E. M. Forster who lived for almost a hundred years was an academician and a successful novelist. Few of his novels like A Passage To India, A Room With A View, Howard’s End were made into films. As an academician and a successful novelist, he was invited to give lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1927. This series of lectures were published as a book later on. This book was called Aspects of the Novel. Since he was a novelist, the topic was about writing a novel and he dealt with seven aspects. He cited examples of various writers and novels to drive home his point. For any student of literature or any aspiring novelist, this book will give useful tips for he talks about the rudiments of storytelling. Story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm are seven aspects that go into novel writing according to Forster.
Story is the first aspect dealt with, in the essentials needed for storytelling. When incidents are narrated at random, there is no story and this cannot happen in a novel. There should be a sequence to what is happening. Only when there is a sequence and when it happens within a time frame does the novel have appeal. He says the story “runs like a backbone – or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary.” For the story, the sequencing according to chronology is very important. Readers are keen to know what happens next and it is this interest that makes them read on.
Life also is a sequence of events where there are value additions. In the story, sequencing and time are more important than values. He calls it the “lowest and simplest of literary organisms” and yet it is the “highest common factor, common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.” Right from the primitive man, listening to stories has been a favorite past time, means of communication and learning. Till date, stories make people attentive, young or old. Readers are listening to the voice of the author through his characters, plots and comments. This voice should be telling a nice story.
Characters Or People
The first interest is what will happen next, and then the reader is also interested in “who did it happen to”. According to Forster, though the characters are taken from real life, there is more depth and insight into the characters in the novel. This is because we do not get to know all aspects of our friends or relatives or other acquaintances. There is something always hidden while the novelist gives a pan shot or 3600 view of the people in the novel. The characters are black, white and have shades of grey too. The characters are like real people but not real people.
If one can identify a living person in the novel it becomes the memoir of that person. For example If the character in the novel behaved, talked and lived like Gandhi, then it becomes a memoir of Gandhi and not so much so a novel. The work of the novelist is to create and not record. To record is the work of the historian. The characters in the novel are slightly removed from the real life people in that the common things the people go through do not find a prominence in a novel. Sleeping, eating and other common things do not find a place in the novel while emotions do find a large place. Forster says that ‘love’ is the most used emotion all over the world.
For the novelist, human beings must be the main passion, says Forster. He says life is the passage from darkness in the beginning to darkness at the end. Man does not remember his baby days how much ever he tries; so he is in darkness about that phase of life. He might know he is heading towards death but cannot get back to tell that experience; once again it is darkness. And it is the characters of such people who the novelists portray. This is not to belittle the novelist but it is a philosophical statement on life.
People who go with the tide or who are lost in the crowd are not taken as a protagonist. The characters in the novel take an unbeaten path and they live life as they want it. It is on such occasions that the character shows some substance. In the epic novel of India, Mahabharatha, there is a character called Vidura. He is the man who is most honest, giving good and correct advice to people who are erring. But no one listens to him. When writing a synopsis of the novel we can easily leave out this character because he does not make an impact on the plot or characters of the novel. The characters have to be someone different creating a niche for themselves.
Forster goes on to classify characters into two- the ‘flat characters’ and the ‘round characters’. Flat characters can be described in one sentence. All through the novel, this character will not change or nothing new will be revealed about this character. He says these characters are in their “purest form, they are constructed around a single idea or quality.” Such characters are ‘easily recognized’ and ‘easily remembered’. Many people do not find such characters interesting but Forster says the minute the character comes on we know what to expect if it is a flat character. He cites the example of Charles Dickens’ characters who were mostly flat characters, yet there was a great depth in those human beings.
A round character surprises as the novel goes on. In the first few pages we might know one aspect of the person and then another facet of the character pops up surprising all. Yet the added feature should be convincing enough. According to Forster, the characters of Jane Austen are classic examples of round characters. These characters have an ‘extended life’. Having a judicious mix of flat and round characters is what makes a novel interesting is how Forster concludes his idea on characters or people in a novel.
