Writing Advice from P.G. Wodehouse

I recommend the Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” series to anyone interested in writing (and many people who aren’t). Interviews with talented writers are not always everything they’re cracked up to be, and often the advice is inapplicable or just plain wrong — even the most talented people don’t always have a good sense of what their actual process is, or which parts of their process work — but I almost always find them interesting, and I frequently find them useful.

I’ve been reading their interview with P.G. Wodehouse, now about 40 years old, and it really is fascinating. In particular, this bit struck me:

INTERVIEWER

If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?

WODEHOUSE

I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “Which are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, “This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,” you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.

There are a couple pieces of advice in there. The first bit, about the dialogue, is interesting to me. Wodehouse’s first-person narratives are charmingly written and often just a joy to read. But the dialogue is what pushes the plot, particularly when the narrator is already comfortable and disinclined to be budged.

The second part, I think is true of many stories. For me, this is most frequently a problem with my villains. Once the protagonist gets going, I have a tendency to have my villains hunker down and wait to be thwarted. No serious actor would stand for that, of course.

The third part… well, that doesn’t apply to me yet, of course 😉 But I’ve been leaning harder on my first person narrations, and it’s good to remember that the story underneath has to work even when I’m at my most entertaining. I suppose that’s why I like having a mystery plot as a canvas: it forces the plot forward when I’m otherwise inclined to get into the weeds.

The rest of the interview is by turns interesting and entertaining. Wodehouse seems have lived a rather unexamined life, to be honest, and his comments about his life during World War II are worth thinking about. There’s also this exchange later, which I think any Wodehouse fan will find unsurprising:

INTERVIEWER

How about the Beats? Someone like Jack Kerouac, for instance, who died a few years ago?

WODEHOUSE

Jack Kerouac died! Did he?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

WODEHOUSE

Oh . . . Gosh, they do die off, don’t they?

And then, well, I’ll just leave this here before I go, apropos of nothing:

INTERVIEWER

I don’t think writers get along very well with one another.

WODEHOUSE

No, I don’t think they do, really.

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