Reading Group Center

Discussion Resources

Browse our generic discussion resource questions and use them as a launching point to turn any book into a reading group selection!

Discussion Resources for Books Into Film:
One of the most rewarding experiences for a book club can be to read a great book and then see it translated onto the big (or small) screen. Whether or not you think the film adaptation does the book justice, there’s always plenty to talk about—from scenes that were added or deleted to the actors chosen to portray the characters. So grab some popcorn and channel your inner critic!

  • º Is the plot unchanged, or has it been simplified or otherwise altered for the film? If it has been changed, in what ways? Which elements of the story have been heightened, and which diminished? Why do you suppose the changes were made, and what is the overall effect of the revision?
  • º Did the book’s author have a role in the screenplay, either as writer or advisor? If yes, is the author’s viewpoint evident and how does it affect the film? If no, is the author’s viewpoint successfully or unsuccessfully conveyed?
  • º Have any characters been cut or added? If the main characters are essentially unaltered, how do the actors playing the main characters interpret their roles? Do the actors bring a different kind of meaning to the role than you had seen when you read the book? Does the physical appearance of the actors seem right for the characters?
  • º Different kinds of dialogue work better either on the page or on the screen. Are there any examples where exchanges are more vivid or memorable when read or, conversely, when seen?
  • º How does the film handle challenging moments when characters are thinking but not speaking? Is the film effective in conveying the feelings and thoughts of the characters?
  • º Is the film set in the same location(s) as the book? How do the scenic aspects of the film compare with how you imagined the setting when you read the book? Does the film’s cinematography heighten your understanding of the original?
  • º Does the camera sometimes assume a different point of view from that of the narrator in the book? What can one medium do that the other can’t?
  • º Does the film open new ways of thinking about the book? Or, on the other hand, does the film seem insignificant or trivial, compared with your experience of the book?
  • º Increasingly, especially with popular novels and plays, more than one film version exists. What can you learn by comparing the versions and interpretations? How does a film version date itself where the book appears to be timeless?
  • º How would you have conceived, written, or directed the film differently?
  • º In the case where you’ve seen the film first, the focus of the previous questions can be turned around for a different kind of comparison where you’re comparing how the book stands up to the movie experience. What is your experience of the book after having seen the movie first? Has the book made clearer any aspects of the film? Did the film convey certain things better?

Discussion Resources for Fiction:
Begin by thinking about what in particular you liked or disliked about the book. What did the other members of your group think? Consider choosing a few favorite passages that illustrate your point to get the discussion going. You can further develop your ideas by focusing on the main aspects of the book, which can be divided into the following general categories.

  • º Subject: What is the book about? Why might the author have chosen this subject?
  • º Plot: What happens? Is the plot simple or complicated? Does the story have a happy outcome, or the opposite? Were there major conflicts in the book, and were they resolved in a convincing manner? What is the time frame of the story–does it happen over a few days or many years?
  • º Characters: Does the book focus on a single main character, a few characters, or a large array of characters? Which characters are the most important? How fully does the author develop the characters’ external and internal lives? Did you leave the book wanting to know more about them? What sort of personality traits has the author used to define each character?
  • º Point of View: Think about the way the story was told. How did the narrator’s voice in the book affect your reading of it? Was it written in the first person (related by a main character in the book) or third person (related by an independent and objective observer)? Did the voice draw you in, or did it distance you from the story? How did the narrative point of view influence the tone of the story?
  • º Setting: Where and when does the story take place? How important is the physical setting to the story being told? Does the novel project a strong sense of place or evoke a specific time period? Does the author attempt to make the story extremely?
  • º Themes: Are there one or more general themes that are established in the book? What major issues and ideas is the author trying to convey and explore? Love? Coming-of-age? Disillusionment? Can you draw any thematic comparisons between this book and another that your group has read? Do any of the themes relate to topics or events in the news?
  • º Style: How would you describe the author’s writing style? Is it spare, lyrical, descriptive, objective, or ironic? Does the author make use of symbolism and imagery? Do these dev? ices add power to the overall effect of the book, or are they distracting or forced?
  • º Also consider: Does the book appeal more to your emotions or your intellect? How and why? Did you find the book funny or serious? What makes you laugh in this novel? What makes you feel uncomfortable? Did the author make choices that you strongly disagree with? How satisfying is the novel’s ending?

Discussion Resources for Memoir: Memoirs are perhaps the most commonly read works of nonfiction. And they are undoubtedly some of the most popular choices among reading groups today. Sometimes harrowing and heartbreaking but always enlightening, these are books that lend themselves to great discussion on a variety of topics.

