Tyler 's Reviews > How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works by James    Wood
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Oct 15, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended to Tyler by: Various Reviews
Recommended for: Any Fiction Reader
Read in August, 2009

Once it came out in paperback I didn’t wait to buy this book. This writer does what the title suggests – he tells his readers how to direct attention when reading fiction.

Many topics are covered: narration, detail, character, language and dialog, to name a few. Dozens of books are cited for the effective employment of particular strategies, so a side benefit is an armful of new reading ideas.

Wood traces the origin of fiction. In ancient texts we find characters such as Kind David who simply speak and act. They have no minds, as it were. Later, plays like Hamlet glimpse into a character’s interior using soliloquy. But then, perhaps in reaction to the certitude of the edifying tales printed in the 17th century, the modern novel evolved.

With it emerged relativity – characters who change, in whom good and evil struggle, and by whose thoughts and quoted speech they perhaps wish to become known. Characterization has achieved life. Jane Austen’s protagonists, for instance, stand out because they, among all her characters, possess this "secret of consciousness."

Technique emerges. Quoted speech soon gives way to indirect speech, which is sometimes refined into unidentified indirect speech, a kind of stand-in for a Greek chorus. Modern readers have gained intimate access to the minds of characters. And to show what a character is thinking, Wood reminds us, is the power that distinguishes fiction from all other arts.

Readers see what makes for good or bad prose. The author notes the effectiveness of leaving open the question, when it comes to detail, of who is doing the noticing, the character or the author. He discusses the need, in dialog, to avoid explanation. He stresses the need to attain internal plausibility even at the expense of realism. We read about the use of appropriate diction. We hear about transparent characters and opaque ones. We find out about the use of the passive voice, the proper use of flat or dynamic detail, and the use of effective metaphor.

Understanding fiction is interesting and useful. Wood's own writing is as good as much of what he cites, and he doesn't dwell pedantically on particular topics. Who wouldn’t want to find out more? Here we have a commendable book for any fiction reader
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Bruce Nice review, Tyler. I, too, found this book helpful and enjoyable to read.


Tyler Thanks, Bruce. I got a lot out of reading it. And you're right -- the book is noticeably enjoyable, and the author has an easy, engaging style.


message 3: by Newengland (new)

Newengland I wonder how this compares to HOW TO READ NOVELS LIKE A PROFESSOR by Thos. Foster. I've considered both of them, but have yet to pull the trigger.


Tyler This is one of three books concerning fiction that have come out in the past couple of years. It would be interesting to see how the other books take up the subject.

I see that Bruce has just finished Aspects of the Novel, by Forster. It is frequently referenced in How Fiction Works.



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