Jane Austen

HGBW #3: Pride and Prejudice and Story Structure

Starting this week, we’re taking a deep dive into the writing choices and techniques that make Pride and Prejudice a great novel. (If you haven’t read it already, check out this post on how Jane Austen makes her characters lively through density of action). Let’s start by asking, what kind of story is Pride and Prejudice? And, what elements do you need to write that kind of story?

The Elements of Romance

The answer to the first question is straightforward: Pride and Prejudice is a romance. We know this because its central dramatic question is, “Whom will Lizzie Bennet marry?” Many stories contain a romance subplot, but in a true romance, the protagonist’s search for a relationship drives the action and the protagonist’s growth as a character.

In a romance, the protagonist begins with a flaw and needs to overcome it to end up with the right person. Usually, the suitor needs to grow and change, too. Film romances typically foreground one suitor and show us how the protagonist comes together with that person. The relationship prompts both people to develop until they become better versions of themselves—versions that are suited to be with their partner. There’s conflict and give-and-take as each partner comes to understand the other. This is why, in terms of story structure, a rom-com is almost identical to a buddy-cop movie. Both tell stories of two people who seem poorly matched but discover that each has something the other needs.

(Structurally, one of the great rom-coms of the ’90s. Image credit: Wikipedia)

Romance is the structure of many great novels, including Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady, The Tale of Genji, and Middlemarch. It also flourishes in film, TV, and popular fiction. Certain elements occur in nearly every romance, from The Divine Comedy to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Here are some of the main elements that we need:

  1. A protagonist.
  2. The protagonist’s flaw. A good way of identifying the protagonist’s flaw is to ask, “What habit or characteristic is preventing our hero from being with the love interest?”
  3. The protagonist’s world and its rules. This includes the protagonist’s social order (e.g. Regency England, with its gender roles) as well as the characters in her community, work, family, and other parts of life. To some degree, she has been able to make her way in this world. The world has certain rules, and she is able to follow them and get by. In other words, her world has allowed her to get away with her flaw.
  4. An instability in her world. Something needs to push the protagonist out of the life she is living when the story begins. The instability can be internal (she’s unhappy) or it can be external (she loses a job she thought she loved). But something needs to drive her to step, irrevocably, beyond her boundaries.
  5. Suitors. In a romance, the protagonist’s interactions with suitors drive the action forward. Suitors offer different lives that the protagonist could live. They represent possibilities.

Now, how do these elements work in Pride and Prejudice?

The Protagonist

Lizzie Bennet. Lizzie is smart, capable, observant, and funny. She has a keen read on the people around her. She is kind and goodhearted, sometimes dramatically so (she walks three miles through the mud after a storm to take care of her sister while everyone else worries about getting dirt on their clothes). Her mother and younger sisters irritate her, but if someone outside her family judges them, she leaps to her family’s defense. And because she is so clever, she does not suffer fools lightly.

The Protagonist’s Flaw

As for many people, Lizzie’s faults are the flip side of her strengths. She is smart and strong-willed, so she makes snap judgments. She believes her judgments to be sound because, often, they are sound. Her keen powers of observation lead her to understand people quickly…and to judge them equally quickly. Eventually we see that Lizzie’s assessment of people is not as reliable as it first seemed. Sometimes, she wildly misjudges people. She needs to learn to look deeper, to see that things are not always as they seem.

The Protagonist’s World and Rules

Lizzie lives with her family, and each member has a clearly defined role. Lizzie adores her father, who is witty and affectionate toward her but sarcastic toward his wife. Her older sister Jane is warm, kind, and loving. Her youngest two sisters are young, silly, and boy-crazy, and her mother is obsessed with marrying off the girls. In this world, Lizzie’s mother will try to marry off the girls; the younger girls will go along with it. Lizzie will sit with her father making fun of it all. Nice work if you can get it.

Of course, Lizzie’s world also includes the expectations of Regency England. Her world offers no jobs to middle-class women; the girls must marry or face a life of poverty. In this world, a “good” match is one in which the husband is financially secure and socially prominent.

The instability

Lizzie’s father’s inheritance is entailed, so when he dies his house and all his money will pass to a male cousin. Lizzie enjoys life with her family and she is reasonably happy, but a time will come (no one knows when) when the women will be forced out of their home. If she wants a stable life, she will need to marry.

Suitors are Symbols

Let’s think in terms of story structure about how a suitor functions in a romance. We’ve already seen that suitors drive the action forward. By pushing the protagonist, a suitor catalyzes the protagonist’s growth. But they do something else, too. They are symbols.

A suitor represents a specific way in which the protagonist might to grow, as well as representing a vision of fulness or happiness. The nature of character growth determines what story we’re reading: Lizzie Bennet learns not to judge people so quickly, while Pam Beasley in The Office learns to stand up for herself.

Here’s the difference between a classic novel like Pride and Prejudice and a great film romance. A film usually focuses on the relationship between the protagonist and one suitor. Sometimes there is a second, “wrong” suitor (often the protagonist’s current partner), but that character usually has a minor role because a two-hour film rarely has time to depict multiple suitors. With at most two suitors, a film generally stages a straightforward competition between two sets of values, one right and the other wrong.

But a novel can be more complex. In a great novel like Pride and Prejudice, several suitors compete for the protagonist’s hand and each one symbolizes a different set of values. The novel stages a conflict among several accounts of what it would mean for this person, the protagonist, to be happy. The protagonist flirts, literally, with different ways in which her life could go.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at Lizzie’s suitors and their roles in the story. For now, here’s a question to think about: How many suitors does Lizzie have? The obvious answer is three. But from the point of view of story structure, she has four. We’ll talk about them next week,

Happy writing,


HGBW #3: Pride and Prejudice and Story Structure Read More »

Why Are Jane Austen’s Characters so Alive?

