Writing 2018-01-14

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 8

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

Chapter 8: Language

In this chapter Wood insists that novels must be written and read with a musical precision that should be equal to the beauty of poetry. The key, he proposes, is to write with simplicity or to focus on transmitting complexity in as little prose as possible. One tool is the use metaphors, which can spark a reader’s imagination with new meaning of the word. Metaphors are distinctly authorial, but properly done can feel organically grown out of the character’s world. The danger of metaphors is that they can be mixed in ways that just mix clichés, which can put off a reader. The best metaphors link to and replace their subjects in the mind of the reader.

When not using metaphors, think about avoiding the same phrases and idioms. To develop non-poetic beauty look to simple words to evoke color, time, action and so on. Unexpected rhythms can capture the reader’s eye and repetitions of words and phrases can reinforce ideas or suggest some kind of change. Gustave Flaubert himself loved to read aloud for this reason since it allows the language to be appreciated from a different perspective.

This brings a question of the difference between slick writing and truly interesting writing. When writing or reading, look for the variety in which the author is relating information. A truly interesting writer should be able to move from one voice to another for dramatic or comedic effect.


What makes this chapter interesting is the treatise on “slick writing” vs “interesting writing”. The chapter is not very long, but I do like the belief that prose should be as beautiful as poetry as well as the ideas on how to pull it off.

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.