Dickens is an author who can make you realise what reading is for.
Great Expectations was on the reading list for teenagers in their final year of school. I hadn’t confronted Dickens at university - Bleak House seemed so ponderous at the time - and I had somehow survived, but now there seemed to be little other choice on the list. I plunged into the novel, and was immediately captivated in the same way that one might be addicted to a drug: there was and is a richness to his writing, a confidence which pervades almost every page. One runs into an overdose of ‘coincidences’ as far as the plots go, but then after a while it’s possible to see that they aren’t coincidences at all, but that instead we have entered a vast and intricate dream made of words in which anything might happen.
It’s not really possible to de-construct Dickens into a finite series of tips for the up and coming hopeful writer of tomorrow, but there are some key elements worth noting nevertheless.
1. Planning works. But in moderation.
Dickens’ novels were published serially in British periodicals, monthly and weekly, sometimes over a twenty month period. That means that the last chapter is almost two years removed in some cases from the first. He had to make plans and follow them if he wasn’t going to lose his way. Dickens would note a proposed event in a few words, and then jot down next to it whether or not he felt it was right at that point. For example, in Little Dorrit we see the hand-written scribbles ‘Waiting Room? French Town? Family and two daughters?’ and on the other side of the page ‘Yes. No. Slightly. Not Yet’. Sometimes there’s a metaphor - ‘House like a bottle of smell. When the footman opens the door, he seems to take the stopper out’ - but really only the vaguest directions.
Sometimes Dickens changed the course of stories in response to his readers’ reactions to the latest episode. In that way, a Dickens novel is not quite what it seems to us as modern readers - we see the thing complete, when it was actually an evolution. Part of its success was that this method of writing enabled Dickens to tap into the readers’ expectations and likings much more closely than a modern author. Perhaps a loose equivalent today would be the television soap opera in which writers track with viewer responses and modify stories over months and years accordingly.
Conversely, detailed planning can work against the author, effectively compelling him to ‘write from the head’ and forget to track with reader responses.
2. Don’t give too much away.
Dickens was the master of mystery. Throughout Great Expectations, for example, we are led to believe that Pip’s benefactor is the sinister Miss Havisham. We don’t find out the great secret truth until the latter part of the novel, and upon it turns the whole tale both as a story and as a piece of meaning.
Mystery is incredibly powerful in maintaining reader interest, as described in How Stories Really Work. Gluing the reader to the page for up to two years, with cliffhanger instalments, was part of Dickens mastery of the craft of novel writing.
Not only novels: as we have seen earlier in this blog, Dickens’ short story ‘The Signalman’ is a small masterclass in not telling things as soon as they pop into your head as a writer. Hold back; introduce blocks and barriers; add time. The reader won’t go away - in fact, they will grip on tighter and read right until the end.
3. Use the past and the future.
Many authors make the mistake of telling a story in the present moment and forgetting that there is a fictive past and a pretend future available too. Not Dickens. He makes sure, using hints and suspense as above, that the reader is reminded of events that have happened or will happen, off-stage, as it were. Though we are only give a brief glimpse of it, we know that a titanic struggle has taken place between Compeyson and Magwitch in Great Expectations, the results of which have ramifications for everything else in the novel. And in ‘The Signalman’, foreshadowing is used so brilliantly that the chilling ending almost compels an immediate re-reading.
There’s a great deal more we could learn, readers. But in the best Dickens tradition, that will have to wait for another time…