How to Write Like Tolstoy

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In Laughing Gas (1936), P. G. Wodehouse’s farcical take on Hollywood, the entire opening scene is given up to . . . what an opening scene should be. Reggie Havershot, a Bertie Wooster–like character, is trying his first attempt at fiction when he comes across a friend (who he all too slowly realizes is suffering from the father of all hangovers), to whom he insists reading the start of his projected novel. After the friend has listened to a painfully awful rendering, he comments: “The first rule in telling a story is to make it thoroughly clear at the outset who’s who, when, where, and why. You’d better start again at the beginning.”

There’s good sense in this, but does it force us to continue reading? The great Agatha Christie starts off The Murder on the Links (1923) by making that problem her solution:

I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence:

‘“Hell!” said the Duchess.’

Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess. . . .

And off she goes. With the very next paragraph who should enter but Hercule Poirot, and all’s well with the world.

Individual authors must select which style suits their purpose to establish voice, range of vocabulary, syntactic habits, and so on; each opening also makes a promise about the story that is to come—it establishes expectations.

Christie’s lightly swearing duchess belongs to a category of opening that I call “grabbers”—deliberate attempts to seize the reader with a first sentence or perhaps first paragraph. Typical of this would be the start of most Elmore Leonard thrillers—the wish to show, at once, that this story is going to thrill. His 1985 novel Glitz opens: “The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” And again, three years later, Freaky Deaky:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

The next sentence introduces us to “a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon,” who is in his Jacuzzi when the telephone rings, so he gets out and moves to his favorite seat, a green leather wingback chair, only to be told by the caller that he is sitting on a bomb, and getting up will set it off.

Not only suspense stories can begin with “grabbers.” When Gabriel Garcia Márquez read Metamorphosis, the first line of which runs: “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” the sentence “almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. . . . I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that.”


Creative writing manuals talk about stereotypes—characters who possess the expected traits of a group rather than being a developed individual. To this they add the central character, the protagonist; the antagonist, with whom the main character is in conflict; and the character foil, whose traits contrast with the main character. These are useful headings but may not necessarily help. Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes, for example, over fifty-six short stories and four novels don’t develop at all (with the possible exception of Holmes in “The Last Bow,” in which the great detective looks forward to retirement and total immersion in the world of beekeeping), but that is part of the genre of early detective-story writing. Dorothy L. Sayers bucked the trend when she transformed Lord Peter Wimsey from a man traumatized by the suffering he had witnessed in the Great War into a still compassionate but disciplined professional.

We think of characterization as being at the heart of fiction, but this is only partly true. Nabokov claimed that all great novels were great fairy tales. But as Philip Pullman notes in his introduction to Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, “There is no psychology in a fairy tale. The characters have little interior life; their motives are clear and obvious.” Other works of fiction besides fairy tales can be memorable without psychological detailing.

Although the simplest way to introduce a character, common in older fiction, is to give a physical description and biographical summary, some writers avoid giving lengthy descriptions so as not to influence the reader unduly. Jane Austen, for one, expended little energy on the appearance of her leading romantic players. Her characters are “handsome” or “pleasing” or “not at all handsome,” leaving her readers to conjure up the rest. In Jane Eyre, the tyrannical Mrs. Reed, whom we meet on page 1, is not given any physical description until page 43. It is up to the individual author to decide how much description to give. Some like to provide as much as possible as soon as possible, which is not necessarily wrong but can clog up the narrative.

Other authors begin with names, going on to body language, voices, their characters’ desires and secrets. V. S. Pritchett used bodies as emotional pointers: McDowell, in “The Vice-Consul,” has “an unreasonable chin and emotional knees,” while Mr. Ferney, in “Tea with Mrs. Bittell,” has “two reproachful chins and a loud flourishing voice.” Both Anthony Trollope and Thomas Mann, echoing Tolstoy, focused on the teeth of their females as a pointer to character, Thomas Hardy on their lips,[1] although he generally fussed over naming his creations, his most famous heroine progressing from Love Woodrow to Cis Woodrow, then Sue Troublewell, then Tess Woodrow, then Rose-Mary Troublefield, before coming to rest as Tess D’Urberville. Conan Doyle wanted to call his detective “Sherrinford Hope” (and Dr. Watson “Ormond Sacker”), “Hope” being the name of a whaling ship on which he had served as a doctor in 1880; he changed the name only because his wife Louisa hated it.

