English: Composition and Literature
by W. F. (William Franklin) Webster
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Principal of the East High School Minneapolis, Minnesota

Houghton Mifflin Company Boston: 4 Park Street; New York: 85 Fifth Avenue Chicago: 378-388 Wabash Avenue

The Riverside Press Cambridge

Copyright, 1900 and 1902, by W. F. Webster All Rights Reserved


In July, 1898, I presented at the National Educational Association, convened in Washington, a Course of Study in English. At Los Angeles, in 1899, the Association indorsed the principles[1] of this course, and made it the basis of the Course in English for High Schools. At the request of friends, I have prepared this short text-book, outlining the method of carrying forward the course, and emphasizing the principles necessary for the intelligent communication of ideas.

It has not been the purpose to write a rhetoric. The many fine distinctions and divisions, the rarefied examples of very beautiful forms of language which a young pupil cannot possibly reproduce, or even appreciate, have been omitted. To teach the methods of simple, direct, and accurate expression has been the purpose; and this is all that can be expected of a high school course in English.

The teaching of composition differs from the teaching of Latin or mathematics in this point: whereas pupils can be compelled to solve a definite number of problems or to read a given number of lines, it is not possible to compel expression of the full thought. The full thought is made of an intellectual and an emotional element. Whatever is intellectual may be compelled by dint of sheer purpose; whatever is emotional must spring undriven by outside authority, and uncompelled by inside determination. A boy saws a cord of wood because he has been commanded by his father; but he cannot laugh or cry because directed to do so by the same authority. There must be the conditions which call forth smiles or tears. So there must be the conditions which call forth the full expression of thought, both what is intellectual and what is emotional. This means that the subject shall be one of which the writer knows something, and in which he is interested; that the demands in the composition shall not be made a discouragement; and that the teacher shall be competent and enthusiastic, inspiring in each pupil a desire to say truly and adequately the best he thinks and feels.

These conditions cannot be realized while working with dead fragments of language; but they are realized while constructing living wholes of composition. It is not two decades ago when the pupil in drawing was compelled to make straight lines until he made them all crooked. The pupil in manual training began by drawing intersecting lines on two sides of a board; then he drove nails into the intersections on one side, hoping that they would hit the corresponding points on the other. Now no single line or exercise is an end in itself; it contributes to some whole. Under the old method the pupil did not care or try to draw a straight line, or to drive a nail straight; but now, in order that he may realize the idea that lies in his mind, he does care and he does try: so lines are drawn better and nails are driven straighter than before. In all training that combines intellect and hand, the principle has been recognized that the best work is done when the pupil's interest has been enlisted by making each exercise contribute directly to the construction of some whole. Only in the range of the spiritual are we twenty years behind time, trying to get the best construction by compulsion. It is quite time that we recognized that the best work in composition can be done, not while the pupil is correcting errors in the use of language which he never dreamed of, nor while he is writing ten similes or ten periodic sentences, but when both intellect and feeling combine and work together to produce some whole. Then into the construction of this whole the pupil will throw all his strength, using the most apt comparisons, choosing the best words, framing adequate sentences, in order that the outward form may worthily present to others what to himself has appeared worthy of expression.

There are some persons who say that other languages are taught by the word and sentence method; then why not English? These persons overlook the fact that we are leaving that method as rapidly as possible, and adopting a more rational method which at once uses a language to communicate thought. And they overlook another fact of even greater importance: the pupil entering the high school is by no means a beginner in English. He has been using the language ten or twelve years, and has a fluency of expression in English which he cannot attain in German throughout a high school and college course. The conditions under which a pupil begins the study of German in a high school and the study of English composition are entirely dissimilar; and a conclusion based upon a fancied analogy is worthless.

It is preferable, then, to practice the construction of wholes rather than the making of exercises; and it is best at the beginning to study the different kinds of wholes, one at a time, rather than all together. No one would attempt to teach elimination by addition and subtraction, by comparison and by substitution, all together; nor would an instructor take up heat, light, and electricity together. In algebra, or physics, certain great principles underlie the whole subject; and these appear and reappear as the study progresses through its allied parts. Still the best results are obtained by taking up these several divisions of the whole one after another. And in English the most certain and definite results are secured by studying the forms of discourse separately, learning the method of applying to each the great principles that underlie all composition.

If the forms of discourse are to be studied one after another, which shall be taken up first? In general, all composition may be separated into two divisions: composition which deals with things, including narration and description; and composition which deals with ideas, comprising exposition and argument. It needs no argument to justify the position that an essay which deals with things seen and heard is easier for a beginner to construct than an essay which deals with ideas invisible and unheard. Whether narration or description should precede appears yet to be undetermined; for many text-books treat one first, and perhaps as many the other. I have thought it wiser to begin with the short story, because it is easier to gain free, spontaneous expression with narration than with description. To write a whole page of description is a task for a master, and very few attempt it; but for the uninitiated amateur about three sentences of description mark the limit of his ability to see and describe. To get started, to gain confidence in one's ability to say something, to acquire freedom and spontaneity of expression,—this is the first step in the practice of composition. Afterward, when the pupil has discovered that he really has something to say,—enough indeed to cover three or four pages of his tablet paper,—then it may be time to begin the study of description, and to acquire more careful and accurate forms of expression. Spontaneity should be acquired first,—crude and unformed it may be, but spontaneity first; and this spontaneity is best gained while studying narration.

There can be but little question about the order of the other forms. Description, still dealing with the concrete, offers an admirable opportunity for shaping and forming the spontaneous expression gained in narration. Following description, in order of difficulty, come exposition and argument.

