Successful novelist E M Forster discusses the craft of story writing.

Aspects of the Novel

E M Forster (1879-1970)

E M Forster was a successful novelist and later an academic. Three of his novels, A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) have been made into films.
In 1927 he was invited to give a series of lectures which were later published as Aspects of the Novel. To the modern reader Forster’s comments may suffer from their age. When he first shared his thoughts, talking movies were new and many of the twentieth century’s leading novelists and playwrights had still to emerge. More recently, with the appearance during the 1980s and 1990s of detailed manuals on the craft of storytelling, his insights can seem superficial.
But his observations are a primer in the essentials of storytelling. He makes a clear distinction between story and plot, and emphasises the relationship between character and incident. And his discussion of fantasy, prophecy and rhythm encourages us that truly great writing goes beyond storytelling.

Story

A story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence — it simply tells us what happened and in what order. It is the time sequence which turns a random collection of episodes into a story. But chronological sequence is a very primitive feature and it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. The only skill of a storyteller is their ability to wield the weapon of suspense, making the audience eager to discover the next event in the sequence.
This emphasis on chronological sequence is a difference from real life. Our real lives also unfold through time but have the added feature that some experiences have greater value and meaning than others. Value has no role in a story, which is concerned with the life in time rather than the life by values. And because human lives measured by time consist of nothing more than the business of getting old, a story cannot sincerely lead to any conclusion but the grave.
The basis of a novel is a story — the narration of events in the order they happened — but storytelling alone can never produce a great novel. The simple chronological narrative of War and Peace only manages to achieve some kind of greatness because it has extended over space as well as time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot exactly say what struck them. They come from the immense area of Russia, over which episodes and characters have been scattered, from the sum-total of bridges and frozen rivers, forests, roads, gardens, fields, which accumulate grandeur and sonority after we have passed them.

People

A novelist can only begin to explore the value of human experiences by developing the characters of the story. But Forster emphasises that characters are not real people; rather they are like real people. Characters’ lives are different from real lives, and common activities such as sleeping and eating occupy little space in novels, whereas love is greatly over-represented. Sometimes characters can seem to be more real than the people around us, and this is because a novelist is able to reveal the character’s hidden life. In daily life we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly.
It is this completeness that allows characters to take on the air of being real, and gives us a definition as to when a character in a book is real: it is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not tell us all he knows, but he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable.
Forster distinguishes between flat characters and round characters. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I will never desert Mr Micawber.’ There is Mrs Micawber — she says she won’t desert Mr Micawber; she doesn’t, and there she is. These characters are easily recognised when first introduced and easily remembered afterwards, and their memorability appeals to our yearning for permanence. They are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore.
Dickens wrote flat characters superbly well. Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow.
A round character by contrast has further dimensions to their personality, which are revealed as events demand them. A flat character never surprises us with their behaviour, but a round character may well surprise us with these unsuspected aspects of their nature; and the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. Even if events never require these characters to extend themselves, they nevertheless have the capacity. All the Jane Austen characters are ready for an extended life, for a life which the scheme of her books seldom requires them to lead, and that is why they lead their actual lives so satisfactorily.
Looking back to a fictional technique common in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels — that of telling different sections of the story through different characters — Forster believes the effect of changing viewpoint is less important than the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says and having a proper mixture of characters.

Plot

We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’
A plot demands intelligence and memory on the part of the reader, to remember incidents and create connecting threads between them. This allows the novelist to delay explanations and introduce human mystery to the narrative. Mystery is essential to a plot, and cannot be appreciated without intelligence, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.
This relationship between cause and effect also connects the characters with the plot. Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character. People and events are closely connected. The balance between them is sometimes difficult to achieve though, because characters, to be real, ought to run smoothly, but a plot ought to cause surprise. Sometimes a plot triumphs too completely. The characters have to suspend their natures at every turn, or else are so swept away by the course of Fate that our sense of their reality is weakened.

Fantasy and Prophecy

The general tone of novels is so literal that when the fantastic is introduced it produces a special effect. Fantasy implies the supernatural, but it may do this by no more than simply hinting through a magical quality in events. The stuff of daily life will be tugged and strained in various directions, the earth will be given little tilts mischievous or pensive.
Forster includes parodies and adaptations of earlier works as forms of fantasy which allow another writer’s imagination to take flight. Parody or adaptation have enormous advantages to certain novelists, particularly to those who may have a great deal to say and abundant literary genius, but who do not see the world in terms of individual men and women — who do not, in other words, take easily to creating characters.
Prophecy is an accent in the novelist’s voice. His theme is the universe, or something universal. The characters and events still have a specific meaning within the story, but they also have greater resonances. In Dostoyevsky the characters and situations always stand for more than themselves; infinity attends them.
This is different from symbolism, in which characters and events represent concrete meanings. Rather prophecy is about mysterious, imprecise meanings which connect us with the history of humankind. It is not a veil, it is not an allegory. It is the ordinary world of fiction, but it reaches back. Melville — after the initial roughness of his realism — reaches straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are undistinguishable from glory.

Pattern and Rhythm

A novel has a pattern when it has a geometric shape, such as the hour-glass shape of one character’s social fall crossing over with another’s social climb, or the circular shape of a character moving from one new acquaintance to the next until they finally return to their starting point. Pattern is an aesthetic aspect of the novel, and though it may be nourished by anything in the novel — any character, scene, word — it draws most of its nourishment from the plot. Whereas the story appeals to our curiosity and the plot to our intelligence, the pattern appeals to our aesthetic sense, it causes us to see the book as a whole.
But forcing the characters to fit an external pattern, instead of allowing the plot to grow organically, causes a novel to lose the immense richness of material which life provides. To most readers of fiction the sensation from a pattern is not intense enough to justify the sacrifices that made it, and their verdict is ‘Beautifully done, but not worth doing.’
Rhythm on the other hand is like a musical motif which reappears with slight variations and helps to unify the novel. Such a motif has a life of its own, unconnected with the lives of its auditors. It is almost an actor, but not quite, and that ‘not quite’ means that its power has gone towards stitching [the] book together from the inside.
The appearance of a motif is not an artificial pattern, and there are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope. I doubt that it can be achieved by the writers who plan their books beforehand, it has to depend on a local impulse when the right interval is reached. But the effect can be exquisite, it can be obtained without mutilating the characters, and it lessens our need of an external form.