UPDATE: 7/16/17 I’ve added a note at the end fixing a mistake I made regarding some characters in Persuasion. ~S
In our second post, I mentioned that as English majors focusing on lit as opposed to creative writing, J and I were never taught in a formal environment what makes a piece of writing good. Since we started thinking about this question seriously, we’ve come up with some interesting, and possibly even correct, answers, but I’m still occasionally haunted by a particular bit of writing, storytelling, or characterization that I simply cannot figure how it was done. After all, one of the most common pieces of writing advice I see is “Steal,” but how can you steal something you can’t understand?
Sometimes, it’s fairly easy to figure out why something is good. Those brilliant openings, for instance, are easy to spot, and what makes them brilliant is often clear. (Not necessarily easy or clear to replicate, but that’s a different problem.) Take the opening of The Great Gatsby.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
The prose is beautiful, the idea the perfect mission statement for what is to follow. The tone for the entire novel is right there in those two sentences. Brilliant. And although my chances of ever writing something so extraordinary are slim, I can, in fact, see what Fitzgerald did.
On other occasions the perfect opening might be less overtly and beautifully crafted, but no less apt, and when the reader is lucky, funny. I would give my right arm (and being someone who hand writes everything, that’s a serious sacrifice) to write an opening sentence as delightful as what CS Lewis did in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
Again, the tone for the novel is immediate set. And you’ve learned more about Eustace in those first 13 words than most authors could have conveyed in an entire first chapter. It’s a brilliant opening, and there’s no mystery as to why it is.
Endings are also frequently easy to spot when brilliant. Again, look at The Great Gatsby.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
All the promise set up in the opening two sentences, paid off here in the closing. The metaphor is lovely and apt, and if you dig a little deeper, as did Stanley Fish in his book How to Write a Sentence, the rhythm of waves is highlighted by the repetition of the letter “B.” (Really, read the sentence out loud.) All of it’s brilliance might not be immediately apparent, but with a little work, you can puzzle out its genius.
For elegant simplicity, there’s the ending of Return of the King.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.
What better way could there possibly be to end the epic quest than that? After all of the danger, strife, loss, and victory, Tolkien opted for the quiet ending. Brilliant.
Brilliant moments in the middle, though, often prove tougher to see and understand. But some authors have gifted us with obviously great set pieces. “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov is an obvious example, particularly because it can even stand independent of the larger work. Its ideas are so strong, they need no other words.
Another, and more recent, set piece that I particularly love can be found in Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. The novel tells the story of a single battle, and after establishing the tone and structure of the book, he departs for a particular charge. The POVs are literally disposable–each POV only lasting until the character is killed, the narrative then picked up by the killer. Clever and appropriate, the chapter moves the reader across the battlefield, the structure underlining the gruesomeness and unheroic nature of battle.
But what about a passage in the middle of a novel written by an author difficult to “catch in the act of genius”? Virginia Woolf famously said Jane Austen was the writer hardest to catch in the act of genius, and after spending two years trying to understand how Austen made a favorite moment in Persuasion so extraordinary, I still don’t know that I’ve figured it out. In the scene that has me flummoxed, our heroine, Anne Elliot, is visiting her sister and taking care of her two young nephews. Anne is trapped in a room with the two boys as well as with two men, both of whom proposed to her, but were refused. One is her brother-in-law, Charles Hayter,* who she refused without regret. The other is Captain Wentworth, and her decision to revoke her initial acceptance of his proposal has haunted her ever since.
Here’s the passage in question.
There being nothing to eat, he could only have some play; and as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, he began to fasten himself upon her, as she knelt, in such a way that, busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, and insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly.
“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”
“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do not you hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”
But not a bit did Walter stir.
In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.
Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room…. But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.
So, what did Austen do here? Why do I return to this passage over and over again nearly as overcome as Anne? The prose, as always, is flawless, the characters behave as they must, and the action is described elegantly. But that doesn’t explain why this scene has such a hold over me, and why I obsess over its brilliance. I think the attraction is Austen’s ability to make the little incidents of life feel so important. I’ve run across writing advice that preaches the stakes must always be high, in fact, they should as often as possible be death. Anne is in an awkward situation, but no one is about to die. Literally at any rate. But this is precisely what Austen does so well. She makes these simple scenes in drawing rooms seem as though the stakes are, indeed, death. Stop and think about this: how many of us have been in battle, sailed off to a magical land, or gone on a great quest to destroy evil? On the other hand, how many of us have found ourselves in an irritating situation in front of someone we love who we fear doesn’t love us back? Austen’s stakes are the kind most people can actually relate to, and when we remember those moments, they certainly felt like life or death.
But Jane Austen is hardly unique in finding the drama of ordinary life. Surely, there must be something else, some other mystery in need of solving to explain how she did it. On different readings, two things have occurred to me that shed some light. My first clue: I never highlighted this passage until two years ago when I was reading the book for the third or fourth time. How had I never noticed it before? How did I miss the pathos? This is hardly the first, and I doubt the last, time something positively brilliant jumped out at me for the first time upon rereading a Jane Austen novel. The second clue emerged when I went back to reread just this passage. For anyone who has never read Persuasion, you probably read the above and made some sort of face, either a confused squint or an eye roll would be my guess. “What on earth is so special about this?” you ask. It doesn’t stand especially well on its own, ala “The Grand Inquisitor.” In fact, I’ve rarely been so moved by a scene in a novel that so utterly and completely depends upon what came before it. Without knowing Anne in particular, what I quoted is nearly meaningless.
And this is what drives me crazy as a writer attempting to steal from my favorite authors. I can’t steal this scene. I can’t in some way take this and make it my own, because there’s no single piece to steal. This scene only makes sense, is only obviously brilliant, when read in sequence with the nine chapters that came before. Austen has so thoroughly interwoven characters and plot and theme that you cannot examine anything bit by bit. Aside from a few excellent opening sentences, there are not passages in her novels at which to point and say, “See? Brilliant.” She has hidden her genius in plain site, in every word and decision to the extent that you can’t see it. So, even if I am right, even if I have solved the mystery, I’m not sure that I’ve learned anything as far as “how” to do what Austen did. Other than be totally brilliant all of the time. Talk about difficult to replicate.
*Having just finished rereading Persuasion, I realize I made a mistake here, but I am firmly blaming Austen for this one. There are no fewer than four characters named Charles in this novel: Charles Hayter, Charles Musgrove, Sr., Charles Musgrove, Jr., and Charles Smith. Charles Musgrove proposed to Anne, not Charles Hayter, who eventually weds Henrietta Musgrove.