I should be quite misunderstood, did any one gather from this that during the time in which wholes are being studied, no attention is to be given to parts; that is, to paragraphs, sentences, and words. All things cannot be learned at once and thoroughly; there must be some order of succession. In the beginning the primary object to be aimed at is the construction of wholes; yet during their construction, parts can also be incidentally studied. During this time many errors which annoy and exasperate must be passed over with but a word, in order that the weight of the criticism may be concentrated on the point then under consideration. As a pupil advances, he is more and more competent to appreciate and to form good paragraphs and well-turned sentences, and to single out from the multitude of verbal signs the word that exactly presents his thought. The appreciation and the use of the stronger as well as the finer and more delicate forms of language come only with much reading and writing; and to demand everything at the very beginning is little less than sheer madness.

Moreover there never comes a time when the construction of a paragraph, the shaping of a phrase, or the choice of a word becomes an end in itself. Paragraphs, sentences, and words are well chosen when they serve best the whole composition. He who becomes enamored of one form of paragraph, who always uses periodic sentences, who chooses only common words, has not yet recognized that the beauty of a phrase or a word is determined by its fitness, and that it is most beautiful because it exactly suits the place it fills. The graceful sweep of a line by Praxiteles or the glorious radiancy of a color by Angelico is most beautiful in the place it took from the master's hand. So Lowell's wealth of figurative language and Stevenson's unerring choice of delicate words are most beautiful, not when torn from their original setting to serve as examples in rhetorics, but when fulfilling their part in a well-planned whole. And it is only as the beauties of literature are born of the thought that they ever succeed. No one can say to himself, "I will now make a good simile," and straightway fulfill his promise. If, however, the thought of a writer takes fire, and instead of the cold, unimpassioned phraseology of the logician, glowing images crowd up, and phrases tipped with fire, then figurative language best suits the thought,—indeed, it is the thought. But imagery upon compulsion,—never. So that at no time should one attempt to mould fine phrases for the sake of the phrases themselves, but he should spare no pains with them when they spring from the whole, when they harmonize with the whole, and when they give to the whole added beauty and strength.

It is quite unnecessary at this day to urge the study of literature. It is in the course of study for every secondary school. Yet a word may be said of the value of this study to the practice of composition. There are two classes of artists: geniuses and men of talent. Of geniuses in literature, one can count the names on his fingers; most authors are simply men of talent. Talent learns to do by doing, and by observing how others have done. When Brunelleschi left Rome for Florence, he had closely observed and had drawn every arch of the stupendous architecture in that ancient city; and so he was adjudged by his fellow citizens to be the only man competent to lift the dome of their Duomo. His observation discovered the secret of Rome's architectural grandeur; and the slow accumulation of such secrets marks the development of every art and science. Milton had his method of writing prose, Macaulay his, and Arnold his,—all different and all excellent. And just as the architect stands before the cathedrals of Cologne, Milan, and Salisbury to learn the secret of each; as the painter searches out the secret of Raphael, Murillo, and Rembrandt; so the author analyzes the masterpieces of literature to discover the secret of Irving, of Eliot, and of Burke. Not that an author is to be a servile imitator of any man's manner; but that, having knowledge of all the secrets of composition, he shall so be enabled to set forth for others his own thought in all the beauty and perfection in which he himself conceives it.

One thing further. A landscape painter would not make a primary study of Angelo's anatomical drawings; a composer of lyric forms of music would not study Sousa's marches; nor would a person writing a story look for much assistance in the arguments of Burke. The most direct benefit is derived from studying the very thing one wishes to know about, not from studying something else. That the literature may give the greatest possible assistance to the composition, the course has been so arranged that narration shall be taught by Hawthorne and Irving, description by Ruskin and Stevenson, exposition by Macaulay and Newman, and argument by Webster and Burke. Literature, arranged in this manner, is not only a stimulus to renewed effort, by showing what others have done; it is also the most skillful instructor in the art of composition, by showing how others have done.

It would be quite impossible for any one at the present time to write a text-book in English that would not repeat what has already been said by many others. Nor have I tried to. My purpose has been rather to select from the whole literature of the subject just those principles which every author of a book on composition or rhetoric has thought essential, and to omit minor matters and all those about which there is a difference of opinion. This limits the contents to topics already familiar to every teacher. It also makes it necessary to repeat what has been written before many times. Certain books, however, have treated special divisions of the whole subject in a thorough and exhaustive manner. There is nothing new to say of Unity, Mass, and Coherence; Mr. Wendell said all concerning these in his book entitled "English Composition." So in paragraph development, Scott and Denney hold the field. Other books which I have frequently used in the classroom are "Talks on Writing English," by Arlo Bates, and Genung's "Practical Rhetoric." These books I have found very helpful in teaching, and I have drawn upon them often while writing this text-book.

If the field has been covered, then why write a book at all? The answer is that the principles which are here treated have not been put into one book. They may be found in several. These essentials I have repeated many times with the hope that they will be fixed by this frequent repetition. The purpose has been to focus the attention upon these, to apply them in the construction of the different forms of discourse, paragraphs, and sentences, and to repeat them until it is impossible for a student to forget them. If the book fulfils this purpose, it was worth writing.

Acknowledgments are due to Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons for their kind permission to use the selections from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson contained in this book; also, to Messrs. D. Appleton & Co., The Century Co., and Doubleday & McClure Co. for selections from the writings of Rudyard Kipling.




