SHORT STORY WRITING
A Practical Treatise on the Art of the Short Story
By Charles Raymond Barrett, Ph. B.
New York: The Baker and Taylor Co. 33-37 E. 17th Street, Union Square North
Copyrighted, 1898, by Charles Raymond Barrett Copyrighted, 1900, by Charles Raymond Barrett
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I THE SHORT STORY
II SHORT STORIES CLASSIFIED
III THE PLOT
IV TITLES GOOD AND BAD
V THE USE OF FACTS
VI THE CHARACTERS
VII METHODS OF NARRATION
VIII THE BEGINNING
IX THE STORY PROPER
X CLIMAX AND CONCLUSION
XI THE STYLE
XII THE LABOR OF AUTHORSHIP
XIII THE QUEST OF A MARKET
APPENDIX "THE AMBITIOUS GUEST"
This book is an attempt to put into definite form the principles observed by the masters of the short story in the practice of their art. It is the result of a careful study of their work, of some indifferent attempts to imitate them, and of the critical examination of several thousands of short stories written by amateurs. It is designed to be of practical assistance to the novice in short story writing, from the moment the tale is dimly conceived until it is completed and ready for the editor's judgment.
The rules and principles here presented embody not what I conceive to be right, but what the great masters of the short story have thought to be right, and what they have proved to be at least successful. I speak only as a delver into the secrets of other men; and if I seem arrogant, it is due to the influence of the company I keep. My deductions are made not only from the artifices and triumphs of the successful, but from the struggles and failures of the unfortunate as well; and I have endeavored to make clear both the philosophy and the application of all the principles so deduced. Though in theory these rules are obligatory on all who essay the short story, they are frequently and knowingly evaded or violated by the masters of the art, whose genius is great enough to excuse their disregard of the conventions, or whose skill is sufficient to smooth over their technical lapses; but for the novice the only safe course is a careful observance of all conventions.
To the aspiring writer this book may seem to be merely a catalogue of "Don'ts", the gist of which is, "Don't write"; but that is to misread me. Short story writing is not easy, and I cannot make it so, even if I would; but it is far from my purpose to discourage any person who feels the Heaven-sent call to write, and who has the will and ability to respond to it. But that call is but a summons to labor—and to labor the severest and most persistent. To one who comes to it but half-heartedly, illy prepared, shirking its requirements, I can predict certain failure; but to the earnest, serious, conscientious worker, I would say a word of hope. The promotion from the rank of amateur to the dignity of authorship may be long in coming, but it will come at last. Fame, like all else that this world has to give, depends largely upon downright hard work; and he who has the courage to strive in the face of disappointments will achieve success in the end.
Throughout this book I have endeavored to give my statements definiteness by the employment of numerous examples, both good and bad. I have made no attempt to present an exhaustive analysis of the technique of individuals or of schools, but have chosen my illustrations with a single view to their aptness; I have, however, for the convenience of reference, taken these paradigms chiefly from the published collections of stories by the older and better known writers. My "awful examples" are verbatim excerpts from manuscripts which have passed through my hands; their authorship is concealed for obvious reasons.
To the best of my knowledge there is no book extant which treats solely of the technique of the short story. The nearest approach to it is "How to Write Fiction," an anonymous work published by Bellaires & Co., London; but to my mind that is too slight, too theoretical, and too enamored of the artificial French school to be of practical value to the amateur. Far better, as working guides, are the frequent fragmentary articles on the short story, many of them by successful short story writers, published in current periodicals, to which I am considerably indebted. But my greatest obligation is to a course in "The Art of the Short Story"—the first university course ever offered in that subject—conducted at the University of Chicago in 1896 by Dr. E. H. Lewis.
C. R. B.
CHICAGO, August 1, 1900.
The short story was first recognized as a distinct class of literature in 1842, when Poe's criticism of Hawthorne called attention to the new form of fiction. Short story writing had, however, been practiced for many years before that: perhaps the narratives of Homer and the tales of the first books of the Bible may be considered as the first examples; certainly the short story is closely associated in its early history with narrative poems, allegorical tales, and mouth-to-mouth traditions, and it can be traced surely to the fabliaux of the thirteenth century. Later writers aided in its development: Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur" and Caxton's popularization of old romances marked a further progress; and some of the work of Defoe and Addison would almost stand the modern tests. But the short story as we know it to-day is a product of the nineteenth century; and it owes its position in literature, if not its very existence, to the work of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. They first recognized its possibilities and employed it seriously; and the art and genius which they put into their tales assured the short story a permanent place in literature. They differed in subject matter and style, but they recognized the same requirements and limitations; and the canons which they established then obtain to-day.
The modern short story is essentially an American product; and our masters of its art have established precedents for literary workers of the old world. In England, Stevenson, Kipling and Haggard are considered the originators of the modern short story; and Zola, de Maupassant, Daudet and Paul Marguerite in France, Tolstoi in Russia, and other famous foreign authors have their claims for consideration; but all of them, admittedly or not, are but disciples of the earlier American trinity. This book will confine itself to the English-American short story.
To-day the short story is so popular that we seem to be in a new literary epoch—the epoch of the short story—and there is no apparent cause to expect an early diminution in the demand for such literature; so that to the young writer the short story offers the best opportunity to prove his mettle. Then, too, it has the additional value of being an excellent school for the novelist. The short story and the novel have many radical differences; but in material, treatment and aim they are much the same, and the same general training is necessary for both. All short story writers do not become great novelists, nor have all novelists been short story tellers; but it is a fact that the majority of the present day novelists served their 'prenticeship in the ranks of the short story writers.
[Footnote 1: "Hawthorne's 'Tales,'" by Edgar Allan Poe. Graham's Magazine, May, 1842.]
SHORT STORY WRITING
THE SHORT STORY
There is no modern literary form which is as little understood as is the short story. The term short story is applied to every piece of prose writing of 30,000 words or less, without regard to its matter, aim, or handling; but our purpose demands a definition of some accuracy.
"In the first place, then, what is, and what is not, a short story? Many things a short story may be. It may be an episode, like Miss Ella Hepworth Dixon's or like Miss Bertha Thomas'; a fairy tale, like Miss Evelyn Sharp's; the presentation of a single character with the stage to himself (Mr. George Gissing); a tale of the uncanny (Mr. Rudyard Kipling); a dialogue comedy (Mr. Pett Ridge); a panorama of selected landscape, a vision of the sordid street, a record of heroism, a remote tradition or some old belief vitalized by its bearing on our lives to-day, an analysis of an obscure calling, a glimpse at a forgotten quarter ... but one thing it can never be—it can never be 'a novel in a nutshell'."
"A short story ... must lead up to something. It should have for its structure a plot, a bit of life, an incident such as you would find in a brief newspaper paragraph.... He (Richard Harding Davis) takes the substance of just such a paragraph, and, with that for the meat of his story, weaves around it details, descriptions and dialogue, until a complete story is the result. Now, a story is something more than incidents and descriptions. It is a definite thing. It progresses constantly. It arrives somewhere. It must enforce some idea (no matter what). It must be such a reality that a man who read it would carry away a definite impression."
It is evident, then, that the term short story is properly used only when it means a short prose narrative, which presents artistically a bit of real life; the primary object of which is to amuse, though it may also depict a character, plead a cause, or point a moral; this amusement is neither of that aesthetic order which we derive from poetry, nor of that cheap sort which we gain from a broad burlesque: it is the simple yet intellectual pleasure derived from listening to a well told narrative.
The first requisite of a short story is that the writer have a story to tell—that is, a plot. He may present pretty scenes and word pictures if he will, but he must vivify and humanize them by the introduction of certain characters, patterned after the people of real life; and these characters must move and act and live. The presentation of "still life" pure and simple is not in the province of the short story.
The question of length is but relative; in general a short story should not exceed 10,000 words, and it could hardly contain less than 1,000; while from 3,000 to 5,000 is the most usual length. Yet Hawthorne's "The Gentle Boy" contains 12,000 words; Poe's "The Gold Bug," 13,000; and perhaps the majority of James' exceed the maximum, while "The Lesson of the Master" requires 25,000, and "The Aspern Papers" 32,000. Indeed, the length of any story is determined, not so much by some arbitrary word limit, as by the theme with which it deals. Every plot requires a certain number of words for its proper elaboration, and neither more nor less will do. Just what the limit for any particular story may be, the writer must decide for himself. "It seems to me that a short story writer should act, metaphorically, like this—he should put his idea for a story into one cup of a pair of balances, then into the other he should deal out his words; five hundred; a thousand; two thousand; three thousand; as the case may be—and when the number of words thus paid in causes the beam to rise, on which his idea hangs, then is his story finished. If he puts in a word more or less, he is doing false work."
The short story does not need the love element that is generally considered necessary to the novel, and many short stories disregard it altogether. Love usually requires time and moods and varying scenes for its normal development, so that it is difficult to treat it properly within the limits of the short story; and then only when some particular phase or scene admits of isolation. Then, too, many short stories are merely accounts of strange adventures, wonderful discoveries or inventions, and queer occurrences of all sorts—themes which amuse us from their mere oddity; or they are verbal photographs of life, which are interesting from their views of psychological and sociological problems; and none of them requires love as the chief motive. Ingenuity and originality, the principal constituents of such tales, are the story teller's great virtues; on them he bases his hopes. Therefore, he must have strong individuality, and the power of forcing his readers to view life through his eyes, without perceiving him.
