Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was one of the bestselling authors of all time. In Confessions of a Young Novelist, he shares some unique advice for writing fiction.
Umberto Eco wrote Confessions of a Young Novelist in his late seventies. But having published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, only twenty-eight years earlier, he considered himself a newcomer to fiction writing. Looking back on his career so far, Eco reveals some valuable insights into his writing process. In this post, we’ve extracted four of the key lessons for fiction writers from Confessions of a Young Novelist.
Defining creative writing
“A text is a lazy machine that wants its readers to do part of its job.”
It seems a given that fiction writing is inherently creative, but what exactly makes a piece of writing creative?
“I have never understood why Homer is viewed as a creative writer and Plato isn’t. Why is a bad poet a creative writer, while a good scientific essayist is not?”
Some languages draw a distinction between the kind of writer who creates texts out of their imagination and the kind who simply records information, such as a poet versus a court stenographer. Eco disagrees with the notion that we can make this distinction based on the function a writer’s work serves in society. Nor can we define as creative solely writing that does not pretend to state the truth:
“Can we say without a doubt that Melville, in telling the story of a nonexistent whale, had no intention of saying anything true about life and death, or about human pride and obstinacy?…It is problematic to define as creative a writer who simply tells us things that are contrary to fact. Ptoelmy said something untrue about the movement of the Earth. Should we then claim that he was more creative than Kepler?”
For Eco, the distinction lies in how a writer responds to interpretations of their work. It is possible to misunderstand an uncreative piece of writing. It is not possible to misunderstand a creative piece of writing—creative writers leave it to the reader to decide what their work means.
The most creative works are those that can be endlessly reinterpreted and reinvented by readers. Every reader can understand their own version of them depending on their particular worldview. Some of the most popular works of fiction ever written are ones that reflect common dreams and fantasies or idealized versions of life. They afford enough ambiguity to allow readers to project themselves into the text, thereby formulating their own interpretation of it. They also present worlds that readers want to be a part of and characters that readers want to spend time with (whether from affection or morbid curiosity or a hundred other reasons). And just like we all get something different out of various relationships, so too do we connect with books differently than other readers do.
“…in a theoretical essay, one usually wants to demonstrate a particular thesis or to give an answer to a specific problem. Whereas in a poem or a novel, one wants to represent life with all its inconsistency.”
“Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”
Now let’s take a look at Eco’s four rules for writing creative fiction.
Rule 1: Start with a seminal image
Each of Eco’s novels began with a striking image around which he constructed an elaborate narrative.
For The Name of the Rose, he began with the image of a monk being poisoned while reading a book, which first came into his mind forty years earlier. For Baudolino, Eco began with the image of the city of Constantinople set alight by the Crusaders at the start of the thirteenth century. For Foucault’s Pendulum, he began by imagining the juxtaposition of two things: the device made by physicist Léon Foucault in 1851 to demonstrate the earth’s rotation and a trumpeter playing in a cemetery on a sunny morning.
“But how to get from the pendulum to the trumpeter? To answer this question took me eight years, and the answer was the novel.”
Once he had the seminal image, Eco would construct an entire world around it. Everything else in the book was about making that image make sense. Once you pick your image, you close the door on hundreds of other choices. To make that image work, you need to build your world so that image fits seamlessly, and so there are many element which you can no longer incorporate.
The place in which your image is set, the time, the people in it—all of these will help you determine what characteristics your world must have.
If your seminal image is a woman in a torn coat holding a drooping bouquet of daffodils in the rain at the end of a long driveway, here are some of the questions you might immediately ask yourself: Is she coming or going? Do daffodils grow everywhere? How old is she? What color is her coat? What style? Is the driveway paved?
Once you start to answer these questions, more will appear. You will start to get a feeling for the style and genre of your story. If you make your audience care about the woman, you will have to get her out of the rain. Where can she go? Does she have a car? Is she walking? How long to the closest refuge? You will make decisions. You will choose elements for your setting that are incompatible with others. You will choose plot points that necessitate certain elements in the backstory of your characters, which will then influence what they do during the course of your story.
Your choices will narrow. You will begin to build your world.
Eco cautioned that having a multitude of images in mind is a bad sign: “If there are too many seminal images, this is a sign that they are not seminal.”
Sometimes two or three seminal images can be signposts as you build your story. But one image will always be the starting point, and as you keep creating, you may find those other images need to be discarded.
Rule 2: Don’t expect inspiration to come out of nowhere
It’s a common misconception that the inspiration for a great work of fiction comes to a writer in a sudden flash. While particular ideas or images can seem to appear out of nowhere, they are often still the product of the long, slow digestion of relevant material. Creating a whole world requires a great deal of contextual information.
For Eco’s first novel, the material for it was collected in his subconscious mind for many years, during which he never intended to turn it into a work of fiction. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Middle Ages which inspired years of interest in the subject, and so he accumulated “twenty-five years’ worth of old filing cards” on the topic. As he began writing his novel, he had a rich collection of knowledge about the area from which to draw information.
