Archive for December, 2017


Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 5

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the fourth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 5: Character

Wood points out that a minor character can be just as compelling as a major character. A good minor character need only surprise the reader once before disappearing to be memorable. This is because for characters in general very little personality detail is needed. What is required is just enough detail to highlight important personality traits. This gives the reader something to latch on to and build a personal narrative about without hitting the reader over the head.

The particular detail, however, should be related to how the character interacts with other characters, or the world in general. Sometimes an author can get away with a line on what the character is thinking. New writers tend to make the mistake of rendering this detail as if the character were the subject of a photograph. Rendering the character in motion is a much better alternative so that the reader doesn’t feel like the story has paused.

Another point is to make sure not to explain everything. Wood points out that author Muriel Sparks has the motto of “never apologize, never explain”. Character-defining behavior does not have to be explained or justified. This forces the reader to ask why the character is behaving in a particular way, which can lead to a reader imagining a narrative about that character. This is also important because the character involved may not be one that adheres to current moral standards or tastes. Spending time explaining the character’s motivations with an unsavory trait weakens the character and diminishes the reader’s incentive to think about the character.

Finally, it’s important that characters be determined to be themselves. Everybody in real life has a personal fiction that they tell themselves to put life into perspective. A framework of dealing with reality, if you will. Fictional characters are no different. In Wood’s estimation, good characters aren’t just determined to be themselves, they are determined to be themselves in a theatrical manner. They create a fiction all their own about who they are and how others should, or will, treat them or what their place in the world is. They then enact that personal fiction as definitively has possible in the given situation.


Admittedly, I never really thought about portraying a character in static or in motion, but I think Wood’s arguments are compelling in this area. The reader doesn’t want to pause. I’m also a bit relieved about the ideas regarding character details. Having to spend coming up with a high-detail description of a character is exhausting and never seemed completely necessary to me. Leaving a bit of mystery makes sense from a reader-investment perspective.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 4

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the third of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 4: Detail

Wood mentions the obvious, which is that the use of detail draws readers in, but then continues on to note that literature show readers how to notice details and that the skill of noticing is then practiced in real life. That is, literature can be a primer text for real world issues.

Wood asserts that details work when they draw attention to themselves in a momentary way. That is, the detail doesn’t just show up repeatedly for no reason. The reader should take note of it and then move on. The detail should also have some visceral connection to it; it should be described using materials, names, numbers, but never described in vague terms.

Often details are not meaningful in any way. They are there to add detail to a moment in the story. In other cases, the detail could appear completely meaningless, but really have relevance in some non-obvious way (they are “significantly insignificant”). Often details of both types mentioned can be used to help present the reader with a passage of time. It is important, however, to be strategic with details in general. Excessive detail can be a distraction. Be prepared to identify relevant and irrelevant detail.

Details don’t always have to be justified. They can be a mystery. A detail can be applied to a character or event with no explanation. This can make the reader want to know more.


I think the chapter on detail really covers ground that appears on most treatises on writing. The information isn’t particularly new, but it is useful in the context of the book as a sort of set-up for future chapters.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 2 & 3

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the second of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapters 2 and 3: Gustave Flaubert

These are among the shorter chapters in the book, if not the shortest. The chapters more or less are a breakdown of ideas put forward by Gustave Flaubert, the French writer behind Madame Bovary among other works. James Wood contends that it is Gustave Flaubert who brought in the era of modern novelization by being the first to assemble all the literary pieces necessary for it.

In Wood’s description, Flaubert’s writing is like a camera, giving a precise description of the world of the story in a moment in time. Moreover, Flaubert is able to mix actions that occur at different time scales. Mundane repetitive actions happen at the same time as immediate and momentary actions. This serves to give the reader a sense of a fully realized world because it mimics how a reader is surrounded by a variety of events and actions in real life, both noticed and unnoticed. The author of a work might be emotionally detached from the story, but the reader could still be pulled in by the level of detail.

To be fair, this was more easily done by Flaubert because of his use of French. The language, according to Wood, allows a writer to more easily render events simultaneously that would otherwise happen at different time scales. English is somewhat more awkward in this regard. That said, it is not impossible.

Another Flaubert device is the “Flaneur”. The flaneur is a character that is unhurriedly looking out at the world, seeing its detail and reflecting on it. In other words, the character is the author’s camera as mentioned earlier. The character is a stand-in for the author and in a way, a kind of writer as well since the character is reflecting on the world and therefore creating a narration of it. Wood comments that, in a way, the existence of the flaneur as a device is the result of urbanization. People are confronted by so much in urban life that the character of the flaneur is a strong representation of what real people might do just walking down the street.

The effect is at once lifelike and artificial. Lifelike because real people are assaulted by details in the course of daily life, but artificial in that the details the flaneur is taking in are precisely chosen by the author. In fact, the flaneur as a device confuses who is doing the observing; the character or the author.


The last paragraph ties into the idea of authorial irony in the previous chapter. I feel like these two chapters were of historical purpose to get readers to understand where the indirect free speech technique originated. Today’s audiences, I feel, might wish for more investment from the characters rather than an “unhurried” observance, but the roots are clearly there.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 1

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the first of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 1: Narration

Wood breaks down the types of narration into four distinct techniques. That said, he thinks only two are really worth examining. These are first-person narration and third-person narration.

Third-person narration has the least amount of time spent on it in this chapter. This is primarily because Wood makes a distinction between “authorial” and “free indirect” narration styles. Third-person narration is more closely associated with “authorial” style. That is to say, the reader is always aware that the author is telling the reader something rather than the characters. This has the effect of causing the reader to be more mindful of the writer than the characters themselves. Third-person narration is generally felt to be the “omniscient” voice and generally useful only when observing the world of the story, not investing in it. In addition, it’s this authorial (also referred to as “direct”) style where a reader tends to hear more of quoted speech. As explained further below, “free indirect” or first-person speech need not have quotes since we’re living inside the character’s mind.

The chapter spends most of its time on the subject of “free indirect speech”. Which is to say, the story is narrated from the subjective perspective of one or more characters in the story. This is more of a stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling with fewer quoted sentences. Rather, the dialogue can happen directly within the narration, especially if the character is thinking the speech rather than actually verbalizing it.

This use of first-person/free indirect speech means the reader is never really quite certain which words belong to the author or the character. Everything starts to blend together. It is also easier to jump from one perspective or character to another. This allows the author to intermingle the author’s words with the character’s words for maximum effect. In addition, it’s possible to have an “unidentified free indirect style”. This means that the stream of consciousness is more a collective voice of a group (townspeople at a town hall, for example) rather than an individual.

The chapter returns to the concept of third-person perspective with a technique referred to as “authorial irony”. This is where the author freely transitions from an omniscient authorial perspective (third-person) to a free indirect style (first-person). An example might be describing a town (authorial), but ending the paragraph with the personal opinion a character may have of that town (free indirect). This can be quite powerful because it intermingles the author’s voice and the character’s voice, but the author must be able to separate the two so that the character is not just a stand-in for the author.


I have to admit, I’ve never thought of fiction in these terms before. As I read fiction in the future I’ll try to keep in mind the ideas presented in this chapter. I do wonder, however, how would this work in a screenplay? Would, or could, a screenwriter write in free indirect style for the action descriptions and then write the dialogue as usual? It’s been said that a screenplay should be enjoyable to read, but is the format different enough that the presented ideas don’t matter?