Also, and as if to compensate for the lack of the love interest, the short story has a "touch of fantasy" which gives it a distinctive charm. This quality is the hint of—not necessarily the supernatural, but rather the weird; it is a recognition and a vague presentation of the many strong influences that are not explainable by our philosophy of life. It is the intrusion into our matter-of-fact lives of the uncanny element, which the novice so grossly misuses in his tales of premonitory dreams and visions, and of most unghostly ghosts. "It is not enough to catch a ghost white-handed and to hale him into the full glare of the electric light. A brutal misuse of the supernatural is perhaps the very lowest degradation of the art of fiction. But 'to mingle the marvellous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor than as any actual portion of the substance,' to quote from the preface to the 'House of the Seven Gables,' this is, or should be, the aim of the writer of short-stories whenever his feet leave the firm ground of fact as he strays in the unsubstantial realm of fantasy. In no one's writings is this better exemplified than in Hawthorne's; not even in Poe's. There is a propriety in Hawthorne's fantasy to which Poe could not attain. Hawthorne's effects are moral where Poe's are merely physical. The situation and its logical development and the effects to be got out of it are all Poe thinks of. In Hawthorne the situation, however strange and weird, is only the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual struggle. Ethical consequences are always worrying Hawthorne's soul; but Poe did not know there were any ethics."
The short story usually treats of the lighter and brighter side of life. It is seldom in deadly earnest; it tends somewhat to superficiality; and it prefers cleverness to profundity, in both conception and treatment. Naturally, then, comedy rather than tragedy is its usual sphere; and though the tale may end in gloom, it more frequently suggests a possible tragedy in order to heighten the effect of the happy denouement. For similar reasons the short story avoids the didactic tone, either presenting its lesson in clever disguise, or limiting its moral efforts to providing innocent amusement for an idle hour.
In the strife between realism and romanticism the short story adopts the middle course, taking advantage of the better phases of both, but siding with neither; for every life is subject to both influences, often at the same time, and the short story aspires to present life as it is. "Without true realism and genuine romanticism—actuality and ideals—good work was never done, nor did any writer ever rise to be an author." "No worthy work of fiction may properly be labelled romantic, realistic or symbolic, since every great work of art contains all these in some proportion. Love and fighting are not necessarily romance; nor are soup-kitchens and divorce courts necessarily realism.... Malice, futility and ugliness—the dreadful monotony of existence—are not necessarily real life; nor the tales of summer love and marriage ceremonies, successful fightings, or sacrifice and chivalry necessarily romance."
In its technique a short story demands the utmost care; it lacks the bulk of the novel, which hides minor defects. It must have a definite form, which shall be compact, and which shall have its parts properly proportioned and related; and it must be wrought out in a workmanlike manner. It requires extreme care from its conception to its completion, when it must stand forth a perfect work of art; and yet it must reveal no signs of the worker's tools, or of the pains by which it was achieved.
From what has been said it is evident that the short story is artificial, and to a considerable degree unnatural. It could hardly be otherwise, for it takes out of our complex lives a single person or a single incident and treats that as if it were complete in itself. Such isolation is not known to nature: There all things work together, and every man influences all about him and is influenced by them. Yet this separation and exclusion are required by the conventions of the short story; and after all, there is always the feeling, if the characters are well handled, that they have been living and will continue to live, though we have chanced to come in contact with them for only a short time.
It is this isolation, this magnifying of one character or incident, that constitutes the chief difference between the novel and the short story. In the novel we have a reproduction of a certain period of real life: all the characters are there, with their complex lives and their varying emotions; there are varied scenes, each one the stage of some particular incident or semi-climax which carries the action on to the final chapter; and there are persons and scenes and conversations which have no reason for being there, except that just such trivial things are parts of life. With the short story it is very different: that permits of but one scene and incident, one or two real characters, with one predominant emotion: all else is a detriment to the interest and success of the story. A book may be called a novel even if it is composed of a series of incidents, each complete in itself, which are bound together by a slender thread of common characters; but a story cannot properly be called a short one unless it has simplicity of plot, singleness of character and climax, and freedom from extraneous matter. "In a short story the starting point is an idea, a definite notion, an incident, a surprising discovery; and this must have a definite significance, a bearing on our view of life; also it must be applied to the development of one life course, one character. The novel, on the other hand, starts with a conception of character, a man, a woman, a human heart, which under certain circumstances works out a definite result, makes a world.... Lastly it develops a group of characters, who together make a complete community, instead of tracing the life course of one."
To prove that these various requirements are recognized and observed by masters of the art, I would ask you to consider the following list, which The Critic selected from nearly five hundred submitted in competition for a prize which it offered for a list of the best twelve American short stories:
"The Man Without a Country," Edward Everett Hale.
"The Luck of Roaring Camp," Bret Harte.
"The Great Stone Face," Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"The Snow Image," Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"The Gold Bug," Edgar Allan Poe.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe.
"The Lady, or the Tiger?" Frank R. Stockton.
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving.
"Rip Van Winkle," Washington Irving.
"Marse Chan," Thomas Nelson Page.
"Marjorie Daw," Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
"The Revolt of Mother," Mary E. Wilkins.
[Footnote 2: "The Short Story," by Frederick Wedmore. Nineteenth Century, Mar., '98.]
[Footnote 3: "How to Write Short Stories." An interview with F. Hopkinson Smith in the Boston Herald. Current Literature. June, '96.]
[Footnote 4: Robert Barr in "How to Write a Short Story; A Symposium." The Bookman. Mar., '97.]
[Footnote 5: "The Philosophy of the Short-story," by Brander Matthews. Lippincott's. Oct, '85.]
[Footnote 6: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]
[Footnote 7: "The Art of Fiction," by Gilbert Parker. The Critic, Dec.,'98.]
[Footnote 8: In many respects the art of the short story and the novel are so closely allied that I have been able to reenforce my observations with magazine articles which were meant to apply primarily to the novel.—THE AUTHOR.]
[Footnote 9: "How to Write Fiction." Published anonymously by Bellaires & Co., London. Part I, Chapter I.]
[Footnote 10: "The Best Twelve American Stories." The Critic. Apr. 10, '97.]
SHORT STORIES CLASSIFIED
The treatment demanded by any particular story depends more upon its class than upon the tale itself; a story which recounts an actual occurrence is much less exacting than one which attempts to depict manners; and, in general, the more the writer relies on his art, the more difficult is his task. It is therefore both possible and profitable to separate short stories into definite groups and to consider them collectively rather than as units. This classification is based chiefly upon the necessity of a plot, the purpose or aim of the narrative, and the skill and care required for its successful treatment. It is crude and arbitrary from a literary standpoint, for a good short story is capable of being listed under several different classes, but it serves our practical purpose. Each story is placed according to its dominant class; and the classes are arranged progressively from the simplest to the most difficult of treatment. The examples are presented only as definite illustrations; there is no attempt to classify all short stories, or all the stories of any particular author.
I. THE TALE is the relation, in an interesting and literary form, of some simple incident or stirring fact. It has no plot in the sense that there is any problem to unravel, or any change in the relation of the characters; it usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd happenings, which depend on their intrinsic interest, without regard to their influence on the lives of the actors.
(a) It is often a genuine True Story, jealously observant of facts, and embellished only to the extent that the author has endeavored to make his style vivid and picturesque. Such stories are a result of the tendency of the modern newspaper to present its news in good literary form. The best illustrations are the occasional contributions of Ray Stannard Baker to McClure's Magazine.
(b) It may, however, be an Imaginative Tale, which could easily happen, but which is the work of the author's imagination. It is a straightforward narration of possible events; if it passes the bounds of probability, or attempts the utterly impossible, it becomes a Story of Ingenuity. (See Class VIII.) It has no love element and no plot; and its workmanship is loose. The best examples are the stories of adventure found in the better class of boys' and children's papers.
II. THE MORAL STORY, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.
(a) The Fable makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but publishes it by a final labelled "Moral," which epitomizes the lesson it conveys. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and satire, as in George Ade's "Fables in Slang." AEsop is of course the immortal example of this sort of story.
(b) The Story with a Moral attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved by Hawthorne's use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example" of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The Grateful Negro," are excellent illustrations of how not to write. Many of Hawthorne's tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The Ambitious Guest," and "Miss Bullfrog." The stories of Miss Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed in a later division. (See Class IV.) Contemporary examples of this style of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and Temperance papers.
(c) The Allegory is the only really literary form of the Moral Story, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men. Examples: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Feathertop." Allegories which deserve the name are sometimes found in current periodicals.
III. THE WEIRD STORY owes its interest to the innate love of the supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human nature—the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for "just one more" ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror of the last one. It may have a definite plot in which supernatural beings are actors; but more often it is slight in plot, but contains a careful psychological study of some of the less pleasant emotions.
(a) The Ghost Story usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost is an actor. The ghost may be a "really truly" apparition, manifesting itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the end, as in Irving's "The Spectre Bridegroom," and Kipling's "The Phantom 'Rickshaw;" or it may prove to be the result of a superstitious mind dwelling upon perfectly natural occurrences, as in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and Wilkins' "A Gentle Ghost." It requires art chiefly to render it plausible; particularly in the latter case, when the mystery must be carefully kept up until the denouement.
