What I learned as a writer from reading Howard’s End:
1. Stay in the scene a little bit, walk around, feel it out before leaving. Maybe it’s because I am a part of the MTV generation and consequently have the attention span of a gnat, but my goal seems to be in some scenes to get people out of rooms, saying as little as possible, as quick as I can. I admired the pace of Howard’s End, the willingness Forster had to keep his characters around for several layers of conversation; hearing everything one of his character’s had to say on a subject, and then, just when we think the wedding of Evie is over, say, adding another development to extend and further shape the scene. The scene (beginning on page 68 in my book) when Charles and Mr. Wilcox first hear that Mrs. Wilcox has left Howard’s End to Margaret is a good example of this elongated, multi-faceted scene. Through Mr. Wilcox’s eyes we hear explanation of the funeral, rumination on the gravediggers, he takes a walk back from the site, has breakfast at Howard’s End, watches Evie come in with the letter, and then at some point we switch to Charles perspective as he goes out to chastise the servant for something having to do with his car being driven. Mr. Wilcox calls him back in, tells him about Mrs. Wilcox’s wish…etc. In many ways, Howard’s End felt like one long day to me.
2. Dialogue. Besides the charming, intelligent dialogue I mentioned to Tom in our weekly email, I noticed something else Forster did. Putting heretofore unseen action in dialogue. On my page 50, Margaret says, ï¿½Helen stop giggling and pirouetting, go and finish your packing!” Before that we have not even heard that Helen was happy about what Frauline Mosebach had just announced (that Margaret was back in favor with Mrs. Wilcox). I like the idea of extending the function of dialogue in that subtle way, and am noticing it here and there as I am rereading Franny and Zooey, too.
3. Pull focus from main character. It is probably no coincidence that I thought Helen was the main character of Howard’s End for almost the first half of the book (it takes me a while to catch on to things). After I realized I had been duped, I thought about how much I liked the idea of focusing on another character before getting to the main one, an aperitif before the main course. I also liked the occasional detours into a seemingly minor character’s head, Jacy or Evie or Dolly, for example. In my own writing I am far too ï¿½get to the point’ about things, which is no doubt why I have trouble writing things linger than 150 pages, since I end up skimming out All That Is Not and ending up with unfettered What Is. This is good to start with, but I like the idea of meandering around a bit more.
4. Don’t Let your Dialogue go on too long about trivial things. While I realize this was one of the chief themes of the novel, showing that the lovely, idyllic Edwardian era had its own problems including but not limited to its almost smothering triviality, I think Forster made the point, hit it on the head several times with a hammer, took out his electric screwdriver, and hung a whole book on it. Some of the conversations regarding the poor and politics were repetitive, I found myself wishing for one, fully formed representative scene, instead of many scenes involving those topics.
I think it is a good sign that this book is still able to say anything to a modern reader. I do not write like Forster, but I can learn from him.