After a chance suggestion, Eco discovered the inspiration he’d accumulated for The Name of the Rose:
“As soon as I returned home, I hunted through my desk drawers and retrieved a scribbling from the previous year—a piece of paper on which I had written down some names of monks. It meant that in the most secret part of my soul the idea for a novel had already been growing, but I was unaware of it.…When I decided to write the novel, it was as if I had opened a big closet where I had been piling up my medieval files for decades. All that material was there at my feet and I had only to select what I needed.“
To illustrate the reality of creative writing, Eco gives the example of Alphonse Lamartine. The French poet claimed to have written one of his most famous works in a sudden flash of inspiration. After his death, a plethora of versions of that poem were found in his study, revealing he’d actually worked on it for years.
For later novels, Eco spent years studying relevant subject matter to fit with his main idea. Although he always picked topics he had some knowledge of to begin with, later novels required far more research than his first. Once he had his seminal image and knowledge of relevant subjects, he used these to create an entire world for his story to live in.
Curiosity is a much more useful starting place for a writer than inspiration. Even with a topic you know well, there is so much you don’t know. Being curious about what you would need to know to set your story in a field hospital during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a penthouse in contemporary Hong Kong, or a saloon on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy is how you find the inspiration to write and the elements of the story you want to tell.
Rule 3: Create an entire world for your story to live inside
Whether you aim to set your story in the so-called “real world” or to create an entirely fabricated one, you need to know as much as possible about that world. It needs to have a consistent logic and rules that make sense to the reader. You then need to write with that world in mind, ensuring every part of your story truly inhabits your world.
Writing of the time he spent researching for novels in order to gain inspiration, Eco explained:
“What do I do during the years of literary pregnancy? I collect documents; I visit places and draw maps; I note the layouts of buildings, or perhaps a ship…and I sketch the faces of characters…I give the impression of doing a lot of different things, but I am always focused on capturing ideas, images, words for my story.”
For example, for The Name of the Rose, Eco sketched hundreds of maps and plans of its locations so he would know how long it would take characters to get between different places. When writing dialogue for scenes in which characters conversed while walking, he knew precisely how long to make each conversation, so “the layout of my fictional world dictated the length of the dialogues.”
Eco believed that the physical world a writer creates should dictate a great deal of the way they write. In particular, he believed in knowing what locations looked like “down to the last millimeter.” He went on to write:
“To narrate something, you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world—a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around in it with total confidence.…If you design every detail of a world, you know how to describe it in terms of space, since you have it before your eyes.“
Having created an entire world, you will then have a clear sense of the kind of language to use within it. You will be influenced not only by the time and place but also by the history of your characters. You will know more about your world than will ever make it into the pages of your story. You will know what one character received for Christmas when she was ten, and all the years before and after. You will know exactly how long a certain pub has been in business and the color of the fabric on its barstools. You will know the bus routes and the frequency of buses at each stop and what the driver looks like on each one. You will know intimately the details of every part of the world that your characters inhabit.
The makeup of your world will also influence other factors, such as the overall structure of the writing. Certain worlds demand a certain pacing. You will find a cadence that suits your world. A world in which everyone is moving quickly can suggest sentences in which the words tumble over each other. Intense actions demand short, clear descriptions so a reader can easily imagine they are going through it all with the character.
The rhythm of the words you use to tell a story has a huge impact on the story you tell.
Rule 4: Enforce constraints on your writing
Once you have your seminal image, you’ve crafted a world for your story to live in, and you’ve gathered the material necessary for inspiration, Eco proposes one more step for writing creative fiction. You need to place some constraints on your work. Counterintuitively, constraints lead to greater creativity and make it easier to come up with ideas.
“In order to enable the story to proceed, the writer must impose some constraints. Constraints are fundamental to every artistic endeavor. A painter who decides to use oils rather than tempera, a canvas rather than a wall; a composer who opts for a given key; a poet who chooses to use rhyming couplets, or hendecasyllables rather than alexandrines—all establish a system of constraints. So too do avant-garde artists, who seem to avoid constraints; they simply construct others, which go unnoticed.”
For example, in Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco imposed a constraint on the book’s structure. He decided it needed to have one hundred and twenty chapters and be divided into ten parts. Naturally, this decision shaped the way he wrote the book. In his novels, Eco also often employed temporal constraints. He might decide a particular character needed to be in a particular city on a particular date in order to witness a real historical event, or that a plot required the existence of a particular piece of technology, meaning events needed to happen after its invention.
Some constraints will naturally occur as you build your world. But if you find yourself creatively blocked, adding more constraints (instead of removing them) can help the writing flow. Constraints are powerful because they cut down the number of options open to you, making it easier to know how to proceed.
To give an example: if you’re writing a story and need to decide on several locations for different events to happen, you could decide they all need to happen in real cities with names beginning with the letter “C.” This reduces the number of possible locations, meaning less deliberation over where to situate your story. Once you choose the cities, you’re then further constrained by the nature of the places themselves. If you decide that the first chapter will take place in Chicago and the second in Copenhagen, the differences between those two cities will naturally influence what can happen in those parts of the story.
You may decide to kill a character, or make a commitment to another one that they are going to live. You may create obstacles to limit the movement of your characters. You may set yourself a cap on your word count. There are many ways to introduce constraints once you have started to write.
Ultimately, constraints are necessary to tell a story. Stories themselves have built-in constraints called the beginning and the end. No work of fiction can be everything to everyone. All choices in storytelling introduce constraints, and employing them deliberately is a powerful tool for a writer.
Eco’s advice in Confessions of a Young Novelist offers some excellent signposts for aspiring fiction writers. But remember: “In order to write a successful novel, one needs to keep certain recipes secret.”