Sometimes, the best writing tips of all come from simply reading books, which is one of the main reasons why I’m launching this under-appreciated classics series. Some of my all-time favourite books are ones that have mostly been lost to obscurity – but I think they have so much for us to learn. (Not to mention, I just think they’re great books!)
This month, I read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, probably the author’s least popular novel. I didn’t even know the book existed until long after I’d read (and reread) Austen’s more popular works. And while Pride and Prejudice remains my favourite Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey is a close second. It’s outstandingly different from the author’s other works, not to mention downright hilarious (even more so than Emma, in my opinion), and it features my favourite Jane Austen “hero,” the goofy, witty, and cheerful Henry Tilney.
Northanger Abbey is deceptive at an initial glance. The story itself begins with following a very traditional Jane Austen storyline – apart from the narration, which is much more involved in the storytelling than in any of Austen’s other novels. But in the final third of the novel, the tone suddenly shifts to something much darker and drearier than typical Jane Austen…sort of.
Because you see, Northanger Abbey is a parody of a Gothic novel. The entire book is one very long joke, with the first two-thirds setting it up and the final third delivering the punchline. It’s all expertly achieved while still leaving you with the impression that you most definitely just read a happy Jane Austen novel.
Not all of us set out to write satirical novels, but even then, Northanger Abbey is a great example of how to write humour – which is one of my biggest struggles in my writing. Here are some things that I learned from this book:
1. Conveying themes through humour
There are multiple themes you can pick out of Northanger Abbey, especially as Jane Austen inserts her opinions so much into the novel, but many of the main themes conveyed through Catherine, the heroine, are carried with humour. Who can forget Catherine getting so worked up about opening a mysterious cabinet in the middle of the night, only to find that there’s nothing but a laundry bill inside? How can you not facepalm when Catherine fails to realize John Thorpe’s obvious infatuation with her?
While by no means making her heroine a fool, Jane Austen stresses the importance of sensibility (ha!) and learning how to read people. The joke is that Catherine is a huge reader and can talk about Udolpho all day long, but she doesn’t know her closest friend’s obvious feelings when they’re staring her in the face. These aren’t themes you soon forget when they’re accompanied by such humorous circumstances.
2. Breaking the rules – with style
Literally! The narrator’s voice in Northanger Abbey breaks one of the most well-known rules of fiction: you shouldn’t talk directly to your readers or plainly tell them what’s going on because that’s telling rather than showing. And yet, Jane Austen did it – and it’s brilliant.
The commentary from the narrator is what adds most of the humour to the story – without it, watching Catherine flounder around would probably just be pathetic. It goes to show you that any writing rule can be broken as long as it’s done well.
3. Humour doesn’t have to come from funny characters
Northanger Abbey has only one truly humorous character: Henry Tilney, the love interest/hero. He’s delightfully funny, but he’s only in a tiny fraction of the novel. The heroine, Catherine, isn’t a jokester at all. Instead, the humour in the book comes from circumstances and the narration. In fact, many scenes are very distressing for poor Catherine but hilarious to the reader. If your characters aren’t funny, there’s still hope for humour in your book.
4. How to set up a joke
As I mentioned earlier, the entirety of Northanger Abbey is sort of a joke poking fun at Gothic fiction. It even follows the standard joke format: spending time to set up the joke, and then delivering a quick, action-packed punchline. The last part of the novel with Catherine at Northanger Abbey wouldn’t be nearly as amusing if we didn’t have the whole beginning of the story to set it up. It’s a simple, basic format, but it works.
Have you read Northanger Abbey? Or which book have you learned the most about writing from? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re still struggling with humour in your writing, let me know! My feedback services start at just $10.
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