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Jane Austen, rule breaker

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Breaking rules isn’t something we normally associate with Jane Austen. In her stories, characters who stray from the unwritten rules of society – like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – do not come out of things well. But one of the things I’ve noticed is how many so-called ‘rules’ of creative writing she breaks. Here are just a few:

  1. Show, don’t tell. A very good rule, generally speaking. Don’t tell the reader what your characters are like: show them in action. But here is Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, in full telling mode:

‘Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.’

  1. Don’t over-use back-story. Back-story is used to denote events that happened before the story proper begins; they’re relevant to the current action but not a part of it. Generally, the advice is to keep back-story to an absolute minimum, and especially not to overload the reader with it in early chapters. Yet, the beginning of Sense and Sensibility is nothing but backstory, as we hear about the death of Eleanor and Marianne’s father, and their subsequent treatment at the hands of his second wife. Similarly, Emma’s opening chapters delve into Emma’s childhood, the loss of her mother and the remarriage of her beloved guardian.

         3. Have a likeable heroine. In Emma, Jane Austen wrote ‘I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.’ Emma’s opening lines show why she thought this: ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence’ To present a character, a female character, who is doing very well and perfectly happy with herself, thank you very much – this is bold. Even the adjectives have a hard, almost masculine edge to them – ‘handsome, clever and rich’ strike a very different tone to ‘beautiful’ or ‘wise’. Few novelists today would use a female character like this as the protagonist of a romance: but Austen does.

How, and why, does she do it? In the first example, the reason it works is because the telling is expertly balanced with showing. The passage about the Bennett parents comes at the end of the first chapter, which is mainly dialogue, in which we see or rather hear exactly what these two people are like. The ‘telling’ rounds off the impression, and leaves us in no doubt as to the impression Austen wishes to give. More than that though, the narrative voice, with its crisp, merciless judgments, provides a relentless moral centre to the book, that is quite astonishing in its confidence. Austen is not just showing, but telling it like it is.

Regarding back-story: the first thing to note is that Austen doesn’t over-use it, and she lets us know why we’re reading about it. A common mistake new writers often make is that they launch into back-story without making it clear why it’s relevant to the matter at hand. In Austen, our interest is first piqued by these characters in their current situations which means we’re seduced into reading about how they got there. It’s also important to note that Austen is writing in a more leisurely age, when readers expected to take more time to settle in to a story. Nevertheless, she shows how, used effectively, backstory can be every bit as absorbing as, well, story.

As for the unlikeable heroine: what Emma shows is that you can certainly have a character who’s somewhat unlikeable, provided that they hold our interest, and to an extent our sympathy. And it’s important that female characters, in particular, are not forced to be ‘likeable’. I wrote more about this here.

Taken together all these examples show something that I think is often slightly misunderstood when people talk about creative writing. The craft of writing is not about hard and fast rules that are either followed or broken. It’s just a series of tools that can either be useful to you or not so useful, used well or not so well. The important thing is to understand when you are using them, and if they are working to your advantage or not.

If you’d like to know more … check out my forthcoming course on romantic fiction, ‘Beyond Elizabeth Bennet: writing the modern-day romance’ starting 23 May at City Lit.

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