How to Read a Novel: Week #1

Part one potted

The Sport of KingsI have completed the first week of my free online course, How to Read a Novel, and I’m relieved to report that I’m making good progress.

The Lead Educator for this course is Dr Alex Lawrie, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Edinburgh and the judge for The James Tait Black Prizes for fiction. She appears in several of this module’s videos speaking simply and concisely about various aspects of plot, using novels to make her points.

Week one was all about plot. Here is a condensed record of my activities over the last few days:

1.1 – 1.18  >>  PLOT  >>

Introduction to plot: There was an introductory video outlining concepts such as chronology and causality.

Flashbacks and flash-forwards: Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway and others such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens were used to illustrate why authors use flashbacks and flash-forwards in their fiction. We were asked to consider what, exactly, they contribute to our understanding of character.

Pace: In her video, Dr Lawrie explained how novelistic time can be slowed-down or accelerated. She discussed the reasons why some moments seem excessively stretched-out while others appear to be skipped-over entirely. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse were given as examples of deceleration.

What makes a good book?: Here we were given the opportunity to introduce ourselves to others taking the course and discuss with them our favourite novels.

Framed narratives: We looked at the way in which author’s withhold certain information from readers, i.e. gaps or ellipses in the plot. We were furnished with an excerpt from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, in which his ‘publisher’ introduces Swift’s account of his journey in order to give it the appearance of authenticity. Another example given was Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. We were asked to think of our own examples of ‘framing’.

Further frames and unreliable narrators: Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s 1899 text Heart of Darkness was drawn on to highlight the use of ellipsis.

Narrative perspective: Once again, Mrs Dalloway was quoted, this time to represent an unreliable narrator.

Whose perspective is it? We were asked to choose a book we enjoyed reading, and quote one or two lines from it. We were instructed to say whose perspective we were hearing it from and how we could tell. I chose Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which is told from the perspective of the narrator, Elaine Risley:

“If I were to meet Cordelia again, what would I tell her about myself? The truth, or whatever would make me look good? Probably the latter. I still have that need.”



Overview of The Sport of Kings: We were asked to apply our understanding of structure, frames and free indirect style to the 2016 contemporary novel, The Sport of Kings by American author, C. E. Morgan.

Flashbacks and decelerated pace: We were introduced to narrative jumps and looked at the way in which Morgan manipulates time. We then read an excerpt from her novel.

Repetition of events: In this novel an event is repeated over and over again, although it is described only once. This, we learnt, is necessary to convey cyclical, seasonal or other recurring events.

Narrative voice: We looked at who was telling the story and what effect this has on our perception of events. We discovered that The Sport of Kings is particularly rich in the variety of perspectives we’re given.

Free indirect style: We had some fun with a quiz: reading an excerpt from the start of the novel, then attempting to answer the questions that followed.

Meet the author: There was a question and answer interview with C.E. Morgan in which she spoke about aspects of the novel and shared her thoughts on the role of the reader.

Book club: We were asked our opinions on the extracts we had read, and were given the opportunity to discuss plotting devices in novels more generally.


From plot to characterisation: We reflected on what we had learned in week one: primarily key strategies used by authors to alter temporal progression of the narrative. These included devices such as flashback, flash-forward, summary and deceleration.


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21 replies

  1. Sounds really interesting!

  2. Very informative! Even when the author is not aware of it, every part has a name. Narrative voice is probably the most important for me as a reader. Recently I found out about ‘pathetic fallacy’ and was most surprised.

    • I hate to tell you, but I just had to Google ‘pathetic fallacy’ because I’ve never come across it before. I would normally use the word ‘anthropomorphising’ to describe something of this nature. Splendid discovery, Gretchen! 😮

      For the benefit of others who may read this, it means: “the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature.”

      • Thank you, Paula! Your response made me smile 🙂 I can’t help thinking the wording may be a little antiquated. It is something children’s books do well – but I think it sounds so gloomy.

    • Would you believe, after responding to your original message, I actually used ‘anthropomorphise’ in a review. I did consider ‘pathetic fallacy’ but wasn’t that brave! 😉

    • Hey, there’s something else I would love to read about on your blog: your children’s writers group!

  3. What a wonderful course! Seems like you are already getting a lot out of it.

    As a book blogger/reviewer, I feel how long it’s been since I took and English course that covered this foundational stuff, when I’m trying to put my finger on a certain something about the book and I just don’t recall the proper terminology. I just put myself on the notification list for the next date of this course!

  4. Your course on reading a novel seems very interesting.

    I am most curious about how authors adjust pacing and about the need for repetitive events.

    Good luck with the next week.

  5. This sounds fascinating! I look forward to hearing about everything you are learning!

  6. I’ve also added myself for the next time the course runs; this first week sounds so fascinating. I’m learning from your precis – thank you! It will stand me in good stead when I take the course for myself.


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