Editor Roundtable: Howards End

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This week, Kim looks at Howards End in order to study Core Events. This 1992 film was directed by James Ivory from a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It was based on EM Forster’s 1910 novel of the same name.


The Story

This story is a mini plot where we meet three families: The rich Wilcoxes, the intellectual Schlegels, and the poor Basts. These various threads connect in many different ways over the course of the story, and we had a difficult time pinning down the BH depending on who you feel the main protagonist is, but for simplicity here, I am going to outline the spine according to who I feel is the main protagonist, Margaret Schlegel. 

  • Beginning Hook – Margaret Schlegel, a single woman of 29 in about 1900, lives with her sister and brother in a London townhouse and leads an intellectual life of freedom. A chance encounter brings the Schlegels into contact with the working-class clerk Leonard Bast. A slightly acquainted rich family, the Wilcoxes, move into the apartment across the street, and Margaret befriends Mrs Wilcox, who is ill. When Mrs Wilcox dies, she leaves her country cottage, Howards End, to Margaret in a handwritten bequest. He (and his adult children) must decide whether to take her final wish seriously or not. He reasons she was not in her right mind and chooses not. Having no knowledge of her friend’s final wish, Margaret Schlegel continues ahead as normal.
  • Middle Build – As the time of their move approaches, Margaret and Henry have begun a friendship of their own and she asks for his help in finding a suitable place. The two become subsequently engaged. But when Henry’s affair from ten years prior (with Mrs Bast) is exposed and he releases her from the engagement, Margaret must decide whether or not to forgive him. She forgives him and they marry. 
  • Ending Payoff – Meanwhile Margaret’s sister Helen has thrown herself into helping Mr and Mrs Bast rise from poverty, leading to an affair with Mr Bast. When Henry is unwilling to let Helen stay one night in Howards End before she leaves the country, Margaret must decide whether to accept this or force Henry to face his hypocrisy about his view of Helen’s actions versus his own adulterous past. She calls him out and decides to leave him. But when Henry’s eldest son is to be sent to prison for manslaughter of Mr Bast, she stays. She, Henry, Helen, and Helen’s child living happily together at Howards End, which he announces to his children will be left to Margaret upon his death.

Genre: Society-Domestic. This has been tricky to nail down the genre for me, but I think Society-Domestic fits best, owing to it pivots on exposing the hypocrisy of those in power, in this case, Henry Wilcox. The general prescriptive controlling idea/theme for Society genre is: We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants, which I will discuss more shortly concerning the Core Event. There is certainly much happening in the way of Status as well, certainly for poor Mr. Bast, but I do not see it as global Status story since he is not our main protagonist.

The Principle – Kim – Core Event of Society Story

This season I am studying Core Events. So let’s begin with what a core event is: The Core Event is the essential moment of change in a story. It is a microcosm of the global story and an expression of the Controlling Idea. It is the ultimate payoff of reader expectations that have been set up and built up over the course of the story and where the reader experiences the height of the all-important Core Emotion, which  is the experience they are most hoping for when they read that genre.

In a more technical way, the Core Event is the moment when the global life values are most at stake, meaning the protagonist has the most to gain and the most to lose. 

It also answers the question raised in the BH … will the lovers get together? Will justice be served? Will the villain be defeated / the victims saved? This question in the BH kicks off the Core Emotion experience for the reader, which builds over the course of the spine and culminates in the Core Event. 

In the case of this week’s story genre, Society, the question is something like: will the injustice of tyranny be exposed and overthrown? 

Hmm, let’s unpack that a little more. 

Shawn Coyne has said that Society stories are “an allegory concerning power and lies, a revelatory shift in power from one segment of society to another”. Just from that statement we know some of the key ingredients we need for a Society story. 

  • Multiple segments of society, one with power and one without. 
  • Lies (hypocrisy about power and justice), 
  • and the revelation of those lies, leading to a shift in power from one segment to the other. 

That is Society genre in a nutshell. 

So the core event of a Society is two-fold: the revelation of the hypocrisy of tyranny, and the shift in power. This often takes place in one scene, but I had a bit of trouble pinning it down to one precise moment in Howards End. Rather it seems to me to be best demonstrated by two moments. The first is when Margaret points out Henry’s hypocrisy regarding viewing Helen as a fallen woman for having gotten pregnant out of wedlock. 

