In The Elements of Style, rule 12, William Strunk Jr. writes, “Choose a suitable design and hold to it ... Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.” Strunk goes on to say that “design” can refer to something as loosely structured as a personal letter or rigidly organized as a sonnet. The point is to know what we are trying to communicate and choose the appropriate organizing principle so we can write it effectively.
Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when it comes to fiction. Forget the order of the events you are portraying; in what order do you tell them? Some stories are told in strict chronological order. A mystery novel reveals, out of order, the bits and pieces of a story that is not put together until the end of the book. Some fiction tells a story in delicate stream of consciousness, weaving back and forth and around. Some books begin with a detailed prehistory of the main events; others dive right into the primary storyline. There are no rules. This makes fiction delightful to readers, but a nightmare for authors.
Several days ago, while reading Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, I was utterly charmed by the plotting of a particular scene—and Braddon accomplished it so unobtrusively that I’m surprised I noticed it at all.
It happened in the fourth chapter. Robert Audley is run into by a stranger who immediately recognizes him.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before, my bearded friend,” said Mr. Audley, calmly scrutinising the animated face of the other, “but I’ll be hanged if I can remember when or where.”
“What!” exclaimed the stranger, reproachfully, “you don’t mean to say that you’ve forgotten George Talboys?”
“No, I have not!” said Robert, with an emphasis by no means usual to him; and then hooking his arm into that of his friend, he led him into the shady court, saying with his old indifference, “and now, George, tell us all about it.”
George catches Robert up on his life over the past several years, and then the two go to the bank so George can conduct some business. What should they do now? Robert wants to get dinner somewhere, “and talk over those good old times when they were together at Eton.”
That last phrase takes my breath away, no exaggeration. Here’s why.
It shows rather than tells.
Braddon could easily have written, George and Robert knew each other from their Eton schooldays. Instead, she allows the information to emerge in the context of the characters’ discussion about when to get dinner. It is part of the story rather than about the story.
Writing fiction is a constant question of what to show and what to tell. Telling is better when showing would be forced, distracting, or extraneous. In this case, Mary Elizabeth Braddon strikes the perfect note.
Braddon writes what we need to know when we need to know it.
The author could have mentioned Eton any number of times leading up to this point. George has already told his history to another character, and a brief biography of Robert has been provided. If not at those points, Braddon could have introduced the Eton angle when Robert and George first encounter each other. George could have said, “You don’t mean to say that you’ve forgotten George Talboys from Eton?” Or Robert could have said, “George Talboys—from Eton!” instead of “No, I have not!”
But as much as the reader might want to know, from their very first words of recognition, how George and Robert are acquainted, Braddon understands that this detail is unnecessary right up to the moment when it becomes relevant to the friends’ conversation. It is clear from the way the men interact that they are old friends; that they were once schoolmates is secondary.
This contributes to the novel’s lovely pacing, which feels like a bird’s flight—swooping from one plot point to the next, landing briefly, then soaring again. The streamlined account of Robert and George’s meeting gets right to the point with no informational baggage. When Eton is finally mentioned, it is caught up in passing and adds no drag. The reader’s time is respected, not wasted.
The timing of the phrase immerses us in Robert and George’s friendship.
We discover, as the story goes on, that George and Robert have a deep affection for and trust in each other. They may have been separated for several years, but when they reunite unexpectedly, they have no need to go over old ground before picking up where they left off.
By leaving out how Robert and George know each other at the very beginning of the scene, and mentioning Eton casually, in passing, at the end, Braddon simulates the emotional experience of the relationship. The reader is plunged into the enduring intimacy of a friendship that needs no explanation for existing.
I doubt Mary Elizabeth Braddon was thinking about all this when she wrote her novel. I suspect she was just trying to write a good story without many frills. The perfectly placed phrase about Eton was a happy accident.
Likewise, the point of this blog entry is to give you some principles for organizing your own fiction writing, not bog you down in details.
Focus on the writing principles you already know but frequently want to ignore—like show, don’t tell and make every word count—and you will gain insight into how your story should be organized.