How Fiction Works. Book review

How Fiction Works by James Wood (Vintage Books 2008)

Reviewed by Richard Ayres

An alternative title could well have been ‘How to Read Books’. The author is Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University and his book is an academic study of the techniques of fiction writing. He uses examples from a vast range of writers (from Homer through to Ian McEwan) to examine these techniques.

This is not a ‘self-help’ manual for budding authors; it does not set out to give tips on how to write effectively. But this reviewer found it to be invaluable in analysing and subsequently making amendments to his own writing. It will serve as a useful tool when the first draft of a novel is complete, when a writer can step back and reflect on the entirety of what s/he has written in the context of Wood’s analysis of the styles of numerous published authors.

It is impossible to summarise here all the complexities of Wood’s analyses and assertions. Set out below are those arguments which are perhaps of greatest relevance to creative writers.

Narrative Voice: Woods questions the usual distinction made between First Person, Third Person and Authorial Omniscient viewpoints. He contends that all can contain elements of what he calls ‘Free Indirect Speech’ in which words can be seen to emanate both from the author and from his/her characters. There is, he says, no area of narration which is untouched by Free Indirect Speech. The most effective fiction is when the author is consistent in his/her approach to narration.

Detail: Although detail in narration can grab the attention of the reader, it is best used when it is kept in reserve to follow passages of ‘ordinary’ narration. Detail can sometimes be an obstruction to ‘seeing’ the whole picture. On the other hand, apparently superfluous detail can serve to highlight the inexplicable or illogical.

Characterisation: Wood derides the conventional assertion that major characters should always have depth, should always develop, that there should not be ‘dislikeable’ characters’ (what he calls ‘moralising niceness’). It is not necessary to give a character interior monologue, which can lead to over-explanation and repetition, and he cites Gatsby, Captain Ahab and Jean Brodie as examples of where a character is defined only through the perspective of others (eg, in Jean Brodie’s case, through the eyes of her pupils). So-called ‘flat’ characters can be used to illustrate essentially human characteristics.

The reality level of a character varies from author to author. Novels fail not when the characters are not deep enough, but when the author has been inconsistent and the novel fails to follow its own conventions.

Language: Simplicity is usually the most effective language. Metaphors, similes etc are often overused.

Dialogue: Wood quotes Henry Green’s assertion that dialogue can often tell all by the things characters say and the way they say it, and that nothing kills ‘life’ so much as explanation, interior monologue and adverbial speech attributions.


There is perhaps much here with which writers are familiar. But what makes the book worth reading are the examples of how famous authors have handled the issues outlined above, and how what is acceptable has changed along with literary fashion.

Available from Amazon and elsewhere.


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