Three Tips For Writing Victorian-Style Narration

Although I’m not sure if I’ve written about this topic before, I thought that I’d talk about how to write Victorian-style narration today. Although this is one of those skills that will probably feel like second nature when you’ve learnt it (and it’s been a while since I last read a proper Victorian novel), I can easily imagine that it might seem a bit more challenging if you’ve never tried it before. So, here are a few basic tips for making your story’s narration sound like it comes from Victorian Britain.

1) Read it (It’s easier than you think): The best way to learn how to write Victorian-style narration is simply to read it until you get a general sense of how people used to write back then. This won’t cost you much either since most Victorian novels are no longer in copyright in many parts of the world. So, you can often either legally find free copies online or find cheap “classics” editions of them in bookshops.

However, if you haven’t read any Victorian fiction before, then this might seem like a fairly intimidating and/or time-consuming task. After all, the Victorians have a reputation for writing giant three-volume novels and – thanks to some Victorian authors – their writing style isn’t exactly seen as “easily readable” either.

So, the best way to ease yourself into reading Victorian fiction is to start with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 short story collection “The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes”. For starters, each story is a short plot-focused thing that also contains an intriguing mystery that will make you actually want to read more.

Not only that, these stories also use a slightly more readable and “matter of fact” late Victorian writing style that sounds Victorian enough to teach you how to write in this style, whilst being just about modern and fast-paced enough for them to be relatively easy to read. Likewise, they are also written from a first-person perspective, which helps to cut down on things like unnecessary descriptions or long-winded asides.

Another good “starter” story for researching Victorian fiction is probably Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland” due to the short length, timelessly quirky humour and easily-readable writing style. And, after getting used to the style, then perhaps try reading more complex/descriptive shorter Victorian novels and/or novellas like Anthony Hope’s “The Prisoner Of Zenda” or Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.

Once you’ve read some Victorian fiction, you’ll probably start to get a general sense of the style used by Victorian writers. And, when writing for modern audiences, you’ll probably want to use a Victorian style that is similar to the more compressed, focused and readable one found in late Victorian short stories and/or novellas, rather than the more meandering (and less readable) style used in longer novels.

2) Formality and context: Victorian-style narration is usually a bit more formal and descriptive than modern-style narration. The sentences are often longer and more complex too, with more of a focus on “telling”-style narration than on “showing”-style narration. And, when you understand some of the context and reasons for this, then writing in this style will become a lot easier.

For starters, film and television didn’t really exist back then in the way they do now. This had an effect on the writing style used back then. After all, if a writer had never seen a film, then their main frame of reference for how to write would be telling a story in the traditional sense. So, Victorian-style narration will often just flat-out tell the reader things about the characters, backstory etc.. and will often use slower-paced, longer and more complex/formal sentences too. After all, Victorians didn’t expect their novels to be like slickly-edited modern Hollywood films – because they didn’t exist back then.

Secondly, books were actually popular entertainment back then. Many Victorian novels would actually be released in episode-like segments in magazines (full-size books were more expensive back then, and TV didn’t really exist) – so things like cliffhanger chapter endings still mattered back then, since they made people want to buy the next issue of the magazine. This is also why Victorian novels can sometimes be a bit on the long-winded side of things, since more chapters meant more issues of the magazine that could be sold.

Thirdly, the internet didn’t exist back then. Not only did this mean that Victorian novels would sometimes explain or describe things a bit more (since their readers couldn’t just Google, for example, a particular ancient pyramid or castle), but it also meant that they often had more of a focus on small-scale mundane everyday life and/or drama than modern novels do. Not only was this easier to write, but it was more likely to be recognisable and understandable to the average reader of the time.

This also probably had an effect on things like metaphors and references too. However, since it’s been a while since I last read a Victorian novel, what I’m about to say is a combination of vague memories, generalisations and/or speculation more than anything else, but it is still worth thinking about.

Anyway, whilst novels aimed at upper-class readers will reference the Latin, Shakespeare and classical mythology that their readers would have learnt at private schools, novels aimed at a wider audience would often either reference texts that the average Victorian person was likely to have encountered (eg: the Bible, popular myths, popular Victorian novels, maybe a few well-known parts of Shakespeare etc..) or more “everyday” things that people of the time would easily have known about. Again, people back then didn’t have the internet.

3) Have fun: Victorian-style narration sounds very melodramatic, and a little bit silly, pompous and/or over-written, when read today. It is often unintentionally hilarious. So, don’t take yourself entirely seriously when you write it and you’ll find the experience a lot easier. Just enjoy the theatricality and overwrought melodrama of it and you’ll find that writing it is a lot more enjoyable.

Seriously, if a piece of Victorian-style narration makes you laugh when you’re writing it, then you’re probably doing something right. This style is incredibly fun to use because of its silliness and hyper-dramatic “so bad that it’s good” nature.

