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A Book for Writers: "Aspects of the Novel," by E. M. Forster


I’m about to tell you to read the most useful book of essays I’ve ever read about fiction--a book that dates from 1927 and refers to works by such authors as Dostoyevsky, Melville, Thomas Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence. The good news: even if you haven’t read a single work by those authors, you’ll still find "Aspects of the Novel" engrossing, relevant, and helpful in your own work. I promise--whether you’re writing commercial sci-fi mysteries or literary character studies.

E. M. Forster, novelist and frequent beneficiary (or victim, depending on your point of view) of Merchant-Ivory film adaptations, gave a series of lectures at Cambridge in 1927, which were then published as "Aspects of the Novel." The book’s chapters are titled “The Story,” “People,” “The Plot,” “Fantasy,” “Prophecy,” and “Pattern and Rhythm.” That’s it. These are Forster’s topics, and he covers them in few words--the book totals only about 175 pages.

Can Forster, a novelist from another era, say anything you haven’t heard before, especially when he covers a subject as complex as story in a mere seventeen pages? I defy you to find a more concise explanation of the difference between story and plot than this:

“'The king died and then the queen died'” is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot."

Of course, Forster elaborates on his point, but that’s not a bad start, is it? Even if your fiction is loaded with story, it may be in need of plot, as Forster defines it. A lot of the unpublished fiction I read is loaded with story but in need of plot--even if that’s the case in only one scene or in only one paragraph. This book will help you understand how to change that. (Hint: it has a lot to do with the word why.)

You may look at the list of chapters and think, What the $%*# is prophecy? Two pages in, you’ll begin to understand. I can’t quite do it justice here, but it’s a quality Forster sees in the truly great novelists, and not in the truly good ones. It’s about creating characters who are both real and part of something greater than themselves. Our author makes no secret of his opinions on who fits into which category, but I’ll let you find those opinions out for yourself. Whether your favorites are his favorites isn’t the point, anyway. The point is that his insights can help you bring your own writing closer to that transcendent level.

Forster uses examples from wide-ranging works to make his points, from "War and Peace" and "Wuthering Heights" to--well, to some obscure novels from his own period that none of us have heard of or will hear of again. But it doesn’t matter: he provides the perfect examples from each book to bolster his arguments and explain his points. And he might just inspire you to go out and peruse a few classics: after finishing "Aspects of the Novel," I finally decided to read "War and Peace" (let’s just say he likes that one).

He begins the book by emphatically refusing to discuss fiction in chronological order, or within the context of “influences and schools,” stuff he considers “pseudo-scholarship.” Instead, he presents the following image:

"Time, all the way through, is to be our enemy. We are to visualize the . . . novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room . . . all writing their novels simultaneously."

Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall and hear the conversation in that room? And he further draws us into that room by providing a series of couplets: pairs of excerpts from (at first) unidentified novels, which he compares and then contrasts, perfectly illuminating the subtle but profound ways two writers can be both the same and different.

Forster begins with the most basic and necessary element, story, gradually takes us to the more esoteric and subjective topics of the fantastical and the prophetic in fiction, and rounds out his discussion back at the fundamentals: pattern and rhythm. His thoughts on each are opinionated, witty, and still very much relevant almost a century later. Which may help explain why Forster’s own novels are still so popular and relevant a century after their own publication.

Submitted by:

Lisa Silverman

Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York's most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded http://www.BeYourOwnEditor.com in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.





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