Four Types of Conflict

In an article in Reader’s Digest dated April 2, 2018, Karen Ann Lefkowitz wrote about the conflict which is necessary in a script, but her observations apply equally to fiction.

Reader’s Digest says of Ms Lefkowitz: “Karen Ann Lefkowitz received her master’s degree in communication management from the University of Southern California and works at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television. As a freelance writer, she has written art and entertainment pieces for print and online publications.”

Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of the lady, but in her article she says: “It goes by a variety of names—clash, quarrel or discord—and can take innumerable forms: a fierce dragon battle, verbally sparring with the opposite sex, or simply uncovering a mystery. Described and designed in whatever fashion the imagination can divine, conflict is at the heart of every great screenplay. Conflict is what drives the narrative and without it a tale may exist, but there will be nothing exciting to tell—drama rises out of conflict.

“A script is always about a protagonist with a problem. The key words are motivation, opposition and goal. The protagonist is motivated to overcome his problem and/or achieve some goal. On this quest there should always be opposition—without it, the story becomes lifeless. The opposing force created, the conflict within the story generally comes in four basic types: Conflict with the self, Conflict with others, Conflict with the environment and Conflict with the supernatural.

“Conflict with the self, the internal battle a lead character has within, is often the most powerful. To be one’s own antagonist is of great distress to most and can result in incredible storytelling if done correctly. In Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of The Sith, fans finally got to see Anakin Skywalker succumb to his dark side and become Darth Vader. Conflict with the self has always been featured in the Star Wars canon. Like his father, Luke struggles with his identity and destiny.

“Oscar®-winner American Beauty brilliantly employed conflict with the self. Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham is suffering from a mid-life crisis and must find a way out of his depression in order to discover who he really is and mend his relationships.

“Going mano a mano may seem a little boring, but when a superbly drawn protagonist and antagonist are pitted against one another it can be highly entertaining. Romantic comedies almost always employ this technique: WhenHarry Met SallyAnnie Hall, As Good As It GetsHitch—each has the love interests wrestling each other.

“Conflict with the environment is not limited to physical landscape. Environment encompasses society and every aspect of it. In 2005 a number of film releases featured society as a major oppositional force. In Cinderella Man, boxer James Braddock is at the mercy of his Depression-era unlucky circumstances. In Sundance Film Festival favorite Hustle & Flow, DJay struggles with his role in society as just a low-life pimp. He hopes to elevate himself through his musical talent by becoming a rapper. Pride & Prejudice centers on the injustice of the ruling class system and how it makes falling in love not just a matter of the heart, but of how deep an individual’s pocket or purse strings reaches.

“The documentary March of The Penguins represents a strong use of conflict with the natural world. The Emperor penguins must travel a great distance if they wish to procreate. Even after they have successfully mated, the father penguin must protect the delicate egg without the mother. If luck prevails and the egg actually hatches, the father is left with a baby who needs protection from the unforgiving frozen arctic terrain.

“In an age where special effect technology allows for limitless filmic expression, conflict with the supernatural has become quite popular. The world of the unknown is always titillating. The realm of the supernatural embraces all menacing meanies; the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, King Kong, ghosts—each fit the supernatural profile. Look directly to the highly successful Lord of The Rings trilogy for a terrific example of conflict with the supernatural. Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring are fighting a ring, a powerful ring hungry to return to its evil owner, Sauron, who isn’t really alive, or dead, but a frightening entity.

“Writers can concentrate on one, two or all four conflict types. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is a fine case of utilizing all four conflict types. The initial conflict is with the shark. Spielberg’s clever technique of not revealing the actual shark until the last reel of the movie makes the creature an almost paranormal predator (conflict with the supernatural). As the story progresses and the shark attacks mount up, a call to action becomes necessary. Sheriff Brody, enlisted to lead the charge to eliminate the shark, must grapple with his own fear of the water (conflict with the self). Big tourist location that it is, the town of Amity Island fights with Brody to not close the beaches during the busy holiday season (conflict with the environment/society).

“Now that the four types have been outlined, the question remains how to successfully weave conflict into the script. This can be accomplished through character and setting, to give two illustrations.