Quick-witted and sharp-tongued Lizzie Bennet sticks in your mind. So does her gentle older sister Jane; dark and reserved Mr. Darcy; as well as many other Austen protagonists. Her minor characters might be even more memorable—no one forgets Mr. Collins. 

At least as impressive is her ability to handle so many characters. In Chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice, eleven significant characters are on stage: all seven Bennets, Mr. Bingley, his sister Catherine, Mr. Darcy, and Charlotte Lucas. The chapter is less than 2,000 words long – the length of a longish blog post. Look through your favorite books and you won’t find many scenes with so many characters. And yet every one of those characters is vividHow? 

Austen manages her enormous cast, and characterizes them colorfully, with two techniques: 

  1. She drives a fast-moving plot forward through significant action by her characters. Austen’s chapters are short, each one contains multiple twists—and a person causes every one of those twists. Almost nothing happens to characters in an Austen novel; characters’ choices, good and bad, advance the plot. Every action has consequences.
  2. Even the smallest action characterizes the person who performs it. A silly character in Austen, for example, will not just say silly things. Sooner or later she will do something silly that makes everyone else scramble to catch up.     

Important Choices Everywhere

In Chapter Seven the story opens on Lydia and Kitty, the youngest Bennet sisters, who make daily visits to the local village to search out gossip about local officers. As they hear more, they lose interest in their previous obsession, the newly-arrived Mr. Bingley and his interest in Jane:  

“They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.”

(Read it all)

The girls return home, their father declares them “two of the silliest girls in the country,” and their parents bicker over whether the girls are airheaded or merely young. They are interrupted when a letter arrives from Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline, inviting Jane to visit Netherfield, and Mrs. Bennet concocts a plot. She notices that the weather looks foul and they expect rain, so Jane should take the family’s covered carriage to Netherfield—but instead, Mrs. Bennet insists that she ride. If it rains, Mrs. Bennet reasons, Jane will be “forced” to stay overnight and have more time to spend with Mr. Bingley. Lizzie, Jane, and Mr. Bennet all object that her plan is crazy, but she insists on having her way and “attend[s Jane] to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day.”

The rain, however, doesn’t wait for Jane to reach Netherfield, but opens up while she is on her way. Jane gets soaked, catches a cold, and writes to tell Elizabeth that she is staying overnight at Netherfield. As a result, Lizzie walks three miles to Netherfield to visit Jane. Her mother complains that Elizabeth will get muddy and make a bad impression on the Bingleys. But Lizzie says that she’s only going to support Jane and it won’t matter how she looks. In fact, Mr. Bingley’s sisters do judge Lizzie for coming all that way on foot and looking muddy. But Mr. Bingley acts the perfect host, and the Bingleys invite Elizabeth to stay with them until Jane recovers.  

Austen dramatizes all this—along with her characteristic commentary, brimming with sarcasm, psychological insight, and wit—in fewer than 2,000 words. 

This chapter—like every chapter—is packed thick with decisions. Every few paragraphs, a character makes a choice that sets the action in a new direction…even if it is just Mr. Bennet making a sarcastic comment that upsets his wife. Because he makes that comment, she is on fire to advance her daughters’ marital prospects when Caroline Bingley’s letter arrives.

You Know Them By Their Actions

In an Austen novel, even the smallest actions express a character’s personality. Mrs. Bennet’s plan to ensure that Jane stay’s overnight is…well…very Mrs. Bennet. It’s silly, bold, ridiculous, rude, and entirely successful at throwing her daughter in the path of a rich young man. Her plot embodies everything we know about her…but it goes farther than we’ve seen her go up until this point. Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet can see that the plan is tawdry and silly. But instead of stopping it, he would rather be snarky. 

When Jane gets sick and Lizzie insists on visiting, her decision is…well…very Lizzie: kind, compassionate, decisive, headstrong, indifferent to what anyone thinks. She does not care that she will arrive covered in mud or that Mr. Bingley’s rich sisters will judge her.

Austen even uses something as simple as the youngest sisters’ decision to visit town to characterize them. We learn that Kitty and Lydia frequently walk down to Meryton to visit the milliner (where they buy new clothes) and to listen to the town gossip, because they are easily bored. Jane and Lizzie are able to entertain themselves at home, or wherever they happen to be, through conversation and observation. 

Even more impressively, Austen accomplishes the vividness of her characters without many of the tools that later writers use. Think about what is not in Austen’s writing. There is little sensory description: a woman might be called “handsome,” but we rarely learn what she looks like. We don’t know much about the layout of Lizzie’s boudoir or the Bennet family library. Because Austen is so sparing in physical description, she does not have access to the symbolic resonances that later writers will give to places and objects. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s green light or John Steinbeck’s turtle on the roadside require more sensory detail than Austen ever uses. And while Austen’s psychological insight is the equal of anyone’s, she uses her insight sparingly. Pride and Prejudice offers no long passages that dive into a character’s consciousness in the manner of George Eliot, Dostoevsky, or many later writers. 

Austen shows us many characters’ thoughts, but she quickly resolves those thoughts into action. In many writers’ hands, such density of action would lead to thin characters and a plot-driven story. But Austen achieves psychologically profound and memorable characters because those characters’ actions always express their inner natures. Actions—large and small, but always tightly woven into the plot—are the way that we come to know Austen’s characters.

Why Are Jane Austen’s Characters so Alive? Read More »

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