken just smiles.

Recently, though, I find it’s bleeding over into movies and television. I used to always notice costuming. Now, I see lack of motivation, manipulated plots, and lack of character arc. I leave movies knowing that I once would have been entertained but now see flaws. Television shows I enjoyed before now prompt negative comments. I can’t seem to turn off the darn critique button! I suspect it drives my family as batty as it does me but I have to give them credit for not laughing.

All that said, I’ve also developed a wonderful appreciation for things done right. I adore a well-written novel and will praise the authors who write them to no end. A well-scripted, well-directed play leaves me smiling for days. Great movies stay with me, becoming those I purchase to watch again and again.

This past month, I began to notice timing, motivation, conflict, character development, and surprise hooks as well as flaws in series TV. My list of favorites has narrowed, but I’m seeing a lot more “things done right.” This season, I’ve praised The Good Wife, True Detective, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, and Game of Thrones—an eclectic collection, each doing something different but all of them discussed in the living room as well-done.

So, yes, I’m cursed…or am I simply seeing things differently?

I suspect we all are, those of us who write.

What about you? What does your critique button have you noticing?

Pamela Nowak
Pamela Nowak writes historical romance set in the American West. In addition to widespread critical acclaim, her books have won multiple national awards. In love with history and rich characters for most of her life, Pam has a B.A. in history, has taught prison inmates, managed the Fort Yuma National Historic Site and run a homeless shelter. She was named the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Writer of the Year in 2010, chaired three conferences, and now serves as volunteer coordinator. Pam and her life partner Ken live in Denver. Their combined families include six daughters and several grand-children. Together, they parent a dog and a cat. More about Pam on her website.

9 thoughts on “The Curse of the Critique Button?

  1. The element of movies I first notice that gets my critique button fired up is the music, and I am in no way a musician. Many years ago I took a music appreciation course, and the teacher pointed out that the score really influenced how he felt about a movie. I started listening. Now, I dislike movies where the music tells me what I should feel, especially when I wouldn’t feel that way without the music. There has to be a writing lesson in that somewhere!

  2. The sign (for me) of a great movie, song, book, etc. is when I’m not thinking/critiquing the elements of the work. Usually it doesn’t get in the way, but sometimes the bits that are “off” stay with me longer than the overall feel of the piece. Luckily there are times I can “veg” out and go with it without being the nag.

  3. I have better luck setting my critiquing self aside with TV than with books or movies. I guess it’s because I’m too tired to care when I finally turn on the television at night. Books are hard, though. Every time I see something my editor would pick on, it yanks me out of the story.

  4. Dean has a great point. If you don’t notice it’s because the thing is well done. I also plague my husband with complaints about shows we watch and books we read. I imagine it might be even worse for editors, though. They must feel the need to fix the errors while I just pick them out and whine!

    • Peg: My wife will ask me “politely” to shut up with my subtle suggestions about things. God forbid she ever reads any of my early drafts…I’d never hear the end of it! LOL

  5. My critique button is hard to turn off, but I can keep it silent in a movie theater! I don’t feel that my internal critique lessens my enjoyment of any form of art, though. And it’s helped me to “suffer through” some movies I don’t particularly like, in order to extract insights from them (especially if they’re popular in spite of the flaws I see).

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