My paperback copy of ‘Aspects of the Novel’ describes it as ‘the timeless classic on novel writing.’ But the book is not a writing manual. It contains no advice to writers, nor exercises, charts, diagrams or other schematic tools. It is, instead, a very erudite – and accessible – analysis of what novels do, how they work, and thus is useful to writers only as a kind of reverse-engineering text. He makes finely explicit what is implicit in a good novel or other long-form narrative. It’s up to writers to figure out how to achieve those effects in their own work.
So, what lessons can we extract from it, however indirectly? I am not going to reiterate all of Forster’s points in detail, as you can find good summaries of that sort elsewhere on the web. (Here’s one.) What I have done is prepare the infographic below, which lays out my own – doubtless idiosyncratic – interpretation of some of the implications of Forster’s analysis.
Forster discusses seven different ‘aspects’ of the novel: Story, People (i.e. Characters), Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern and Rhythm. The numbers on my chart are for reference only and correspond to the chapters of his book that deal with each topic. Anything unnumbered is my own add-on, sometimes drawn from people like John Gardner, Robert McKee, Stephen King, and others.
It is important to note that Forster does not arrange these aspects in a hierarchy as I do. His goal is to map out the wide terrain of the novel – all novels, from the broadly popular to the most inscrutable and academic (‘Finnegans Wake’ anyone?) – without prejudice. Thus, I have tried to organize his ‘aspects’ into a hierarchy that reflects where novels (or other long narratives, such as films) tend to hit their stride in terms of popular appeal (the y axis) before they slip over into the more insular, abstract, Art for Art’s Sake approaches to storytelling that, while critically successful (the x axis), tend to alienate larger audiences.
But, again, the chart is rife with my own biases and idiosyncratic judgements, so take that for what it is worth.
NOVICE PROBLEMS / BASELINE COMPETENCIES
Because Forster is not writing for writers necessarily, he takes common problems and basic writing competencies for granted. Other writers, like John Gardner (‘The Art of Writing Fiction’ – see his section on ‘Common Errors’) and Stephen King (‘On Writing’), have useful and practical things to say about mastering grammar and the basics of character, dialogue, setting, description, etc. What they both take for granted is that a writer has to – and can – do this work on his/her own, and relatively quickly, with the aid of some good guidebooks.
The real work of crafting fiction, screenplays or other long narratives begins after these basics are in place.
Once you’ve got a command of grammar, dialogue and setting, you need to tell a story that is interesting and, hopefully, means something – though arguably this is optional(!). But of course the word ‘story’ is so familiar, so taken for granted, that we should be precise about what we mean by it.
As Forster defines it, the ‘story’ is what happens in a narrative work, whereas the ‘plot’ is what the sum of these story events means. "The story appeals to our curiosity"—what happens next?—"whereas the plot appeals to our intelligence"—what does it mean? (p. 150) You could, of course, reverse the terms and the distinction would be just as useful. A ‘story’ is not just a string of interesting things happening to some interesting people. But it is AT LEAST that.
As a thought experiment, let's try to think about what a story without meaning (that is, without a plot) might look like. Can a story succeed without having any clear meaning? Arguably it can.
The other day I finally got around (35 years late!) to watching ‘The World According to Garp’, a film my brother came home raving about when he was about 11 because of the famous driveway sex scene that ends in a kind of absurd tragedy. Now, I haven’t read the book, and maybe it makes its meaning more clear, but while the film is very colourful, full of wild characters and incredible events, it left me feeling – in the end – baffled as to what it was supposed to be about.
Is it the coming of age story of a writer? Is it a satire of feminism and gender? Is it a meditation on love and marital fidelity? Is it a paean to the joys and sorrows of family life? Is it an absurdist comedy about how life has no discernible meaning, that it’s just a series of some fortunate and some unfortunate events? It could be any or all of these, but I finished the film thinking… “Well, that was certainly interesting, but I have no idea what it means.”
The protagonist, T.S. Garp (Robin Williams), wants to be a pilot, like the father he never met, but makes no effort to become one. Instead, a plane flies into his new home out of the blue, but it amounts to little more than a sight gag, an opportunity for Garp to make a joke, and then it is never referenced again! (In another film, an event like this, tightly tied into the desires, motives and actions of the protagonist, might be the climax of the story.) At the end, Garp is in a medevac helicopter, shot three times and presumably near death, and says to his wife, “I’m flying” (i.e. ‘I’ve finally achieved my dream’). But purely by accident, not through any effort of his own.
So what meaning can this random event have? The story is full of momentous events like these that have no clear meaning because there is no causal mechanism linking the character’s actions to the events and their outcomes. They are, essentially, random.
It’s also ostensibly a comedy but it somehow manages to cram into the last act the death of a child and two assassination attempts (one successful; the other, we’re not sure). This presents rhythmic problems, among others, as repetition tends to produce comic effects, intended or otherwise.
