If you’re a writer, odds are you have a favorite author, a novelist whose work inspires you. If you could only produce one sentence as magnificent as that author’s work, you’d be happy, right?
That’s how I’ve always felt about Jane Austen. And, as the feature image for this post illustrates, a crazy amount of other writers have felt this way about her as well. Worshiping at Austen’s artistic feet is so common that it is, perhaps, even a cliché. But when it comes to social satire, witty repartee, and memorable characters, for me, Austen is the master. And while the novel form has developed beyond the narrative techniques Austen used over 200 years ago, the free-indirect discourse she perfected remains a crucial narrative strategy even today.
Yes, there is still much to learn from Austen, and even while we might play with much more modern structures and themes than Austen was familiar with and used, that doesn’t mean she has nothing to offer us.
Below are three techniques I’ve learned about novel writing as a result of reading and, let’s be honest, rereading Jane Austen.
1. You must have a killer first sentence.
It is one of the most well-known first lines ever written. You’ve heard it; you may even have it memorized, but I’ll put it here anyway:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The first sentence of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice sets up, concisely, interestingly, and humorously, the tension and plot of the entire novel. It draws us in and tells us exactly what we can expect not only in terms of the novel’s theme, character, and plot, but also in terms of tone and style. It is the entire novel wrapped up in one tiny sentence.
Austen is not the only author, of course, to produce an amazing opening line. The fact that if you google “best opening lines of novels” you come up with page upon page of the 10 best, 30 best, 100 best first lines of novels tells you something. That one sentence is damn important.
Writing a good opening line isn’t just about having a good hook, it’s about, as Austen shows us, setting the tone and showing the reader what they can expect. That’s a lot of work for one sentence to do, so we have to put a lot of work into it.
So here’s my advice: Don’t be afraid to revise–over and over and over–that first sentence. Keep working on it, keep thinking about it. Keep reading other amazing opening sentences. What do they have that you need in your own work? It’s not only my advice, it’s Stephen King’s as well. He claims to spend “months and even years,” perfecting his openings.
A striking opening sentence can also help you get noticed by the industry. When combing through piles and piles of manuscripts, literary agents look for stories that immediately catch their attention. First sentences are the perfect way to set yourself apart.
2. Write confusingly likable villains.
Wickham and Willoughby, Henry Crawford and Mr. Elliot (from Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion respectively)–these Austen villains make us gasp and root even harder for the protagonists to succeed. But what makes them so effective is that we start out by liking them and sometimes continue to kind of like them despite their villainy.
Take Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility, for example. If you’re not familiar with the narrative, sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have been kicked out of their home after their father’s death and, like in all of Austen’s books, now need to marry well in order to support themselves and their mother and kid sister. Elinor, all “sense,” thinks practically about courtship and marriage while Marianne, all “sensibility,” will marry only for the most passionate of loves.
Cue John Willoughby. He comes riding in like a white knight, saves Marianne, then continues to woo her with poetry, smooth moves, and PASSION. Swoon. We think he’s going to propose; Marianne thinks he’s going to propose; EVERYONE thinks he’s going to propose. But he doesn’t. Well, not to Marianne at least, and thus his villainy is made plain. At the same time, Austen gives us the sense that Willoughby, though a villain, is as much at the mercy of social pressures as are her heroines. What else is Willoughby to do? To follow his heart into marriage will be to live in poverty and we, almost, can’t blame him for the decisions he makes.
It’s not just that Willoughby and Austen’s other villains are handsome and, we imagine, look good in those tight Regency period pants, it’s that they have likable qualities. Willoughby is cute and funny and passionate, but he is also a gold digger who plays with women’s emotions.
What Austen’s confusingly charming villains teach us is that we have to resist writing flat characters. We have to write human characters who elicit a variety of emotions in the reader. Creating a villain with redeemable qualities doesn’t make him less villainous, it just makes his villainy more interesting.
3. Create flawed (and at times unlikeable!) protagonists.
On the flip side of this issue is that if we make our antagonists likable, we must make our protagonists flawed. Many critics of Austen’s novels argue that this is exactly the problem with Fanny Price from Mansfield Park–she’s too perfect. She is always the voice of reason and the picture of morality (I don’t agree with this reading of Fanny, but that’s another post for another day…). This, Austen fans argue, is super irritating.
Austen’s much more celebrated protagonists, like Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice )and Emma Woodhouse (Emma), are painfully flawed, and Austen seems to have a fun time making those flaws the crucial conflict of the novel. Emma’s penchant for matchmaking leads to heartbreak for her closest friend, and Mr. Darcy’s social shyness and prejudice against the lower classes leads him to insult the object of his affection… multiple times…
As you move forward with your own novel project, take a page from Jane Austen’s book and explore your protagonist’s flaws. Is your heroine slightly unlikeable because she’s just too exuberantly perky? Good. But what ultimately redeems her as a heroine? Is your hero thoughtless and selfish–that’s great! But how can he overcome these flaws to earn his status in your novel? AND how do these flaws create and further the tension and conflict of your plot?