I am reading Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's 1925 stream-of-consciousness novel. Clarissa Dalloway (aged 52, London socialite, married to a high-ranking government official and mother of a daughter, Elizabeth) is planning a party. On the morning of the party her household whirs along like a well-oiled machine, servants polishing silver and arranging furniture and laying in supplies. Things are looking pretty good for Mrs Dalloway. On her return from a brief walk (during which traffic has stopped as a limousine carrying--perhaps--the Queen of England passes down the street) Mrs Dalloway receives two shocks: first, she learns that her husband has been asked to lunch--alone--by a witty and popular noblewoman and second, she is visited by Peter Walsh, who was her beau some 33 years ago and has come to tell Clarissa that he's in love. The story continues from there.
The narrative is almost entirely made up of internal dialogue; there is very little in the way of descriptive prose or dramatized scenes. Clarissa goes for a walk. A couple sits in the park. Clarissa is visited by Peter Walsh. Peter goes and naps in the park. That's the first half of the book and it sounds pretty dull if you just relate it in terms of events. And if you were to ask what the central conflict is, what the story question is ("Will X manage to do Y before Z happens?"), I'd have to say that there really isn't one.
And yet this book is constantly moving, sucking me in and carrying me along and I'm reading it really quickly to see what comes next. It's all, as I say, taking place in the minds of the characters, and that's precisely what gives life to the events. The reaction of a neighborhood to the possibility that the Queen is being driven past them, within arm's reach even, and what it means to be a Londoner in 1923 is far more interesting than the action of the Queen being driven past. More sly on Woolf's part is how the attention of the patriotic crowd is drawn from the Queen (if it's her in the limousine) to a plane sky-writing an advertisement for toffee. The marketing is more immediately interesting than the confused emotions surrounding patriotism and nationalism and nobody is even looking when the royal car finally drives through the gates of Buckingham Palace. Peter Walsh, when he's walking to the park after having visited Clarissa, gets distracted by a pretty girl and he follows her discretely for some blocks, building up an elaborate fantasy life between him and the girl and then she goes into her house and it's all over and Walsh mourns that he's had such an adventure but couldn't possibly share it with anyone because it's all made up and a bit sordid, you know. And on like that and all of it's absolutely true to the life of the mind and fascinating.
It's all telling, too, not showing. This novel, in fact, violates many of the Rules that are widely promulgated about writing. I might go so far as to say that it proves the rules wrong:
You do not need to have a clear central conflict.
You do not need to have a "story question."
You do not need to have a single point-of-view per scene.
You do not need to avoid flashbacks.
You do not need to delay supplying backstory until after a conflict is established.
I will say, of course, that in order to get away with all of the rule-breaking listed above, you need to have absolute control over your form, you need to have a sophisticated and honest understanding of the human heart, you must be a brave writer and you must write absolutely beautiful prose. Then again, you should have all of those qualities anyway as a writer.