How Fiction Works, by James Wood

I have sometimes heard this book pronounced the only craft book that a fiction writer needs. Indeed, it has much to teach the writer. But it is even more valuable to the reader who wants to understand a bit more of what goes on behind the curtain: why some stories are more compelling than others, why some sentences bore you or take your breath away, why some characters seem as real as the person sitting across from you.

Have you ever wondered how in the world black letters on paper can make us feel as though we’ve lived through an intense experience? What makes us believe some characters are real and others are not? How do writers make us see what the character sees, feel fear when she is in danger and grief at her loss? Why do some books work and others don’t, and what do we mean by a book “working”.

Wood is a critic whose work I’ve enjoyed for years. The breadth of his reading is apparent in the number of diverse examples he gives to illustrate his ideas, using books ranging from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew.

He starts out talking about point of view:

So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking a speaking. A novelist’s omniscience soon enough becomes a kind of secret sharing; this is called ‘free indirect style,’ a term novelists have lots of different nicknames for–‘close third person,’ or ‘going into character.’

You can also see from this excerpt is what a joy it is to read his prose. Lucid yet intriguing. And it illustrates something he brings up later in the book: how a detail or a single word can open a space that excites a reader’s curiosity and interest, what Stephen Greenblatt called “strategic opacity” in Will in the World, his 2004 study of Shakespeare that I learned a lot from. Look at that phrase: ” narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character”. It is “bend” that is both surprising and so right; it is that image that draws us in.

Having long enjoyed James Wood’s reviews in the London Review of Books and the New York Times, I was thrilled to immerse myself in this book. And I’ve reread it several times, not to mention dipping into it when struggling with some writing task. The more I write and read fiction, the more value I find in this book.

He has chapters on creating characters and how to make their dialogue work. He talks about how to make these characters engage our sympathies and ways to move back and forth in time effectively. Most delightfully for me as a poet, he examines how the very sound of words and phrases can intensify meaning. And all with an extravagance of examples.

But this is less a craft book than it is an analysis of how to read fiction. Yes, it is useful for writers, but even more so for readers. If you want your book club’s discussions to go a little deeper than I liked/disliked the book, then give them this book. It will give you the language and ideas to explore what causes those reactions.

Are you in a book club? What book prompted your most interesting discussion?

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