By Mark Alpert
If you’re reading this post, you’re probably interested in writing commercial fiction, which can be loosely defined as fiction that has the potential to make some money because it’s entertaining. So you should pay special attention to the works of the foremost master of commercial fiction, a novelist whose exceptional books garnered oodles of cash and millions of rabid fans and an international fame that will probably endure for as long as our species does. No, I’m not talking about James Patterson or J.K. Rowling. I’m referring to Charles Dickens, the veritable Father of Commercial Fiction, the patron saint of all who hope to make a living from this crazy business.
I recently renewed my acquaintance with Dickens after I noticed a paperback copy of Little Dorrit sitting on one of the bookshelves in my living room. I honestly don’t know how it got there. The residents of my apartment building often leave their cast-off books on a table in the building’s lobby, next to the bank of mailboxes, and my wife sometimes picks up one or two of the freebies, so that’s a possibility. The paperback was old and worn, and the cover was dour, all black except for a cameo of a plain-looking woman in nineteenth-century dress. The novel was quite long too, almost 850 pages including the textual notes and appendices. I hadn’t read any Dickens since plowing through Bleak House in the early 1990s, an endeavor that took several months to complete. But I opened Little Dorrit anyway, and now I’m very glad I did.
After three weeks I’m only halfway through the novel, but every night I eagerly look forward to the fifteen or twenty pages I read before bedtime. And as I’ve followed the adventures of Amy Dorrit, Arthur Clennam and all the other characters in this sprawling story, I’ve taken mental notes on the techniques Dickens employed to capture and hold the reader’s attention. Although the book was written more than 150 years ago, it offers some very useful tips to today’s novelists:
- Writing an outline can be helpful, but it doesn’t have to be too detailed.
Dickens was an outliner. He had to be. His novels were published serially in British periodicals, some of them monthly, some of them weekly. Most of his books appeared in twenty monthly installments, and when the first installment came out he was usually at least a year away from writing the last chapter. He couldn’t afford to go down blind paths in his narratives, because he didn’t have the luxury of revising earlier chapters. So he made plans and followed them.
Luckily, the outline for Little Dorrit has been preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (and a couple of handwritten pages appear in an appendix in my paperback; see the photograph above). What’s remarkable about the document is how sketchy it seems. Dickens’s plan is far less meticulous than the massive 60-page outlines written by James Patterson and other 21st-century novelists. For each planned chapter, Dickens scribbled ideas for scenes and characters on the left side of the page (Waiting Room? French Town? Family and two daughters?) and on the right side he marked his decisions about whether to include the proposed elements in the chapter (Yes. No. Slightly. Not Yet). For some chapters he noted the inspiration for a character (the clarionet-player I saw at the Ambigu in Paris) and sometimes he jotted down an inspired metaphor that he planned to insert into the manuscript. (House like a bottle of smell. When the footman opens the door, he seems to take the stopper out.) But there are few detailed blueprints of the plot. In most cases Dickens gave himself only generalized instructions. (People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be now shewn to the reader but to be worked out as in life. Try this uncertainty and this not-putting of them together, as a new means of interest.)
Dickens had some practical reasons for not planning his books in minute detail. Sometimes he changed the course of his novels in response to his readers’ reactions to the installments; if his audience seemed to adore a particular character, for example, Dickens would make sure this character played a large role in future chapters. But this strategy is a wise one for all novelists, even if they’re not publishing their books in monthly magazines. It’s a good idea to keep the outline rather sketchy and leave room for changes and surprises. If a writer is surprised and delighted by a plot twist that unexpectedly occurs to him or her while drafting the manuscript, then the odds are good that the readers of the book will be delighted too.
- The key to suspense is not telling your story too soon.
I was struck by how many times Dickens scrawled Not Yet in the outline for Little Dorrit. He knew what he wanted to write and was anxious to write it, but he deliberately held himself back. At the end of one of the chapters, an ancillary character named Mr. Pancks makes a shocking discovery, and Dickens describes the amazement of the other characters when they learn the truth. But Dickens doesn’t reveal the nature of the discovery until later. It’s an old trick but it works. I certainly wasn’t going to put the book down until I learned what Pancks had uncovered.
- Provide clues to something terrible that happened in the past, and intimations of something terrible that will happen in the future.
At the beginning of Little Dorrit, Arthur Clennam suspects that someone in his family once committed a horrible crime that he needs to atone for. When he asks his invalid mother if that’s the case, she denies it, but at the same time she raises her arms over her head as if to ward off a blow. So the reader knows for damn sure that Clennam’s suspicions are correct. I still don’t know what the crime is — I haven’t gotten that far in the book yet — but it probably involves Amy Dorrit’s family. Maybe Clennam’s parents somehow caused the downfall of Amy’s father, sending him to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison for twenty-five years. That might explain why Mrs. Clennam hired Amy as a seamstress.
