In my novel-writing classes, I ask students to bring in a novel they’ve read and enjoyed. If I don’t add, “Please bring one in that’s less than a decade old,” they often bring in literary classics. A lot of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and dear Jane Austen finds the spotlight. When I ask students to read the first lines of their chosen novel, the class marvels at how much briefer and to the point contemporary novels are compared to these classics. What’s going on?
Writing Tip for Today: Why can’t we write in the same kinds of styles as the masters of old?
The World in 140 Characters
Simply put, modern readers demand quick action and intimate relationships with characters. Social media such as Twitter puts the squeeze on even long forms such as novels, until readers often want writers to get to the point without much set-up. If you subject readers to long-winded openings, narratives or (horrors!) flashbacks, readers today often grow impatient. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, contains chapters of commentary on tiny Maycomb. The narrator, Scout, seems to wander all over as she’s showing us what her world is like. Yet a careful reading reveals Lee’s expert method of stringing us along: between the lines, a palpable tension builds around the haves and have-nots, the accepted and the outcast and of course the mystery surrounding Boo Radley. Lee touches back on the metaphorical center of the story often enough that readers are never lost or abandoned. In your novel, description and narrative must always serve the central story.
A Global Society
Another reason readers demand faster and faster stories is that we now live in a global society. Even if you’ve never been to Paris you know what the Eiffel Tower looks like. In Jane Austen’s day,readers often were born, lived and died within a twenty-mile radius. Globetrotting wasn’t common and average folks were eager to learn all they could about faraway locations. Writers such as Austen could write more leisurely about setting and character, because life in general was slower. Today, readers want writers to sketch characters fairly quickly, leaving out lengthy passages about the flora and fauna of the location unless it’s vital to the story.
The novel masters of the 19th and 20th centuries would seem to have an advantage–it may seem as if they could go on and on about settings or descriptions or flashbacks. Yet closer examination reveals that lasting literary works are built upon mastery of language as well as irresistible storytelling skills. The classics brim with unique and larger-than-life characters who sort out their troubles in daring and attractive ways. These authors rose above others of their times by writing compelling stories about unforgettable characters, so much so that even a slower pace still grabs and keeps modern readers. Study these masters, reread the classics now and then and try your own ideas. You may end up condensing or eliminating that beautiful passage of landscape description, but emulating the masters may help you add richness to your writing. I encourage you to find a classic and dive in.