Chapter I.—Forms of Discourse

Composition 1 English Composition 1 Composition, Written and Oral 2 Conventions of Composition 2 Five Forms of Discourse 3 Definitions 4 Difficulty in distinguishing 4 Purpose of the Author 6

Chapter II.—Choice of Subject

Form and Material 8 Author's Individuality 8 Knowledge of Subject 9 Common Subjects 10 Interest 11 The Familiar 11 Human Life 12 The Strange 12

Chapter III.—Narration

Material of Narration 13 In Action 14 The Commonest Form of Discourse 14 Language as a Means of Expression 15 Without Plot 15 Plot 16 Unity, Mass, and Coherence 20 Main Incident 20 Its Importance 21 Unity 21 Introductions and Conclusions 23 Tedious Enumerations 23 What to include 24 Consistency 25 An Actor as the Story-teller 26 The Omniscience of an Author 27 The Climax 28 Who? Where? When? Why? 29 In what Order? 29 An Outline 32 Movement 32 Rapidity 32 Slowness 33 Description and Narration 34 Characters few, Time short 35 Simple Plot 36 Suggestive Questions and Exercises 38

Chapter IV.—Description

Difficulties of Language for making Pictures 49 Painting and Sculpture 50 Advantages of Language 50 Enumeration and Suggestion 52 Enumerative Description 54 Suggestive Description 55 Value of Observation 55 The Point of View 56 Moving Point of View 58 The Point of View should be stated 58 Mental Point of View 59 Length of Descriptions 63 Arrangement of Details in Description 64 The End of a Description 70 Proportion 73 Arrangement must be natural 74 Use Familiar Images 75 Simile, Metaphor, Personification 77 Choice of Words. Adjectives and Nouns 78 Use of Verbs 79 Suggestive Questions and Exercises 81

Chapter V.—Exposition

General Terms difficult 89 Definition 91 Exposition and Description distinguished 91 Logical Definition 91 Genus and Differentia 92 Requisites of a Good Definition 93 How do Men explain? First, by Repetition 94 Second, by telling the obverse 95 Third, by Details 96 Fourth, by Illustrations 97 Fifth, by Comparisons 98 The Subject 99 The Subject should allow Concrete Treatment 100 The Theme 100 The Title 102 Selection of Material 102 Scale of Treatment 104 Arrangement 108 Use Cards for Subdivisions 108 An Outline 109 Mass the End 110 The Beginning 112 Proportion in Treatment 114 Emphasis of Emotion 115 Phrases indicating Emphasis 116 Coherence 116 Transition Phrases 118 Summary and Transition 119 Suggestive Questions and Exercises 121

Chapter VI.—Argument

Induction and Deduction 129 Syllogism Premises 129 Terms 129 Enthymeme 130 Definition of Terms 130 Undistributed Middle 131 False Premises 131 Method of Induction 132 Arguments from Cause 133 Arguments from Sign 134 Sequence and Cause 135 Arguments from Example 137 Selection of Material 138 Plan called The Brief 138 Climax 139 Inductive precedes Deductive 140 Cause precedes Sign 140 Example follows Sign 141 Refutation 141 Analysis of Burke's Oration 142 Suggestive Questions 148

Chapter VII.—Paragraphs

Definition 151 Long and Short Paragraphs 151 Topic Sentence 157 No Topic Sentence 161 The Plan 162 Kinds of Paragraphs 163 Details 163 Comparisons 165 Repetition 167 Obverse 169 Examples 171 Combines Two or More Forms 173 Unity 173 Need of Outline 174 Mass 174 What begins and what ends a Paragraph? 175 Length of opening and closing Sentences 178 Proportion 179 Coherence and Clearness 180 Two Arrangements of Sentences in a Paragraph 181 Definite References 187 Use of Pronouns 188 Of Conjunctions 190 Parallel Constructions 192 Summary 195 Suggestive Questions 196

Chapter VIII.—Sentences

Definition and Classification. Simple Sentences 200 Compound Sentences 200 Short Sentences 204 Long Sentences 204 Unity 205 Mass 207 End of a Sentence 208 Effect of Anti-climax 210 Use of Climax 211 Loose and Periodic 212 The Period 212 Periodic and Loose combined 214 Which shall be used? 215 Emphasis by Change of Order 217 Subdue Unimportant Elements 219 The Dynamic Point of a Sentence 221 Good Use 223 Clearness gained by Coherence 224 Parallel Construction 226 Balanced Sentences 227 Use of Connectives 228 Suggestive Questions 231

Chapter IX.—Words

Need of a Large Vocabulary 236 Dictionary 237 Study of Literature 238 Vulgarisms are not reputable 240 Slang is not reputable 240 Words must be National. Provincialisms 242 Technical and Bookish Words 242 Foreign Words 243 Words in Present Use 244 Words in their Present Meaning 245 Words of Latin and Saxon Origin 245 General and Specific 248 Use Words that suggest most 249 Synecdoche, Metonymy 250 Care in Choice of Specific Words 250 Avoid Hackneyed Phrases 253 "Fine Writing" 253 In Prose avoid Poetical Words 254

Chapter X.—Figures of Speech

Figurative Language 257 Figures based upon Likeness 259 Metaphor 260 Epithet 260 Personification 260 Apostrophe 261 Allegory 261 Simile 261 Figures based upon Sentence Structure 262 Inversion 262 Exclamation 262 Interrogation 262 Climax 262 Irony 262 Metonymy 263 Synecdoche 263 Allusion 263 Hyperbole 263 Exercises in Figures 264

Chapter XI.—Verse Forms

Singing Verse 269 Poetic Feet 272 Kinds of Metre 273 Stanzas 275 Scansion 276 Variations in Metres 276 First and Last Foot 281 Kinds of Poetry 284 Exercises in Metres 286


A. Suggestions to Teachers 293 B. The Form of a Composition 296 C. Marks for Correction of Compositions 300 D. Punctuation 301 E. Supplementary List of Literature 309



The Course of Study which follows is presented, not because it is better than many others which might be made. For the purposes of this book it was necessary that some course be adopted as the basis of the text. The principles which guided in arranging this course I believe are sound; but the preferences of teachers and the peculiarities of environment will often make it wise to use other selections from literature. Of this a large "supplementary list" is given at the back of the book.

