How Fiction Works

How Fiction Worksbook by James Wood

annotation by Tina Rubin

In this exceptional craft book, the venerable James Wood asks important questions and argues with his favorite contemporary critics of the novel to reveal how fiction really does work, tackling topics from character, dialogue, and metaphor to a brief history of consciousness. The breadth and depth of literature Wood cites represents a complete literary education: just read all the books in the index and you’re set for life. While Wood argued with critics, I occasionally argued with him, particularly for his take on David Foster Wallace or the supercilious way he expressed certain opinions. Just enough to keep the experience lively.

Wood hooked me in the first chapter, “Narrating,” with his discussion of free indirect speech (writing freed of authorial flagging). The examples he gave literally exploded with style. This thread continued in the form of different questions, such as to whom a fictional thought belongs (author or character?) and what kinds of similes and metaphors a character might use versus those the author might; i.e., the gap between the narrator’s voice and the author’s. Wood presents a wonderful excerpt from Henry James’s novel What Maisie Knew to show us how James uses free indirect speech to bring three different perspectives into the same paragraph. Later in the chapter he uses Nabokov’s Pnin to illustrate a character who would produce the same metaphors as his creator—a great example of authorial irony, when the character’s voice has “rebelliously” taken over the narration.

Wood uses the work of Flaubert for an incredibly instructive section of the book. He discusses the details an author selects, the careful noticing of the flaneur (one who strolls through the city observing), the various time signatures that occur in a single glance. Habitual detail mixed with dynamic detail, Wood says, is essential to effect realism. Life comes at us like this—“in a tattoo of randomness” —but it is the author who creates the artifice in his or her selection of the detail. Our memories, Wood says, are aesthetically untalented.

Other intriguing ideas: A seemingly insignificant detail can actually be “studiedly irrelevant”—just enough to make the story feel like real life—and a minor detail can fast-track us into the character’s thinking or capture a central human truth. When that detail refuses to explain a character, leaving a mystery, Wood says the reader becomes a co-creator of that character’s existence. (And I’d add that that’s when readers really engage.)

The chapters toward the end of the book answered questions that relate  directly to the novel I’m writing now (and led to a proliferation of notes and underlines). They included discussions of Dostoevsky’s layers of psychology (announced motive, unconscious motivation, and somewhat religious motive, in which a character wants to reveal his baseness); the argument for moving around in time when you have a character who changes; and the importance of expanding readers’ capacity for sympathy in the world by putting them in another’s shoes through the fictional narrative. (This last was also the theme of my critical paper.)

These are concepts that I’ve wrestled with as a fiction writer, and seeing them “unwound” has been a revelation. The book begs for many more readings, as it’s too much to absorb in just one.

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