[Clip 02:01:30 – 02:02:53]

Henry: I shall do what I can for your sister, but I cannot treat it as if nothing has happened. I should be forced from my position in society if I did. 

Margaret: Tomorrow she will go to Germany and trouble society no longer. Tonight she asks to sleep in your empty house. May she? Will you give my sister leave? Will you forgive her … as you yourself have been forgiven?

Henry: As I myself have been–

Margaret: Please answer my question, Henry.

Henry: Your sister can sleep at the hotel. I have my children and the memory of my dear wife to consider. 

Margaret: You have mentioned Mrs Wilcox. In reply, may I mention Mrs Bast?

Henry: You’ve not been yourself all day Margaret–

Margaret: Henry, listen. You have had a mistress. I forgave you. My sister has a lover. You drive her from the house. Why can you not be honest for once in your life and say to yourself “What Helen has done, I have done.”

Henry: I repeat what I said before. I do not give your sister leave to sleep at Howards End. Now do you understand?

This feels like step one of the revolution to me. Margaret highlights and reveals Henry’s hypocrisy to himself. It is even more explicit in the novel. 

“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unneeded kindness. I’ve spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”

“The two cases are different,” Henry stammered. His real retort was not quite ready. His brain was still in a whirl, and he wanted a little longer.

“In what way different? You have betrayed Mrs. Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can’t. You have had only pleasure, she may die. You have the insolence to talk to me of differences, Henry?”

Oh, the uselessness of it! Henry’s retort came.

“I perceive you are attempting blackmail. It is scarcely a pretty weapon for a wife to use against her husband. My rule through life has been never to pay the least attention to threats, and I can only repeat what I said before: I do not give you and your sister leave to sleep at Howards End.”

Powerful stuff. 

The next moment comes as Henry’s response. Fourteen months later, we find Margaret, Henry, Helen, and her child are all living happily together at Howards End. Henry has called his children there for a meeting, except Charles who is serving out his three-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Henry announces that Howards End is to be left to Margaret upon his death. He will leave her no money, as that is her wish, and rather it will be spread out among his children. Upon her death, she will leave Howards End to her nephew, Helen’s son. 

There is even a moment in between these two where Henry breaks down as he explains to Margaret that Charles will be sent to prison for manslaughter, and she decides to stay with him. It is her love and compassion for both Henry and Helen that makes a way for them to all live together as a happy family at Howards End.

In the novel there is very powerful line that I want to share: 

“Then I leave Howards End to my wife absolutely,” said Henry. “And let everyone understand that; and after I am dead let there be no jealousy and no surprise.”

Margaret did not answer. There was something uncanny in her triumph. She, who had never expected to conquer anyone, had charged straight through these Wilcoxes and broken up their lives.

We then get a little tag in this scene when Charles’s wife Dolly awkwardly says, “It does seem curious that Mrs. Wilcox should have left Margaret Howards End, and yet she gets it, after all.” There is a succession of awkward goodbyes and then Margaret asks Henry about what she meant. 

Then she returned to her husband and laid her head in his hands. He was pitiably tired. But Dolly’s remark had interested her. At last she said: “Could you tell me, Henry, what was that about Mrs. Wilcox having left me Howards End?”

Tranquilly he replied: “Yes, she did. But that is a very old story. When she was ill and you were so kind to her she wanted to make you some return, and, not being herself at the time, scribbled ‘Howards End’ on a piece of paper. I went into it thoroughly, and, as it was clearly fanciful, I set it aside, little knowing what my Margaret would be to me in the future.”

Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.

“I didn’t do wrong, did I?” he asked, bending down.

“You didn’t, darling. Nothing has been done wrong.”

In terms of our Core Four elements for Society genre, we have 

  • Core Need – Human needs tank of Esteem
  • Core Value – Global life values of Power / Impotence
  • Core Emotion – Righteous Indignation
  • Core Event – Revolution, when power shifts from one segment of society to another. 

In Howards End, the values of Power and Impotence are demonstrated in a variety of means: Rich and poor, men and women, married versus single, patriarchs and matriarchs, homeowners vs renters. The power and impotence directly relates to the level of Esteem that the opposite sides of the spectrum receive (or do not receive) from the other. In order for the Core Event to be effective, it cannot come “out of nowhere”, but must have been set up and built to across the whole of the story. 