It is now a generally accepted truth that the study of English should continue through the four years of a high-school course. The division of time that seems best is to take Narration and Description in the first year. In connection with Description, Figures of Speech should be studied. The next year, Exposition and Paragraphs form the major part of the work. This may be pleasantly broken by a study of Poetry, following the outline in the chapter on Verse Forms. In the third year, while the work in literature is mainly the Novel and the Drama, Sentences and Words should be studied in composition, with a review of the chapters on Narration and Description. Towards the close of the year, Exposition should be reviewed and the study of Argument taken up. The fourth year should be devoted to the study of such College Requirements as have not been taken in the course, and to the study of the History of English Literature as given in some good text book.

In some instances, it will be found impossible to give so much time to the study of English. In such cases, the amount of literature to be studied should be decreased, and the work in the text book should be more rapidly done. The sequence of the parts should remain the same, but the time should be modified to suit the needs of any special environment.



To give Spontaneity.

I. External Form of Composition (p. 296). II. Marks for the Correction of Compositions (p. 300). III. Simple Rules for Punctuation (pp. 301-309). IV. Forms of Discourse. Definitions (pp. 1-7). V. Choice of Subject (pp. 8-12). VI. Study of Narration (pp. 13-48). a. Definition and General Discussion. b. Narration without Plot. Interest the Essential Feature. c. Narration with Plot. 1. Selection of Main Incident of first Importance. It gives to the story Unity, ridding it of Long Introductions and Conclusions, Tedious Enumerations, and Irrelevant Details. 2. Arrangement of Material. Close of Story contains Main Incident. Opening of Story contains Characters, Place, and Time. Incidents generally follow in Order of Time. 3. Movement. 4. Use of Description in Narration. 5. Some General Considerations.


The Great Stone Face, The Gentle Boy, The Gray Champion, Roger Malvin's Burial, and other Stories. Hawthorne.

Tales of a Wayside Inn. Longfellow.

The Gold Bug. Poe.

Marmion, or The Lady of the Lake. Scott.

A Christmas Carol, or The Cricket on the Hearth. Dickens.

The Vision of Sir Launfal, and other Narrative Poems. Lowell.

An Incident of the French Camp, Herve Riel, The Pied Piper, How they brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. Browning.

Meaning of the Author, calling for A Study of Words. Outline of Story. Turning Points in the Story. Central Idea, or Purpose of the Story.

Method of the Author. Is there a Main Incident? Do all other Incidents converge to it? Is the Order a Sequence of Time alone? Is the Interest centred in Characters or Plot?

Style of the Author. Compare the Works of the Author.



To secure Accuracy of Expression (pp. 49-88).

I. Definition and General Discussion. Difficulties in Language as a Means of Picturing. Value of Observation. II. Structure of Whole. a. To secure Unity. Select a Point of View. b. To secure Coherence. Arrange Details in Natural Order. c. To secure Emphasis. Arrange and proportion Treatment to effect your Purpose. III. Paragraph Structure. Definition. Length of Paragraphs. Development of Paragraphs. IV. Words. Specific rather than General. Adjectives, Nouns, and Verbs. V. Figures Of Speech (pp. 257-268). Based on Likeness. Based on Sentence Structure. Miscellaneous Figures.


The Old Manse, The Old Apple Dealer. Hawthorne.

An Indian-Summer Reverie, The Dandelion, The Birch, The Oak, and other Descriptive Poems. Lowell.

The Fall of the House of Usher. Poe.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Selections from the Sketch Book. Irving.

Selections from Childe Harold. Byron.

The Deserted Village. Goldsmith.

Julius Caesar. Shakespeare.

Poems selected from Palgrave's Golden Treasury.

Meaning of the Author (as under Narration).

Method of the Author. Does the Author keep his Point of View? Are the Details arranged in a Natural Order? Has any Detail a Supreme Importance? Are the Details treated in Proper Proportion? Has the Whole a Unity of Effect? Do you see the Picture distinctly? For what Purpose has the Author used Description? Does the Author employ Figures?

Style of the Author.



To encourage Logical Thinking and Adequate Expression (pp. 89-127).


I. Definition and General Considerations. II. Exposition of Terms. Definition. III. Exposition of Propositions. a. Clear Statement of the Proposition in a "Key Sentence." This will limit b. The Discussion. 1. What shall be included? 2. What shall be excluded? 3. How shall Important Matters be emphasized? Mass and Proportion. Expansion and Condensation. To effect these ends use an 4. Outline.

Paragraphs (pp. 151-199).

I. Definition. II. Length of Paragraphs. III. Development of Paragraphs. IV. Principles of Structure. Unity. Mass. Coherence.

Verse Forms (pp. 269-291).

Poetry Defined. Kinds of Feet. Number of Feet in a Verse. Substitutions and Rests. Kinds of Poetry.


Essay on Milton. Macaulay.

Essay on Addison. Macaulay.

Commemoration Ode. Lowell.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge.

Intimations of Immortality, and other Poems. Wordsworth.

Selections from Palgrave's Golden Treasury.

The Bunker Hill Oration, or Adams and Jefferson. Webster.

Sesame and Lilies. Ruskin.

Meaning of the Author. Outline showing the Main Thesis with the Dependence of Subordinate Propositions.

Method of the Author. Does he hold to his Point and so gain Unity Does he arrange his Material so as to secure Emphasis? Does one Paragraph grow out of another? Does each Paragraph treat a Single Topic? Are the Sentences dovetailed together? Does the Author use Figures? Are the Figures Effective? Are his Words General or Specific?

Style of the Author. Is it Clear? Has it Force? Is the Diction Elegant? How has he gained these Ends?



Sentences (pp. 200-234).

I. Definition and Classification. II. Principles of Structure. a. Unity. b. Mass. 1. Prominent Positions in a Sentence. 2. Periodic Sentences. 3. Loose Sentences. c. Coherence. 1. Parallel Constructions. 2. Connectives.

