Aspects of the Novel

No book worth its salt is meant to put you to sleep, it’s meant to make you jump out of bed in your underwear and run and beat the author’s brains out. Bohumil Hrabal, Czech novelist

There’s a book called Aspects of the Novel, a series of lectures from E. M. Forster, written in 1927. I haven’t read it myself yet, but I saw a mention about it in the book of Richard Cohen, How to Write Like Tolstoy, in chapter 7 – Grabbing Fiction by the Tale.

The book is on my list to read, though. I may share some insights on my blog. Let me mention that Virginia Woolf described Aspects of the Novel – as “a book to encourage dreaming.”  These lectures are covering everything from characters, story, plot, pattern, and rhythm. There’s an example in the chapter “Story” – how to differentiate the story and a plot.

The king died, and then the queen died.
The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

As you understand, the first is the STORY. The second is a PLOT.

E. M. Forster believed that a story could only have one fault: making the audience not want to know what happens next. Because the story is answering the question, “and then what?” A plot is an organism of a higher type. It explains events and gives reasons for them.

Factors of a plot:

  • it should be intelligent
  • it should be built on memory
  • it should contain elements of surprise and mystery

Well, here we are going to jump to Stephen King. I thought he is a pro-plotter, but in his book On Writing, he said: “Stories and novels consist of 3 parts only – narration, description, and dialogue. You may wonder where the plot is in all this. The answer is… nowhere. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless; second, I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. The plot is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.

Now, let’s imagine your novel is ready… and it tells us a story of the sarcastic teen girl hero who reluctantly saves the day, OR, about the brooding rebel without a course. Ah, so wonderful! 

Wait! 😱 I just want to remind you about Nabokov and of his hate for cliches.
Nabokov regarded cliche as the key to bad art (not just writing). Martin Amis supported him, adding, “All writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart.” 

Vladimir Nabokov believed that most cliches betray you, and some of them can be deadly for a story.

Cliches in writing:

  • bitter cold
  • searing heat
  • running dangerously

Cliches in a plot:

  • the chosen one
  • the love triangle
  • the abusive parents

On the other side, J. K. Rowling used all of the cliches above, and it did work out well for her and Harry Potter. What does it say? That there’s no one way, no always right way, to write an entertaining book. There’re no solutions that work in every situation because there’re always multiple options that may be equally valid.

Free yourself from the fear.
Don’t rely only on rules.
Listen to your heart.

Put both skill and artistry to work. Know what the tried and true can do, but be bold and write something fresh. Ah… and do not forget to revise! Tolstoy went through 9 versions of The Kreutzer Sonata. His wife copied out War and Peace 7 times, from beginning to end, while Tolstoy himself would write draft after draft (more than a dozen for 1 section of the book). Sometimes the effort taken by writers sounds obsessive. For example, Horace spent 7 years writing 128-lines of his Elegy.

Get obsessive with your ideas, heroes, story!
Finish your fantastic book!
Surprise Tolstoy, Nabokov, King, Rowling…

and Ray! 😂☕️✌️📚

 


Next post – Author Interview. John W. Howell

Source: How to Write like Tolstoy, mentalfloss.com, On Writing, theeditorsblog.net

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34 Responses

  1. masercot says:

    I enjoy books on writing. I read one recently by Ursula Le Guin…

  2. I hate cliches too and, to quote a writer I recently read in some mag, I envy the plot, plotters, plotting.
    I love reading a plot-driven story, though my stories are mostly character-driven.
    And yes, I’m currently reading The collect.works of Virginia Woolf (0.99dol Kindle) and I’m pretty excited about it.

  3. I don’t plot but after years of writing/re-writing the same story I kind of know where it’s going – it has a knack of avoiding the bin!

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Yes, I guess it’s much easier for those with experience… 😉
      Mmm, I think 🤔 I’ll try to plot my next novel & see how it goes, if any difference …

  4. Your last few posts have been inspiring and encouraging. I have made you my new Muse. You may revel in glory 😄😄👏👏👌👍🥂🍻

  5. Sorryless says:

    The last book I read on writing was “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. I don’t like to read books that are strictly about writing and the process, but rather, stories that are woven into how the creative writing process works.

  6. Another wonderful post, VR. I loved the idea that plot is secondary. I’ve always thought that and as I st around and listen to the self impressed talking about writing I wan to throw up. Thanks for the fresh air. 😁

  7. Simon says:

    7 years writing 128 lines?!?

  8. I can’t remember which author I was listening to but she said she had fun writing and let the plot take care of itself.

  9. Hello. Are you familiar with the writer Chaim Potok? I’ve read five or six of his fiction books, three of them in recent years. He’s a powerful author. He takes on big issues, while placing them in the everyday.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      No, I never heard about him. I worked in high school (in Russia) and I moved to Sweden only in 2005/2006. I read mostly classics 18-19 century (diif countries), and this is what we studying the most in the school, too. So, I’m unfamiliar with this modern author, but I googled, and I ordered his book – to check. Thanks for suggestion.

  10. selonnerias says:

    I’m reading Scene & Structure By Jack M. Bickham it went over the need for causation quite a bit, though he doesn’t tell us that in writing with causation we are creating plot. He’s also certainly less nuanced than you are here, though I suspect that might be so he can pack in a lot of knowledge in a book whose main text is only 130 pages.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Sorry, couldn’t answer right away… I’m working on the last bits for my novel, the publishing day is in December = very stressful times 😂

      I haven’t read the book you mentioned but I’m going to check it.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Sometimes 130 pages is enough lol 😂 it’s depends… I find that many modern books on writing r quite boring + often I don’t know the examples they r using… very difficult to understand.

      • selonnerias says:

        So far it’s very readable, when it uses examples it either explains the relevant parts, just makes up a short example or (in one case so far) quotes a relevant section of a book. I think it’s focused more on explaining the principles it wants to teach and not so much on providing examples of where they’re used in popular works. It does start off with a chapter on the history of novels but all the chapters after that have seemed pretty useful.

  11. librepaley says:

    Love EM Forster – and some timely tips. I am so tired of picking up another ‘gripping, page-turning, twisty…’ thriller full of plot holes, unlikely McGuffins, and downright UNintelligent.

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