I have recently read three fantastic books that deconstruct and explain how to write good fiction: The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, How Novels Work by John Mullan and How Fiction Works by James Wood. I gave up English Literature as a subject at school at age fifteen and have always worried that understanding how fiction works would somehow undermine the power it has over me. But reading these three fantastic books has given me a much deeper understanding of why I love the novels I do and how they work to weave their spells on me.
All three books are packed full of techniques that novelists use and have examples from a range of classic and contemporary literary fiction. From them I learned about the importance of beginnings and how books draw us in. This starts with titles of course, followed by opening sentences that show the reader what kind of thing they have signed up for, and may then include the use of a prologue – a device to begin a novel whilst staying detached from it, by, for instance, being set earlier or later than when the real action starts.
These books explain how it is the job of a writer to know what their characters want and what they need and to put obstacles in their way, so that they have to deal with conflict and hopefully experience growth as a result. It is through these journeys that even villains can turn out to have redeeming features. The books explore how to make characters come alive on the page by ‘showing not telling’, helping a reader to judge a character by what they say and don’t say and by what they do, rather than by the narrator explaining a character’s motivations to the reader. They delve into how to deal effectively with revelations and suspense, as well as the tricky subject of how to write believable dialogue, and how to imbue a sense of place, by having characters move through place, rather than by pure descriptions.
I was struck by the importance in writing of both concision and specific detail, as the right details make the world the author is creating seem more real. These books also clearly explain the difference between story – what happens, narrative – the way the story is told, and plot – the causal chain that connects events and characters. And of course they finish by talking about endings and the choices writers have of tying their stories up neatly with a bow, or leaving them hanging ambiguously, or leaving us with a sense of life going on into an uncertain future.
Clearly putting this theory into practice is not simple or straightforward, but it certainly helps to know some of these techniques if you are thinking about writing fiction, or if you simply want to understand more about your reading experience.