Words (pp. 235-256).

Reputable Words. Latin or Saxon Words. General or Specific. Figures of Speech. The One Rule for the Use of Words.

Narration and Description Reviewed.

Exposition Reviewed.


Argument (pp. 128-150).

I. Kinds of Argument. II. Order of Arguments. III. Refutation.

Sir Roger de Coverley Papers. Addison.

The Vicar of Wakefield. Goldsmith.

Silas Marner. Eliot.

Ivanhoe. Scott.

Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shakespeare.

Conciliation with the Colonies. Burke.


In the last year of the course, the compositions should be such as will test the maturer powers of the pupil. They should be written under the careful supervision of the teacher. They should be of all forms of discourse, and the subjects should be drawn from the subjects of study in the high school, especially from the literature.


Difficult Selections.

L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, Comus, and Lycidas. Milton.

Paradise Lost. Two Books. Milton.

Essay on Burns. Carlyle.

In Memoriam, The Princess, and other Poems. Tennyson.

Selections. Browning.

Selections. Emerson.

A History of English Literature

* * * * *






Composition, from the Latin words con, meaning together, and ponere, meaning to place, signifies a placing together, a grouping or arrangement of objects or of ideas. This arrangement is generally made so that it will produce a desired result. Speaking accurately, the putting together is the composition. Much of the desired result is gained by care in the selection of materials. Placing together a well-worn book, a lamp, and a pair of heavy bowed spectacles makes a suggestive picture. The selection and grouping of these objects is spoken of as the composition of the picture. So in music, an author composes, when he groups certain musical tones and phrases so that they produce a desired effect. In literature, too, composition is, strictly speaking, the selection and arrangement of materials, whether the incidents of a story or the details of a description, to fulfill a definite purpose.

English Composition.

In practice, however, English composition has come to include more than the selection and arrangement of the materials,—incidents, objects, or ideas, as the case may be; the term has been extended to include the means by which the speaker or writer seeks to convey this impression to other persons. As a painter must understand drawing, the value of lights and shades, and the mixing of colors before he can successfully reproduce for others the idea he has to express, so the artist in literature needs a knowledge of elementary grammar and of the simpler usages of language in order clearly to represent to others the idea which lies in his own mind. As commonly understood, then, English composition may be defined as the art of selecting, arranging, and communicating ideas by means of the English language.

Composition, Written and Oral.

The term "English composition" is now generally understood to mean written composition, and not oral composition. At first thought they seem to be the same thing. So far as the selection and arrangement of matter is concerned, they are the same. Moreover, both use words, and both employ sentences; but here the likeness ends. If sentences should be put upon paper exactly as they were spoken, in most instances they would not convey to a reader the same thought they conveyed to a listener. It is much more exacting to express the truth one wishes to convey, by silent, featureless symbols than by that wonderful organ of communication, the human voice. Now, if to the human voice be added eyes, features, gestures, and pose, we easily understand the great advantage a speaker has over a writer.

Conventions of Composition.

Moreover, there are imposed upon a writer certain established rules which he must follow. He must spell words correctly, and he must use correctly marks of punctuation. These things need not annoy a speaker; yet they are conditions which must be obeyed by a writer. A man who eats with a knife may succeed in getting his food to his mouth, yet certain conventions exclude such a person from polite society. So in composition, it is possible for a person to make himself understood, though he write "alright" instead of "all right," and never use a semicolon; still, such a person could hardly be considered a highly cultured writer. To express one's thoughts correctly and with refinement requires absolute obedience to the common conventions of good literature.

The study of composition includes, first, the careful selection of materials and their effective arrangement; and second, a knowledge of the established conventions of literature: of spelling; of the common uses of the marks of punctuation,—period, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, comma; of the common idioms of our language; and of the elements of its grammar. From the beginning of the high school course, the essay, the paragraph, the sentence, the word, are to be studied with special attention to the effective use of each in adequately communicating ideas.

Five Forms of Discourse.

All written composition may be arranged in two classes, or groups. The first group will include all composition that deals with actual happenings and real things; the second, all that deals with abstract thoughts and spiritual ideas. The first will include narration and description; the second, exposition, argument, and persuasion. All literature, then, may be separated into five classes,—narration, description, exposition, argument, and persuasion.

Narration tells what things do; description tells how things look. Narration deals with occurrences; description deals with appearances. Exposition defines a term, or explains a proposition; argument proves the truth or falsity of a proposition; persuasion urges to action upon a proposition. Exposition explains; argument convinces; persuasion arouses. These are the broad lines of distinction which separate the five forms of discourse.


Narration is that form of discourse which recounts events in a sequence. It includes stories, novels, romances, biographies, some books of travel, and some histories.

Description is that form of discourse which aims to present a picture. It seldom occurs alone, but it is usually found in combination with the other forms of discourse.

Exposition is that form of discourse which seeks to explain a term or a proposition. Text-books, books of information, theses, most histories, many magazine articles, and newspaper leaders are of this class of literature.

Argument is that form of discourse which has for its object the proof of the truth or falsity of a proposition.

Persuasion is that form of discourse the purpose of which is to influence the will.

Difficulty in distinguishing.

Though these definitions seem to set apart the great classes of literature, and to insure against any danger of confusion, it is not always easy to place individual pieces of literature in one of these divisions. Whittier's "Barbara Frietchie" and Stevenson's "Treasure Island" are narrative beyond any question; but what about "Snow-Bound" and "Travels with a Donkey" by the same authors? Are they narration or description? In them the narrative and descriptive portions are so nearly equal that one hesitates to set them down to either class; the reader is constantly called from beautiful pictures to delightful stories. The narrative can easily be separated from the descriptive portions; but when this has been done, has it been decided whether the whole piece is narration or description?

