Up until recently I wasn’t much of a fan of classic literature. I read the Spark Notes for A Tale of Two Cities in high school, have forced my way through one Jane Austen novel (please forgive me Austen fans—if it’s any consolation I loved Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley), and have been known to steer my kids away from Robinson Crusoe in lieu of Harry Potter. I feared the longer descriptions and smaller amount of dialogue in a classic read might ruin my children’s enthusiasm for books.
I recently picked up a copy of Johnny Tremain in order to immerse myself in the setting of my latest novel (Revolutionary Boston). I decided to give it a shot with the kids as a read-aloud. I ignored the temptation to skim over some of the longer descriptions and plunged in, even throwing in a few voices here and there to keep their attention.
It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t need the voices. My boys loved the story—more so than other, recently published books, I’ve read to them. I found myself enraptured with the story also. Yes, there are some words I wasn’t certain how to pronounce, there were longer descriptions and the dialogue is not as plentiful as Harry Potter, but something about it drew them—and me—into the characters, the time, and the story.
It’s a beautiful thing when that happens, and I pondered why that was so. I have to admit, I think one of the reasons the story captured their attention was because of the longer narrative and vivid descriptions. We were invested in Johnny, liked him despite his flaws, and cheered for him as he found purpose with a crippled hand.
I wondered if some of these characteristics of classic literature that I often avoid can actually make a story stronger. I wouldn’t have felt such a part of Revolutionary Boston without the detail to setting. I wouldn’t have been invested in the character’s relationships if it wasn’t for the time the author took to draw them out, sometimes in longer narrative.
And so I battled with myself. As a writer in the modern world I’d learned not to get too wordy with description and setting, to have plenty of quick dialogue. And as we all know, show don’t tell.
I’m not arguing with these teachings. They are true and relevant to the modern reader. But reading Johnny Tremain made me think I could also learn something (many things!) from the author. Maybe sometimes I shouldn’t be in such a rush to gloss over setting description. Maybe I don’t have to feel pressured to have so much dialogue on each page. I don’t think it’s a formula, but I am convinced that reading some of the classics will make me a better writer. Because at the end of the day, beautiful writing unfolding an enthralling plot is a pleasure to read.
What are your thoughts? Do you read the classics? What is your favorite? Do you believe you are a better writer by spending time in them?
Heidi Chiavaroli writes History Woven in Grace. She is a wife, mother, disciple, and grace-clinger. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and has finaled in the Genesis contest and My Book Therapy’s Frasier contest.