“The medium of movies has produced some of the greatest villains in popular culture: Darth Vader, The Wicked Witch of the West, Freddy Krueger, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and even the Nazis from the Indiana Jones trilogy. Creating a living, breathing antagonist to butt heads with the hero is an easy way to invoke conflict. There can be one main antagonist or multiple characters causing trouble. In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, The Bride didn’t just go up against nasty Bill; she has the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad to smack down, too.

“Physical space can be converted into an aggressive element in a screenplay. A classic in the Jerry Bruckheimer oeuvre, 1996’s The Rock features a chemical weapons expert played by Nicolas Cage teaming up with ex-convict Sean Connery to break into, and then out of, Alcatraz. The prison itself, plus the fact that it is located on a remote island, creates obstacles for the heroes. Physical spaces in the prison, like the boiler room, laundry room and still-operational jail cells, all become sources of conflict.

“When looking for the next big idea why not brainstorm first for some kind of conflict? Write it down in one sentence. For example: A police officer has to catch a serial killer. Try to focus on this specific conflict and build outward—create the characters, give them something to say, pick a setting, and of course, keep that conflict coming scene after scene after scene.”

Writing a Synopsis

I have always struggled writing a synopsis for a book I have written. It always seems o come out as two single spaced pages, which I know is too much, and when I try to cut it back I feel like a child murderer. So, I was glad to take note of the advice from Courtney Carpenter of February 14, 2012 which was recently republished by Writer’ Digest.

I haven’t been able to find a biography of Ms Carpenter, but she has been a frequent contributor to Writer’ Digest, and this seems to be her photo.

In the article, she says: “Once you have finished writing your novel or book, it’s time to prepare your work for the submission process. While each literary agent has their own specific guidelines, it’s useful to know how to write a synopsis. 

“Here are 5 tips on how to write a synopsis like a pro.

  • Narrative Arc. A synopsis conveys the narrative arc, an explanation of the problem or plot, the characters, and how the book or novel ends. It ensures character actions and motivations are realistic and make sense. It summarizes what happens and who changes from beginning to end of the story. It gives agents a good and reliable preview of your writing skills.
  • Active Voice. Agents look for good writing skills. Let yours shine in your synopsis by using active voice and third person.
  • Unique Point of View. An agent is usually looking for an idea of fresh or unique elements. Is your plot cliche or predictable? Have elements that set your story apart from other things they have seen.
  • Story Advancement. A synopsis should include the characters’ feelings and emotions. Use these elements to advance your plot and story.
  • Write Clearly. Focus on clarity in your writing and avoid wordiness. Remember, less is more.

“While there is no universal standard for the length of a book or novel synopsis, agents usually favour one to two pages, single-spaced. Sometimes an agent might ask for a chapter outline instead, which is a synopsis of each chapter. Here are some tips on what to avoid when writing a synopsis:

  • Mentioning too many characters or events.
  • Including too much detail about plot twists and turns. You don’t want to tell the entire story. What you want to do is write a book summary with enough detail about the plot to intrigue the reader or agent.
  • Unnecessary detail, description, or explanation. Make each word in your synopsis count.
  • Editorializing your novel or book. Don’t use “…in a flashback,” or “…in a poignant scene.” If you have a confusing series of events and character interactions, not only will your reader be confused, but a potential agent will be too.
  • Writing back cover copy instead of a synopsis. Don’t go astray and write a hook to intrigue a reader to buy a book or an agent to request a manuscript. Focus on summarizing your novel or book.

“Jane Friedman gives some of the best tips for formatting a synopsis. She recommends beginning with a strong paragraph identifying your protagonist, problem or conflict, and setting. The next paragraph should convey any major plot turns or conflicts necessary and any characters that should be mentioned in order for your book summary to make sense to whomever is reading it.

“Lastly, she recommends indicating how major conflicts are resolved in the last paragraph. This ensures a clear presentation of your book or novel and doesn’t leave the reader confused.”

I actually like Jane Friedman’s advice best because it focuses the mind in what is really important to include in a synopsis, and keeps it brief which, I understand, is what agents want.