When a person takes up the other forms of discourse, the difficulty becomes still greater. Description and narration are frequently used in exposition. If a boy should be asked to explain the working of a steam engine, he would, in all likelihood, begin with a description of an engine. If his purpose was to explain how an engine works, and was not to tell how an engine looks, the whole composition would be exposition. So, too, it is often the easiest way to explain what one means by telling a story. The expression of such thoughts would be exposition, although it might contain a number of stories and descriptions.

Narration and description may be found in a piece of exposition; and all three may be employed in argument. If a person should wish to prove the dangers of intemperance, he might enforce his proof by a story, or by a description of the condition of the nervous system after a drunken revel. And one does not need to do more than explain the results of intemperance to a sensible man to prove to him that he should avoid all excesses. The explanation alone is argument enough for such a person. Still, is such an explanation exposition or argument? If the man cared nothing about convincing another that there are dangers in intemperance, did not wish to prove that the end of intemperance is death and dishonor, the composition is as much exposition as the explanation of a steam engine. If, on the other hand, he explained these results in order to convince another that he should avoid intemperance, then the piece is argument.

Persuasion introduces a new element into composition; for, while exposition and argument are directed to a man's reason, persuasion is addressed to the emotions and the will. Its purpose is to arouse to action. One can readily imagine that a simple explanation of the evils of intemperance might be quite enough to convince a man that its dangers are truly great,—so great that he would determine to fight these evils with all his strength. In such a case explanation alone has convinced him; and it has aroused him to do something. Is the piece exposition, or argument, or persuasion? Here, as before, the answer is found in the purpose of the author. If he intended only to explain, the piece is exposition; if to convince, it is argument; if to arouse to action, it belongs to the literature of persuasion.

It must now be plain that few pieces of literature are purely one form of discourse. The forms are mingled in most of our literature. Hardly a story can be found that does not contain some descriptions; and a description of any considerable length is sure to contain some narrative portions. So, too, narration and description are often found in exposition, argument, and persuasion; and these last three forms are frequently combined.

Purpose of the Author.

It must also be evident that the whole piece of literature will best be classified by discovering the purpose of the author. If his purpose is simply to tell a good story, his work is narration; if the purpose is merely to place a picture before the reader's mind, it is description; if to explain conditions and nothing more, it is exposition; if to prove to the reason the truth or falsity of a proposition, it is argument; while, if the writer addresses himself to the emotions and the will, no matter whether he tells anecdotes or paints lurid pictures, explains conditions or convinces of the dangers of the present course,—if he does all these to urge the reader to do something, the composition belongs to the literature of persuasion. The five forms of discourse are most easily distinguished by discovering the purpose of the author.

One addition should be made. Few novels are written in which there is nothing more than a story. Nearly all contain some teaching; and it is a safe conclusion that the authors have taught "on purpose." In "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," Kipling has shown the imperative necessity of a "real, live, lovely mamma;" in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving has placed before us a charming picture of rural life in a dreamy Dutch village on the Hudson; and in his "Christmas Carol," Dickens shows plainly that happiness is not bought and sold even in London, and that the only happy man is he who shares with another's need. Yet all of these, and the hundreds of their kind, whatever the purpose of the authors when writing them, belong to the "story" or "novel" class. The purpose in telling the story is secondary to the purpose to tell a story. They are to be classified as narration.

English composition, then, is a study of the selection and arrangement of ideas, and of the methods of using the English language to communicate them. All composition is divided into five great classes. These classes have broad lines of distinction, which are most easily applied by determining the purpose of the author.

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Form and Material.

From the considerations in the preceding chapter may be derived several principles regarding the choice of subject. If the composition is to be narrative, it should be upon a subject that readily lends itself to narrative form. One can tell a story about "A Day's Hunt" or "What We did Hallowe'en;" but it would try one's powers of imagination to write a story of "A Tree" or "A Chair." The latter subjects do not lend themselves to narration, but they may be described. Josiah P. Cooke has written a brilliant exposition of "Fire" in "The New Chemistry;" yet a young person would be foolish to take "Fire" as a subject for exposition, though he might easily write a good description of "How the Fire looked from My Window," or narrate "How a Fireman rescued My Sister." So in all work in composition, select a subject that readily lends itself to the form of discourse demanded; or, conversely, select the form of discourse suitable for presenting most effectively your material.

Author's Individuality.

If an author is writing for other purposes than for conscious practice, he should choose the form of discourse in which he can best work, and to which he can best shape his material. Some men tell stories well; others are debaters; while yet others are wonderfully gifted with eloquence. Emerson understood life thoroughly. He knew man's feelings, his motives, his hopes, his strength, his weakness; yet one cannot imagine Emerson shaping this material into a novel. But just a little way down the road lived a wizard who could transmute the commonest events of this workaday world to the most beautiful shapes; no one wishes that Hawthorne had written essays. The second principle guiding in the choice of a subject is this: Select a subject which is suited to your peculiar ability as an author.

Knowledge of Subject.

The form, then, should suit the matter; and it should be the form in which the author can work. There is a third principle that should guide in the choice of a subject. It should be a subject of which the author knows something. Pupils often exclaim, "What can I write about!" as if they were expected to find something new to write. An exercise in composition has not for its object the proclaiming of any new and unheard-of thing; it is an exercise in the expression of things already known. Even when the subject is known, the treatment offers difficulties enough. It is not true that what is thoroughly understood is easily explained. Many excellent scholars have written very poor text-books because they had not learned the art of expression. A necessary antecedent of all good composition is a full and accurate knowledge of the subject; and even when one knows all about it, the clear expression of the thought will be difficult enough.