In Howards End, this is demonstrated by Mrs Wilcox (who holds her family together with quiet power), Margaret’s forthright character to speak plainly and truthfully but also with tact and not unnecessarily–she cedes to Henry often to keep peace until she cannot. To do so would compromise her moral code. And so in the end, power shifts back to the wife of Henry Wilcox, in this case Margaret. 

So while this may not be the clearest revolution of a Society story, and one I wasn’t sure how I felt about when I first watched the film, now after taking in the story in various forms multiple times, it appeals to me as a great example of how power and revolution may often be quiet, and led not with force but with love.

You can read the full text of Howards End for free on Project Gutenberg.

Valerie – Beginning, Middle, and End

This season I’m pulling back to take a macro look at the beginning, middle and end of a story. It’s another huge topic but I’ll do my best to cover as much as I can over the coming weeks. Let’s start by taking a look at the beginning hook and what it means to hook an audience. 

There’s a whole lot of story business to attend to in the opening act of a story (roughly 25%). Among other things, we’ve got to introduce our protagonist and get the reader to empathize with her, establish the global genre and corresponding values at stake, establish the point of view and narrative device, plant a major question in the reader’s mind to ignite narrative drive, make sure the five act-level commandments are in place, and set up the stuff we plan to pay off.

It’s the beginning hook that lets the reader know what kind of story will follow in the remaining 75% of the book or film. To hook a reader means to get her emotionally involved in the story that’s to follow. She needs to care about the protagonist and the adventure she’s about to go on, she needs to be curious about whether or not the protagonist will get what she wants and needs. 

Often, although not always, the protagonist is the first character the reader meets. If not the absolute first, she must be among the first. If we think about it, there’s a logical reason for this; spending time introducing characters that aren’t pivotal to the story, creates confusion in the minds of the readers. It’s that simple. 

So how does Howards End stack up in terms of the beginning hook. Well, in my opinion, it does a pretty good job.

This is the kind of film you need to watch a couple of times to fully appreciate it. For anyone willing to do that, the rewards are worth the effort. However, I want to throw down a little caution flag here. It might amount to nothing more than an unfounded concern I have, but still, since we’re story nerds I want to point it out.

In recent years, film goers have been fed a pretty steady diet of Marvel Superhero movies, and movies that rely heavily on spectacle that allow IMAX (etc) to shine. And I get that. I’m not opposed to good special effects! Those kinds of films though, while they tend to have really solid story structure, are thin on nuance. Howards End, and the book it’s based on, are rich in nuance and I wonder sometimes whether this attention to the art might be getting lost in the desire and need to generate profit. Of course, it also means there’s a huge opportunity here for novelists to create richly layered stories. There’s a bit of a drought right now.

Having said that, for anyone wanting to write a more nuanced novel, I’d still recommend making sure that the macro story structure is rock solid. Most people read a novel once so they’ve got to track the story early and stick with it until the end.

The beginning hook of Howards End focuses primarily on Helen and her position in society. The story opens at Howards End itself, with Helen mistakenly believing that she has become engaged to Paul. The viewer empathizes with Helen immediately because we recognize her feelings; we know what it’s like to misinterpret someone’s level of affection for us. And to be honest, given the time in which this story takes place, Helen’s assumption, given the circumstances, isn’t at all unreasonable. We feel her embarrassment and we wonder whether, because of this misunderstanding, her reputation in society has been jeopardized. We wonder just how broken her heart is, and how she’ll recover from it. Empathy and narrative drive are established quickly and carry the story all the way through the first act.

Mark Twain said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. This is as true in story as it is in life. In stories it means that the ending payoff somehow rhymes with the beginning hook; an echo of something that happened in the first act occurs in the last act—sometimes we see a scene literally repeating, but not usually. To pull off a repeating scene, the writer needs master level storytelling skill because it can go sideways really fast!

If the beginning sets up reader expectations, the ending pays them off. The final act of this film rhymes with the first act because once again, we’re back at Ruth’s family home, Howards End, and once again we’re dealing with issues of Helen’s reputation in society. Only this time, it isn’t merely a misunderstood engagement. This time, Helen is pregnant out of wedlock, and the father is a married man from a lower class.

While the beginning hook and ending payoff balance each other nicely, I think where this film could lose audiences is at the opening of the middle build. We’ve spent a half hour being set up to think that Helen is the protagonist and that this story is about her reputation and place in society. Act two focuses on Meg, and in my opinion, it’s actually Meg who is the primary protagonist. Obviously, Meg is in the beginning hook (she doesn’t come out of nowhere), but she too is focused on her sister. The transition into the middle build is also about Helen. Meg goes to visit Ruth to discuss the earlier misunderstanding about the engagement.