And don’t worry about getting it “100% perfect” either – as long as it doesn’t contain anything glaringly modern, then readers will probably be a bit more forgiving for the simple reason that they will probably already know it is a modern text written in a Victorian style. After all, you probably aren’t trying to pass your story off as an actual, genuine piece of Victorian literature. Not only that, some level of humour and/or modern streamlining will also make your Victorian-style narration more readable to modern audiences too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Joy Of… Shorter Stories

2017-artwork-the-joy-of-shorter-fiction

A day or two before writing this article, I ended up reading two short comedy novels from the 19th century online. This wasn’t something that I’d planned to do, but after reading something online which pointed out that John Kendrick Bangs’ “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat” featured the ghost of Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a gang of pirates, I just had to read it. Since it’s out of copyright, it was very easy to find online.

And, despite the fact I don’t usually read e-books and the fact that I’d only planned to read the first part, I ended up reading the whole thing within the space of a single evening. Then I ended up reading the short novel that was written before it, mostly because I’d realised that – although I’m interested in the concept of “Bangsian Fantasy” – I’ve never actually read all of “A House-Boat On The Styx” before. Surprisingly, I actually preferred “Pursuit Of The House-Boat” though, because the humour was better, the narrative was more focused and it featured Sherlock Holmes too.

But, even though I could spend a while talking about the ways that these books were ahead of their time (and the ways they weren’t), one thing that really delighted me about both books was their length. They’re more like novellas than full-length novels. And, best of all, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unnecessary padding whatsoever. They’re short, sweet and they leave you wanting to read more.

Despite the 19th century’s reputation for “Doorstopper” novels, it was also the heyday of the short story, the segmented story and the novella too. Back then, short stories were the “television series” of the day. Whether it was monthly Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, or longer continuous stories released in thrillingly short instalments via Penny Dreadfuls, people back then understood the importance of shorter stories.

Shorter stories were designed to be entertaining, in the way that TV shows are designed to be entertaining these days. Despite their age, a lot of shorter stories from the 19th century and early 20th century are still very “readable” today for the simple reason that they were either designed to be compelling (with lots of drama, horror, action, comedy etc..) or because they didn’t have room for lots of bloated descriptions, extensive character histories, long irrelevant tangents etc…

Back then, literature was the main form of popular entertainment. TV, computers, the internet and videogames didn’t exist. So, shorter stories had to fill that role. They also had to fulfil the most basic purpose of literature, which is to entertain. Yes, literature (and even graphic novels too) can teach us more about humanity, they can make us think deeply etc…. But, above all, they can only truly do this if they’re entertaining enough for people to want to start reading them and keep reading them.

Shorter stories are the kind of thing that can be read “on impulse” because they promise an interesting story without too much time investment. Likewise, the shorter format also means that the narratives have to be more focused, which makes them more compelling. Plus, the experience of reading a short story collection is a lot like watching a DVD boxset.

When I was seventeen, and had first discovered “Sherlock Holmes”, I actually had to ration myself to just three or four stories a day. On reflection, this wasn’t too different to what I do when I’m watching a DVD boxset of a really good TV show these days. Yet, all or most of these Sherlock Holmes stories were written before television was invented!

If prose fiction is ever to become a truly popular thing again, then length should be the first thing to change. Looking at a related subject, there’s been a lot of controversy online about the length of modern computer and video games. One of the main arguments I’ve heard in favour of shorter modern games is that people don’t have the time to play games that they used to. Well, the same is true for fiction too. But, fiction has so many advantages that games don’t.

You don’t need to spend hundeds of pounds upgrading your computer or buying an expensive games console to read a piece of modern fiction from this year. Likewise, traditional books are the original form of portable entertainment. Even modern e-book readers are very portable (not to mention that e-books can be read on smartphones, tablets etc.. too) . Books are also significantly cheaper than computer/video games are too (both new and second-hand).

If we lived in a world where novellas and short story collections sat alongside novels on the “bestsellers” shelves, then prose fiction would probably be a lot more popular than it is now. I mean, we live in a world where films and TV shows co-exist in roughly equal numbers and with an equal amount of prestige. So, why should this be any different for longer and shorter pieces of fiction?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Today’s Art (27th February 2017)

Well, so much for “taking a break from comics for a couple of days”! Due to feeling especially inspired, I decided to start my next webcomic mini series (called “Damania Repressed”) early 🙂

This is the first comic in “Damania Repressed” and, although I’m hoping that this mini series will be fairly self-contained – it follows on from the events of this mini series (which, in turn, follows on from this one). Links to more mini series can also be found on this page.

But, yeah, Harvey tends to have something of a habit of not really thinking of highly-advanced technology as being “unusual” (however much he might dislike modern technology).

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Repressed - Revelation" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Repressed – Revelation” By C. A. Brown