Newsletter

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,

Bill

HGBW #2: Creativity, Rhetoric, and Monkeys

Hi Everyone,

This week I want to talk about writing and learning: how we learn and how we could learn. 

Ancient teachers did not teach “literature” as a separate subject, but they taught storytelling as part of rhetoric—the art of persuasion. And they expected their students to learn to tell stories, not just analyze them. Many ancient, medieval, and renaissance students began their training in rhetoric by retelling stories such as Aesop’s fables. The original stories are short, often fewer than 100 words in total. A student might be asked to expand the text to five or ten times its length by adding dialogue, characterizing speakers, or even adding entire scenes, while remaining consistent with the original characters. 

Monkeys Deliberate: How the Greeks Taught Writing

Here’s an example from an ancient Greek teacher named Hermagones. He offers this short fable as a framework for young writers:

The monkeys in council deliberated on the necessity of settling in houses. When they had made up their minds to this end and were about to set to work, an old monkey restrained them, saying that they would more easily be captured if they were caught within enclosures

Then he shows how a student might expand the story. He starts with the first “plot point,” the proposal that the monkeys should build a city: 

The monkeys in council deliberated on the founding of a city; and one coming forward made a speech to the effect that they too must have a city. “For see,” said he, “how fortunate in this regard are men. Not only does each of them have a house, but all going up together to public meeting or theater delight their souls with all manner of things to see and hear.” 

A young writer would continue the scene, inventing arguments from the different monkeys and characterizing each of them. Maybe she would decide that one monkey plays on their fears. The monkey warns his fellows that without city walls they will always be at the mercy of humans. 

Another monkey might point out that many humans live in squalor and ask, “Why should we leave our beautiful homes among the trees?” A third could remind the monkeys that they always go hungry in winter. A city would allow them to stockpile fruits and nuts. 

Yet another speaker might address the monkeys’ pride. He could say that every great people has cities, and ask, “Why should humans lord it over all the other creatures? We should show that we’re just as good as they are.”

The only rule is that the story must include all the plot elements of the original. The monkeys must deliberate about founding a city, they must decide to do so, and then an old monkey must get up and convince them against building a city because they are safer without one. 

The original story implies that the old monkey is wise, but a clever writer might play with that, too. Maybe the old monkey has been the chief for a long time, and he speaks against the plan because he cannot understand the new world that he sees coming. Or maybe he is jealous of the young, ambitious monkey who wants to build the city. 

The only requirement was that the old monkey needs to win. Nothing says he needs to be right.

Structure Enhances Creativity

The exercise above is from an ancient course of studies called the progymnasmata, which includes many other tools for learning to tell stories. Teachers asked their students to take a long narrative and condense it—turning a story of, say, 2,000 words into one of 100. Try doing this sometime: it will force you to distinguish between the crucial points of the narrative and those that are less important. 

In another exercise, called “impersonation,” you would give a speech in the voice and manner of a particular person. Sometimes this was a figure from history or legend, but other times it was an ordinary person in a new circumstance. My favorite ancient assignment is an example of impersonation: students were told, “Deliver the speech that a farmer from inland Greece gives when, for the first time in his life, he sees the ocean.”

What do all these have in common? They are structured exercises in creativity. Each one gives you a framework within which you can create. Often, today, we think of rules and structure as opposed to creativity, but the ancient Greeks didn’t think that way at all—and neither did thinkers in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. They all saw that rules produced and enabled creativity.

If you’re looking for something to write this week, give one of these a shot. Take a story, identify its key elements, and write another story that shares them. Your story can be shorter or longer than the original; it can change the point of view or reassess the characters. But the key events of the story should be fixed. Maybe you’ll find—like I usually do—that following those rules makes your writing flow. 

Best wishes and happy creating,

Bill

HGBW #1: MFA Thinking, Movie Structure, and Reading Like a Novelist

Dear Friends,

Welcome to How Great Books WorkI started this newsletter because I want to figure out what classic novels, poems, and plays can teach us about writing. 

My name is Bill Gonch, and I’m a writer, a literature teacher, and a writing coach. But for years, I’ve struggled with writing. 

Writing well isn’t easy, but learning to write is harder than it needs to be. I think there’s a better way. 

If you want to write, you need to learn two quite different things: how language works, and how stories work. A lot of books, writing groups, and tools will teach you how to write. You can get an MFA in creative writing (I did, and learned a ton), you can study sentences carefully, and you can learn to trust your instinct for language. 

But often, people who can write prose that is clear, fun, and alive, struggle to answer the simplest questions about any story: what happens? How do you make your story live? 

Story Structure Today: What Film Can Teach Writers

Here, writers for film and TV have a language that writers for print (or for the internet) can use. Screenwriters talk about story structure like carpenters talk about wood. They study plot points, A-, B-, and C-stories, reversals, and other key elements that go into making a story—especially the kind of story that fits into a 120-minute film or an hourlong TV episode. That’s why you can find smart, thoughtful analyses of Indiana JonesAlien, or the pilot of Breaking Bad on podcasts and YouTube channels. 

Screenwriters have written some great books on story, but most of them teach you how to write the kinds of stories that make a good movie. A protagonist will begin with a problem and a flaw; she’ll be pushed, harder and harder, until she digs down, overcomes her flaw, and solves her problem. In the structure of their stories, Luke Skywalker has a lot in common with Elle Woods.

Learning Story from the Great Books

What about all the novels that are not set up like movies? A novel can delve into a character’s consciousness, like Henry James or Virginia Woolf does. It can render a story in dialect, like Huckleberry Finn or Beloved. It can modulate an entire story based on who tells it—James Joyce does this, but so does The Lord of the Rings. Writers deserve a vocabulary for stories with all the technical awareness of screenwriting, but written for people writing novels, stories, or memoirs. 

That’s what How Great Books Work is for. Every week, we will unpack an element of a great work of fiction, approaching it as a writer would. Our first series will be on Pride and Prejudice – starting with a post on why Jane Austen’s characters are always doing things. I also have a series on how to begin a story, with articles on openings by Charles Dickens and Frederick Douglass. There’s lot’s more to come. 

I’m writing about the great books, but whatever you like to read, or whatever you write, there’ll be something for you. Today, there’s less difference than ever between good genre writers and good writers of literary fiction. The Library of America has published mystery novels and science fiction; Umberto Eco wrote mysteries and David Mitchell writes fantasy. Essayists and historians use techniques pioneered by the great novelists. Personally, I’m a lifelong fantasy reader and fan; maybe you are working on a memoir, a thriller, or a work of creative nonfiction. If you have a creative project, I want to help you make it as fresh, original, and exciting as you can. I hope this newsletter will help. 

And if you’re not a writer? If you love books, or if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about literature, I hope you’ll find that reading HGBW gives you some new ideas about old books…and I hope you’ll have fun reading it, too!

If you have thoughts, questions, or suggestions, please email me at William.gonch@howgreatbookswork.com. I look forward to chatting with you – and please, forward this newsletter to your friends!

Best,

Bill

Scroll to Top