(b) The Fantastic Tale treats of the lighter phases of the supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate. Examples: Hawthorne's "A Select Party," "The Hall of Fantasy," and "Monsieur du Miroir;" and most of our modern fairy tales.
(c) The Study in Horror was first made popular by Poe, and he has had almost no successful imitators. It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check. The plot is used only to give the setting to the story. Most any of Poe's tales would serve as an illustration, but "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are particularly apt. Doyle has done some work approaching Poe's, but his are better classed as Stories of Ingenuity. (See Class VIII.)
IV. THE CHARACTER STUDY is a short story in which the chief interest rests in the development and exposition of human character. It may treat of either a type or an individual. Good character delineation is one of the surest proofs of a writer's literary ability.
(a) When the character depicted is inactive the resultant work is not really a story. It usually has no plot, and is properly a Sketch, in which the author makes a psychological analysis of his subject. It inclines to superficiality and is liable to degenerate into a mere detailed description of the person. It demands of the writer the ability to catch striking details and to present them vividly and interestingly. Examples: Hawthorne's "Sylph Etherege" and "Old Esther Dudley;" Poe's "The Man of the Crowd;" James' "Greville Fane" and "Sir Edmund Orme;" Stevenson's "Will o' the Mill;" Wilkins' "The Scent of the Roses" and "A Village Lear."
(b) When the character described is active we have a Character Study proper, built upon a plot which gives the character opportunity to work out his own personality before us by means of speech and action. The plot is subordinated to the character sketching. The psychological analysis is not presented by the author in so many words, but is deduced by the reader from his observation of the character. Such studies constitute one of the highest art forms of the short story, for the characters must live on the printed page. The short stories of Henry James and of Miss Wilkins could almost be classed in toto under this head; Miss Wilkins' characters are usually types, while those of James are more often individual, though rather unusual. Other good examples are Hawthorne's "Edward Randolph's Portrait;" Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," and "Wolfert Weber;" Stevenson's "Markheim" and "The Brown Box;" and Davis' "Van Bibber," as depicted in the several stories of "Van Bibber and Others."
Notice that in both subdivisions nearly every title embodies a reference to the character described, showing that the author intentionally set out to sketch a character.
V. THE DIALECT STORY might be considered as a subdivision of the preceding class, since it is in effect a Character Study; but its recent popularity seems to warrant its being treated separately. Its chief distinction is that it is written in the broken English used by the uneducated classes of our own country, and by foreigners. Its plot is either very slight or hopelessly hackneyed, and it is redeemed from sheer commonplace only by its picturesque language. It is usually told in the first person by some English-murdering ignoramus. It is simple, and sometimes has a homely pathos. It may present character as either active or inactive, though usually the former. Its excuse for existence is that it gives truthful expression, in their own language, to the thoughts of certain classes of society; but as written by the amateur the dialect is a fearful and wonderful combination of incorrect English that was never heard from the mouth of any living man. Joel Chandler Harris' "Nights with Uncle Remus" contains genuine dialect; other varieties correctly handled may be found in almost any of the stories of George Washington Cable, Ian Maclaren, and Miss Wilkins.
The Dialect Story as literature and as a field for the novice is considered at length in Chapter VI.
VI. THE PARABLE OF THE TIMES is a short story which aims to present a vivid picture of our own times, either to criticise some existing evil, or to entertain by telling us something of how "the other half" of the world lives. It is in a sense a further development of The Tale (Class I.), though it has a more definite plot. It is the most favored form of the short story to-day, and its popularity is responsible for a mess of inane commonplace and bald realism that is written by amateurs, who think they are presenting pen pictures of life. For since its matter is gathered from our everyday lives, it requires some degree of skill to make such narratives individual and interesting.
(a) The Instructive Story of this class may be further subdivided as (1) that which puts present day problems in concrete form, with no attempt at a solution; and (2) that which not only criticises, but attempts also to correct. In either case, it aims to reform by education; it deals with actual problems of humanity rather than with abstract moral truths; and it seeks to amuse always, and to reform if possible. It must not be confused with the Moral Story of Class II. Octave Thanet writes this style of story almost exclusively, and any of her work selected at random would be a good illustration; her "Sketches of American Types" would be listed under (1), and such stories as "The Scab" and "Trusty No. 49" under (2). Under (1) would come also Brander Matthews' "Vignettes of Manhattan;" and under (2) Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country" and "Children of the Public."
(b) The most usual story of this class is the Story of To-day, which uses present day conditions as a background, and which endeavors only to amuse and interest the reader. Naturally, however, since the scenes and persons described must be new to the reader, such a story is also educating and broadening in its influence. Its plot may seem trivial when analyzed, but it is selected with a view more to naturalness than to strength or complexity. Here we should list nearly all of our modern so-called "society stories," and "stories of manners." Any of Richard Harding Davis' short stories will serve as an excellent illustration, and most of the stories in current periodicals belong in the same category.
VII. THE STORY OF INGENUITY is one of the most modern forms of the short story, and, if I may be pardoned the prolixity, one of the most ingenious. It might be called the "fairy tale of the grown-up," for its interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous which no human being ever outgrows. It requires fertility of invention, vividness of imagination, and a plausible and convincing style. Yet it is an easy sort of story to do successfully, since ingenuity will atone for many technical faults; but it usually lacks serious interest and is short lived. Poe was the originator and great exemplar of the Story of Ingenuity, and all of his tales possess this cleverness in some degree.
(a) The Story of Wonder has little plot. It is generally the vivid description of some amazing discovery (Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy," Hale's "The Spider's Eye"), impossible invention (Adee's "The Life Magnet," Mitchell's "The Ablest Man in the World"), astounding adventure (Stockton's "Wreck of the Thomas Hyde," Stevenson's "House with Green Blinds"), or a vivid description of what might be (Benjamin's "The End of New York," Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim"). It demands unusual imaginative power.
(b) The Detective Story requires the most complex plot of any type of short story, for its interest depends solely upon the solution of the mystery presented in that plot. It arouses in the human mind much the same interest as an algebraic problem, which it greatly resembles. Poe wrote the first, and probably the best, one in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue;" his "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Gold Bug" are other excellent examples. Doyle, in his "Sherlock Holmes" stories, is a worthy successor of Poe.
VIII. THE HUMOROUS STORY almost belongs in the category of Stories of Ingenuity, so largely does it depend upon the element of the unusual; but for that fact it should have been listed earlier, because it has little care for plot. Indeed, these stories are the freest of all in their disregard for conventions; with them it is "anything to raise a laugh," and the end is supposed to justify the means. In general they are of transient interest and crude workmanship, little fitted to be called classics; but Mark Twain, at least, has shown us that humor and art are not incompatible.
(a) The simplest form is the Nonsense Story, as it may be justly called. Usually it has the merest thread of plot, but contains odd or grotesque characters whose witty conversation furnishes all the amusement necessary. If the characters do act they have an unfortunate tendency to indulge in horse play. The work of John Kendrick Bangs well illustrates this type of story. His books, "The House Boat on the Styx" and "The Pursuit of the House Boat," are really only collections of short stories, for each chapter can be considered as a whole.
(b) The Burlesque has a plot, but usually one which is absurdly impossible, or which is treated in a burlesque style. The amusement is derived chiefly from the contrast between the matter and the method of its presentation. Most of Stockton's stories are of this type: notably his "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Mark Twain, too, usually writes in this vein, as in "The Jumping Frog" and "The Stolen White Elephant."
IX. THE DRAMATIC STORY is the highest type of the short story. It requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act out their parts. In its perfect form it is the "bit of real life" which it is the aim of the short story to present. It is the story shorn of all needless verbiage, and told as nearly as possible in the words and actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax. Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the short story.
(a) The short story has Dramatic Form when the author's necessary comments correspond to the stage directions of the drama. Such a story is, in fact, a miniature drama, and is often capable of being acted just as it stands. It has a definite plot, but it is developed by dialogue as frequently as by action. It is the extreme of the modern tendency toward dramatic narrative, and is just a little too "stagey" and artificial to be a perfect short story. It is, however, in good literary standing and in good favor with the public, and it is most excellent practice for the tyro, for in it he has to sink himself completely in his characters. Examples: Hope's "The Dolly Dialogues;" Kipling's "The Story of the Gadsbys;" and Howells' one act parlor plays, like "The Parlor Car," "The Register," "The Letter," and "Unexpected Guests."
(b) A short story has Dramatic Effect when it deals with a single crisis, conveys a single impression, is presented chiefly by the actors themselves, and culminates in a single, perfect climax. It may, or may not, be capable of easy dramatization. It is less artificial than the story of pure Dramatic Form, but is just as free from padding and irrelevant matter, and just as vivid in effect. It allows of greater art and finish, for the writer has wider freedom in his method of presentation. Examples: Poe's "'Thou Art the Man!'" and "Berenice;" James' "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Passionate Pilgrim;" Wilkins' "A New England Nun" and "Amanda and Love;" Stevenson's "The Isle of the Voices;" and Irving's "The Widow and Her Son" and "Rip Van Winkle." But, indeed, every good short story belongs in this class, which is not so much a certain type of the short story, as the "honor class" to which each story seeks admittance.
Every story cited in this book, unless otherwise located, can be found in one of the appended published collections of short stories:
George Ade: "Fables in Slang."
