Writing 2018-01-14

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 10

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 ninth of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 10: Truth, Complexity and Realism

In some ways the book has been leading up to this point. Wood immediately tackles the subject of realism. Wood starts out by offering quotes that denigrate realism in novels as a series of clichés. Wood suggests a different term: “commercial realism”. Here he suggests that what people are responding to are a kind of commonly accepted technique of using a lot of descriptive words that don’t reveal very much information at all. It’s just a sort of detailed description of what people are doing and what is around an environment but without anything to push a story forward in a relevant way. It also represents an interesting trope where where the same clichéd descriptions, scenarios and statements are used and re-used repeatedly.

Wood suggest replacing a focus on realism with a focus on truth. That is, he suggests that good writers don’t need to create a literary photograph of a moment so much as a sense that the moment is accurately depicting a truth within the reader. This is harder than it seems, however. He warns that writers must be constantly inventing new ways to unveil truth. Over time, clichés develop because writers start using the same techniques and ideas over and over again. This means what is truthful now, become empty convention soon after.


This is tip of the spear when it comes to the book. James Wood kind of uses this chapter to pull together the rest of the book  provide the framework for a truthful fiction. The word “Complexity” in the chapter title seems to mostly come from the complexity of words used in “realistic” novels. As mentioned much is said, but little is conveyed, leaving the reader to do a lot of work without much benefit.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.