Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lessons from the Classics

I was reading THE GODFATHER the other day and it occurred to me: this book does a great job of using (and even abusing) the “rules”. One of said rules being the gratuitous use of quotation marks.

The inciting incident (Don Corleone getting shot) doesn’t happen for twenty pages. The first chapters are entirely devoted to backstory about the mafia, especially the Corleone family, in New York. Yet it works. The real importance of these chapters is in the showing of the power and reach of Vito Corleone. Honestly, about half of it could be cut without affecting the story. But the whole of the work would still suffer. No, we don’t need to hear about the depravity of the movie producer, but somehow it adds something to the infamous horse-head-in-the-bed scene.

Most of the rest of the book is full of backstory, too. Yet it doesn’t drag and rarely feels like backstory. Every character that is introduced receives at least a page that delves into their histories, minutia of detail to show us who they are and why they make the decisions they do. Every minor character has a story to tell and we hear about it.

A lot of people call it a romanticizing of the mob and they aren’t wrong, but they’re missing the point of writing. All of us writers wantpeople to sympathize with our characters. The Godfather happens to pull this off. Murderers, sociopaths, people who use intimidation to get what they want…these aren’t nice people. But Mario Puzo makes them easy to feel for. By following along their lives, we can root for the protagonists to win, even though they’re just as bad as their foes.

Thoughts? What classics have you learned from?


  1. I haven't read The Godfather, so I'll have to now! I've learned from Frankenstein that readers usually skip a paragraph if it's more than five sentences. . . I skimmed a lot of that book. ;)

  2. I think I learn something from every book I read--what to do and what not to do. I haven't read many classics lately, though.

  3. It depends on how we define classics, of course....

    My last reading of a classic was a re-read in the fall of Hound of the Baskervilles...

    I've never read the Godfather books though.


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