John Kendrick Bangs: "The Bicyclers;" "Ghosts I Have Met;" "The Houseboat on the Styx;" "Mantel-Piece Minstrels, and Other Stories;" "Paste Jewels;" "The Pursuit of the Houseboat;" "The Water-Ghost and Others."
J. M. Barrie: "An Auld Licht Manse;" "Auld Licht Idyls."
George Washington Cable: "Old Creole Days;" "Strange True Stories of Louisiana."
Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain): "Merry Tales;" "The Stolen White Elephant."
Richard Harding Davis: "Cinderella and Others;" "The Exiles and Other Stories;" "Gallegher, and Other Stories;" "The Lion and the Unicorn;" "Van Bibber and Others."
Charles Dickens: "Christmas Books;" "Christmas Stories;" "Sketches by Boz."
A. Conan Doyle: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes;" "The Captain of the Pole Star;" "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard;" "Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes;" "My Friend the Murderer;" "Round the Red Lamp."
Maria Edgeworth: "Popular Tales."
Alice French (Octave Thanet): "A Book of True Lovers;" "The Missionary Sheriff;" "Stories of a Western Town."
H. Rider Haggard: "Allan's Wife."
Joel Chandler Harris: "Daddy Jake, the Runaway;" "Nights with Uncle Remus;" "Tales of Home Folks in Peace and War."
Bret Harte: "Colonel Starbottle's Client;" "In the Hollow of the Hills;" "The Luck of Roaring Camp;" "Mrs. Skagg's Husbands;" "Tales of the Argonauts;" "Thankful Blossom;" "The Story of a Mine."
Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Mosses from an Old Manse;" "Twice Told Tales."
Anthony Hope: "The Dolly Dialogues."
William Dean Howells: "A Fearful Responsibility and Other Stories;" "The Mouse-Trap and Other Farces;" "The Sleeping Car and Other Farces."
Washington Irving: "The Sketch Book;" "Tales of a Traveler."
Henry James: "The Aspern Papers;" "The Author of Beltraffio;" "The Lesson of the Master;" "A London Life;" "A Passionate Pilgrim;" "The Real Thing."
Rudyard Kipling: "The Day's Work;" "In Black and White;" "Indian Tales;" "The Jungle Book;" "Life's Handicap;" "Many Inventions;" "The Phantom 'Rickshaw;" "Plain Tales from the Hills;" "The Second Jungle Book;" "Soldiers Three and Military Tales;" "Soldier Stories;" "Under the Deodars."
Brander Matthews: "Outlines in Local Color;" "Tales of Fantasy and Fact;" "Vignettes of Manhattan."
Guy de Maupassant: "The Odd Number."
Thomas Nelson Page: "The Burial of the Guns;" "In Ole Virginia."
Scribner's series: "Short Stories by American Authors."
Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Island Nights' Entertainments;" "The Merry Men;" "New Arabian Nights."
Frank R. Stockton: "Amos Kilbright;" "The Lady, or the Tiger?" "Rudder Grange;" "A Story Teller's Pack."
John Watson (Ian Maclaren): "Auld Lang Syne;" "Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush."
Mary E. Wilkins: "A Humble Romance;" "The Love of Parson Lord;" "A New England Nun;" "The Pot of Gold;" "Silence;" "Young Lucretia."
The plot is the nucleus of the story, the bare thought or incident upon which the narrative is to be builded. When a child says, "Grandma, tell me the story of how the whale swallowed Jonah," he gives the plot of the story that he desires; and the grandmother proceeds to elaborate that primal idea to suit the taste of her auditor. In like manner, before you put pen to paper, you must have in mind some interesting idea which you wish to express in narrative form; the absence of such an idea means that you have no plot, no story to tell, and therefore have no business to be writing. If you undertake to tell a short story, go about it in a workmanlike manner: don't begin scribbling pretty phrases, and trust to Providence to introduce the proper story, but yourself provide the basic facts. If you do not begin correctly, it is useless for you to begin at all.
A plot implies action—that is, something must happen; at the conclusion of the story the characters must be differently situated, and usually differently related one to another, from what they were at the beginning. The event need not be tragic, or even serious; but it must be of sufficient importance, novelty and interest to justify its relation in narrative form. In general the plot of a short story involves an incident or a minor crisis in a human life, rather than the supreme crisis which makes or mars a man for good. The chief reason for this is that the supreme crisis requires more elaborate preparation and treatment than is possible in the short story. There may be a strong tragic element which makes it seem that the denouement must be tragic, but that is usually to obtain the effect of contrast. Yet the short story may be a supreme crisis and a tragedy, as are Stevenson's "Markheim," Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" and "The Birthmark," and many of Poe's tales; but these are stories of an exceptional type, in which the whole life of the chief actor comes to a focus in the crisis which makes the story.
The short story plot must be simple and complete. The popular idea of a plot, derived from the requirements of the novel and the drama, is that it should be a tangled skein of facts and fancies, which the author shall further complicate in order to exhibit his deftness in the final disentanglement. Such a plot is impossible for the short story, which admits of no side issues and no second or under plot. It must not be the synopsis of a novel, or the attempt to compress into the tiny compass of the short story a complicated plot sufficient for a novel, as are so many of the "Short Stories of the Day" now published by newspapers. As nearly as possible it must deal with a single person, in a single action, at a single place, in a single time. More than any other modern form of literature, the short story requires the observance of the old Greek unities of time, place and action: its brevity and compactness do not admit of the proper treatment of the changes wrought by the passage of time, the influences of different scenes, or the complications resulting from the interrelation of many characters of varied importance. If the plot chosen requires the passage of ten years' time, if it involves a shift of scene from New York to Timbuctoo, or if it introduces two or three sets of characters, it may by some miracle of ingenuity make a readable story, but it will never be a model one. In "The Ambitious Guest" the time is less than three hours, the place is a single room, and the action is the development of the guest's ambition.
Yet the plot is only relatively important. It must always be present or there is no story; but once there it takes second place. The short story is not written to exploit the plot, however clever that may be, but to give a glimpse of real life; and the plot is only a means to that end. This is well illustrated by the Character Study, in which the real interest centers in the analysis and exposition of a character, and the plot is incidental. In many classes of stories, as we have already observed, the plot is used only to hold the narrative together, and the interest depends on the attractiveness of the picture presented. The plot must not be allowed to force itself through the fabric of the story, like the protruding ribs of a half-starved horse; but must be made to give form and substantiality to the word-flesh which covers it.
In Detective Stories, however, the plot is all-important, for the interest depends entirely upon the unraveling of some tangle; but even here it must contain but a single idea, though that may be rather involved. Such stories are really much simpler than they appear, for their seeming complexity consists in telling the story backwards, and so reasoning from effect to cause, rather than vice versa as in the ordinary tale. The plot itself is simple enough, as may be proved by working backward through Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." This is, by the way, a method of plot-making which is often, and incorrectly, employed by novices in the construction of any story. It has been aptly called "building the pyramid from the apex downward." It results from an exaggerated conception of the importance of the plot. But it is not so much what the characters do that interests us, but how they do it.
"The true method for the making of a plot is the development of what may be called a plot-germ. Take two or three characters, strongly individualized morally and mentally, place them in a strong situation and let them develop.... There are hundreds of these plot-germs in our every-day life, conversation and newspaper reading, and the slightest change in the character at starting will give a wide difference in ending.... Change the country and the atmosphere is changed, the elements are subjected to new influences which develop new incidents and so a new plot.... Change any vital part in any character and the plot must be different. One might almost say two plots thus developed from the same plot-germ can have no greater resemblance than two shells cast up by the ocean." "In the evolution of a plot the main things to be considered are that it shall be reasonably interesting, that it shall not violate probability, and that it shall possess some originality either of subject or of treatment. Not the possible, but the probable, should be the novelist's guide."
The surest test of a usable plot is, "Is it natural?" Every plot is founded upon fact, which may be utilized in its original form, or so skillfully disguised or ingeniously distorted that it will seem like a product of the imagination. In the first case the resulting story would be termed realistic, in the second case romantic. A story built on a plot that is an unvarnished fact will be of course a True Story; and there are incidents and events in real life that need little more than isolation to make them good stories. There is, however, a danger that the novice may consider any matter usable which is true to life. Do not forget that the short story is a form of art.
The best plot is derived from the action of an artistic imagination on a commonplace fact; the simpler and better known the fact is, the better will it serve the purpose, for it must be accepted without question: then it must be built up and developed by imaginative touches, always with a view to plausibility, till it attains the dignity of a distinct and interesting plot. Recent discoveries and the attainments of modern science have introduced us to so many strange things that we have almost ceased to doubt any statement which we may see in print; and writers have become so ingenious in weaving together fact and fancy that their tales are sometimes more plausible than truth itself. This was done with peculiar skill by Poe. His story, now known as "The Balloon Hoax," originally appeared in the New York Sun as a correspondent's account of an actual occurrence. The tale gained credence through its remarkable accuracy of detail in regard to recognized scientific principles, and the fact that at that time the world was considerably agitated by similar genuine feats of aerostation. As Poe makes one of his characters to say, "the feat is only so feasible that the sole wonder is why men have scrupled to attempt it before"—at least on paper.
