Anatomy of a Novel: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists. His talent is in his concision. He is able to say in 200 pages what it would take many other writers 400. The Quiet American manages to be a thriller, a detective story, a romance and a historical fiction in just 167 pages, about 60,000 words.

How does he do it? I decided to find out.

For those of you who haven’t read The Quiet American, I’d seriously recommend doing so immediately. But the gist of the story is this:

Setting

Vietnam in the 1950s, during the French war.

Main Characters
  • The viewpoint character is Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for some time.
  • Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title, has been murdered.
  • Vigot, a French detective, is trying to find out who did it. He suspects that Fowler may know something about the murder, but Fowler denies everything.
Plot

Fowler and Pyle have been competing over the last few months for the affections of a Vietnamese girl, Phuong, Fowler’s lover of two years.

Fowler is unable to offer Phuong anything concrete: he is already married and his wife refuses him a divorce.

Pyle, on the other hand, is young and has good prospects. In the course of his courtship of Phuong, Pyle saves Fowler’s life.

But when bombs start going off in Saigon, Fowler discovers that Pyle has something to do with it. He tells a communist contact that Pyle has “got to be stopped”. Pyle is murdered.

Phuong returns to Fowler, whose wife has now granted him a divorce. Vigot can’t prove a thing.

Scene Structure and Pacing

I divided the book up into its parts, then into its chapters, then into its sections within those chapters, then down into its scenes within those sections in order to build up an anatomy of the novel.

The Quiet American is split into four parts. The first two parts take up two-thirds of the novel.

  • Part 1: 55.5 pages in 5 chapters and 16 scenes. 1300 words per scene.
  • Part 2: 64 pages in 3 chapters and 14 scenes. 1700 words per scene.
  • Part 3: 26.5 pages in 2 chapters and 9 scenes. 1100 words per scene.
  • Part 4: 21 pages in 3 chapters and 7 scenes. 1100 words per scene.

Already we can see that, as the novel progresses, the pacing of the scenes increases.

After the climactic scene in Part 2, in which Pyle saves Fowler’s life, there are no more sections longer than 8.5 pages. In Parts 3 and 4, the longest section is just 6 pages. You can see this clearly in the graph below (click on it for a bigger size):

The Quiet American: chapter section length in pages.

Flashbacks and Narration

One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is Greene’s use of narration and flashback. The novel is mostly told in flashback, with Fowler recounting the events leading up to Pyle’s death.

In fact, there are only 8 scenes in the whole novel which are told in the present (17%). The rest is flashback (83%). The whole of the longest part of the book (Part 2) is told in flashback. This is the most dramatic part of the book.

And yet it is the present narration that adds the suspense to the book: did Fowler have a hand in Pyle’s death? Will Vigot find out? Why did Fowler do it?

The fact that Greene is able to keep these questions in the reader’s mind without detracting from the sense of immediacy during the flashbacks shows great skill.

The placing of these scenes may give us a clue.

  • 5 of the first 6 scenes take place in the present. In these, Greene establishes Pyle’s death, the relationship between Fowler and Phuong and the investigation into Pyle’s murder by the French detective Vigot.
  • Then there are 24 consecutive flashback scenes, taking us through the rest of Part 1 and the whole of Part 2.
  • There is not another “present” scene until scene 30 of 46, at the very beginning of Part 3 (1 out of 9 scenes in that part).
  • Finally, the first and last scenes of Part 4 are also present (2 out of 7 scenes in that part).

In this way, Greene is able to give the story a good push at the beginning and then only has to give us a little nudge in the middle, to remind us of the ongoing investigation, before wrapping things up at the end.

Getting Closer

To look more closely at the section structure, word counts, present narration and flashbacks and for a brief synopsis of each section, see the image below (click on it for a larger size – and no apologies for the crazy colours!):

The Quiet American: detailed analysis.

Through close examination of the way that great novelists have solved the problems of plot and narration, we can improve our own writing and understand how great novels work. I hope this article helps you as much as it has me!

The Nine Best Books Ever Written in the English Language

This list is an aggregate of lists from Random House (1998), The Guardian newspaper (2003) and Time Magazine (2005). So it hopefully represents a fair blend of US, UK and publishers’ perspectives.

Why nine? These nine are the only ones that make all three lists. So here you are: the nine best books ever written in the English language. In alphabetical order, by author:

  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Forster, EM: A Passage to India (1924)
  • Golding, William: Lord of the Flies (1954)
  • Heller, Joseph: Catch-22 (1961)
  • Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (1957)
  • Nabokov, Vladimir: Lolita (1955)
  • Orwell, George: 1984 (1949)
  • Salinger, J.D.: Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • Spark, Murial: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

I’ve only read seven of these. The ones I’ve missed: A Passage to India and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I shall be catching up as soon as I’ve got through Midnight’s Children, which only made two lists (Time and Random House).

I’m not going to comment further. There are plenty of debates and arguments to be had over this list, but the indisputable truth is that these are nine awesome books. So here instead are my one-sentence reviews of the seven I have read.

Gatsby: Vacuous morality in the roaring twenties.
Flies: Politics = Let’s pick on piggy.
Catch-22: O what a hillarious war!
Road: Wild unripping hail of road-storm America.
Lolita: The aesthetic mind of the forbidden erotic.
1984: Big brother is still watching us.
Catcher: We were all teenagers once.

Now get reading.