Tonally, I have no idea how I am supposed to react to most of these developments. Are they elements of a tragedy or a farce? The characters/performances don’t help us much to sort this out. We see very little mourning for the lost child or the impact of his death. The child’s sibling, who appears to have lost an eye in the same accident, betrays no sorrow about the death of his younger brother. Again, these may be ‘flaws’ of the film, not the novel on which it is based. But it’s a very odd story – interesting, but odd.
Nonetheless, it was a wildly successful novel and a critically acclaimed film. So, whatever you are writing, it needs AT LEAST a string of interesting things happening to interesting people, even if the meaning of these events is unclear, and the characters and their loopy lives resemble nothing like the people and lives you know or recognize from your own real life.
This is why I have ranked ‘the Story’ – defined, again, as just what happens – as the lowest element in the hierarchy of what combines to make a truly compelling work of narrative art.
Which is probably a good place to pick up with fantasy. I’ve put these two together because they both strike me as a bit like icing on a cake. You can have a very good novel written in very simple, solid, unadorned prose. Similarly, you can have a very fine novel with no fantastical elements in it at all. However, people do enjoy fantasy – it is a perennially popular genre, and tends to be more forgiving than realistic, literary fiction in terms of fully formed, plausible characters or realistic motivations.
Lyricism – the poetic aspect of prose – is also welcomed by most readers, within reason, but not absolutely necessary. The point is that both can be skipped over by genre writers who want to go straight to the gripping plot, or layered on top of a compelling plot by more literary authors. For that reason, 'Fantasy, Lyricism' occupy two possible positions on my chart, one more popular, one more literary.
When you read a lyrical passage, like—
“He wants only her stalking beauty, her theatre of expressions. He wants the minute and secret reflection between them, the depth of field minimal, their foreignness intimate like two pages of a closed book” (Ondaatje, ‘The English Patient’)
—you get the agreeable sensation that, ‘Oh, I am reading LITERATURE.’ When you read simple solid sentences like, “On our left were the shops, their windows lighted, and the entrance to the galleria” (from Hemmingway’s ‘A Farewell To Arms’) or a relatively abstract one like, “Progress had always been made, but the nature of the progress could never be divulged” (from Kafka’s ‘The Trial’) you still know you are in storyland, but things proceed more straightforwardly. You have to do more of the painting, rather than relying on the author with his beautiful, poetic words. For some, it can be a dull experience. For others, all that lyricism is a distraction, like looking through an overdressed window when all you want is to get a clear view of what’s outside.
Fantasy, of course, need not mean unicorns and dragons. A fantastical, supernatural or dream-like element even in otherwise realistic stories can produce wonderfully engaging effects. (See the entire careers of certain magic-realist authors like Allende and Garcia Marquez.) Indeed, there’s the theory – propagated by Harold Bloom, for what it is worth – that all truly great works contain a fundamental strangeness that we can never fully assimilate. No matter how often we read or see ‘King Lear’ performed, for example, we are stuck again by how deeply bizarre it is. We never fully absorb it; instead, it absorbs us. So that element of the fantastic, the irrational, the dream-like is one way that strangeness can seep into a work and make it great.
A recent work that, while basically realistic, contains fantastical elements of such a wonderfully bizarre quality that I believe it has a claim to being a great work of art is the Maren Ade film ‘Toni Erdmann’, soon to be destroyed by a U.S. remake. It left me thinking that any great work of art must approach heaven while containing a touch of hell, and ‘Toni Erdmann’ most certainly does that.
PATTERN & RHYTHM
Stories, like music, have a rhythmic structure. They proceed through beats (moments of special emphasis), contain refrains, motifs, and move toward crescendos (climaxes) and resolutions. But, again, since Forster’s book is not a writing manual, he confines himself to discussing the various patterns and rhythms he detects in certain works of fiction. It’s up to each author to decide what patterns and rhythms will serve the story he or she is trying to tell.
Pattern, of course, refers to things like repetition of images, symbols, phrases, similar scenes or moments within a story. There is no precise formula for how often to repeat a symbol, but one rule of thumb is that it should rise just barely into our consciousness, but not become obvious or overt (McKee, ‘Story’, p. 402).
Rhythm refers to things like the length of scenes, the pace and intensity of the storytelling, and the alternation of emotional charges. Robert McKee cautions us that we have to be careful about putting 3 sad scenes back to back, as the emotional charge will diminish with each repetition, and potentially become comic.
We also need to vary the length of scenes, sometimes moving swiftly over long periods of narrative time (as in a montage), or slowing down to observe a small but significant moment closely and in great detail, as in a close-up or slow motion shot.
Imagine reading a book in which every scene, no matter how major or minor, was exactly 10 pages long, over and over again. It would be agonizingly monotonous. The story would not build up the necessary speed or momentum.