Yet in spite of the many curious and interesting things that happen daily, and in spite of the inventive faculty of the mind, it is impossible to find a new plot. "History repeats itself" in small affairs as well as in great, and the human mind has not changed materially since the first days of story telling. Indeed, some one has said that all the stories ever told can be traced to less than a dozen original plots, whose origin is lost in obscurity. But if we can neither find nor invent a new story we can at least ring the changes on the old ones, and in this lies our hope to-day. Each one of these old plots is capable of an infinite variety of phases, and what we are constantly hailing as an original story is merely one of our old friends looked at from a different point of view. How many good, fresh stories have you read that were based on the ancient elemental plot of two men in love with one woman, or on that equally hoary one of fond lovers severed by disapproving parents? Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is derived from the first, yet few readers would so recognize it on first perusal; for unless you stop and analyze it, it seems distinct and new.
For further illustration of this reworking of old ideas, I have carefully searched the leading American magazines for March, 1900, for short stories based upon the old, old elemental plot of two men in love with one woman, and append herewith rough synopses of such stories. Note that this one number of The Munsey contains no less than three stories with this basic plot.
"The Folly of It," by Ina Brevoort.
Fred Leighton and John Marchmont are in love with Angela. She loves Leighton, but they have agreed that he is too poor to make their married life happy. Marchmont, who is rich, proposes to her. She and Leighton calmly discuss the situation at their last dinner together and confirm their former decision; but when the matter is logically settled they decide to defy poverty and marry.
"With a Second to Spare," by Tom Hall.
Labarre and I both love Nellie, but Nellie marries me. Labarre leads a big strike on the railroad by which we are both employed as engineers; I refuse to join. One noon Labarre overpowers me, binds me on the rails between the wheels of my engine, and starts it moving slowly so that it will crush me by twelve, when Nellie always brings my dinner. After my death he expects to marry her. Nellie arrives and releases me just in the nick of time. (This story is really a scene from an amateur melodrama.)
"Mulligan's Treachery," by David H. Talmadge.
Mulligan and Garvey love Ellen Kelly. They agree not to take advantage of each other in wooing her, and go to the Philippines together as soldiers. There Garvey, leading a charge, is shot through the head, but Mulligan goes on and receives a medal for his bravery. Garvey recovers, but is blind for life. On their return to America Mulligan finds Ellen's face terribly mutilated by an accident. He would still gladly marry her; but he makes Garvey believe he won the medal, tells him nothing of Ellen's disfigurement, and brings about their marriage. Then he is conscience stricken at the manner in which he has taken advantage of his friend's disability.
"The Pilot of the 'Sadie Simmons,'" by Joseph Mills Hanson.
Tommy Duncan, a Mississippi River pilot, is engaged to Tillie Vail. Her affections are alienated by Jack Cragg, a disreputable steamboat engineer, whom Duncan, believing he is deceiving the girl, threatens to kill on sight. Cragg kills a man in a drunken brawl on shore, and Duncan assists the sheriff to save him from would-be lynchers, and swears to protect him, before he knows who the prisoner is. When he learns he refuses to be bound by his oath, but as he is about to carry out his threat he is led to believe that Cragg honestly loves the girl. Cragg is attacked by a mob, and, though he cannot swim, jumps into the river to escape. Duncan rescues him and loses his own life. Cragg reforms and marries Tilly.
"Mr. Sixty's Mistake," by Chauncey C. Hotchkiss.
William Lewis loves Lillian Blythe. His brother Tom comes between them and William shoots him and flees west to Pleasant Valley, where he goes by the name of "Cockey Smith". One night he tells his story to his companions. Harry Blythe, brother to Lillian, Lewis' old friend, and now sheriff of his home county, who arrived that night, overhears him. Blythe reveals his identity to "Sixty", the butt of the camp, and tells him that Tom did not die and that Lewis can go back home, where Lillian is still waiting for him. Sixty breaks the news to Lewis while the latter is mad with drink, and Lewis, thinking the sheriff has come for him, kills him. Later he shoots himself.
"A Kentucky Welcome," by Ewan Macpherson.
Edmund Pierce, a New Yorker, is in love with Lucy Cabell, a Kentucky belle; and hearing that her cousin, "Brook" Cabell, is endangering his chances, he sets out to pay Miss Cabell a visit. He gets off at the wrong station and in his confusion is arrested by the local marshal as a Russian diamond robber. He telegraphs to the Cabells, and Brook rescues him at the point of the revolver, though he knows that the Northerner is Miss Cabell's favorite.
These stories, even in this crude, condensed form, robbed of all the beauties of imagery and expression, reveal the virtues which won for them editorial approval and which contribute to the enjoyment of their readers. Their apparent freshness is due to the treatment of a thread-bare plot in a new phase, and the phase, in turn, depends upon the introduction of some new element, unimportant in itself, perhaps, which presents the old story in the new light. "The Folly of It" is the best illustration, for though its plot is old and apparently hopeless, the brightness and naturalness of the conversation which constitutes almost the entire story makes it most readable. In "Mulligan's Treachery" the personality of Mulligan gives the necessary freshness. "The Pilot of the 'Sadie Simmons'" depends on local color and the interest in Duncan's struggle to distinguish right from wrong. And so some little freshness of treatment makes each of the others a good story.
These vivifying elements are by no means extraordinary, or difficult to find. They are new ideas concerning old subjects, such as you are continually meeting in your everyday life and reading. A new character, a new scene, a new invention or discovery, or merely a new mental bias on the part of the writer, will work wonders in the revivifying of an old plot. Think how many new phases of old plots have been produced recently by the incorporation of the "X" ray, or by the influence of the war with Spain. Try, then, to get a new light on the plot that you purpose to use, to view it from an unexpected side, to handle it in an unusual manner—in short, try to be original. If you have not the energy or the ability to do this, you would better cease your literary efforts at once, for you will only waste your time.
"But ... there are some themes so hackneyed—such as the lost will, the glorified governess, or the persecuted maiden who turns out to be an earl's daughter—that they would not now be tolerated outside the pages of a 'penny dreadful,' where, along with haughty duchesses, elfin-locked gypsies and murderous abductors, they have become part of the regular stock-in-trade of the purveyors of back-stairs literature. The only theme that never grows trite or commonplace is love." "Another offense ... is the light theme that, being analyzed, amounts to nothing. It may be so cleverly handled that we read with pleasure—and then at the end are disgusted with ourselves for being pleased, and enraged at the writer for deluding us; for we thought there would be something beneath his graceful manners and airy persiflage, and lo, there is not."
The plot of a short story should allow of expression in a single short, fairly simple sentence; if it cannot be so compressed there is something radically wrong with it. This may be called the "elemental" or "true" plot. It will be in general, perhaps vague, terms, and will permit differing treatment by different writers; yet its trend and its outcome will be definitely fixed. This true plot, in turn, can be expressed in yet more general terms, often as the primal truth which the story illustrates; this may be called the "theme" of the story. Thus in "The Ambitious Guest," the theme is "The futility of abstracted ambition;" or, in its most general terms, "The irony of fate." The true plot is:
An unknown but ambitious youth stops at a mountain tavern and perishes with its inmates.
In the development of a plot from this germ into the completed story, it is often of advantage to make what may be called a "skeleton" or "working plot." This skeleton is produced by thinking through the story as it has been conceived, and setting down on paper in logical order a line for every important idea. These lines will roughly correspond to the paragraphs of the finished story, but in a descriptive paragraph one line will not suffice, while a line may represent a dozen paragraphs of dialogue; then, too, paragraphing is partly logical and partly mechanical, and varies considerably with the person.
Working Plot of "The Ambitious Guest."
The scene is a tavern located at the Notch in the White Hills.
The time, a September night.
The place is in danger from landslides and falling stones.
The family—father, mother, grandmother, daughter and children—are gathered happily about the hearth.
The tavern is on a well-frequented road.
A young stranger enters, looking rather travel-worn, but quickly brightens up at his warm reception.
A stone rolls down the mountain side.
The guest, though naturally reticent, soon becomes familiar with the family.
The secret of the young man's character is high and abstracted ambition.
He is as yet unknown.
He is sensible of the ludicrous side of his ambition.
The daughter is not ambitious.
The father's ambition is to own a good farm, to be sent to General Court, and to die peacefully.
The children wish for the most ridiculous things.
A wagon stops before the inn, but drives on when the landlord does not immediately appear.
The daughter is not really content.
The family picture.
The grandmother tells of having prepared her grave-clothes.
Fears if they are not put on smoothly she will not rest easily.
She wishes to see herself in her coffin.
They hear the landslide coming.
All rush from the house and are instantly destroyed.
The house is unharmed.
The bodies are never found.
Even the death of the ambitious guest is in doubt.
You will notice that this working plot omits many little details which are too trivial to set down, or which probably would not occur to one until the actual writing; and all the artistic touches that make the story literature are ruthlessly shorn away, for they are part of the treatment, not of the plot.
This method of permitting you to study your crude material in the concrete will prove of value to you. It enables you to crystalize into ideas what were mere phantasms of the brain, to arrange your thoughts in their proper order, and to condense or expand details with a ready comprehension of the effect of such alterations upon the general proportions of the story. It makes your purposed work objective enough so that you can consider it with a coolness and impartiality which were impossible while it was still in embryo in your brain; and it often reveals the absurdity or impossibility of a plan which had seemed to you most happy. I believe that the novice can do no better than to put his every story to this practical test.