You see how intrigued I am? I just have to know. And I won’t stop reading till I find out.
In the early chapters Dickens also introduces a sinister Frenchman named Rigaud who apparently murdered his wife but somehow evaded the guillotine. Over the course of the novel Rigaud turns up in England under an alias and begins to lurk among the Clennams and Dorrits. The guy is patently evil — he even has a Snidely Whiplash mustache — and yet it’s a delicious thrill to see him biding his time and concocting his plots. The coming catastrophe is so inevitable, it’s like watching a car crash. The reader can’t turn away.
- Don’t be afraid to express strong opinions.
Dickens had an agenda. When he was twelve his father was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison, and the boy had to live apart from his family and work in a shoe-blacking warehouse. Although Dickens later became very rich from his novels, he never forgot the trauma and injustice he faced when he was poor. He realized how extreme poverty could warp the body and soul. In Little Dorrit, he frequently mentions how the walls of the Marshalsea cast shadows that continue to darken the characters’ lives long after they leave the prison.
But Dickens wasn’t a radical. As any reader of A Tale of Two Cities can attest, he was horrified by the French Revolution. No, Dickens was a moderate, a believer in sensible reforms, and he used all the tools of fiction to expose England’s inequitable society and prod it to do better. My favorite part of Bleak House came right after the wretched death of Jo, the young, homeless street sweeper. At that moment Dickens abruptly abandons his measured narrative voice and directly addresses the reader:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
This political agenda didn’t reduce the appeal of Dickens’s novels. On the contrary, it gave them power and importance. It elevated them from soap opera, turning trivial family dramas into heart-wrenching universal stories. It’s why we still read Dickens today. He believed that violence and social disruption stemmed from injustice, and that the violence would grow worse until society stopped torturing its weakest and poorest. Isn’t this the same message we’re hearing today after the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore?
- Don’t be afraid to portray strong emotions.
Dickens is equally good at describing the more personal, intimate varieties of heartache. In Little Dorrit, the 40-year-old Arthur Clennam resolves most emphatically that he will not fall in love with the 20-year-old Minnie Meagles, better known by her parents’ affectionate nickname for her, Pet. He makes a point of harboring no ill-will toward the caddish young man who woos Pet, the arrogant Henry Gowan. But Clennam doesn’t feel the full impact of his sacrificial resolve until Pet announces that she and Gowan would soon be married:
At that time, it seemed to him, he first finally resigned the dying hope that had flickered in nobody’s heart so much to its pain and trouble; and from that time he became in his own eyes, as to any similar hope or prospect, a very much older man who had done with that part of life.
- Memorable descriptions can make your characters come alive.
The plots of Dickens’s novels are famously convoluted and sometime creak under the weight of so many events. I spent all that time reading Bleak House, and twenty years later here’s the only thing I can recall of the plot: It’s about a lawsuit. But I’ll always remember Dickens’s characters. He had a knack for using memorable phrases and metaphors to fix a character in your mind, nailing it down as firmly as a butterfly on a pin.
Take the minor character of Mr. Pancks, for example. He’s a rich man’s rent collector, and Dickens illustrates Pancks’s nonstop subservience by comparing him to a tugboat that’s always pushing his master’s ship from harbor to harbor. Better yet, Pancks is constantly snorting like a tugboat’s steam engine. It’s a funny description, but it also makes him come alive. I can picture the guy. I can hear him snorting away as he badgers the poor tenants of Bleeding Heart Yard. He’s a real jerk.
Another great example is Tattycoram, the foundling who’s adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles to serve as their beloved daughter’s maidservant (and as a substitute for Pet’s twin sister, who died in infancy). Although the Meagles are practical people who believe they did a very charitable thing when they adopted Tattycoram, the girl ultimately grows resentful of their charity and condescension (not to mention the ridiculous name they gave her, which seems like an insult in itself). Mr. Meagles tries to control her eruptions of anger by repeatedly urging her to “count to five-and-twenty,” but that just make her even more furious. Her character is encapsulated in her cry of frustration and despair: “But I am ill-used, I am ill-used, I am ill-used!” (I like this sentence so much that I’ve adopted it as my new mantra. I mutter it under my breath when I have to wait in line at the supermarket or the drugstore.)
But enough with the literary criticism. I’m looking forward to reading another twenty pages of Little Dorrit tonight.