Tag Archive: James Wood


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.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 9

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

Chapter 9: Dialogue

This is a relatively quick chapter to read. James Wood begins with a 1950 interview of author Henry Green. Green asserted that he resisted authorial adverbs (“she said, gallantly”, for example), rarely explained character motives and never internalizes character thoughts. In his thought people don’t know the thoughts of others, so why should authors know the thoughts of their characters?

Wood doesn’t believe things have to be this way. He notes that Green’s views makes sense because Green likes to reveal information through dialogue. This is useful especially for dialogue that is layered with meaning. Wood’s counterexample is the characters in the story “The House of Mr. Biswas” where there are many examples of authorial descriptions of behavior and environment. Dialogue alone does not have to reveal everything. An example in the story is Biswas’ purchase of a doll house. There is no dialogue here, but the description of the action alone explains the nature of the situation and the relationship of the characters.


Although this was a relatively sizable chapter, the bulk of the content can be reduced to the points above. Primarily it was a back and forth on the relevance of dialogue. The most valid point is that talking heads are not necessary to relay information and just relating in terms of action can have powerful effects if the author knows how to do it.

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.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 7

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

Chapter 7: Sympathy and Complexity

Wood begins with a question of the value of fiction. Wood asserts that there are three major values. One is language, the exposure to vocabulary and concepts of speech and writing. The second is the world. That is, experiencing life through the eyes of others, even if they are fictional characters. The final value has to do with convictions and beliefs. This is the idea that fiction allows readers to reinforce pre-existing beliefs or develop new beliefs or ideas through exposure to a fictional world. Seeing the world through the eyes of another can elicit sympathy and understanding and this is no less true for fictional characters than real people. In addition, insight into a character can be shown by that character’s own ability (or lack thereof) to imagine the world through the perspectives of another.

Wood believes this is connected to moral philosophy. The ability to sympathize with others or see their perspectives can lead to a character forced to immediately deal with two equal and conflicting moral arguments. Wood cites Bernard Williams, who claims that moral philosophy about the emotional life of a character rather than basic talk about the character’s self or general perceptions. Wood argues this can lead to insight in the complexity of a society’s moral fabric.


This was a relatively quick chapter to go through. I think the insight about a character’s ability or inability to understand the perspectives of others was interesting. This is also interesting in light of the idea that it can be used to highlight emotional perspectives and general moral fabric.

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 6

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

Chapter 6: A Brief History of Consciousness

In this chapter James Wood examines the idea of how characters evolved from essentially stock characters to developed entities that we expect today. In Wood’s estimation, this transition began with theatre, which he posits changed the nature of who sees the character. That is, is the character behaving a certain way for the benefit of the audience, or for some unseen force? That is to say, the author or some unseen deity. This becomes an highlight issue when taking into account theatrical soliloquies, such as Hamlet’s famous monologues. Who or what is the character talking to and what is the motivation? This begins the perception of dimensionality of the character.

For novels, the theatrical monologue becomes an internal voice, a form of mental speech, allowing readers to look into a character’s mind. In addition, theatrical characters can change over time due to dramatic effect. The dynamism of character in theatre caused novelists to experiment with their own medium, for example playing with time or perceptions within their stories in an effort to match and provide an alternative to the dynamism of theatre.

Wood also asserts that the modern novel owes much to the work “Rameau’s Nephew” by Denis Diderot. Diderot made the story completely about the internal lives of his characters instead of using the standard tropes of the time. This was also shown in the works of Dostoyevsky which focused on an analysis of human nature. His characters had three different layers: announced motives, unconscious motivations and a desire to be known and have their flaws revealed.

Just as an example of early storytelling. Wood cites a biblical story, David and Bathsheba. David as a character is transparent to God, but not to the characters, The readers can see his actions, but not his thoughts. This causes his actions to sometimes surprise readers, since they can’t see his motivations. According to Wood, such internal access doesn’t really come along in full until Shakespeare. In particular Wood cites Macbeth, which introduced the idea of retrospective thought, not just internal calculations. Dostoyevski’s character Raskolnikov acts as a kind of hybrid approach. Here the audience has complete access to the character’s mind and is all-seeing until God makes an appearance at the end of the novel.


This is an interesting chapter because there are pros and cons to the idea of being privy to a character’s inner mind. When a character is not internally accessible, the readers must create a narrative like assembling a puzzle. When a character is totally internally accessible, the readers can be more analytic.

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?