Plot deals with the cause of the story. The story can be summed up in a line but the plot is what really takes the story through the events and the sequence of events. For example we can sum up the story of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte as one of love and revenge. Heathcliff who comes in as an orphan goes on to become the master of two places, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The plot weaves around the events to tell how it really happened. There the story of love and revenge is elaborated.
Aristotle has said the characters are less important than the actions they do, especially in tragedies. Forster feels that it is not right and it is the character that brings in the tragedy. He states “happiness and misery exist in the secret life which each of us lead privately and to which (in his character) the novelist has access.” He continues that this thought is suitable for dramas but not novels. In the novel the writer can tell about the character and the character also can tell about himself or herself when they talk to themselves.
In the case of story, we ask what next but when it comes to the plot we ask ‘why’. Forster says that story will satiate our curiosity while the plot will test our intelligence and memory. According to Forster, curiosity is a very base element in man and inquisitiveness is all that is needed. Curiosity alone will not take us much into the novel. The plot on the other hand works on the intelligence of reader. The reader has to note new points, its connection to what was read so far and even bring it up in the memory at a later point of time.
Mystery is also important in the plot. By mystery we only mean the unexpected turn of events and not as usually understood a crime thriller. When this mystery succeeds, the novel triumphs. Forster says that a part of the mind must be thinking of what was read while another part must go on reading, searching for the next event and the why of that and at the same time see all that is read as one whole. Forster credits the works of George Meredith with excellent plots and he discusses briefly the plot in Thomas Hardy’s and Charlotte Bronte’s works.
Fantasy according to Forster is what is generally understood, a flight of imagination. It is not just about monsters and ghosts but it can be anything that is unlikely or different from the ordinary. This element should fit into the story and keeps the narration gripping. There is a feeling of special effect in the novel when fantasy is introduced. Forster also includes parodies and adaptations as novels of fantasy. He says that changing a story already written needs a lot of imagination. Since it is imagination at its best, these novels can be called novels of fantasy.
According to Forster, when the voice of the novelist takes on an accent, it becomes prophecy. It can mean that it moves from the regular events and there is something nebulous about the happenings. He quickly adds that prophecy is not the same as symbolism. Symbolism stands for something while prophecy does not indicate anything other than what is prophesized.
Pattern is what we see in paintings, sculptors and other art forms. How then is it applicable in a novel? Forster sees geometric shapes in the plots. He says it can be in the shape of an hour glass when the rise of one results in the downfall of another. When characters come back to the place where they started, there is a circular pattern in the novel. He cites the example of The Ambassadors by Henry James. The two characters come back to the place where they began, only they have switched places. The domesticated person becomes a traveler and the traveler becomes domesticated.
The story kindles our curiosity, the plot appeals to the intelligence and the pattern must touch our aesthetic sense. This is the role of pattern in the novel but it should not be forced into it, jeopardizing other aspects of the novel. It should be allowed to grow naturally in the plot.
When a motif repeats itself in the novel, it is said to be the rhythm of the novel according to Forster. Rhythm also increases the aesthetic sense of the novel. It also brings a structure into the novel. He likens it to an actor but not quite an actor and it is the thread that stitches the book from the inside. When there is a waxing and waning of rhythm it fills the reader with hope, freshness and surprise. Forster feels it cannot come to writers who plan the book beforehand; it has to be impulsive at the right point of the plot.
In world literature, there are only few books which deal with the art or method of writing novels. In that sense E.M.Forster’s ‘Aspect of the novel’ is a forerunner. It is very light and sounds like a friendly chat. It is so because it is a compilation of series of lectures and lectures do not take the form of a book. Nevertheless there are many points to be noted and he puts it across in his inimitable style. Critics say that this book is outdated and his views do not have a universal appreciation. He gave this series of lectures at a time when many novelists had not emerged. Now there are many styles of writing and there is a lot of experimentation. However one cannot take basics of storytelling away from this book. Any aspiring novelist will do well if he understands the tips given in the book by E.M.Forster.