[by Ross Browne]

If you’ve read any of Ken Follett’s work, it probably comes as no surprise that he was able to turn his own personal fascination with cathedrals and how they’re built into a damn good novel. But from a fiction technique viewpoint, what he done with The Pillars of The Earth transcends good and might be seen as an unexpected masterpiece. It’s an ambitious, epic tale that pits good against evil, love against hate, corruption against integrity, piety against ungodliness, and failure against redemption. The result is a downright irresistible novel that any novelist can learn from.

The paperback edition is only 947 pages, so if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy.

I’ll wait …

There. Was I right or was I right? One heck of a story, yes?

Perhaps like me, you found the author’s interest in cathedrals and how they’re built to be utterly infectious. Follett’s fascination with this topic flows through the veins of Tom Builder (and his stepson Jack) in a way that both creates and advances the plot. Without Tom’s fierce determination to build the most beautiful cathedral ever, the events of the novel—particularly the story of the fictional town of Kingsbridge and its ill-fated monastic priory—would be very different.

Score one for Mr. Follett. He put his self-admitted ulterior motive—to get people interested in cathedrals—to fruitful use in the … ahem … architecture of the story and shares his own interest and passion with readers through his characters. That’s something veteran writers often to do well, and it’s an area in which less experienced writers sometimes struggle. All too often, a novice writer will lecture readers for pages on end in the form of static narrative exposition that sometimes reads more like a textbook than a novel. There are far better ways to get readers engaged and informed with the concerns of your characters, as Follett demonstrates in this title.

A historical narrative you can learn from—without info dumps or plot-stopping narrative exposition

Don’t get me wrong. Readers do learn a lot about cathedral building in The Pillars of the Earth and about how Gothic architecture developed, but in a way that serves a clear and clever purpose in the story. It doesn’t feel stuck-on or like an excuse for the author to write endlessly about his passion and share the fruits of research. The exposition plays naturally and complements rather than impedes the flow of the narrative and build of suspense. You’ll learn about the mechanics of mortar, but only when failing mortar presents an opportunity for work to a man whose family is starving. You’ll learn about buttresses, but not until they burn and collapse. The bits of exposition are often couched in exciting plot events and help us better understand an important aspect of the story. And the same can be said when it comes to Follett’s effort to ground readers in the chaotic social, political, and lifestyle circumstances of the time. The information readers need to know to appreciate the story is sewn into the fabric of the novel in engaging and unobtrusive ways.

This is something we encourage in our work here at The Editorial Department. If your novel spawned from your own interest in or knowledge of a topic, we want to help you make sure it doesn’t lead to bloat, excess, or plot-stopping exposition. If your readers need to be educated about something, do what Follett does so well in this novel: serve up the information in small, easily digested servings, strategically placed where a momentary timeout from the main action or drama can be savored rather than resented. And serve it up with some interest and flair. (Don’t overlook dialogue and interior monologue as effective tools to convey information.) Your own interest first should probably be deeply felt by a likable character.

Follett’s masterful interweaving of historical fact and fiction is another home run, but too complex of a topic to get into here. Instead, I’ll focus on the fine job he does with something else vital to historical fiction, but really any fiction that’s set in a place or time that’s foreign to readers. In this case, it’s giving us a vivid, immediate, and visceral experience of what it was like to live in 12th-century England during a dangerous and savage time.

Unrelenting conflict and thwarting of of characters’ desires

Follett offers an unflinching but compassionate view of the challenges faced by people in all walks of life. From peasants to kings, no one gets off easy in The Pillars of the Earth. This is in part due to the realities of the time and in part due to Follett’s prodigious imagination. It’s also due to his skillful application of a principle we’ve been preaching for decades: most plots function best when you strive to make make life  absolute hell on your characters. Spend a good portion of your novel thwarting their desires and making solutions to their problems seem impossible. Leave your readers in anguish, desperately wanting outcomes for people we care about that seem to slip further and further from reach just when they’re needed most. Work as much conflict into the story as it can accommodate without becoming convoluted.

Follett does this so well in The Pillars of the Earth. His huge cast includes stonemasons and monks, priors and earls, fiercely independent women, love-struck teenagers, servants and men-at-arms and townspeople from all walks of life. All the main players want at least one thing (usually several things) very badly, and the story ties their conflicting objectives together in clever, engaging, and sometimes unbearably exciting ways.

