When one reads Austen—and I should say Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes—one gets a straightforward narrative. The first chapter of David Copperfield is “I am Born.” There is no “in media res.” The story starts, it progresses in time, and it ends at a later date than when it started. Maybe a year, maybe two, maybe much more. There may be references to events from the past (notably in Persuasion, where we learn of Ann and Wentworth’s engagement and its doomed end from seven years before). But there is no shifting time back and forth, just as there is no real point of view shifting.
The post-modern novel and even modern novel will have none of this linearity and singularity. Shifting time and point of view are the hallmarks. Its use in film is even more pronounced. I say this because of two recent movies I have watched where shifting time is both the strength and the problem.
Little Women – Oh, my word. The only clue to what was going on and when was the length of Jo’s hair. Those very familiar with the story could follow it; I’m not sure how a newcomer could, and it’s such a lovely story.
The Goldfinch. I saw I could watch this for free on Amazon Prime (they’ve gone to asking money for almost all the good stuff) and I saw why it was free. It isn’t the good stuff. I figured, hey, the novel won the Pulitzer (I own a copy, so I can read it, although I’m now not motivated to indulge my time in 700 plus pages). I also figured, Nicole Kidman is in it, maybe she’ll keep her clothes on. She looks so fragile, absolutely like a wisp, and she speaks in a whisper. I invested an hour and got so depressed I had to stop. However, the main problem, besides the tone and tedium, was the constant jumping around in time. I assume the book is the same.
I confess, I have used the same technique in some of my novels. It is what we do nowadays. But maybe, just maybe, there’s something to be said for A follows B follows C in time. It surely didn’t hurt Austen or the others of the 19th century who used that framework.
As a second observation today, I would like to comment upon her “world.” These are stories not of gentleman and ladies, moral people being civil and polite and genteel. They are stories of a particular class in a particular time: a class below aristocracy for the most part (anyone with a title is likely to come off foolish: Lady deBourgh, Walter Elliot) but above the servants or people who actually work for a living. They are the landed gentry, people who own large estates, living off the rents of the farmers who work on them or from other investments (sugar plantations in the Caribbean, as per Mansfield Park). The economic structure is a bit of a mystery to me, I confess, and it’s not clear why some are titled and some aren’t. If the men have a job, it is the running of the estate because they are the oldest son and inherited it; if they are not the youngest son but male, they have to find something else to do, army, law, government, or clergy, well maybe. They can get away with being idle. The women run the home and servants, although some seem far more indolent.
But this was Jane Austen's world. Every writer probably does best if they stick to a world they know, or a world they have spent an extensive amount of time researching. And I mean extensive. Too much bad amateur writing is over a period of time that the writer only knows from television shows or other bad books. I may write historical fiction one day, but anyone who does is taking a big risk. There are too many people out there who know an awful lot about the period, and they are likely to call the writer to task if a detail is wrong. One of my writing group’s members is writing a book on the Civil War. I check her facts for that very reason—and she’s always right, bravo.
Many amateur writers want to write fantasy, and thus are into world-building. That is a genre to itself, but the overriding rule is consistency. You can’t break the rules of the world you’ve created, but you can create the rules (to some extent).
I will close this short essay with the main word of advice: A writer must be a reader and read widely. First, for the knowledge of what’s out there (you’re not as original as you think); second, so you know what is good and bad (I’ll forego comments here about vampires); third, so you know what text looks like on paper, and what it’s supposed to look like; and fourth, so you don’t just write for money. If you write because you think you’re going to make a fortune off your first book, don’t. I traditionally published my first three and made very little money, embarrassingly little. I’ve haven’t sold anything in a month or longer. (COVID is not helping us authors—we can’t have book sales or talks; no one wants to spend money on expendables like books.) Do it because you have to. I am pretty sure Jane did.