  • º Many of the most popular memoirs relate the story of the author’s experience growing up in a troubled or even tragic family situation—for example Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. What is most compelling about memoirs as a genre of nonfiction? Are true-life stories potentially more powerful than fictional ones? Why or why not?
  • º Memoirs and fiction can be quite similar. Consider novels—such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations&mdashthat center on characters who tell their own stories in first-person narration. How are the choices a writer makes in writing autobiography different from those made in writing fiction? Do writers themselves into characters, exactly as they would create a character in a work of fiction? How important to the reading experience is the idea that this really happened? How do we know that the memoir writer is telling the truth?
  • º Consider the structure of the memoir. What decisions has the author made in shaping the story of his life? What is emphasized? What is left out? How is the passage of time presented? What is the relationship between the past and the present of the writer’s life, and does the structure of the book depend upon moving between past and present?
  • º Do you find the writer’s voice appealing or unappealing? Which aspects of the writer’s character do you identify with most and least? How does your reaction to the writer affect your experience of the book?
  • º How does the author approach his own story? With a sense of irony, sympathy, distance, comedy, or something else entirely?
  • º What is the role of fate and what is the role of desire in this life story? Does the author present himself as the main force in shaping life’s events? Or is there a strong sense that the author is a victim of circumstances over which he has little control? Do characters in the story come across as active or passive? How much does the central character change over the course of the memoir?
  • º Many book reviewers and culture commentators claim that in the past several years we have witnessed a “memoir explosion.” Why has this genre has become so popular with readers and writers alike? What are the benefits and drawbacks of writers sharing an intimate view of their lives with the general public?
  • º What is the story’s impact on you? How does the memoir you have just read change the way you think about your own life story?

Discussion Resources for Mystery & Crime Fiction: With such a rich and diverse tradition, the genre of mystery and crime fiction offers wonderful opportunities to Reading Groups looking for a break from the norm. From the work of pioneers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to modern masters such as Henning Mankell and Ruth Rendell, there are thrills and suspense to be found on every page.

  • Plot: In crime fiction, the reader’s experience depends to a large degree upon the interest and ingenuity of the plot and the suspense it produces.
    • What puzzle needs to be worked out for the mystery or crime to be solved?
    • º Is the plot simple or complex?
    • º Is there more than one plotline proceeding through the novel, and if so are the plots related to each other or separate?
    • º Does the plot have red herrings or false leads?
    • º Are you able to solve the mystery? (Some mysteries can be solved by the reader according to the given clues, while in others a crucial piece of the puzzle is withheld until the end.)
    • º How quickly or slowly do events proceed, and what is the level of suspense?
    • º Is there a criminal to be caught, and if so how dangerous is the pursuit?
    • º Is the resolution of the plot convincing? Are there loose ends left hanging?
    • º What are the effects of the plot on you as a reader–how evil, scary, or gruesome are the scenes you read, and how are these effects achieved?
  • Character:
    • º Does the book focus on a single main character, a few characters, or a large array of characters?
    • º Who is the protagonist?
    • º What is the profession of the protagonist, and how does that profession influence the gathering and interpretation of evidence?
    • º Does the author have a trademark character (often a detective or police Inspector) that appears in a series of books, like Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, or Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen?
    • º What personality traits does the author use to define the central character?
    • º How complex are the main characters and what are their motivations?
    • º Are some of the characters stereotypes?
    • º What is the private life of the central character like, and how does it influence his or her work?
    • º Does the main character’s private life seem to suffer from the evil to which he or she is exposed as with Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander who suffers from depression and unease from what he sees on the job or Ian Rankin’s John Rebus who confronts his own demons by delving into the criminal underworld?
    • º How many suspicious characters are presented, and what, if any, hints are given as to who is the most likely suspect?
    • º To what degree is the novel driven by the author’s interest in the psychology of his or her characters (as in Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith)? What kinds of psychological issues are presented, and how do they affect the plot and its outcome?
  • Point of View:
    • º Who is the narrator? Is the story narrated in first-person by the detective (as in Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer stories), by the killer (as in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me), or by an anonymous third-person narrator?
    • º From whose perspective is the story told, and how does this affect the experience of reading? (Even when using a third-person narrator, authors often create a narrative that concentrates on one character’s perspective or thought process.)
    • º How does the narrator’s voice affect the overall tone of the novel (is it sardonic, cynical, tough, matter-of-fact, chilling, sexist, lurid, etc.)?
  • Setting:
    • º Where and when does the story take place?
    • º How important is the physical setting to the story being told?
    • º How realistic are the details of the setting?
    • º Does the novel project a strong sense of place? (Consider Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, P. D. James’s London, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, or Patricia Highsmith’s international Ripley novels.)
    • º Does the novel evoke a specific time period?
    • º What is the social context of the novel?
    • º Does it address particular social problems (like Andrew Vachss’s interest in child abuse, Henning Mankell’s focus on violence against immigrants in Faceless Killers, or Ruth Rendell’s focus on domestic abuse in Harm Done)?
  • Style:
    • º What are the defining aspects of the author’s writing style? Choose and discuss a few sentences that reveal the author’s individual style.
    • º What potent details or descriptions do you notice in the prose?
    • º Does the author make use of recurring symbols or images?
    • º Is the use of dialogue a significant stylistic feature? How do characters speak to each other?
  • Genre: There are several subtypes within the mystery genre, each with their own characteristic approaches to style, setting, and structure. Think about where your novel fits in. Some favorite types include:
    • º the hard-boiled style, created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; which features a private eye with a cynical, tough-guy attitude; witty and often sarcastic dialogue; at least one femme fatale; and a dark vision of sex, crime, and corruption.
    • º the classic English detective novel, a popular tradition going back at least as far as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.
    • º the whodunit, which focuses on plot and allows the reader to figure out the solution through deduction, along with the sleuth.
    • º the police procedural in which the protagonist is a police investigator (as in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman).
    • º the psychological thriller in which criminal psychopathology is underscored (as in Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me).
    • º the political thriller in which the protagonist is caught up in a thick plot of international intrigue, assassination, espionage, drugs, or other dangers (as in Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios).
    • º the “caper” novel in which the tone is light-hearted and the protagonist, like Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch, is not entirely above criminal mischief himself.
  • Also consider: What is the source of pleasure in reading about crime? How unsettling is the effect of the story, or how satisfying? How dark is the author’s vision with regard to human evil and psychopathology? Does the book make playful reference to mysteries by other writers? How does the novel compare to others you have read by the same author?

