What Great Expectations Can Teach You About Writing Fiction

Creative writing lessons from Charles Dickens

Terena Bell
Feb 14 · 4 min read

From foreshadowing to characterization, Charles Dickens was master of many a literary technique — so much so that his Great Expectations is taught as an exemplar in high schools across the country. As writers, though, it isn’t enough to simply understand what these devices are. We have to recognize them when we read — and instinctively apply them to our own work.

The latter may sound hard, but fortunately, there’s a fix: Start reading like a writer. “This means you don’t read just to find out what happens next in the story,” says Gabriela Pereira, author of DIY MFA, “You read in order to figure out what the writer is doing and how she achieves a particular effect so that you can recreate something similar in your own writing.”

To help you learn how to do that, here are a couple of creative writing lessons you can learn while reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, according to Lizzy Sisk, lead editor at Writing Through the Classics. The series publishes classic novels alongside notes for writers. These notes explain the fiction techniques used, providing prompts and exercises to help you write with them too.

(Great Expectations spoilers ahead.)

Foreshadowing

How Dickens Does It Well:

“Early in the novel, Miss Havisham’s death is foreshadowed in small ways,” Sisk says, “Take the scene where she and Pip first meet, for example. She’s wearing her bridal gown and Dickens calls it ‘grave-clothes’”— Sisk taking care to point out the hyphen between “grave” and “clothes.”

Miss Havisham in her “grave-clothes,” as played by Helena Bonham Carter

I glanced down at the foot from which the shoe was absent, and saw that the silk stocking on it, once white, now yellow, had been trodden ragged. Without this arrest of everything, this standing still of all the pale decayed objects, not even the withered bridal dress on the collapsed form could have looked so like grave-clothes, or the long veil so like a shroud.

“It’s just a tiny piece of punctuation,” says Sisk, “But the trick about foreshadowing is it can’t be obvious the first time you read,” explaining how by writing “grave-clothes” instead of “grave clothes,” Dickens shifts the word “grave” from an adjective to the first part of a compound noun: “He’s telling the reader this dress will quite literally lead her to her grave.”

How This Can Help with Your Own Writing:

Sisk says to start by thinking about the punctuation marks you use in your own novels and short stories and what they really mean: “So many of us put commas in certain places because that’s what a teacher told us to do. Stop. Instead, think.”

To get into the habit of purposeful punctuation, she suggests writing flash fiction — short stories under 1000 words—without any punctuation marks at all: “No commas, no periods, no hyphens, no nothing. Then wait a week and go back to edit. Add punctuation not where it should go, but where it adds meaning.”

Characterization

How Dickens Does It Well:

Charles Dickens reused characters, according to Sisk, who points out the many similarities between Great Expectations’ Mr. Pumblechook (Joe’s uncle) and David Copperfield Uriah Heep: “Not only are they both greedy slimeballs, but they even use the same expressions in their dialogue.”

From Great Expectations:

“To think,” said Mr. Pumblechook, after snorting admiration at me for some moments, “that I should have been the humble instrument of leading up to this, is a proud reward.”

From David Copperfield:

“I am the umble instrument of umbly serving him, and he puts me on an eminence I hardly could have hoped to reach. How thankful should I be!

“All these characters came from the same person’s mind,” Sisk explains, “so it makes sense they’d have similarities. People share personality traits in real life — why shouldn’t they in fiction?”

How This Can Help with Your Own Writing:

Don’t be afraid to recycle material. “Mine your old characters,” Sisk suggests, “Start with the discarded drafts, the unfinished novels. Just because that story didn’t work doesn’t mean the people you created in it won’t. Take your favorite characters from two unfinished drafts and your least favorite from a third. Now put them in a room together: a church sanctuary, a lobby, one of those escape game places that used to be all the rage. What happens?”

Sisk shares more insights and writing prompts in Writing Through the Classics: Great Expectations, released on Kindle this month.

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

Thanks to Justin Cox and The Startup

Terena Bell

Written by

2X entrepreneur; reporter & fiction writer; Kentuckian in NYC; advocate for straight-talk & continued improvement

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

Terena Bell

Written by

2X entrepreneur; reporter & fiction writer; Kentuckian in NYC; advocate for straight-talk & continued improvement

The Brave Writer

The next generation of writers breaking barriers together.

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