Helen is the character that we’ve become emotionally attached to in the beginning hook, yet she walks out of the story in the opening of the middle build. For most modern viewers this is bizarre. We’re wondering what’s going to become of Helen, and suddenly, we’re being asked to set that story aside and now begin a new story with Meg and Ruth. This is the kind of story that sticks with you after you’ve read or watched it. Much of its richness, especially with respect to commentary on the social class structure, is realized only with multiple viewings or further thought. I think that if Meg’s story had played a bigger role in the beginning hook, this transition wouldn’t be so jarring (and that midpoint shift when Henry proposes wouldn’t seem so out-of-the-blue). As it is, it feels kind of like Meg’s story is sandwiched between Helen’s.

Is this a black mark on Howards End? No, I’m not willing to go that far. However, I think that anyone writing a story with multiple protagonists, and multiple layers, should (for a contemporary audience) try to weave the stories together in the beginning hook and keep them both going until the ending payoff so that the transition from one part of the the story to the next, is smoother.

Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device

I’m focusing on point of view (POV) and narrative device again this season. As I often say, if genre is what your story is about, then POV and narrative device concern how you deliver it to the reader. 

POV and narrative device choices are interdependent, but basically, the narrative device or situation is the content element of your story’s delivery to the reader and answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told. POV is the technical element that tells us whether you’re writing in third person omniscient, for example. It’s the way we create the effect of the narrative device.

POV and Narrative Device give writers useful constraints for making content and technical decisions from macro to micro—not at random or on a whim, but for solid, story-based reasons. I’ve been working to understand how POV and ND work and how to choose the best one for your story. I explore this in my upcoming Story Grid beat on POV as well as my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV. 

The bite size episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and Narrative Device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Story Grid Guild, or submit your question through my site, Writership.com/POV.

What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?

I start my inquiry with the narrative problem presented by the premise and other elements of the story because it provides immediate constraints for the analysis. Generally speaking, the premise is a character in a particular setting with a problem. 

What’s the premise? 

Margaret Schlegel is the central figure, what we now call the luminary agent in stories. Margaret inhabits the middle class in the United Kingdom during the Edwardian era. Her problem seems to be how best to live up to her progressive ideals by serving as an advocate and mediary between members of the working class and poor, represented by Leonard Bast and his wife Jacky, and members of the upper class who possess social and financial power, represented by Henry Wilcox, head of the Imperial and West African Rubber Company.

An important question in the story that the reader knows but Margaret does not is whether Henry will honor his wife’s dying request to give Howards End to Margaret.

What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?

First, the story spans several years, locations, and the lives of key characters. 

Society stories, especially those presenting cultural commentary must show contrasting perspectives from individuals representing multiple levels of society. Society stories must also put cultural lies on the page, so there must be some way to reveal what the same characters do under similar but different circumstances and the gap between what they think or believe and what they actually do. 

One of the selective constraints or conventions of a Society Story is the environment that gives rise to conflict—a big internal or external canvas with large power divides between the ruling class and the underclass. 

In some ways, Howards End feels like a thought experiment or hypothetical, more than than other realistic portrayals of the early 20th century in fiction. The coincidences that bring three families together over and over seem farfetched. It could have happened, but it seems quite unlikely their paths would cross as much as they do.

One more thing to consider as we look at Howards End as a masterwork is its longevity. We’re still reading and watching this story a century after it was published. If we want to write a story that lives on after us, we should consider how to present the specifics of a universal problem that can be relevant to people living in a different time and place? 

What’s the POV?

Third-person, editorial omniscient. 

The concerns I mention as problems presented by the premise can be addressed with an omniscient narrator who moves freely from place to place and character to character, showing us what the characters can’t yet see. 

I suspect in his time, E. M. Forster would have been concerned that the contemporary reader might go astray or miss important points, so allowing the narrator to speak directly to their reader is a useful addition to the point of view. 

What’s the Narrative Device?

The writer’s choice of narrative device sets up the point of view, though you might come to your decisions by a different path.


The narrator isn’t expressly identified in Howards End, so we have to do some detective work. To me this is like a mentor outside the story, crafting a series of unlikely events to make a point. Possibly someone very much like E. M. Forster. They want to enlighten the reader and help them see circumstances and relationships in a new way. 