To demand accurate knowledge of the subject before an author begins work upon it narrows the field from which themes may be drawn. Burroughs is an authority on all the tenants of our groves; "Wake-Robin," "Pepacton," and his other books all show a master's certain hand. So Stedman is an authority in matters relating to literature. But Burroughs and Stedman alike would find difficulty in writing an essay on "Electricity in the Treatment of Nervous Diseases." They do not know about it. A boy in school probably knows something of fishing; of this he can write. A girl can tell of "The Last Parlor Concert." Both could write very entertainingly of their "First Algebra Recitation;" neither could write a convincing essay on "The Advantages of Free Trade."

Common Subjects.

This will seem to limit the list of subjects to the commonplace. The fact is that in a composition exercise the purpose is not to startle the world with some new thing; it is to learn the art of expression. And here in the region of common things, things thoroughly understood, every bit of effort can be given to the manner of expression. The truth is, it does not require much art to make a book containing new and interesting material popular; the matter in the book carries it in spite of poor composition. Popular it may be, but popularity is not immortality. Columns of poorly written articles upon "Dewey" and "The Philippines" have been eagerly read by thousands of Americans; it would require a literary artist of great power to write a one-column article on "Pigs" so that it would be eagerly read by thousands. Real art in composition is much more manifest when an author takes a common subject and treats it in such a way that it glows with new life. Richard Le Gallienne has written about a drove of pigs so beautifully that one forgets all the traditions about these common animals.[2] Choose common subjects, then,—subjects that allow every particle of your strength to go into the manner of saying what you already know.

The requirement that the subject shall be common does not mean that the subject shall be trivial. "Sliding to First," "How Billy won the Game," with all of this class of subjects, at once put the writer into a trifling, careless attitude toward his work. The subjects themselves seem to call forth a cheap, slangy vocabulary and the vulgar phrases of sporting life. An equally common subject could be selected which would call forth serious, earnest effort. If a boy knew nothing except about ball games, it would be advisable for him to write upon this subject. Such a condition is hardly possible in a high school. Choose common subjects, but subjects that call for earnest thinking and dignified expression.


Interest is another consideration in the choice of a subject. It applies equally to writer and reader. Choose subjects that are interesting. Not only must an author know about the subject; he must be interested in it. A pupil may have accurate knowledge of the uses of a semicolon; but he would not be likely to succeed in a paragraph about semicolons, largely because he is not much interested in semicolons. This matter of interest is so important that it is well to know what things all persons, authors and readers alike, are interested in. What, then, is generally interesting?

The Familiar.

First, the familiar is interesting. When reading a newspaper each one instinctively turns to the local column, or glances down the general news columns to see if there is anything from his home town. To a former resident, Jim Benson's fence in Annandale is more interesting than the bronze doors of the Congressional Library in Washington. For the same reason a physician lights upon "a new cure for consumption," a lawyer devours Supreme Court decisions, while the dealer in silks is absorbed in the process of making silk without the aid of the silkworm. Each is interested in that which to him is most familiar.

Human Life.

Second, human life in all its phases is interesting. The account of a fire or of a railroad accident takes on a new interest when, in addition to the loss of property, there has been a loss of life. War is horribly fascinating, not so much because there is a wanton destruction of property, as because it involves the slaughter of men. Stories about trees and animals are usually failures, unless handled by artists who breathe into them the life of man. Andersen's "Tannenbaum" and Kipling's "Jungle Books" are intensely interesting because in them trees and animals feel and act just as men do.

The Strange.

Third, the romantic, the unique, and the impossible are interesting. A new discovery, a new invention, a people of which little is known,—anything new is interesting. The stories of Rider Haggard and Jules Verne have been popular because they deal with things which eye hath not seen. This peculiar trait of man allows him to relish a good fish story, or the latest news from the sea-serpent. Just for the same reason, children love to hear of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Children and their parents are equally interested in those things which are entirely outside of their own experience.

These, then, are the general conditions which govern the choice of a subject. It shall easily lend itself to the form of discourse chosen; it shall be suited to the peculiar ability of the author; it shall be thoroughly understood by the author,—common, but not trivial; it shall be interesting to both reader and author.

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Material of Narration.

Narration has been defined as the form of discourse which recounts events in a sequence. It includes not only letters, journals, memoirs, biographies, and many histories, but, in addition, that great body of literature which people generally include in the comprehensive term of "stories."

If this body of literature be examined, it will be found that it deals with things as opposed to ideas; incidents as opposed to propositions. Sometimes, it is true, the author of a story is in reality dealing with ideas. In the fable about "The Hare and the Tortoise," the tortoise stands for the idea of slow, steady plodding; while the hare is the representative of quick wits which depend on their ability to show a brilliant burst of speed when called upon. The fable teaches better than an essay can that the dullness which perseveres will arrive at success sooner than brilliancy of mind which wastes its time in doing nothing to the purpose. Andersen's "Ugly Duckling," Ruskin's "King of the Golden River," and Lowell's "Sir Launfal" stand for deep spiritual ideas, which we understand better for this method of presentation. In an allegory like "Pilgrim's Progress," the passions and emotions, the sins and weaknesses of men are treated as if they were real persons. Ideas are represented by living, breathing persons; and we may say that all such narratives deal, not with ideas, but, for want of a better word, with things.

In Action.

Not only does narration deal with things, but with things doing something. Things inactive might be written of, but this would be description. It is necessary in narration that the things be in an active mood; that something be doing. "John struck James," then, is a narrative sentence; it tells that John has been doing something. Still, this one sentence would not ordinarily be accepted as narration. For narration there must be a series, a sequence of individual actions. Recounting events in a sequence is narration.

The Commonest Form of Discourse.

Narration is the most popular form of discourse. Between one fourth and one third of all books published are stories; and more than one half of the books issued by public libraries belong to the narrative class. Such a computation does not include the large number of stories read in our papers and magazines. In addition to being the most popular form of discourse, it is the most natural. It is the first form of connected discourse of the child; it is the form employed by the uncultured in giving his impressions; it is the form most used in conversation. Moreover, narration is the first form found in great literatures: the Iliad and the Odyssey, the songs of the troubadours in France, and the minnesingers in Germany, the chronicles and ballads of England,—all are narrative.

