Fortunately, writers’ minds run primarily on imagination and hope; otherwise the obstacles that bar publication and the unlikelihood of prosperity would discourage most from picking up a pen.
These impediments didn’t prevent a young woman, known to her family as Jenny, from closeting herself in her room each morning for over twenty years with a quill and a bottle of homemade ink. She faced even more obstacles than the modern writer: earning income from writing was considered inappropriate for a young woman, her formal education ended at age ten, and self-published e-books wouldn’t appear for another two hundred years. Despite all this and the fact that her novels were published anonymously, Jane Austen is honored to this day as one of the century’s greatest English writers.
But what sets Austen apart from the thousands of romance novels published every year? Let’s delve into some of her strengths as a writer.
#1: Originality through Research
Nearly all beginning writers fall into the trap of modeling their stories after their favorite novels. Austen herself was an avid reader of Gothic novels. But rather than succumb to their clichés of melodrama and gloom, she invented her own. The events of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet’s relationship have now become a staple plot for innumerable romance stories. A poor girl meets a wealthy man and both instantly dislike each other. But gradually her admirable qualities (of intellect, not looks!) win him over, and he proposes. She stubbornly rejects him, further proving that she is not swayed by his wealth, which only serves to endear her to him further. Eventually she realizes he has a good heart beneath his fierce exterior, and the two are free to blissfully enjoy each other and their shared wealth forever.
But Austen didn’t limit herself to this one trope. Even though the story of a man and woman first meeting has been told countless ways since Genesis, her protagonists have unique opportunities to form bonds. For Lizzy’s sister Jane and Mr. Bingley, it’s “like” at first sight. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tinley doesn’t give Catherine a serious thought until she clearly indicates that she adores him. Both of these relationship beginnings, while not as distinct as Elizabeth and Darcy’s story, are more likely to be relatable to readers yet just as touching.
Follow Austen’s example by reading widely within the genre you intend to write. This will make you aware of tropes that have been done before and equip you to consciously choose which ones you want to emulate and avoid. Your study can be as casual as asking for book recommendations from fellow writers, or as serious as dedicating yourself to completing a top-twenty reading list on the masters in your field.
#2: Subplots and Contrast
Subplots, as helpfully defined by our own Brandon Miller in his article on the subject, “Can raise stakes, increase tension, provide breathing room, create steadier pacing, and develop characters.” But when utilized clumsily, subplots kill the story’s momentum and cause readers to question why the character/event was included.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses subplots to push the story forward and clarify its theme. Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins’ offer of marriage emphasizes the family’s financial instability. Her younger sister Lydia’s very public and foolish elopement increases the chances that she and her sisters will never marry, as well as provides Darcy with an opportunity to earn Elizabeth’s favor. None of these scenarios are unrelated add-ons meant to boost the novel’s word count, but all work together to reveal the depth of Lizzy’s character development.
Try evaluating your story’s subplots with some basic questions. Does an event raise the stakes? Does it help with pacing by generating a needed pause, or does it further stagnate it? If you determine that your characters would arrive in the same state at the same ending with or without the subplot, it’s probably dragging your story down.
Another powerful purpose of subplots is contrast. Every protagonist will encounter a hard choice over the course of a good story. Without contrasting his choice against that of minor characters, you can’t demonstrate whether he’s making the right or the wrong one.
Austen illustrates this point perfectly. Most of the female characters in her books are faced with the problem of finding a husband to provide for them, but they solve it different ways. Austen even has the same man propose to both Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte, allowing readers ample opportunity to debate the merits of each woman’s choice. Was Lizzy wise to refuse Mr. Collins, the heir of her family estate, and thereby leave her mother and sisters penniless? Or was Charlotte the foolish one to marry a man so aggravating that she can hardly bear being near him?
Perhaps not all families enjoy debating the Bennets’ shared peculiarities around the dinner table like mine does. But when you contrast different characters’ responses to the same decision, it heightens reader engagement and enables you to expand on your story’s theme without being preachy.
#3: Engaging through Emotion
As the attention span of our entertainment-addicted culture continues to shorten, writers may feel increasingly pressured to include ever-more preposterous drama and action in their stories. But violent battle scenes will never capture readers the way emotional investment will.
One of the greatest lessons we can draw from Austen’s work is that stories don’t need fierce wars, violent deaths, or anything outside the realm of the natural world to be excellent. The most scandalous event in Austen canon—a fifteen-year-old running away with an army officer—is described only through other characters informing Elizabeth. But the shock, the grief, and the impropriety that we feel through her is sufficient.
Take the time to convey your character’s emotions rather than merely rushing on to the next cataclysm. This doesn’t need to be explicitly spelled out (“Darcy was upset”). Readers are often smarter than we give them credit for (see Gabrielle Pollack’s article, “How to Write Believable Emotion”). A little emotion from a typically reserved character is very effective.
[Elizabeth] hastily exclaimed, “I beg your pardon, but I must leave you. I must find Mrs. Gardiner this minute on business that cannot be delayed.”
“Good God! What is the matter?” cried he, with more feeling than politeness.
Without establishing an emotional reaction, you will deny your characters, and readers, the chance to be truly impacted by the loss or dramatic revelation.
Jane Austen’s Prayer
Austen, despite authoring some of the most cherished love stories ever written, never married and was barely forty when she died. She was not a flawless master of her craft—all six of her novels end with a wedding, which some might say is predictable. But she did have a solid grasp of the conflict in the human heart and how it affects our relationships with one another, as evidenced by this prayer she wrote that’s displayed in her house in Chawton:
“Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own Souls . . . that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.”
This may be one of the most under-appreciated facts about Austen: her famous reflections on pride and folly stemmed from a biblical understanding of human nature’s perversity.
Besides writing, Austen also devoted time to reading and encouraged her young nieces and nephews’ work. Now it’s time for the next generation to put her techniques into practice, not just theory. Be a writer not only in name but in deed.