Fiction Writing Lessons from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

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From crafting fantastic villains to incorporating silence as dialogue, Jane Austen was master of many a literary device. Her Pride and Prejudice is so belovedly well-written that in the more than 200 years since its initial publication, the novel has never once gone out of print. Austen wasn’t just a writer, she was a reader — admiring words by everyone from Walter Scott to Anne Radcliffe.

She also understood the importance of reading with a writer’s eye. As writers, we must do more than understand what literary devices like characterization and foreshadowing mean. We must to recognize them when we read, then instinctively apply the techniques to our own fiction work.

The latter is the hard part, but good news is there’s a fix: Read like a writer. “This means you don’t read just to find out what happens next in the story,” says Gabriela Pereira, author of writing craft book DIY MFA, “You read in order to figure out what the writer is doing and how she achieves a particular effect so that you can recreate something similar in your own writing.”

To help you do that, here’s a look at what Jane Austen does well in Pride and Prejudice according to Lizzy Sisk, series editor at Writing Through the Classics. Writing Through the Classics publishes classic novels alongside notes for writers. The notes point out the fiction techniques used and provide prompts and exercises to help writers use the same strategies in their own work.

(Stop reading here if you’re yet to read P+P. Spoilers ahead.)

WRITING A “GOOD” VILLAIN

How Austen Gets It Right:

George Wickham may be the quintessential bad boy, but unless you’ve read the novel before, you wouldn’t know it. He’s debonaire enough to trick even the discerning Elizabeth Bennet into thinking he’s a good person. “Truth is the man’s a blatant liar who runs off with the most vulnerable Bennet daughter,” says Sisk, “yet the whole darn family thinks he’s swell.”

Why? Sisk says characterization. Like foreshadowing, the reader’s understanding of characterization should shift and change according to what the reader does and does not know. “If you go back and look at the first scene where Wickham trashes Darcy—before they all find out he’s a cad—you’ll see it,” Sisk explains.

She next points out a line in Chapter 16 where Wickham tells Elizabeth, “It gives me pain to speak ill of a Darcy.”

“Forget the audacity,” Sisk explains, “Just look at what Austen’s doing here. If you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice before, this line makes you think Wickham is torn between wanting to help Elizabeth and not wanting to speak ill of his childhood friend. When you re-read it, though, the guy’s just pathological.”

Despite Wickham’s actions—deceit, elopement, and lies—Mr Bennet and others in the family still forgive him. Why? Because he’s likeable. Austen wrote him that way.

How to Do This in Your Own Writing:

Despite his many flaws, Wickham does have admirable traits. Jane Austen infuses his character with approachability and humor: “How many men do you know who can help a girl pick out a good ribbon?” Sisk asks.

So give your villains their own positive attributes. Sisk suggests starting by making a list of the people you love the most in real life: “List their most endearing attributes. Now take the most common of those traits and give it to your villain. If the people you love most are all funny, then write your villain some jokes. If they’re all kind, then show situations where this character goes out of his way to show kindness.”

Real human beings aren’t 100% good or bad. They’re complex. It’s the good that lives inside them—however great or small—that helps us see beyond the bad. So write your fictional characters that way too.

SILENCE AS DIALOGUE

How Austen Gets It Right:

If there’s one thing Austen writes well, it’s silence. Take Darcy’s second marriage proposal, for example: “One word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.” Elizabeth can’t exactly say anything after that, can she? But at some point, if she wants to marry the guy, she will have to say yes.

“Unfortunately,” Sisk says, “authors can sometimes write their way into a hole. The perfect thing for one character to do or say can set up a situation where it’s very difficult to write the next character’s reply. I mean, with a proposal like that, what on earth could Austen give Lizzy to say in response?”

The answer is nothing. This proposal scene is one of many in Pride and Prejudice where Austen uses narration or silence in lieu of actual dialogue. Next time you read it, pay attention to the fact that Jane Austen doesn’t let Lizzy say a single word. Instead, her yes is in the narration:

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Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.

“As proud as both Darcy and Lizzy are—and as shy and private as he is,” Sisk says, “neither of them would want us to know what Lizzy said. So by not writing dialogue, Jane Austen not only writes herself out of a hole, but she actually stays even more true to characterization.”

How to Do This in Your Own Writing:

Next time you’re sitting at your keyboard with characters who refuse to speak up, Sisk says don’t make them: “Instead of forcing out dialogue that just won’t come, write something else instead. Maybe a scene where all the reader sees is one of the characters leaning in and whispering in the other’s ear. Or just plain write around it. Instead of showing the reply, end the scene right there, then use the next one to show the ramifications of what the reader didn’t get to hear. Write a paragraph or two of narration about why it was important, like Jane Austen does here.”

Sisk shares more insights and prompts in Writing Through the Classics: Pride and Prejudice, published last year in paperback and on Kindle.

2X entrepreneur; reporter & fiction writer; Kentuckian in NYC; advocate for straight-talk & continued improvement

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