100 Greatest Novels

Today, The Daily Telegraph published their list of the hundred greatest novels (in English). I’m sharing the list below. It’s interesting to notice what one has read, what one would like to read, and what one would like to add (or delete) to the list.

100. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (1954–55)

Hairy-toed hobbit Frodo leaves home to defend the world from dark forces by destroying a cursed ring, in Tolkien’s epic trilogy. WH Auden thought this tale of fantastic creatures looking for lost jewellery was a “masterpiece”.

99. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

This child’s-eye view of racial prejudice and freaky neighbours in Thirties Alabama was the only novel Lee published in her lifetime – until an early draft of it was released as a “new” book in 2015.

98. The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore (1916)

A rich Bengali noble lives happily until a radical revolutionary appears, in this Bengali tale of clashing cultures from the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist.

97. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

Extra-terrestrial travel meets very English humour, as Earth is demolished to make way for a Hyperspatial Express Route. Don’t panic!

96. One Thousand and One Nights (anonymous)

A Persian king’s new bride tells tales to stall post-coital execution, in a tangled collection of Middle Eastern folk stories first translated into English in 1706.

95. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1774)

Werther loves Charlotte, but she’s already engaged. Woe is he! Goethe was inspired by his own obsessive romance with a married woman to write this epistolary novel, which made him famous overnight.

94. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1980)

The children of poor Hindus and wealthy Muslims are switched at birth in this Booker Prize winner, which uses magical realism to question the legacy of Indian partition.

93. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974)

The pseudonymous le Carré drew on his own work in the secret service to create fictional spymaster George Smiley. In his finest adventure, a nursery rhyme provides the code names for British spies suspected of treason.

92. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

A hilarious satire on bleak rural romances. “Something nasty” has been observed in the woodshed, and elderly Ada Doom is perturbed.

91. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (c1000–20)

This is a coruscating story of the life and loves of an emperor’s son. And, according to some scholars, it may be the world’s first novel.

90. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

A work of Murdoch gold in which a feckless writer has dealings with a canine movie star. Comedy and philosophy combined.

89. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)

Writer Anna scribbles in her notebooks about communism and women’s liberation, in what Margaret Drabble calls “inner-space fiction”.

88. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1825–32)

Passion, poetry and pistols vie in this verse novel of thwarted love, which inspired an opera by Tchaikovsky.

87. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

Beat-generation boys aim to “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles”, in a semi-autobiographical picaresque. Kerouac typed out the first draft in three near-sleepless weeks, on a single 120-foot scroll of paper.

86. Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1835)

This disillusioning dose of Bourbon Restoration realism follows three characters: retired pasta-maker Goriot, mysterious felon Vautrin and ambitious student Rastingnac, an anti-hero whose name became a byword for ruthless social climbing.

85. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830)

A plebian hero struggles against the materialism and hypocrisy of French society with his “force d’ame”.

84. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

“One for all and all for one”: the eponymous swashbucklers battle the mysterious Milady in 17th-century France.

83. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)

Written to “germinate” social change, Germinal unflinchingly documents the starvation of French miners.

82. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

A Frenchman kills an Arab friend in Algiers and accepts “the gentle indifference of the world” in an existentialist fable championed by fellow philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

81. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)

An illuminating historical whodunit set in a 14th-century Italian monastery. Eco, previously an obscure semantics professor, was baffled when his book became a bestseller.

80. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)

An Australian heiress bets an Anglican priest he can’t move a glass church 400 kilometres, in a shaggy-dog story that won Carey the first of his two Booker Prizes (he scooped the award again in 2001 with True History of the Kelly Gang).

79. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

Rhys’s post-colonial prequel to Jane Eyre gives moving, human voice to the “madwoman in the attic” (Mr Rochester’s first wife).

78. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

The ludic logic of “Carroll” (the pen-name of mathematician Charles Dodgson) makes it possible to believe six impossible things before breakfast, as young Alice slips down the rabbit-hole into a world of talking animals. 

77. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

US Air Force pilot Yossarian drives himself crazy trying get out of active service in the Second World War. But trying to get out of a war is clear-cut proof of sanity, surely? So he’s stuck. The title of Heller’s satirical epic is still shorthand for inescapable lose-lose loopholes.

76. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

K proclaims he’s innocent when unexpectedly arrested. But “innocent of what”? We never find out, but this posthumously published nightmare made “Kafkaesque” the go-to label for any instance of hellish bureaucracy.

75. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)

The first part of a trilogy inspired by Lee’s Gloucester childhood; the protagonist’s first romantic encounter with the titular Rosie (that “first long secret drink of golden fire”) is under a hay wagon.

74. Waiting for the Mahatma by RK Narayan (1955)

A gentle comedy in which a Gandhi-inspired Indian youth becomes an anti-British extremist.

73. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque (1929)

The horror of the Great War as seen by a teenage German soldier. It became an Oscar-winning film in 1930, and was later banned – and burned – by Hitler’s regime.

72. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982)

Three Baltimore siblings are differently affected by their parents’ unexplained separation. The best of Tyler’s many excellent books.

71. The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (1791)

A profound and panoramic insight into 18th-century Chinese society.

70. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

In a historical page-turner, Garibaldi’s Redshirts sweep through Sicily, the “jackals” ousting the nobility, or “leopards”.

69. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (1979)

International book fraud is exposed in this playful postmodernist puzzle.

68. Crash by JG Ballard (1973)

A former TV scientist preaches “a new sexuality, born from a perverse technology” – more specifically, getting your kicks from car-crashes.

67. A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul (1979)

East African-Indian Salim travels to the heart of Africa and finds “the world is what it is”, in the Nobel-winner Naipaul’s most lauded work.

66. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)

Boy meets pawnbroker. Boy kills pawnbroker with an axe. Guilt, breakdown, Siberia, redemption.

65. Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957)

A romantic young doctor’s idealism is trampled by the atrocities of the Russian Revolution.

64. The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (1956-57)

This tale follows three generations of Cairenes from the First World War to the coup of 1952.

63. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Stevenson’s “bogey tale” of a scientist who tries (unsuccessfully) to banish his dark side came to him in a dream.

62. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) 

A scribulous riff on travellers’ tall tales. The Brobdingnag giants and Lilliput midgets Gulliver meets may seem far-fetched, but Swift’s satirical targets were closer to home (the Lilliputian Court is really that of George I).

61. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (1998)

A painter is murdered in Istanbul in 1591. Unusually, we hear from the corpse.

60. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

Myth and reality melt magically together in this Colombian family saga.

9. London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

A failed novelist steals a woman’s trashed diaries, which reveal she’s plotting her own murder.

58. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

A gang of South American poets travel the world, sleep around, challenge critics to duels. Who wouldn’t?

57. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

Intellectuals withdraw from life to play a game of musical and mathematical rules in an ivory tower, in this futuristic coming-of-age parable.

56. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1951)

Madhouse memories of the Second World War are narrated by a drum-playing adult in a child’s body with a super-human shriek. It’s a key text of European magical realism.

55. Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001)

In this paragraph-less novel, a Czech-born historian traces his own history back to the Holocaust.

54. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

A scholar’s sexual obsession with a prepubescent “nymphet” is complicated by her mother’s passion for him. The narrator may be a loathsome paedophile, but his gift for language is irresistible. First published in Paris, Nabokov’s darkly comic novel caused a scandal; the Home Office ordered customs guards to seize any copy entering the UK.

53. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

After nuclear war has rendered most of the United States sterile, fertile women are enslaved for breeding in a close-to-the-bone sci-fi tale. As Atwood has pointed out, every act of cruelty inflicted on women in this book has already happened somewhere in the world.

9. London Fields by Martin Amis (1989)

A failed novelist steals a woman’s trashed diaries, which reveal she’s plotting her own murder.

58. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)

A gang of South American poets travel the world, sleep around, challenge critics to duels. Who wouldn’t?

57. The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

Intellectuals withdraw from life to play a game of musical and mathematical rules in an ivory tower, in this futuristic coming-of-age parable.

56. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1951)

Madhouse memories of the Second World War are narrated by a drum-playing adult in a child’s body with a super-human shriek. It’s a key text of European magical realism.