How do the farfetched coincidences support this reading? The narrator’s audience (and by extension the actual reader) is encouraged to begin thinking about circumstances in a world that is similar to their own, but where unlikely circumstances arise. They can open their mind and consider possibilities without the risk of committing to the revolution.  

To whom?

Primary audience for the narrator would probably be people like Margaret who are capable of connecting, but also for people like Mrs. Wilcox, members of the upper class who are more open to hearing progressive ideas, though they don’t know what to make of them initially. 

In what form (by implication)?

The narrative feels like conversations over tea that include epistolary elements of letters and notes that serve as primary sources to support the narrative.  

When and Where? 

The telling of the story seems to come from outside the story, after the events have passed, but not in the distant past. 

Narrative distance: we’re used to thinking of this as a variety of emotional distance from the events, but it also includes moral distance between likely readers and the characters of the story. The audience must have a moral sensibility that allows them to sympathize with characters who make mistakes. 

Why? What’s the controlling idea?

My working hypothesis has been that the best stories create a clear connection between the narrative device and the controlling idea.

What is the controlling idea here? Here is the typical controlling idea for a Society story with a positive ending: 

We gain power when we expose the hypocrisy of tyrants. 

But in Howards End, exposing the hypocrisy isn’t enough. It is Margaret’s willingness to connect and offer forgiveness in Mr. Wilcox’s lowest moment that allows the tyrant to share power. 

Specific to Howards End, I would say,

We gain power when expose the hypocrisy of tyrants but also offer forgiveness.

How well does it work? 

How well do the POV and narrative choices solve the problem(s) presented by the premise? The fact that we’re still reading and adapting this story a century after publication speaks volumes for how well it works, but that’s not enough. We still engage with this story because it feels relevant, and I think part of that is because the POV and narrative device elegantly solve the problems raised by premise.

Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers

We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. 

Valerie: For me, the key takeaway here is that for stories with multiple protagonists, all the stories need to be introduced in the beginning hook. And, there has to be a hierarchy among the protagonists. One of them is the most important, and I think that’s the one writers should introduce first.

Leslie: Read widely and deeply, and—especially if your goal is a story that will live on after you—read the classics that endure. Study POV and narrative device and the effects these specific choices create. Think about why these stories continue to resonate and offer wisdom for our time. 

Kim: As for me, it’s that a Core Event requires set up. The life values at stake must be clearly represented and demonstrated early and often so that the life value change in the core event is clear and viscerally felt by the audience. Knowing where you’re going will help you better understand where to begin.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Kim Barton through the Story Grid Guild. Kim writes:

I’m revising a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last year. Part of my revision is to create a framing device. The first scene starts with action from the end of the story. My protagonist then begins to tell the story to her daughter about what happened to them that brought them to this place. I then start the story and tell it chronologically until we will end up where we started. 

The framing device is my protagonist telling this story to her daughter. Basically it’s, “let me tell you how we got here.” The frame at the beginning and end are in the present, while the rest of the story is in the past. 

My question: when I refer to the daughter in the bulk of the story, do I use ‘she’ and ‘her’ or do I use ‘you’? For example, “I held her hand” or “I held your hand.” I feel like using ‘you’ will feel strange to the reader, but using ‘she’ and ‘her’ doesn’t sound quite right either. 

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Leslie: Thank you, Kim! This is a great question. 

I would approach the decision by experimenting with different options to see the effects you create. In fact, I recommend that any writer test their point of view to see how it feels. Consider experimenting with different types of scenes, like those with more external action and those with internal shifts, different scene types (for example, stranger knocks at the door or encountering the threshold guardian), but also you might try pivotal events like the inciting incident, the all is lost moment, and the core event. 

When thinking about the effect you want to create, consider how much you’re willing to pull the reader out of the narrative experience. Second person references can be jarring to the reader, so you want to take that into account. Keep in mind also that you can tweak your narrative device. For example, the narrator could ostensibly be speaking to one audience member with the intention of communicating with another.  

No matter what you choose, when you draft scenes, I encourage writers to fully inhabit the narrator and their perspective and goal as much as possible. Drop your own identity and purpose to the extent that they contradict that of your narrator.

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Join us next time when Valerie will look at the middle build in two parts in the 2017 film Baby Driver. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Author Leslie Watts

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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.