Discussion Resources for Nonfiction: While fiction has long been the most popular genre with reading groups, works of nonfiction can bring quite a different set of objectives and intellectual experiences to the group and spark lively discussions as well. Reading nonfiction is a great way for readers to expand their knowledge and to gain familiarity with a wide array of subjects such as history, biography, science and technology, parenting, social issues, politics, travel, and exploration. Although nonfiction is a vast category in today’s publishing world, the following general questions can help your group get a discussion going.

  • º How well does the author relate the content of the book? Does the author provide enough background material on the subject to allow readers to get involved? How is the book organized? Is it chronological, thematic, topical, or arranged in some other format? Are there parts you wish had been developed further or more clearly?
  • º If you are reading a history, a biography, or a travel book, how vividly does the author re-create a historical period, a life, or a journey? What draws you in? What, if anything, seems too dry or unnecessarily detailed?
  • º Think about nonfiction and its relationship to truth. Does the nonfiction writer have an obligation to be truthful above all, or is bias acceptable in certain cases? Does the author attempt to remain objective about the subject at hand? Is the book objective and balanced or deeply personal and strongly biased? Is there a political or a polemical agenda behind the book?
  • º Does the book attempt to change or shape public opinion? How does it change the way you think about a person or event? Does it give you new perspective on a historical event or topic of interest?
  • º What is the author’s attitude toward his subject? What is the author trying to persuade you to think or do? How do you think the author was changed by the experience of writing the book? (You can often find a direct response to this question in the book’s foreword or introduction, or in interviews with the author.) Were you persuaded by the author’s arguments?
  • º What is original about this book? How does it distinguish itself from other books you have read on a similar topic?

Discussion Resources for Poetry: Great poetry can be just as thought provoking as great novels or biographies, and it can be an excellent choice for reading groups as well. Devote your discussion to poetry for one meeting, or focus on it as a part of several meetings.

  • º Consider choosing one poet and have your group read a selection of his work. Discuss major recurrent themes and stylistic devices. Can you see a clear progression or change in style or tone from the poet’s early work to the later poems? Consider reading a book of poetry in conjunction with a biography of the poet. Can you tie a particular theme or tone to any significant events in the poet’s life?
  • º If you prefer to focus on a variety of poets, choose a group from a particular period or country—the Romantics, the Beat poets, American poets, Irish poets—and read a selection of verse from that group. What are the stylistic or thematic similarities and differences? By which characteristics can you classify the group as a whole? Do you prefer the work of one poet to that of others in the group? Why?
  • º If discussing entire works of poetry does not appeal to your group, consider having interested group members read a favorite poem each month at the beginning or end of each meeting. You may find that those who are hesitant to read poetry will discover how accessible it is.