Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 11, 2012

Edith Wharton on llluminating Incidents

When I was moaning about plot challenges recently on Facebook, my friend Jen Groff suggested that when I figure this out, I should run a workshop called “Plot for Poets.” I haven’t figured it out, and I’m not running a workshop, but I like her title and I’m reading Edith Wharton’s The Writing of Fictionwhich might be the text for this class. Edith Wharton wrote a lot of great fiction in the same era that her friend Henry James was also writing novels and trying to figure out the aesthetics of a form that could seem wayward and bulky. But I don’t see as much heavy lifting, the marks of trying to figure out rules, in Wharton’s fiction as I do in James’s. (Not that I’ve read that much, let’s be clear: I lose patience.) Edith Wharton was known for grace, reticence, and heroic strength in a life both privileged and trying, and you find all of this in her novels. Her slim book on writing could be placed on the elegant end of how-to guides. She doesn’t discuss plot in terms of lines or triangles, but as light, which might radiate back from illuminating incidents and an end that seems inevitable. Not just characters, but place, should contribute. “The impression produced by a landscape, a street or a house, should always, to a novelist, be an event in the history of a soul.”

“No conclusion can be right which is not latent in the first page.” I’m playing with images in the first and last chapters, realizing that I have pine boughs on page one, and can slip in evergreen nicely at the end. This echoes what Blake Snyder says in Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need  which I’m also finding useful on plot. But of course since it’s about screenwriting, discourse is left out. Like most of us twenty-first century writers, I can lean too much on dialogue, which Wharton warns can be a method that is “wasteful” and “roundabout,” best used by those who dare start in the middle and aren’t tempted to use conversation as a setup to let readers in on things they need to know. Wharton mentions Trollope’s “least good tales, rambling “on for page after page before the reader, resignedly marking time, arrives, bewildered and weary at a point to which one paragraph of narrative could have carried him.”

I’m not sure I can or want to with use dialogue just as she advises – “sparingly as the drop of condiment which flavors a whole dish” –but she gives much to ponder as I trim to bring out a shape. Wharton writes that the length of a novel must be determined by its subject, but when composing, we shouldn’t forget that “one should always be able to say of a novel: ‘It might have been longer,’ never: ‘It need not have been so long.’” Okay, back to paring down.


  1. So incredibly helpful, Jeannine. I will go to those books, anxious about a scolding from Wharton as my novel-in-progress is practically all dialogue. Why is it that, as you say, 21st century writers go to this mode? Is it because we’ve been bred to impatience, an impatience with silence, reflection, bred to a need for the immediacy of voices, schooled by film and television?

    • Sarah, I’m glad it’s helpful. Your use of the word “scolding” made me smile, because as I read I felt myself straightening my back, as if even my slumpy 21st century posture would be chastised. I do love dialogue and know I’ll be way more reckless with it than would approved, but she is a good corrective, suggesting it’s the thoughts, the change in how a character sees things, that are going to provide an arc or illuminating scene. And, you guessed it, she says we need “patience, meditation, concentration, all the quiet habits of mind now so little practiced.”

      • I’m grateful, Jeannine, thank you. It’s the “show don’t tell” that’s embedded in my writing mode and mind. I’ll study where to slow down in my WIP.

        • “Show not tell” is embedded in me, too, and it’s not a bad thing; I think you’ll find The Writer’s Notebook” more useful than Wharton, especially the essay, “Making a Scene,” in which Anna Keesey addresses our habits of showing, but suggests how this can build more dramatically. I think we can keep the dialog as long as there’s some clear movement within it. I’ve just dipped into Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, but she seems to have a brilliant way of moving through time, with dialog highlighting moments. I wish you were next door to discuss!

          • Thank you, Jeannine. Ever grateful for your wide reading and sharing. I will go to the Keesey and allow myself the Pearlman. I too wish we could discuss – but your posts are the next best thing.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Jeannine! I’ll hunt this one down.

    • My copy is getting pretty heavily underlined!

  3. I love all this, Jeannine! Peg always used to say, “Setting is everything. Place your character.” Fascinating how setting and character determine plot. Voice, too. Anyhow, if you give that class, I’ll take it. I am struggling mightily at the moment!

    • I forgot to say who I am.

    • Thanks for quoting Peg. I love it when she appears in my mind with bits of wisdom! I do find place can be kind of magic. There was a lot in the documentary “Bully” that touched me, but a boy looking toward the field where he and his friend used to play, and the smile when he wouldn’t show the cameramen, was: wow.

      Good luck with your plots. I’d love to give a class. Maybe expertise shouldn’t be a criteria?

  4. Reading Henry James is like swimming underwater to me. I have to slow down and down and down. At first he is practically unintelligible but as I let myself sink into the prose, it becomes amazing and nuanced and enlightening. I took a James course once and that is what happened to me.
    I love Edith Wharton too. Will try to find the book.

    • Oh, I like swimming underwater but… you are a hero! I’m glad you found enlightenment there. I need to come up for air too often. And I know he made up a lot of the rules about novels, but somehow I feel as if I’m seeing little signs pointing them out when I’ve tried to read the fiction. Maybe I need that course. It’s nice to hear of what you found! Thank you!

  5. Opening of Huckleberry Finn:
    Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral will be banished. Persons attempting to find a plot will be shot by order of the author.

    • and it’s schools and the theme and plot seekers who now help keep that novel alive. Sometimes we do need to lighten up. There’s the fiction, and there’s the analysis, and there’s that weird meeting place when we revise.

      Wharton says, “Goethe declared that only the Tree of Life was green, and that all theories were gray; and he also congratutated himself on never ‘having thought about thinking.'”

      Amy, I hope to see you tomorrow at World’s Eye Bookshop!

  6. “She doesn’t discuss plot in terms of lines or triangles, but as light, which might radiate back from illuminating incidents and an end that seems inevitable.”

    Ohhhhh, I like that. (I tried to find this book in our library, but no luck. I’d love to read that chapter, especially.)

    Have you read “THE ART OF TIME IN MEMOIR,” by the way? I suspect it’s equally useful for fiction writers who struggle with time passage/transitions (as I do).

    • Mostly Edith Wharton writes about this light in terms of glimmers characters get, then a final recognition. My guess is it won’t be so helpful to your work, Melodye: I’d just take that metaphor and run with it. But I think you really would find helpful the article “The Telling that Shows” in “The Writers Notebook,” which I mentioned I think two posts ago. Great examples of compressing time and making transitions. I think I did read The Art of Time a while back and found it useful — thanks for reminding me; I’ll see if I can find it!

  7. Loved this post, Jeannine….it caused me to remember old Edith, whom I have not read in far too long. She was so modern, really, so forward thinking in many ways. I love that she looked upon her writing, upon the craft of writing, in this focused and purposeful way. I shall have to find this book now!

    • Yes, reading this nonfiction made me want to read The House of Mirth Again, which blew me away in college. Or I can’t remember the title of that short story stunner, about two women in Rome with their histories exquisitely, chillingly revealed. She was not afraid to say things as she saw them.

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