Or, imagine if all the major scenes were 2 pages long, and all the minor scenes were 15 pages long. This would frustrate us to no end, as the author would have failed to give the story elements their appropriate weight. But these are not hard and fast rules, merely guidelines. Sometimes, a highly significant scene has the greatest impact for being short, swift and brutal in its impact.
Generally speaking, as the tension rises, the scenes should become shorter and more intense, building toward the climax. This is certainly how it works in most genre fiction. Literary authors might work harder to disguise this strategy, to hide the bones of the story as it were, but a rhythmic strategy of this kind or some other is necessary to bring the reader to the peak of emotional agitation before the release of the climax and denouement.
We can think of lots of interesting examples of unique rhythmic strategies, like the repetitions of scenes and doubling back of the plot of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22’. Or the apparently random assortment of scenes in Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’, achieved, supposedly, by throwing the manuscript in the air and just gathering up the pages as they fell. One of the most interesting recent experiments with rhythm and form is ‘The Illuminaries’ by Booker-prize winning author Eleanor Catton. She chooses a fractal-like story structure in which each of its 12 sections is half as long as the one that precedes it, the novel slowly narrowing down “to mimic the moon waning through its lunar cycle” (Justine Jordan, The Guardian.)
Only readers – and aspiring writers – can decide if these strategies work for them, and if they offer useful approaches to take in one’s own work.
Forster calls them ‘people’, but of course what we are talking about is characters. There is often a distinction made between character-driven and plot-driven stories. The value of this distinction is higher for action-oriented genre fiction (mysteries, adventure) where the main character does not change fundamentally over the course of the narrative. But in most other forms of storytelling, this distinction between plot and character is not really meaningful, because it suggests that they can somehow be separated – that you could tell more or less the same story with a different cast of characters, which is absurd. The best plots flow directly and deeply out of the desires, strengths, weaknesses, virtues and vices of the characters.
Forster’s most useful take-home point about character is that there are two kinds, Round and Flat. Flat characters are the sort of unchanging background players that fill out the cast in a book, play or film. They tend to behave predictably, the same way each time we see them, which can seem mechanical, and thus funny, and they don’t need to change over the course of the story. For obvious reasons, they cannot be the main characters.
These are contrasted with Round Characters, who are capable of surprising us in a way that feels right. These are the stars of any story – the protagonists (and antagonists); the ones we care about most; the one’s whose adventures, successes, failures and tragedies make reading or watching a story so compelling.
In order to surprise us, they need to have depth, contradictions, dimensions, conflicting desires and drives, different facets as brought out by their relationships with other characters. Robert McKee compares the protagonist to the sun, and the other characters as the system of planets rotating around him or her, each reflecting a different aspect of his/her personality.
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: PLOT + CHARACTER
Let’s imagine you are writing a longer narrative work (could be a novel, a screenplay, etc.). You have a Main Character, maybe 3 Major Characters (romantic partner, parent, boss, rival, etc.) and, say, 6 Minor Characters (friends, coworkers, relatives, neighbours, exes, etc.), as well as a number of tertiary characters (who we won’t worry about).
Look at your cast of 10 Main, Major and Minor characters. A good test of whether your plot is tightly constructed is to do this thought experiment: for each potential pairing of these characters (the boss with the romantic partner, the neighbour with the rival, etc.) can you imagine a scene in which these two seemingly unrelated characters have something important to do with each other, a scene which is crucial or relevant to your plot? If so, then your plot is tight – all the parts fit together, and nothing is wasted.
Look at a screenplay like Tony Gilroy’s ‘Michael Clayton’. Every character feels like a real human being; none of them feel like mere devices. They all have backstories, dimensions, desires, no matter how minor. (They also reflect on the main character, Michael, in different ways, bringing out the different positive and negative aspects of his character.) And these characters come together in surprising combinations that feel right. In short, they are Round Characters. We can’t always predict what they will do, but when they act unpredictably, it feels natural or appropriate to the character. It persuades us; it feels right.
Take the late-night phone call between Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) and Henry Clayton (Austin Williams), Michael Clayton’s son. It’s a very odd scene, and doubtless makes many viewers uncomfortable at first because of our justified fears about children interacting with strangers. And yet, children and the mentally ill (Edens is manic depressive) can and do sometimes communicate in a way that bypasses normal adult-child communication. The scene works, and is crucial to the plot, because it introduces Arthur to the book (and themes) of ‘Realm & Conquest’ – a book/video game within the world of the film that plays a significant role in the resolution, for Michael Clayton and the ‘evil’ corporation U-North he is working to expose.
