What Miss Austen Taught Me

Attention, Austen-loving Figs! On Monday, February 13Elizabeth Eulberg will be joining fellow authors Shannon Hale (Midnight in Austenland) and E. Lockhart (The Boyfriend List) for a live chat here on Figment! They’ll be discussing Austen’s enduring influence and taking your brilliant questions about writing, publishing, and everything in between. Visit the event page here to sign up for a reminder email.

Below, Elizabeth, author of the adorable Pride and Prejudice retelling Prom and Prejudice, discusses how fun, educational, and intimidating it was to modernize one of the best-loved tales of all time.

When I first envisioned retelling Pride and Prejudice for teens, I thought about what a fun time I’d have re-imagining the wonderful world and characters Jane Austen created. While it was an absolute blast writing Prom and Prejudice, there was one unexpected side effect from immersing myself so deeply into Austen’s novels: I became a better writer.

In retelling a story, you have to dissect the original and then start from scratch. While I’ve always been a fan of this seminal work, I became more impressed by Austen as a storyteller when I had to break down the book, scene by scene, character by character. Some may think you’d lose the magic of a story when you “look behind the curtain,” but instead I found myself in awe. I learned a lot about telling a good story from Miss Austen that I take with me when developing new stories.

Create complex characters – Jane Austen created some of the most beloved literary characters of all time: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (swoon!). And of course, you can’t forget Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, George Wickham, Lydia, Jane . . . the list could go on and on. (And yes, it was completely intimidating to be tackling such an iconic novel.) What makes her characters so memorable is that you can’t put them in a box, because they aren’t clichés. Lizzy’s headstrong, but she’s also a hopeless romantic. Darcy can be in turns cold and judgmental then caring and sweet. While you think you know somebody they end up surprising you. Who can forget reading Darcy’s letter to Lizzy for the first time? Who knew that he had such humility and compassion? It’s because her characters are complicated, just like people are in real life.

Dialogue is more than just words – Some of my favorite moments in Pride and Prejudice are the continual banter between Lizzy and Darcy. Austen uses the conversations between these two characters to help shape the reader’s opinion of each, and at times, throw some red herrings into the mix. It’s this back-and-forth between them that shows you early on that these two characters have a spark between them: unfortunately, it’s at first misguided, but that’s what makes the journey so much fun. Sometimes it’s what’s not said that makes the most impression with the reader . . . and characters.

Speaking of red herrings – With Pride and Prejudice being such an infamous story, it’s hard to imagine anybody thinking that Darcy’s a pill and that Wickham’s a gentleman. But if you can recall your first exposure to the book (or one of the movies), you don’t really know how it’ll all play out. Just when you think you’ve got a character figured out, he runs away with your youngest sister. I think it’s hard to appreciate how well Austen did this, since the characters are such a part of our culture now. Even my brother, who has sadly never read any of Austen’s work or seen the movies, texted me while reading my retelling, “Why does the name Darcy seem so familiar to me?” (I was both amused and sufficiently horrified.) It’s no fun for the reader (or the writer) to anticipate every twist and turn. I will admit you have to throw this out the window when doing the retelling, because if you mess with the brilliance of Darcy, you should just head straight to witness protection.

Defy genres – Like characters, people always want to put a book in a single category: is it fantasy? Realistic fiction? Chick lit? It’s impossible to classify Pride and Prejudice as just a romance novel. While it is arguably the greatest love story of all time, it also has plenty of humor, family drama, and commentary on British society. Dare I suggest that Elizabeth Bennet may have been one of the first feminists? So now when I write a book, I concentrate on the story and characters and let others try to define it. A good story is a good story, regardless of genre.

I owe so much to Jane Austen, not just for the countless hours her stories have entertained me, but for being a shining example of a strong, female writer. I know I have so much more to learn from her and can’t wait for my next lesson.

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