The use of this skeleton in the further development of the story depends upon the methods of the writer, or the matter in hand. Many short story writers waste no time in preparations, but at once set down the story complete; and to my mind that is the ideal method, for it is more apt to make the tale spontaneous and technically correct. But if the story is not well defined in your mind, or if it requires some complexity of plot, like the Detective Story, this plan can be followed to advantage in the completion of the work. It may be used as a regular skeleton, upon which the narrative is built by a process of elaboration and expansion of the lines into paragraphs; or it may be used merely as a reference to keep in mind the logical order of events. Usually you will forget the scheme in the absorption of composition; but the fact of having properly arranged your ideas will assist you materially, if unconsciously, in the elaboration.
[Footnote 11: "The Ambitious Guest," because of its technical perfection and its apt illustration of the principles discussed, will be used throughout as a paradigm. It can be found in full in the Appendix.—THE AUTHOR.]
[Footnote 12: "Have the Plots Been Exhausted?" Editorial Comment. Current Literature. June, '96.]
[Footnote 13: "Have the Plots Been Exhausted?" Editorial Comment. Current Literature. June, '96.]
[Footnote 14: "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.]
[Footnote 15: For a complete discussion of the proper use of facts in fiction see Chapter V.—THE AUTHOR.]
[Footnote 16: "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.]
[Footnote 17: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]
TITLES GOOD AND BAD
Too often the novice considers the title of his story a matter of no import. He looks upon it as a mere handle, the result of some happy afterthought, affixed to the completed story for convenience or reference, just as numbers are placed on the books in a library. The title is really a fair test of what it introduces, and many a MS. has been justly condemned by its title alone; for the editor knows that a poor title usually means a poor story. Think, too, how often you yourself pass a story by with but a casual glance, because its title does not interest you: experience has shown you that you seldom enjoy reading a story which bears an unattractive title.
"A book's name often has an astonishing influence on its first sale. A title that piques curiosity or suggests excitement or emotion will draw a crowd of readers the moment it appears, while a book soberly named must force its merits on the public. The former has all the advantage of a pretty girl over a plain one; it is given an instantaneous chance to prove itself worth while. A middle aged, unalluring title ('In Search of Quiet,' for instance) may frighten people away from what proves to be a mine of wit and human interest. A book headed by a man's name unmodified and uncommented upon—such as 'Horace Chase'—is apt to have a dreary, unprepossessing air, unless the name is an incisive one that suggests an interesting personality. Fragments of proverbs and poems are always attractive, as well as Biblical phrases and colloquial expressions, but the magic title is the one that excites and baffles curiosity. The publishers of a recent 'Primer of Evolution' received a sudden flood of orders for the book simply on account of a review which had spoken of it under the sobriquet, 'From Gas to Genius.' Many copies were indignantly returned when the true title was revealed." "In 1850 Dr. O. M. Mitchell, Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Cincinnati, gave to the press a volume entitled 'The Planetary and Stellar Worlds.' The book fell dead from the press. The publisher complained bitterly of this to a friend, saying, 'I have not sold a single copy.' 'Well,' was the reply, 'you have killed the book by its title. Why not call it "The Orbs of Heaven"?' The hint was accepted and acted upon, and 6,000 copies were sold in a month."
The title might almost be called the "text" of the story; it should be logically deduced from the plot; so a poor title usually indicates a poor plot and a poor story. This name line should grow out of the phase of the plot, rather than the basic theme, else it will be too abstract and general. It is so closely allied to the plot that they should be born synchronously—or if anything the title should precede the plot; for the story is built up around the central thought that the title expresses, much as Poe said he wrote "The Raven" about the word "nevermore." At least, the title should be definitely fixed long before the story is completed, and often before it has taken definite form in the writer's mind. That this is the practice of professional writers may be proved by a glance at the literary column of any periodical, where coming books are announced by title when scarcely a word of them has been written. So if you have difficulty in finding an appropriate title for your story, first examine your plot, and make sure that the cause does not lie there. In case you are unable to decide among a number of possible titles, any one of which might do, you may find that your plot lacks the definiteness of impression required by the short story; but a fertile intellect may suggest a number of good titles, from which your only difficulty is to select the best.
A good story may be given a bad title by its author, and so started toward failure. Novices are peculiarly liable to this fault, usually through allowing themselves to be too easily satisfied. They go to infinite pains to make the story itself fresh and individual, and then cap it with a commonplace phrase that is worse than no title at all. A good title is apt, specific, attractive, new, and short.
A title is apt if it is an outgrowth of the plot—a text, as I have said. It stands definitely for that particular story, and gives a suggestion of what is to come—but only a suggestion, lest it should anticipate the denouement and so satisfy the curiosity of the reader too soon. An apt title excites and piques the curiosity almost as much as does the story itself. Examples: Hawthorne's "The Wedding Knell;" Poe's "'Thou Art the Man!'" Wilkins' "The Revolt of Mother." Each of these titles conveys an idea, though a vague one, of the theme of the story, and so its aptness is apparent; but frequently the relevancy of the title is evident only after the story has been read, as in the case of James' "The Real Thing" and "The Lesson of the Master." Such a title is almost ideal. This suspension of aptness, carried to the extreme, produces such vague and weak titles as:
"Happiness Won." "Almost Too Late." "After All." "Reorganized."
The title must be specific or it is seldom apt. It is in this particular that the novice generally fails. He deduces his title rather from the original plot, or even from the theme, than from the particular phase which he presents; but its title should distinguish his story from the host of tales builded upon the same basic plot, just as the Christian name of a Smith distinguishes him from the rest of the great family of which he is a member. Thus we have such titles as the following, which are more appropriate for essays in psychology, moral philosophy, or some kindred subject, than for fiction:
"How Dreams Come True." "Moral Vision." "Sorrow and Joy." "The Straight Path."
More often the unspecific title is simply a vague reference to the general style of the story:
"A Wedding in a Texas Jail." "A Frightful Night Ride." "A Unique Rescue." "A Lynching Incident." "Nature's Freaks." "A Valuable Discovery." "The Widow." "A Valued Relic." "A Strange Case." "The Old Clock." "The Office Boy."
None of these titles represents any definite idea, and in nearly every case it served to introduce a story which was equally vague, ordinary, and uninteresting. Several of them, too—notably the first four—were not stories at all, but were simply bits of description by narrative, as their titles would suggest.
In general a phrase, otherwise indefinite, becomes specific when united with the name of a character, as in Hawthorne's "Howe's Masquerade" and "Lady Eleanor's Mantle;" but such titles are usually ordinary and unattractive. Some words frequently found in these compound titles are so vague in meaning or so worn from use that their total avoidance is the only safe course. Such are "Christmas," "Adventure," "Romance," "Story," "Vision," and "Dream." A "Dream" or a "Vision" is usually the relation of some commonplace incident with absurd adornments; and an "Adventure" is more often a piece of description than of narration. I know that these words may be found in combination in many happy titles, but it is best that the novice let them severely alone. That such titles are really a serious impediment to the success of their stories is shown by the action of the Chicago Record. For some years it was the custom of the Record to offer substantial cash prizes for the best Christmas stories written by school children; and prominent among the rules governing the competition was the announcement that stories bearing such titles as "Johnnie's Christmas," "Nellie's Christmas," "Mary's Christmas," would not even be read. The following titles show how fond is the novice of these objectionable words in their baldest combinations:
"Sarah's Christmas Present." "Adventures with a Bear." "Nettie's Romance." "Lee's Romance." "A Woman's Love Story." "The Captain's Story." "A True Story." "The Story of a Vision." "The Dream at Sea." "Viola's Dream." "Mabel's Dream." "Eleanor's Dream."
The title should be attractive because it will be the test of the story, and it must be sufficiently interesting to arouse at a glance the curiosity of the reader, and induce in him a desire to peruse the narrative that it offers. Commonplaceness is the chief cause of the unattractive title, and that fault is usually traceable to the plot itself. It may, however, be due to a conventional expression of the dominant idea of the story, as in the list just given; and also in the following:
"How Amy Won the Prize." "Fred Norton, the Artist."
Or it may be unattractive through comprising only the name of the chief character:
"Lucy Bonneville." "Lester Rice."
The use of a name for a title is a matter which it is difficult to settle. If the story is dominated by one character, and particularly if it is a genuine Character Study, the writer naturally feels that he cannot do better than to name it after the character it depicts; and he has good authority for so doing in the example of Poe ("Berenice," "Elenora," "Morella"), Hawthorne ("Sylph Etherege," "Ethan Brand," "Wakefield"), Irving ("Wolfert Webber," "Rip Van Winkle"), James ("Sir Dominic Ferrand," "Nona Vincent," "Greville Fane"), Stevenson ("Olalla," "Thrawn Janet," "Markheim"), Wilkins ("Louisa"), Davis ("Gallegher," "Cinderella"), Kipling ("Lispeth," "Namgay Doola"), etc., etc. A good rule to observe would be this: If the name of the chief personage gives a hint of character, or if it is sufficiently unusual to attract attention, it may be used as a title; but in general it will be stronger if used in combination.
