Reading as a Writer

I’ve been re-reading Barchester Towers this week. As often happens when I read, I spend a lot of time thinking about how the writer is going about the business of telling a story: what hook does he use, how does he pace the story, what’s the dialog doing — that sort of thing.

Trollope is a wonderful writer. I’ve gotten about 100 pages (maybe less) into the novel and already there’s a fully formed cast of characters and a conflict that’s perfect for the comedy to come. First, the characters — I like it so much when a writer is fond of his characters, but knows their shortcomings so well. Dr. Grantly is a good example of this — he’s a man who’s quick to anger, to revenge, but also a gentleman and a man of the world. He’s flawed, he’s angry, and he has power. That’s the sort of character you want to see in action: what’s going to win out, you wonder — his quick temper, his sophistication? And maybe he’s not the one who’ll put things right. If that’s true, will he be chastened?

And then of course, there’s his enemy, the oily-tongued Slope (like Snape, you imagine his hair in need of a good wash and trim): a man who’s a lot smarter than his boss, the Bishop, but whose skills don’t extend as far as they should — women like him, men don’t. How far will he get in his project of teaching Slopian ways and worship to the lovely town of Barchester?

And the conflict? A new bishop comes to town, bringing with him two of the finest conflict creators I know — the awful and deliciously greedy and power-hungry Mrs. Proudie and, of course, the oily Slope. Put these two down into the green world that is Barchester and, well, that’s how you set a terrific novel in motion.

There’s so much more here, but I just wanted to record how interesting it is to watch a great writer like Trollope creating characters and setting up his story.

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7 thoughts on “Reading as a Writer

  1. But can you also switch off this way of reading, and just enjoy a book in a relaxed way? I know my beloved, as a graphic designer, always gets annoyed by bad typography, anywhere. Which is a problem when driving through countries like Belgium or Poland, where bad typography is everywhere.

  2. Well, I’m quite happy to enjoy a story on lots of levels at once. What makes Trollope so good is that he always sets up his conflicts carefully and they arise out of the very nature of his characters. It feels very comfortable somehow to be in the hands of a master plotter, and recognising that is as much a pleasure as the plot itself.

  3. I also like to read the work of others and look for their writing styles, tools, and mechanics – this helps me understand more about the writer, and it helps me to improve my own writing.

    My own answer to Edwinek is that it can sometimes be a challenge to just “turn off” the analysis and enjoy, but it’s entirely possible – especially with the stuff that really speaks to me, it’s easy to forget about the architecture and just enjoy the art!

  4. Hi Lily, Glad to hear you are having a good time. I know you don’t typically watch TV, but Alan Rickman (who plays Snape) also played Slope in the (quite good) BBC adaptation of Barchester (called the Barchester Chronicles). Good character comparison!

    Take care — enjoy the rest of your family camp week!

  5. Edwin — I think what happens is very much as litlove describes — the story comes to you on several levels. You enjoy being in the world that’s been created in the novel — and then, every once in a while, you look up and think about how wonderfully the story’s being told. It’s a pleasant experience, neither stressful nor hard work. And it’s so true that often the experience of the novel is of the art rather than the architecture as JLB says. I can’t do the reading equivalent of driving through Poland — it’s funny to think of your loved one cringing as you drive by signs there and in Belgium.

    And Julie — how absolutely appropriate to have Alan Rickman play both Snape and Slope. I’ll bet J.K. Rowling did a bit of borrowing there — and what a smart thing for her to have done. We’ve just signed up for netflix, and there are tons of bbc things there. Although we have to huddle around the computer to watch them, it sounds like Barchester Chronicles would be a good thing to watch in bed on a Saturday morning with a cup of tea.

    Best to all, BL

  6. BBC DVDs — esp. the literary adaptations — are one of my specialties! Have fun watching. I watch on a portable DVD player, and it isn’t so bad!

    My husband and I (pre kids) drove cross-country without AC in the summer. The thing that worked best was dipping a bandana in ice-water (from the cooler) and tieing it around our necks. You’d stay cool while it dried. No need for that once you’re back in the Bay Area though! (Thankfully!)

  7. When you have a chance, Julie, I’d love to hear more about those bbc adaptations. The bandana in ice water is brilliant. I’ll remember that Monday, when we drive to Lodi. The air won’t be fixed for a little while — there aren’t a lot of Volvo mechanics available this weekend.

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