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How to Write Like Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice

David Rosales strives to create meaning in a universe of possibilities.

Keep a Brisk and Dynamic Air

I remember reading Pride and Prejudice before any other novel by Jane Austen, and I was enchanted by its unique mixture of light airs and firm exposition of theme and dialogue. None of her other writings, however, despite their own merits, permitted the same series of pictures to be constantly on display without interruption.

One is never in danger of either getting bored with factual narration or the characters rambling on out of hand. As soon as the author hands over a line or two of witty dialogue, she interjects with a short description of gestures and movements. She interleaves these two modes of delivery, giving preeminence to the first.

The first thing that is apparent to anyone who opens one of Austen's books is that Pride and Prejudice is the only one in which we are thrown right in the middle of a crucial scene, almost entirely without preamble. While other Austen novels divagate and meander a lot more in the details of backstory, she sustains this dynamism without faltering throughout the whole of Pride and Prejudice.

While every one of her novels is worthy of being called an artwork, Pride and Prejudice is alive in a way that no other novel that was ever written truly is.

How does Jane Austen accomplish this?

  • Atomic units
  • Plot comes first
  • Characters that are alive
  • Expression before thoughts

Worthy of Imitation

Pride and Prejudice remains the classic Jane Austen novel.

Pride and Prejudice remains the classic Jane Austen novel.

Atomic Units

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen reduces each chapter to a single event. In effect, each chapter in the book is quite literally a scene like you would see in a play.

The reader gets to immerse all of their senses in the situation being portrayed without straying or accommodating additional information. But, contrary to this, most authors do not seem to employ chapters in the same way.

Instead of utilizing chapters to make reading easy and to allow the mind to immerse itself entirely in one situation, they make it an elaborate and rambling search for a goal that seems to elude them.

Needless to say, long and poorly demarcated chapters make for very cumbersome reading. So, make sure that your chapters are only about one thing that happens in your story.

Concentrate on the peculiarities of the dialogue, the details of sounds, words, views, movement, and more. And only when the scene has run its course, make it come to an end.

Jane Austen does not tarry: chapters in Pride and Prejudice never feel slow or overstretched, and so they are never tiring.

A little trick of Jane Austen's is that, whenever she has the opportunity to, she speeds up communication or action by narrating what was said rather than showing it explicitly, fast-forwarding the reader to the crucial line.

Plot Comes First

There are several ways in which Pride and Prejudice resembles the best works of Ancient Greece, and which modern English Literature inherited through William Shakespeare primarily. However, we shall only discuss the most technical of these resemblances here, and leave the rest to philosophical discussions elsewhere.

First of these is the preeminence of plot. Whatever happens, and whoever the characters are, a clean and clear plot is the hallmark of classic story-telling. This is true even when greater complexity is introduced.

The point is that even sub-plots are relevant and these never become deviations and distractions. Everything feeds the plot.

When writing out a story, you want things to happen, lives to be affected. You want to forget about genre if you want to write a great story.

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Jane Austen is said to have written both a romance and a satire in Pride and Prejudice. I think this is a mistaken, narrow-minded view. What she wrote was great literature that had both humor and insight. The quality of the story is not be defined by what or who you are writing about, but by interest, empathy, and catharsis.

Characters That are Alive

After the plot, the most prominent thing is the characters themselves. How well-delineated they are, how different their points of view, the things they say, and their decisions. These all differ, but they never strain credibility nor do they act without apparent reason.

The plot itself is enriched by the character layer. What carries the most weight, after clarity of events, are the characters. It is not the details, props, or even writing style, which makes a great story, but a good plot and well-developed characters.

Style has become overstated in modernist literature to the point that everything is sacrificed, sometimes on purpose, in order to highlight it.

Not so in Jane Austen's work. The classic writers, a group to which Jane Austen belongs, have instead a great style that arises from honest and detailed expression, as well as complexity and clarity of thought.

In her writing, events occur because of the psychology, desires, predispositions, of characters. At the same time, she only portrays those characters through the actions and details that have a direct impact on the plot.

In effect, the characters are revealed through the plot, and the plot is manifested in their actions, words, and feelings. This is the symbiotic relationship between story-telling layers.

Expression Before Thoughts

By expression, we mean words said, gestures made, movements, and their quality. These all come before thought in a classic work of great fiction. In this way, great literature imitates life and gives it order and focus through the plot.

What we experience in our everyday interactions with other people are their outward expressions. We do not experience their thoughts or motivations. These may be later explained, and they always come as a form of expression.

And when it comes to the individual, thoughts and complex emotions are a node in a series of reactions. Very often, we do not consciously understand why we are doing something, or why we feel a certain way.

The relevance of the internal is only in relation to the external. That is to say, to what happens, what is experienced. With no experience, thoughts have no substance in and of themselves.

Psychology and Great Literature

As far back as the inception of the Rational-Emotional Behavioral Therapy by Albert Ellis in the middle of the 20th century, it has come to be understood that thoughts are not the origin but only a factor in the behavior of the whole.

We feel, think, and act as one, and, it is only a theoretical classification that separates them.

The ancients got this right with Homer, and later the great Greek tragedians whom Aristotle analyzed. This was the essence that trickled down and influenced William Shakespeare. Finally, it blossomed in the best work of Jane Austen.

So we see that in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen focuses primarily on what the characters say to each other, what they do in relation to each other, how they react externally.

As a narrator, she comments mostly on the general truths, as she sees them, of society or human nature. Thoughts and feelings are mostly portrayed through external gestures, psychological remarks are exclusively embedded in descriptions of behavior.

What You Want To Do

In short, when attempting to reproduce the young brilliance of Jane Austen's second novel, consider going through the following steps. You will want to jump between them, and this order is mostly a reminder of priority.

  1. Design a well-structured plot with events that make sense but which feature also disruption and re-balancing. (For more on this, take a look at Aristotle's Poetics.)
  2. Give shape to your characters through their predispositions and opportunities, and define them through their experiences and actions.
  3. Express the plot through the actions, gestures, and movements of your characters in accordance with the nature you imbued them with.
  4. Divide your plot into discrete events that will become the atomic chapters of your story. Each chapter must be entirely focused and should include at most a couple of very related scenes that make up the event. (Try not to let the chapter exceed in length or variety what the reader can comfortably absorb in the course of ten to fifteen minutes.)
  5. Embellish the words, make use of the metaphors we live by, work up the spectacle of actions. This is where style, in the modern sense, manifests, through the natural flow of the writer's own personality. You don't attempt to have style, it is simply what comes from you without effort. Whatever that is.

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