In the endeavor to make his title distinctive and attractive the novice is liable to fall into the error of making it cheap and sensational. A title which offends against good taste must not be used, no matter how desirable it may appear in the matter of attractiveness. The newspaper caption writer who headed an account of a hanging "Jerked to Jesus!" attained the acme of attractiveness, but he also committed an unpardonable sin against good taste. The short story writer seldom descends to such depths of sensationalism: his chief offense consists in the use of double titles, connected by the word "or." Often either title alone would be passable, if not really good; but their united form must be placed in the category of bad titles. Such titles are rated as bad chiefly through the effects of association. It used to be common for a story to bear a double title; but to-day the custom has been relegated to the cheap, sensational tale of the "penny dreadful" order, and the conjunctive title is a recognized mark of "yellow" literature. This fault in a title can usually be corrected by the use of either of the titles alone, as may be seen from a study of the following:
(1) "The Story of Dora; or, Innocence Triumphant." (2) "Jessie Redmond; or, The Spider and the Fly." (3) "Outwitted; or, The Holdup of No. 4." (4) "The Battle of the Black Cats; or, A Tragedy Played with Twenty Thousand Actors and Only One Spectator." (5) "Fate; or, Legend of 'Say Au Revoir, but not Goodbye.'" (6) "The Romance of a Lost Mine; or, The Curse of the Navajos." (7) "A Little Bunch of Rosebuds; or, Two Normal Graduates." (8) "Her Silk Quilt; or, On the Crest of the Wave."
(1) Neither part is particularly happy. "The Story of Dora" is too general, and conveys an idea of largeness and time that is better suited to the novel than to the short story; "Innocence Triumphant" is cheap, sensational and trite. (2) "Jessie Redmond" is too commonplace a name to be a good head line; "The Spider and the Fly" was worn out years ago. (3) Either title alone is good; "The Holdup of No. 4" is preferable because of its definiteness. (4) "The Battle of the Black Cats" alone would pass, in spite of its hint of sensationalism; but the second part is of course ludicrously impossible. (5) "Fate" is too indefinite; the second title is cheap and old. (6) Either would do, though the first is somewhat vague, and "Curse" savors of sensationalism. (7) Either would do, though the first sounds rather silly. (8) The first is good; the second is vague and rather old.
That a title should be new is so obvious that offenses against this rule are usually unconscious; yet in some cases stories have been capped with stolen headings, where the theft was so apparently intentional that it seemed as if the writer wished to fail. Lapses in this regard are usually due to the writer's ignorance of the value of a title; or to the too ready use of the abstract theme, as mentioned before. Of such titles are "All's Well that Ends Well," "Love's Labor Lost," and "The Irony of Fate," all of which are great favorites with the beginner. Like charity, they will cover a multitude of sins, but they constitute so great a literary sin in themselves that they should be rigorously eschewed. To this class belongs also such a title as "Cuba Libre!" which is so very old, and which during the last few years has been so twisted and mishandled in every conceivable way that its mere use is an irritation. Such a title will frequently be apt, specific, attractive, and, in application, new; but it will so exasperate the reader that its use will be perilous.
For self-evident reasons the title should be short. Aptness and specificness do not require an epitome of the story; and a title like "Why Tom Changed His Opinion of Me," or "What the Rabbit Drive Did for Me" is prosy as well as long. It used to be the custom to make the title of a writing a regular synopsis of the matter contained therein; but modern readers object to being told in advance exactly what is to happen. No ruling concerning the proper length of a short story title is possible; but generally speaking, the shorter the title the better it is. Compound titles connected by "or," like those previously mentioned, are as offensive in their length as in their sensationalism.
To illustrate further these several points I introduce here a few good titles used by successful short story writers. They are roughly divided into three classes according to their derivation. The title may be the text of the story:
Edgeworth: "Murad the Unlucky."
Hawthorne: "The Wedding Knell;" "The Prophetic Pictures."
James: "The Real Thing;" "The Lesson of the Master."
Poe: "The Masque of the Red Death;" "'Thou Art the Man!'"
Stockton: "The Transferred Ghost."
Wilkins: "The Revolt of Mother;" "Two Old Lovers."
The title may represent the principal character by name or by some apt appellation:
Hawthorne: "The Ambitious Guest;" "Feathertop."
Irving: "The Spectre Bridegroom;" "Rip Van Winkle."
Poe: "Morella;" "Ligeia."
Wilkins: "A Modern Dragon;" "A Kitchen Colonel."
The title may mention the principal object:
Adee: "The Life Magnet."
Burnett: "The Spider's Eye."
Hawthorne: "The Great Stone Face;" "The Great Carbuncle."
James: "The Aspern Papers."
Kipling: "The Phantom Rickshaw."
Poe: "The Black Cat;" "The Gold Bug."
Stevenson: "The Bottle Imp."
[Footnote 18: "Literary Chat." Munsey's Magazine. May, '98.]
[Footnote 19: "Misleading Titles of Books," by William Mathews. The Saturday Evening Post. Apr. 21, 1900.]
THE USE OF FACTS
All fiction is founded upon fact, for the boldest imagination must have some definite point from which to take its flight; but the ungarnished truth is seldom literature in itself, though it may offer excellent material for literary embellishment. The amateur, content with knowing that he is recounting what did actually happen, falls into the most inartistic ways, because he does not understand that facts are properly only crude material for the fictionist.
The one place where the average short story writer should not seek his material is the world of literature. Almost from the time when men first began to dabble in letters they have drawn on their predecessors for their subject matter; but this practice has produced a deal of unconscious plagiarism, which is responsible for most of the conventional and stereotyped stories with which we are afflicted to-day. Of any one hundred average stories submitted for sale, probably seventy-five are damned by their hopelessly hackneyed conception and treatment; and they suffer because the writer, reading some attractive story built upon a similar plot, has attempted to go and do likewise, and has unconsciously used all the conventional parts while omitting the essential individuality.
It is safe for the novice to go only to the world for literary material. The matter so obtained will be intrinsically the same as that gained from the writings of others, but the fact that you get your information through your own senses will considerably obviate the danger of adopting the conventional view in the matter. I do not mean to say that you should deliberately set out to search for new types and incidents as Dickens did, though I would certainly commend such a course; I mean rather that you should be content to write of what you personally and intimately know, and not attempt to treat of matters of which you have only a vague superficial knowledge, or of which you are totally ignorant. Excellent stories have been written by men who were personally unacquainted with the matters with which they dealt, but they were in every case masters of their art, who knew how to gain and use second-hand information and how to supplement insufficient data with literary skill.
Too many novices have the mistaken idea that only those things which are dim and distant are fit for artistic treatment. They have not cultivated their powers of perception, and have failed to grasp the truth that human nature is in most respects the same the world over, and that persons and places, apparently the most ordinary, have stories to tell. Before Mary E. Wilkins began to write her New England tales few thought to look to those bleak hills and commonplace people for literary material; and doubtless many New Englanders, feeling the impulse to write, viewed with scorn their unpoetic surroundings and longed for the glamour of some half-guessed clime; Miss Wilkins, appreciating her environment, won fame and fortune through her truthful depictions of those things which others, equally able to write but less able to see, had despised.
It is a common trick of aspiring writers to locate their stories in England, to speak proudly but uncertainly of grand estates, noble castles, and haughty lords and ladies, and to make mistakes which would be ridiculous were they not so inexcusable. There is a certain half-feudal glamour about England yet which appeals strongly to the callow author: it lends that rosy haze of romance and unreality which is popularly associated with fiction; but it was long ago done to death by mediocre writers and laughed out of good literary society, and to-day America will not suffer any such hackneyed fol-de-rol.
Similarly the amateur will locate his story in the "best" society of some American metropolis, when he has never been out of his native village, and knows nothing of the class with which he deals except through the society column of his newspaper. Therefore he will of course "fall flat when he attempts to delineate manners. It is too evident that he has not had the entree to the circle he would describe: his gentlemen commit too many blunders, his ladies are from the wrong side of the town, the love-passages are silly and vulgar, the whole result is stupid and offensive—to those who know. The thing hopelessly lacks tone; it might pass below stairs, but not in the drawing-room." It is not only those of wealth and leisure who are eligible for literary purposes; indeed, their lives, apparently so gay and exciting, are often a dull and regular series of attempts to kill the dawdling time. If the young writer would look into the lives of his own simple neighbors he would find much better matter for his intended stories.
Again, the novice, in his search for something different, will place his tale in the dim and distant past, when all men were brave and all women lovely; and in so doing will expose himself to ridicule and contempt for his evident ignorance of the matters of which he pretends to treat. It is very probable that any age seems dull and commonplace to those who live in it, for "familiarity breeds contempt" for almost anything; but though we of to-day have no valiant knights, armed cap-a-pie, riding forth to the jousts to do battle for their ladies fair, we have men just as brave and deeds fully as valorous and far more sensible; and the world is, and always will be, full of noble and romantic and marvelous things.
If, however, you feel that you must write of times and scenes and peoples which are either past or foreign, it is your first duty to inform yourself to the best of your ability concerning them. I do not believe that any writer can successfully locate his story in a foreign country unless he has personal knowledge of the scenes and persons that he describes, or unless he is thoroughly versed in the language and literature of the country—and in the latter case he would probably be too pedantic to write readable stories. At first thought it does not seem so difficult to handle English subjects, for there we have the advantage of a common language and, to a considerable extent, of common racial traits; but even that common language, as spoken on the other side of the Atlantic, has an every-day vocabulary differing from ours, and the English government and social system present difficulties almost insurmountable to one who cannot study them face to face. In dealing with themes of the past there is more opportunity. There we are all on the common ground of an absolute dependence on such books as may preserve for us pictures of those times, and complete information—complete, at least, in the sense that no one knows more—can be had at the price of a certain number of hours of painstaking study. If, then, you desire to write of the days that are gone, see to it that you first thoroughly acquaint yourself with the history of those times. There are few towns too small to possess a library, and few libraries too small to contain such historical books as you may need.