From a screenwriting standpoint, this scene jumped out at me when I first saw it because I thought (a) it would never have occurred to me to have these two wildly disparate, seemingly disconnected characters interact, and yet (b) it feels absolutely right, and (c) it is crucial to the story. That’s a hallmark of very tight plotting, very economical, lean storytelling where nothing is wasted, and every character has the potential for a relevant interaction with every other.
Each writer will have his or her own tastes as to how watertight they want their plot to be. I have mixed feelings about it myself. In general, I admire works like Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’ for being so tightly woven that every element of the story, even many of the minor characters, tie into the plot – in terms of action or theme – in a way that makes the whole thing feel like a brilliant puzzle. At other times, though, I want fiction to be more ‘real’, which is to say, messy, ragged, not so neatly constructed.
In ‘The Corrections’, the title echoes through the book with 3 or 4 different meanings (corrections to a screenplay manuscript; market corrections; systems of crime & punishment; psychiatric drugs that correct the balance of our neurotransmitters); the child Jonah is reading the Narnia books with their Christ-like lion character Aslan, and the drug Gary and Denise are trying to buy for their father (and that Chip is taking as a party drug) is called ‘Aslan’; the co-worker Denise sleeps with as a teen while working at her dad’s office plays a role in the final unfolding of the plot 15+ years later; Alfred Lambert’s research as a hobbyist leads to the drug discovery that might help cure him of his Alzheimer’s.
And yet the novel still feels realistic – if heightened – and moves and breathes like real life. Still, we might feel it is a bit too perfect, that real life seldom lines up in the ways that this story does, and thus, we cannot help but see it as a story – that is, a fiction – when what we want is something closer to the raggedness of real life. But that’s a matter of taste, and the novel works spectacularly well. It hits that sweet spot of popular and critical success that represents the apex of my chart, (5) The Plot, which should be understood to include all that comes before it (i.e. fully round characters, pattern & rhythm, solid prose, perhaps a hint of fantasy or lyricism, maybe a strangeness that we can never fully assimilate).
Whatever your taste may be, aspiring to that kind of ‘watertightness’ in your story – every character and every part feeding into or connecting with every other – is a goal worth striving for because the tighter your plot is, the better able you will be to see what is necessary and what is superfluous. (And, at this point, we should understand as implicit in ‘plot’ the sum of the web of character relationships, not just some abstract story disconnected from the characters it involves.) If your story is merely observational, not driven by the needs, desires, wants or ambitions of your characters and how they support, conflict with or frustrate each other, then it can potentially include anything, and before you know it you have an 800-page book about… what? Not even you are sure. Just some interesting things happening to interesting people. Sometimes that’s enough. But most readers will give up long before page 800 if they are not being drawn along by purpose-driven characters approaching success or disaster in their ambitions for themselves.
Which brings us at last to the prophetic aspect of great fiction, which I locate squarely on the critically acclaimed but less popular side of my chart, because prophecy is difficult, sometimes inaccessible. Forster defines prophecy as a "tone of voice." In our more secular age, Forster identifies Herman Melville (‘Moby Dick’) and D.H. Lawrence as modern examples of great prophetic writers, but of course it extends backward to include Dostoyevsky, Milton, Dante, the authors of the Bible, the Koran, and all the great religious texts of the past. We might want to include modern masters of science- and speculative fiction, like Orwell or Asimov or Atwood – people who see and describe possible and frighteningly plausible futures before the rest of us can.
To write prophetically is obviously not something you can train yourself to do. It is a gift above and beyond the talent to express profound thoughts beautifully. Prophets are, arguably, born, not made. For our purposes, here, however, your work need not have a prophetic aspect to be aesthetically successful.
Of the last element on my chart, Art for Art’s Sake, we need only point out (as others have done, notably John Ralston Saul in his excellent ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’) that certain experiments in high modernism – Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegans Wake’, some of Woolf, perhaps Proust, or Malcolm Lowry’s ‘Under the Volcano’ – went so far in the direction of turning narrative art into a highly abstract form of free-form poetry that it lost a popular audience completely, for essentially severing them from the story that is the spine of any novel accessible to something like a general reading audience.
Forster delivered the lectures that became ‘Aspects of the Novel’ in 1927. As long ago as that seems, his insights have not faded in their value, and – just as we are – he was focused on the future. What would become of the novel? He thought it depended on whether you asked the novelist (or the critic) when he or she is “fat and prosperous” or “depressed and […] sentimental” (p. 172, 173). In either case, it depends on whether he or she sees the basic facts of life that we confront as immutable or subject to change over time. “If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way” (p. 172).
Of those who are searching for new ways to be human, he says, “Every institution and vested interest is against this search: organized religion, the state, the family in its economic aspect. [But] that way lies movement and even combustion for the novel, and if the novelist sees himself differently, he [or she] will see his [or her] characters differently and a new system of lighting will result” (p. 173). Hopefully this post has helped you, in your writing process, to throw a few of those switches on.