Not everyone will get what they want but they will all overcome (or be bested by) gut-wrenching challenges, setbacks, double crosses, and danger on their journeys. Again, nothing is easy for anyone in this novel, and Follett’s ability to get readers so deeply invested in the wants and needs of so many characters is truly a thing of beauty.

Even William Hamleigh, a morally bankrupt character most readers will surely despise, can be experienced with some degree of empathy. We may not like him but we can certainly understand him, and perhaps even admire his tenacity. (If only he weren’t such a complete shit of a human being! But that of course would make for a much less interesting story.) Aliena is a character who’s easy to admire and root for. I never expected to feel strongly about a woman’s fight to be successful selling wool, but Follett managed to get me really fired up about this, along with many other things that integrate into a hugely compelling plot. And I learned a good deal about the wool trade of this period without the action needing to stop of being on the receiving end of a dreaded info-dump.

Proactive characters who work for what they want rather than luck into it

Another fine example set by The Pillars of The Earth is that just about every meaningful outcome in the book is the result of sustained and proactive effort on the part of the character who brings it about. There’s little in the way of coincidence, dumb luck, or serendipity that steers positive outcomes into anyone’s lap. There’s little in the way of reward for lazy characters who don’t work hard to get what they want and who aren’t willing to overcome heartbreaking setbacks that sometimes seem to breed like rabbits. The plot and subplots of the book are deeply rooted in the determination and tenacity of the characters, and this is part of what makes the plot and cast so captivating.

The notion that characters must work for what they want to be effective may sound like a no-brainer. But if you don’t happen to edit books for a living, you might be amazed at how many fledgling novelists struggle with the principle and let their characters get what they want too easily, too soon, or via dumb luck or coincidence. The best plots almost always involve characters who dig into the effort to reach a goal with serious gusto—who plan, take risks, or are just mightily proactive (sometimes even recklessly so) in pursuing the result they’re after. And who, of course, encounter numerous obstacles along the way. (That’s very important. Can’t stress that enough.)

We often explore the effectiveness of a plot via the simple question: What does a main character want and why can’t they have it? The Pillars of The Earth provides a shining example of this, simply by interweaving thwarted desires in clever, imaginative ways and in making readers care about the outcome.

  • Tom Builder dreams of building the biggest and most beautiful cathedral in the kingdom.
  • Prior Philip wants to rescue a failing monastery and see it thrive, but his efforts keep being thwarted by greedy and power-hungry earls and bishops.
  • Waleran Bigod wants to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Aliena wants to help her brother win back their earldom.
  • Alfred and Jack both want Aliena.
  • Jack wants to learn the truth about why his father was framed and then hanged for a crime he did not commit.

Connecting many of these dots is William Hamleigh, whose desperation for power and thirst for revenge sets numerous tragedies in motion.

Dynamic drama with lots of variation

The novel is long in length (about 1,000 pages) and in time frame (from 1123-1174) but its elements come together in what feels to me like perfect proportion. Part of what makes this hefty tome so entertaining is the interplay between plot and subplot and the strength of their collective effect on one another. There are love stories here. Vengeance stories. Survival stories. Battle stories. Stories of greed and corruption and redemption. Stories of ambition. Some span the whole book but many just occupy stretches along the way, adding rich texture and unexpected plot twists.

It’s not uncommon for new writers to struggle with stories set over a broad timeline. One challenge is keeping the characters convincingly engaged with plotlines that can take decades to play out. Follett wisely maintains several throughlines, a key one being the POV of Prior Philip, who is alive for the full span of the story and connected to many of the novel’s events in some way or another. But some of the main characters do die in this story, more than one of whom is surely beloved by readers. This may bring one subplot to an end or turn it in a new direction, but there’s an overarching plot (or series of plotlines) that keeps pressure on and things moving even when readers come to a point of subplot closure well before the end of the book.

So, for these reasons and many, many others, The Pillars of the Earth is a book we consider required reading for anyone aspiring to write historical fiction. It’s an epic, thrilling, harrowing read that is not easily forgotten.