In these days when all things come to Mohamet, the writer may gain a valuable though impersonal insight into the world at large through the medium of the public press. The newspapers of to-day are full of incipient plots, needing only the skillful pen to make them literature. Reporters go everywhere and see everything, and they place the result of their multifarious labors in your hands every morning. They recount actual happenings accurately enough for literary purposes, they strain for the unusual side of things, and their purpose is too different from yours to make you liable to the charge of plagiarism if you rework their material. The receptive perusal of any newspaper ought to furnish the reader with a fresh stock of literary material. Such matter is particularly valuable to the short story writer because of the present and ever increasing demand for stories of the day, plots, characters, situations, and local color for which may be culled from any newspaper.
But short story writing is an art, and all facts may not be capable of literary treatment. "Even actual occurrences may be improper subjects for fiction. Nature can take liberties with facts that art dare not—a truth that has passed into a proverb.... Art may fill us with anger, fear, terror, awe, but the moment it condescends to excite disgust, it passes out of the realm of art." "There seems no reason why the artist should not choose any subject, if the production itself contributes to the satisfaction of the world, making a picture of life, or of a phase of life, in compliance with the demands of art, beauty, and truth. Taste is the arbiter of the subject, for taste is always moral, always on the side of the angels. There are certain things which are only subjects for technical reform, for the sanitary inspector, and for the physician—not for the novelist." "The carnage of a battle-field, the wrecked cafe or theatre after dynamite has done its work, had best be handled sparingly.... A good many things that happen on this planet are not good subjects for art: the pathetic (within limits) is always in order, but not the shocking. Moral are worse than physical horrors." "Even genius may waste itself on an unmanageable theme; it cannot make the cleaning of fish interesting, nor the slums of New York or Paris attractive."
It is rare indeed that a fact can be used without embellishment. Mere facts are frequently most unliterary, though they may be susceptible of a high literary polish. The sub-title "A True Story," which young writers think so valuable a part of the tale, is too often the trademark of an unreadable mess of conventional people, ordinary incidents and commonplace conversation. We find few genuinely true stories, and when we do find them we seldom care to read them through. I have read many stories which I knew to be literally true, because they contained so much of the hackneyed and the irrelevant. Life itself is a very conventional affair; it abounds with dull events and stupid people; and for that reason alone fiction would demand something out of the common. Commonplace persons and commonplace things do appear in literature, but they must have something more than their commonplaceness to recommend them.
"The novice in story telling ... has heard that truth is stranger than fiction, and supposes that the more truth he can get into his tale the stronger and more effective it will be.... Truth, i. e., reality, is very seldom strange; it is usually tame and flat and commonplace; and when it is strange it is apt to be grotesque and repulsive. Most of the experiences of daily life afford material only for a chronicle of dulness; and most of the 'strange' or unusual happenings had better be left to the newspaper and the records of the police courts. This statement may be strengthened. Does not the able reporter select and decorate his facts, suppressing some, emphasizing others, arranging his 'story' with reference to picturesqueness and effect?
"In other words, verisimilitude, not verity, is wanted in fiction. The observer notes his facts, and then the artist seizes on the ideas behind them, the types they represent, the spiritual substances they embody. The result, when all goes well, is as lifelike as life itself, though it is not a copy of anything (in detail) that really lives.... The budding writer of fictitious tales must be familiar with facts, at least in his own range: he must know life and nature, or his work is naught. But when he has this knowledge, he must put the facts in the background of his mind.... Real incidents, dragged against their will into an (alleged) imaginary narrative, are apt by no means to improve it, but to sound as 'flat and untunable' as our own praises from our own mouths."
"There must be no misconception about great fiction being a transcript of life. Mere transcription is not the work of an artist, else we should have no need of painters, for photographers would do; no poems, for academical essays would do; no great works of fiction, for we have our usual sources of information—if information is all we want—the Divorce Court, the Police Court, the Stock Exchange, the Young Ladies' Seminary, the Marriage Register, and the House of Parliament—those happy hunting-grounds of sensation-mongers and purveyors of melodrama. All these things certainly contain the facts of life which one must know for the constructive work of the imagination, for they are the rough material, the background of knowledge from which the illusion of real life must proceed. But they are not life, though they are the transcription of life. The human significance of facts is all that concerns one. The inwardness of facts makes fiction; the history of life, its emotions, its passions, its sins, reflections, values. These you cannot photograph nor transcribe. Selection and rejection are two profound essentials of every art, even of the art of fiction, though it be so jauntily practised by the amateur."
And even if the facts which you purpose to use are of undoubted value for artistic treatment, there may be other reasons which make their use questionable. In the first place, people do not really prefer truth to fiction. They require plausibility, but they are all too familiar with life themselves, and in the idle hours in which they turn to fiction they desire to be lifted out of reality into the higher realm of fancy. Nor will they, even in the form of fiction, tolerate what seems like too gross an invasion of the privacy of the home, or the sanctity of the soul of a man. They must always feel vaguely that the suffering characters are really only puppets created for their amusement, or their pity for the characters will develop into anger and disgust for the author.
In using facts, then, the first thing to learn is what to suppress and what to elaborate, and that involves that most necessary possession of the story teller, a sense of proportion. Because a conversation about the weather occupies two dull people for ten minutes is no reason that it should receive an equal number of pages; and because an important event is almost instantaneous is no excuse for passing it with a single line. Again, the fact that you are relating what actually occurred does not relieve you of the necessity of making it plausible. Painters acknowledge that there are color combinations in nature which they dare not reproduce, lest they be dubbed unnatural; and similarly things exist which the writer may present only after he has most carefully prepared the way for their credence. The truth is that we have declared that even nature shall conform to certain conventions, and we reject as impossible any deviations from our preconceived ideas.
The facts upon which Hawthorne built "The Ambitious Guest" are these:—The White Hills of which he speaks ( 1) are the famous White Mountains of New Hampshire; the Notch ( 1) is the real name of a real mountain pass, which is just as he describes it; the Flume ( 22) is a waterfall not far from the Notch; the valley of the Saco ( 1) is really where he places it. The references to Portland ( 3), Bartlett ( 5), Burlington ( 7), Bethlehem and Littleton ( 18) are all references to real places in the vicinity. At the point where Hawthorne locates his story there actually was a mountain tavern called the Willey House, and a modern inn stands on the spot to-day. Concerning the catastrophe which he describes I found the following account:
"Some time in June—before the great 'slide' in August, 1826—there came a great storm, and the old veteran, Abel Crawford, coming down the Notch, noticed the trees slipping down, standing upright, and, as he was passing Mr. Willey's he called and informed him of the wonderful fact. Immediately, in a less exposed place, Mr. Willey prepared a shelter to which to flee in case of immediate danger; and in the night of August 28th, that year, he was, with his family, awakened by the thundering crash of the coming avalanche. Attempting to escape, that family, nine in number, rushed from the house and were overtaken and buried alive under a vast pile of rocks, earth, trees and water. By a remarkable circumstance the house remained uninjured, as the slide divided about four rods back of the house (against a high flat rock), and came down on either side with overwhelming power."
The book goes on to state further that the family consisted of the father and mother, five children—the eldest a girl of thirteen—and two hired men. The bodies of the parents, the oldest and youngest children, and the two hired men were found.
It is probable that Hawthorne derived his information from the newspapers, though he may have heard the story by word of mouth, for there is little doubt that he actually visited the spot where the catastrophe occurred. But the bald facts of the case, however gained, are essentially as we have them here, and that is sufficient for our purpose.
In writing his story Hawthorne took several liberties with the facts. He made no change in the location because even he could not improve upon the scene for such a story. He changed the month from August to September ( 1) to make plausible, perhaps, the rain necessary for such a slide, and to make seasonable the bitter wind which he introduces. He omitted all names to add to the air of unsolved mystery that haunts the story. He introduced the guest ( 4) and the grandmother ( 1), increased the age of the daughter ( 1), retained the parents and younger children ( 1) and omitted the hired men to suit the requirements of his story. He omitted the warning but retained the establishment of a place of refuge ( 9) to heighten the climax. He used the flight from the house ( 42) because it just suited his purpose. He retained the strange preservation of the house ( 42) to increase the air of mystery, and to intensify the tragedy by making it appear in a manner unnecessary. He suppressed the finding of any of the bodies ( 42) to aid the plausibility of his narrative, and to increase the pathos of the guest's death.
Compare carefully the account given by Spaulding and the story of Hawthorne, for you have here an excellent illustration of the difference between the commonplace recital of facts and their transformation into a work of art. Spaulding's relation is a true story, but Hawthorne's is literature.
[Footnote 20: "Bad Story-Telling," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Oct., '97.]
[Footnote 21: "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.]
[Footnote 22: "The Art of Fiction." A lecture by Gilbert Parker. The Critic. Dec., '98.]
[Footnote 23: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]