55. Austerlitz by WG Sebald (2001)

In this paragraph-less novel, a Czech-born historian traces his own history back to the Holocaust.

54. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

A scholar’s sexual obsession with a prepubescent “nymphet” is complicated by her mother’s passion for him. The narrator may be a loathsome paedophile, but his gift for language is irresistible. First published in Paris, Nabokov’s darkly comic novel caused a scandal; the Home Office ordered customs guards to seize any copy entering the UK.

53. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

After nuclear war has rendered most of the United States sterile, fertile women are enslaved for breeding in a close-to-the-bone sci-fi tale. As Atwood has pointed out, every act of cruelty inflicted on women in this book has already happened somewhere in the world.

52. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)

Expelled from a “phony” prep school, an adolescent anti-hero goes through a difficult phase.

51. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)

From baseball to nuclear waste, all late-20th-century American life is here, in this non-linear epic narrated by a businessman in jail for murder.

50. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

A brutal, haunting, jazz-inflected journey down the darkest narrative rivers of American slavery. In Virginia, controversy over its graphic content led to the so-called “Beloved bill” – a draft law giving parents the right to ban books from schools – though the bill was vetoed by the state’s governor in 2016.

49. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1962)

“Okies” set out from the Depression dust-bowl seeking decent wages and dignity, in this realist masterpiece.

48. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)

Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel explores the role of the Church in Harlem’s African-American community.

47. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1983)

Against the backdrop of the 1968 Prague Spring, a doctor’s infidelities distress his wife. But if life means nothing, Kundera muses, surely it can’t matter?

46. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

A meddling teacher is betrayed by a favourite pupil who becomes a nun.

Muriel Spark at work in Edinburgh, 1960
Muriel Spark

45. The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1955)

Did the watch salesman kill the girl on the beach. If so, who heard?

44. Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938)

A historian becomes increasingly sickened by his existence, but decides to muddle on, in Sartre’s first novel – an existentialist touchstone.

43. The Rabbit books by John Updike (1960–2000)

A former high-school basketball star is unsatisfied by marriage, fatherhood and sales jobs, in four comic novels (and a later novella).

42. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

A boy and a runaway slave set sail on the Mississippi, away from Antebellum “sivilisation”.

41. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

“Consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes chases a ghostly dog across the midnight moors.

40. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905) 

Lily Bart craves luxury too much to marry for love. Scandal and sleeping pills ensue, in what one critic called a savage attack on “an irresponsible, grasping and morally corrupt upper class”.

39. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

A Nigerian yam farmer’s local leadership is shaken by accidental death and a missionary’s arrival.

38. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A mysterious millionaire’s love for a woman with “a voice full of money” gets him in trouble.

37. The Warden by Anthony Trollope (1855)

“Of all novelists in any country, Trollope best understands the role of money,” said WH Auden. Here is the proof.

36. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

An ex-convict (locked up for stealing a loaf of bread) struggles to become a force for good, but it ends badly. Better than the musical.

35. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

An uncommitted history lecturer clashes with his pompous boss, becomes drunk and gets the girl. The roguish anti-hero was modelled on the poet Philip Larkin.

34. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts” in a hardboiled crime noir with a plot so convoluted even Chandler claimed not to understand it.

33. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

One of the first English novels, an epistolary adventure whose heroine’s bodice is savagely unlaced by the brothel-keeping Robert Lovelace.

32. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951-1975)

A 12-book saga about upper-class life whose most celebrated character wears “the wrong kind of overcoat”.

31. Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky (2004)

Published 60 years after their author was gassed, these two novellas portray city and village life in Nazi-occupied France.

30. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

McEwan put the “c” word in the classic English country-house novel, following a lovelorn student from a stately home to prison to the Second World War.

29. Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978)

We follow the jigsaw puzzle of lives in a Parisian apartment block, in a playful postmodern classic; each chapter is set in a different room of the building.

28. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

A thigh-thwacking yarn of a foundling boy sowing his wild oats before marrying the girl next door.

27. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Human endeavours “to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world” have tragic consequences, as a scientist assembles a new body from bits of corpses – and brings it to life. Shelley was still a teenager when she wrote it, after Lord Byron challenged her to come up with a ghost story.

26. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

Northern villagers turn their bonnets against the social changes accompanying the industrial revolution.

25. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)

Hailed by TS Eliot as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”, it retells the hunt for a missing jewel through a series of letters.

24. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)

A modernist masterpiece, reworking Homer with humour. Following a bored student and a middle-aged advertising salesman as they wander across Dublin, it contains one of the longest “sentences” in English literature: 4,391 words.

23. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)

Buying the lies of romance novels leads a provincial doctor’s wife to an agonising end. Julian Barnes has called it “the greatest novel” ever written.

22. A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)

A false accusation exposes the racist oppression of British rule in India. It was inspired by Forster’s own time on the subcontinent, working as a secretary to a Maharajah.

21. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

A totalitarian dystopia in which Big Brother is even more sinister than the TV series it inspired.

20. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759)

Samuel Johnson thought Sterne’s bawdy, experimental novel was too odd to last. Pah! Centuries later, Tristram’s failed attempt to tell his life story – he keeps becoming distracted mid-sentence – still has readers cackling.

19. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

Bloodsucking Martian invaders are wiped out by a dose of the sniffles. A radio adaptation by Orson Welles was so successful that American listeners really thought aliens were invading. (Or so the story goes.)

18. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Waugh based the hapless junior-reporter hero of this journalistic farce on former Telegraph editor Bill Deedes.

17. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1892)

Sexual double standards are held up to the cold, Wessex light in this rural tragedy, which carries the subtitle “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”.

16. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)

A seaside sociopath mucks up murder and marriage in Greene’s literary Punch and Judy show.

15. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938)

Scrape-prone toff Bertie Wooster and his pals are suavely manipulated by his gentleman’s personal gentleman, Jeeves.

14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Out on the winding, windy moors, Cathy and Heathcliff become each other’s “souls”. Then he storms off. Published under a pseudonym, it was Emily Brontë’s only novel; she died a year later.

13. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)

Debt and deception in Dickens’s semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, crammed with cads, creeps and capital fellows.

12. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)

A slave trader is shipwrecked, but finds God – and a native to convert – on a desert island.

11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Spiky Elizabeth can’t stand aloof Mr Darcy, nor is he keen on her. Sure enough, they’re soon in love!

10. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605)

A picaresque tale about an elderly gent who has read too many romantic novels and decides to become a knight in shining armour. It has given us the word “quixotic”, for any over-idealistic boondoggle.

9. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

While holding a party, our heroine hears about a stranger’s suicide – and finds it oddly inspirational – in a masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness. 

8. Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999)

An English professor in post-apartheid South Africa loses everything after seducing a student, in this Booker-winning political allegory.

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Poor and obscure and plain as Jane is, Mr Rochester wants to marry her. Illegally. (He’s already married – see Wide Sargasso Sea, above.)

6. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1871–1922) 

A seven-volume autobiographical meditation on memory, featuring literature’s most celebrated cake.

5. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)

“The conquest of the earth,” writes Conrad, “is not a pretty thing.” Steamboat captain Marlowe discovers this for himself, when he travels up the Congo for a rendezvous with a deranged ivory trader. Francis Ford Coppola shifted the plot to Sixties Vietnam for his film Apocalypse Now.

4. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881) 

An American heiress in Europe “affronts her destiny” by marrying an adulterous egoist. Nobody has the style of Henry James.

3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878) 

Tolstoy’s idea for this tale of a doomed adulteress’s affair with a rich count grew from a daydream of “a bare exquisite aristocratic elbow”. William Faulkner thought it was the finest novel ever written – and so did the none-too-modest Tolstoy.

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

Monomaniacal Captain Ahab seeks vengeance on the white whale that ate his leg, in a 900-page epic narrated by a sailor who calls himself Ishmael. The insights into human nature more than make up for the lengthy descriptions of harpooning.

1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-72)

“One of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” said Virginia Woolf, praising this richly detailed portrait of overlapping lives in a fictional Midlands town.