How to write novels like Dickens…

One of the most ambitious reader requests on this website is the simple search term: “Write novels like Dickens.”

I don’t know who put that term in — even in these days of web spyware, your anonymity is at least safe from me. But let’s pause for a moment to admire the breadth of vision of someone who wants to write like novels like Dickens. Many, of course, have tried. Only one (Dickens himself) ever succeeded consistently.

But, if someone is brave enough to ask the question, I feel that I should at least have the temerity to try to give an answer. In this, I am indebted to the tutorials of AOJ Cockshutt. Most of what is worthwhile in what I am about to write is half-remembered from winter mornings in his study. The rest is probably not worthwhile, either misremembered or the results of my own limited understanding.

For the brave, then, I would suggest the following:

    Write in instalments (Listen to your readers)
    Imagine endlessly
    Hear and see
    Control the plot
    Remind yourself of everything you hate
    Don’t try to live what you write

Write in instalments
The first thing which distinguishes Dickens from most modern writers (though not from his contemporaries) is that he wrote in instalments, and generally did not complete the next instalment until the previous one was already published. On one occasion, when writing Dombey and Son, he actually changed the plot in response to a reader writing in to say that she could not believe where the plot appeared to be going. Dickens enjoyed the frisson of serial writing, in a way which George Elliot did not. In many ways, he was exploring the kind of storytelling that exists in non-literate societies. Later in life, Dickens toured England giving public readings from his books. He was a writer who, above all, wanted to know how audiences reacted to what he wrote.

Imagine endlessly
Dickens’s imagination was completely outrageous. No modern author would be permitted the kinds of excesses of description which Dickens regularly indulged in. Well, not quite. In Darkness Visible, William Golding, our most unVictorian novelist, writes an emporium scene which could have been straight from Dickens. And, even more so, JK Rowling’s gloriously baroque imagination is one of the chief delights of the Harry Potter series. Rowling’s imagination led her in much the same direction as Dickens: she also waited for audience reaction before completing the next novel, and, as she wrote, the books got longer and longer, as they must do if no rein is put on the imagination. A lot of writers have tried to emulate Dickens by writing very extensive descriptions. But while Dickens’s descriptions are always interesting, and frequently (deliberately) hilarious, those who go down the many-words route almost always lose us. The truth is, what Dickens wrote was not a tenth or a hundredth of what he imagined. The same is true for Rowling. Her later discussions, including the surprise revelation that Dumbldore was gay, demonstrate clearly that she held back her writing.

Hear and see
As AOJ Cockshutt put it (we had to ask him what he meant), Dickens had a perfect ear, and a perfect eye. What he meant was that, in literature, character comes across through what characters say. It’s often been pointed out that we know more about minor characters in Dickens than about the major characters in most other writers. The first Dickens novel I read (excluding Oliver Twist, which I struggled through rather than read at age 12), was Dombey and Son. I read it just once, but Captain Cuttle’s ‘Overhaul and learn by heart’, and other expressions have stuck in my mind to this day. Cuttle does not actually play a huge role in the plot. But he pushes into it, as a voice that will not be silenced. You can also think of the terrifying graveyard scene in Great Expectations. It would be easy to say that the dialogue rings true. But this is not correct. The dialogue in John LeCarré rings true. The dialogue in Jane Austen rings true. The dialogue in Dickens rings louder than any dialogue in the real world does. It sounds like real people talking, but real people don’t talk like that: rather, people whose words have made an enormous impression on us talk like that in our memories. So much for the ear.
As for the eye, Dickens has the same visual sense as Thomas Hardy, who reads sometimes like a film scene description. When Dickens writes, we see. Again, this is not mere wordiness. Words are a means for us to see what Dickens sees: a world full of bizarre incongruities, of visual irony, of shock and surprise. More on that in a moment.

Control the plot
For all his exuberant writing (it’s often suggested (humorously) that Dickens must have written so much because he was paid by the word), Dickens kept absolute control of his plot and characters. We have many examples of the elaborate spider diagrams he used to set out all the relationships of everything to everything else, a sort of early mind-mapping. Of course, we don’t know how much of these were complete before he started, but the illustrations on the covers of the early episodes, which include many of the later plot elements, demonstrate that he knew exactly where he was going right from the start. Again, this is reminiscent of JK Rowling, who made the case to Bloomsbury to publish her first book partly on the basis that she had the plot of the next six already worked out. It’s interesting to note that Dickens’s plot diagrams are not linear. He is concerned with all kinds of relationships, not merely what happens after what, and why.

Remind yourself of everything you hate
Dickens had an unhappy childhood. It’s well documented that he endured poverty, humiliation, and saw the debtor’s prison at first hand. It may be good psychological advice to remember the good things, but the power behind Dickens’s writing was that he used all the horrors and humiliations to suffuse his writing whenever needed with bitterness, grime, disgust, irony, and even, sometimes, compassion.

Don’t try to live what you write
Dickens’s daughter (if I recall the story correctly) was one of the first lady-dons at Oxford. In the mid twentieth century, she was once shown a picture – one of the early photographs – of her father. Her comment was “what a wicked man.” Whether I’ve got the story right or not, it’s well documented that Dickens kept up with a mistress while running magazines – Household Words and later All the Year Round – on Victorian family values. Dickens’s infidelities became public knowledge while he was editing Households Words, which led, indirectly, to him closing that publication and starting All the Year Round. The fact that the public knew what Dickens was up to, and yet continued to lap up his rather sanctimonious editorial, is perhaps one of the reasons why the Victorian period is now (unfairly) often seen as an age of hypocrisy.

I am not, of course, suggesting that one must be a hypocrite to write great literature. But something I have noticed over recent years is that the advice given to new novelists: ‘write about what you know’, is often taken much too literally and too much to heart. It’s true that John LeCarré was a member of the Secret Intelligence Service before he became a novelist. But he was not a spy long enough to have experienced all the remarkable things he wrote about. William Golding was never trapped on a desert island with raging schoolboys. CS Lewis never spent time in Narnia. HG Wells did not actually invent a time machine. Reviewing first novels for Amazon as part of their Vine programme, I’ve read far too much literature recently by writers who never escape what they know and write about the world they imagine.

So. There it is. Six pointers to how to write like Dickens. Or, more exactly, pointers about how Dickens wrote. Whether or not it is possible to turn these into 21st century writing which compels in the same way that Dickens inspired his audiences in the 19th century – well, that remains to be seen.

  • Fantastic piece Martin and thank you. I’m one of the many aiming to read everything Dickens wrote during this, his centenary year. It will be interesting to see how many of us finish! Do you have any idea how many words he actually did write?

  • Tinalouiseray

    wonderful post…how is it that I have not found you before?

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