Going old school
Lately I’ve been dipping into my someday-I-gotta-read list of classics and catching up on gems like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. They’re novels written for pure entertainment. Sure, some things about them are dated, but as adventure yarns they stand the test of time. There’s ticking clocks, secrets, comedy, conflict, exotic scenery, betrayal and heroism.
These books break a great many “rules” espoused by today’s fiction-writing experts. Not that Doyle and Verne would necessarily care. They must have been doing something right to stay in print for at least a hundred years—but we do see some things in the nineteenth-century novel we don’t see much of in today’s pulp fiction.
Point of view is one. The Victorians weren’t shy about using the wide-angle storytelling lens, aka the omniscient view. With that, an all-seeing narrator sets forth long passages of description about a location, society, or milieu. It makes me think of an opening sequence of a movie, where the camera lovingly pans over the countryside to set the scene before the star enters the picture. Today, we’re told get into the action and deep POV as soon as possible. That’s great, but there’s something to be said for taking time to set the scene.
Another interesting difference is that the authors way back when weren’t shy about what we’d call authorial intrusion. That is, the author expresses their opinion about what’s going on in the story, sometimes very directly. While I’m less tolerant of this, I’m forced to admit that part of Dickens’ unmistakable touch is his personal opinions—be it around social injustice or the right kind of Christmas office party. Though these interjections would be chopped out now, his exhortations add a huge amount of character to his books.
Another custom fading into the sunset is a certain level of narrative complexity. Even in the seventies, there were sprawling best-sellers with a bazillion characters, all with their own points of view and story arcs. In genre fiction, these days (and, yes, this is a sweeping generalization with significant exceptions) we get the hero, heroine, maybe villain, and rarely anyone else. And, they’re generally focussed on one main storyline with only piddling subplots. Even juicy double couple romances are becoming hard to find. Why the push to keep it simple? After all, readers aren’t stupid and surely could follow more than one story arc.
Probably there are many reasons, and some of it is undoubtedly just our current tastes. One, I’m sure, is the price of paper. More complex = more pages = more expensive. Not a good thing unless you’re an ebook.
Anyway, I’m not saying these older practices are better or worse, just that it’s interesting that some very successful and long-lived stories don’t adhere to the current concept of “good” writing. This may seem obvious. However, my experience reading some older works was a bit of “wow, this is different” combined with “huh, that works okay.” And it also reminds me that storytelling comes with a very full toolkit. Surprise and variety are good. As writers, we shouldn’t forget that.