[1] Not just to character, but to sexuality. His own notes on his life are filled with such observations as, “Met Miss —, . . . Smokes: Handsome girl: cruel small mouth: she’s of the class of interesting women one would be afraid to marry”; “A Cleopatra in the railway carriage . . . a good-natured amative creature by her voice, and her heavy moist lips”; “Called on ‘Lucas Malet.’ A striking woman: full, slightly voluptuous mouth, red lips.” Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy, ed. Michael Millgate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 221, 240, 258.


In an essay of 1992, printed eleven years after Midnight’s Children was published, Salman Rushdie discusses the unreliable narrator at the heart of that novel. “I hope,” he writes, “that Midnight’s Children is far from being an authoritative guide to the history of post-independence India.” The years after colonial rule are seen through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, who makes various mistakes of reporting during the course of the book.

Rushdie points out that, although he did make some errors unintentionally (in his description of the Amritsar massacre, for example, he describes the “fifty white troops” who opened fire, when in fact they were not white), he went to some trouble to get things wrong. His intention, he says, was “Proustian,” because what interested him was the process of filtration itself. In shaping the way that Saleem tells his tale, Rushdie wanted to show that Saleem

is no dispassionate, disinterested chronicler. He wants so to shape his material that the reader will be forced to concede his central role. He is cutting up history to suit himself . . . .The small errors in the text can be read as clues, as indications that Saleem is capable of distortions both great and small. He is an interested party in the events he narrates.

This is subtly done and shows how carefully Rushdie chose his main protagonist. A friend of mine, an excellent editor, recently wrote to an author client: “The ‘unreliable narrator’ device is probably the hardest of any to pull off. The author has to be 100% reliable, in control, and totally aware of the difference between truth and not-truth at all times. Any looseness of ‘grip’ on the part of the author is going to translate itself into blurring and confusion on the page and therefore in the mind of the reader, and no amount of last-minute clarification will set it right.”

Ann Beattie, who besides her fiction also teaches creative writing, says, “You have to figure out who the right person is to tell the story. And often, people who are very self-aware will only sound as if they are pontificating.” Thus it may serve for the narrator to be tellingly biased like Saleem; impaired like Benjy in The Sound and the Fury or the fifteen-year-old autistic narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; insane (the governess who narrates Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw)[1]; a congenital liar (such as Thomas Fowler, the cynical journalist in The Quiet American); or plain stupid (Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver). In Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, the unreliable narrator is a mystery to himself, making the novel a puzzle to solve.

Saleem is not the only narrator in classic fiction to manipulate his memories, intentionally or otherwise: Ken Kesey tries something similar in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey, who polished his prose style as a young member of the Stanford creative writing program of 1946, noted (while imputing to himself an undeserved originality) that:

The book I have been doing . . . is a third-person work but something was lacking; I was not free to impose my perception and bizarre eye on the god-author who is supposed to be viewing the scene, so I tried something that will be extremely difficult to pull off, and, to my knowledge, has never been tried before—the narrator is going to be a character. He will not take part in the action or ever speak as I, but he will be a character to be influenced by the events that take place, he will have a position and a personality.

Thus we get a story told by “Chief” Bromden, the gigantic half–Native American inmate of a psychiatric hospital. Again, for narrators that are children, their limited vision means they cannot always make sense of their experience, thus hiding or confusing elements of the plot for the reader.

[1] I admit this is my interpretation. Is the governess in fact mad, or is she correct in thinking that her two young charges are consorting with a pair of malevolent spirits? The reader becomes a jury of one, and must determine her guilt or innocence.

In a 2015 issue of Publishers Weekly, two authors of books with unreliable narrators—Colin Winnette with Coyote, which features a possibly unhinged mother, and Jeremy M. Davies, whose Fancy is about a man looking for a cat-sitter—discuss their greatest unreliable narrators in literature. Among those chosen was Henry James’s The Sacred Fount (1901), his least read major novel, in which the narrator spends the entire book concocting elaborate deductions about fellow partygoers based on next to no evidence. Publishers Weekly, 27 February 2015.