Language as a Means of Expression.

Narration is especially suited to the conditions imposed by language. Men do not think in single words, but in groups of words,—phrases, clauses, and sentences. In hearing, too, men do not consider the individual words; the mind waits until a group of words, a phrase, or a simple sentence perhaps,—which expresses a unit of thought, has been uttered. In narration these groups of words follow in a sequence exactly as the actions which they represent do. Take this rather lurid bit from Stevenson:—

"He dropped his cutlass as he jumped, and when he felt the pistol, whipped straight round and laid hold of me, roaring out an oath; and at the same time either my courage came again, or I grew so much afraid as came to the same thing; for I gave a shriek and shot him in the midst of the body." ("Kidnapped.")

Each phrase or clause here is a unit of thought, and each follows the others in the same order as the events they tell of occurred. On the other hand, when one attempts description, and exposition too in many cases, he realizes the great difficulties imposed by the language itself; for in these forms of discourse the author not infrequently wishes to put the whole picture before the reader at once, or to set out several propositions at the same time, as belonging to one general truth. In order that the reader may get the complete picture or the complete thought, he must hold in mind often a whole paragraph before he unites it into the one conception the author intended. In narration one action is completed; it can be dropped. Then another follows, which can also be dropped. They need not be held in mind until the paragraph is finished. Narration is exactly suited to the means of its communication. The events which are recorded, and the sentences which record them, both follow in a sequence.

Without Plot.

The sequence of events in narration may be a simple sequence of time, in which case the narrative is without plot. This is the form of narration employed in newspapers in giving the events of the day. It is used in journals, memoirs, biographies, and many elementary histories. It makes little demand upon an author further than that he shall say clearly something that is interesting. Interesting it must be, if the author wishes it to be read; readers will not stay over dull material. Newspapers and magazines look out for interesting material, and it is for the matter in them that they are read. So memoirs and biographies are read, not to find out what happens at last,—that is known,—but to pick up information concerning an interesting subject.


Or the sequence may be a more subtle and binding relation of cause and effect. This is the sequence employed in stories. One thing happens because another thing has happened. Generally the sequence of time and the sequence of cause and effect correspond; for effects come after causes. When, however, more than one cause is introduced, or when some cause is at work which the author hides until he can most advantageously produce it, or when an effect is held back for purposes of creating interest, the events may not be related exactly in the order in which they occurred. When any sequence is introduced in addition to the simple sequence of time, or when the time sequence is disturbed for the purpose of heightening interest, there is an arrangement of the parts which is generally termed plot.

Plot is a term difficult to define. We feel, however, that Grant's "Memoirs" have no plot, and we feel just as sure that "King Lear" has a plot. So, too, we say that "Robinson Crusoe" has little, almost no plot; that the plot is simple in "Treasure Island," and that "Les Miserables" has an intricate plot. A plot seems to demand more than a mere succession of events. Any arrangement of the parts of a narrative so that the reader's interest is aroused concerning the result of the series of events detailed is a plot.

It often occurs that a book which, as a whole, is without a plot, contains incidents which have a plot. In "Travels with a Donkey," by Stevenson, no one cares for the plot of the whole book,—in fact there is none; yet the reader is interested in the purchase of the "neat and high bred" Modestine up to the "last interview with Father Adam in a billiard-room at the witching hour of dawn, when I administered the brandy." This incident has a plot. The following is a paragraph from "An Autumn Effect" by Mr. Stevenson. The simple events are perfectly ordered, and there is a delightful surprise at the end. This paragraph has a plot. Yet the thirty pages of "An Autumn Effect" could not be said to have a plot.

"Bidding good-morning to my fellow-traveler, I left the road and struck across country. It was rather a revelation to pass from between the hedgerows and find quite a bustle on the other side, a great coming and going of school-children upon by-paths, and, in every second field, lusty horses and stout country-folk a-ploughing. The way I followed took me through many fields thus occupied, and through many strips of plantation, and then over a little space of smooth turf, very pleasant to the feet, set with tall fir-trees and clamorous with rooks, making ready for the winter, and so back again into the quiet road. I was now not far from the end of my day's journey. A few hundred yards farther, and, passing through a gap in the hedge, I began to go down hill through a pretty extensive tract of young beeches. I was soon in shadow myself, but the afternoon sun still colored the upmost boughs of the wood, and made a fire over my head in the autumnal foliage. A little faint vapor lay among the slim tree-stems in the bottom of the hollow; and from farther up I heard from time to time an outburst of gross laughter, as though clowns were making merry in the bush. There was something about the atmosphere that brought all sights and sounds home to one with a singular purity, so that I felt as if my senses had been washed with water. After I had crossed the little zone of mist, the path began to remount the hill; and just as I, mounting along with it, had got back again from the head downwards, into the thin golden sunshine, I saw in front of me a donkey tied to a tree. Now, I have a certain liking for donkeys, principally, I believe, because of the delightful things that Sterne has written of them. But this was not after the pattern of the ass at Lyons. He was of a white color, that seemed to fit him rather for rare festal occasions than for constant drudgery. Besides, he was very small, and of the daintiest proportions you can imagine in a donkey. And so, sure enough, you had only to look at him to see he had never worked. There was something too roguish and wanton in his face, a look too like that of a schoolboy or a street Arab, to have survived much cudgeling. It was plain that these feet had kicked off sportive children oftener than they had plodded with freight through miry lanes. He was altogether a fine-weather, holiday sort of a donkey; and though he was just then somewhat solemnized and rueful, he still gave proof of the levity of his disposition by impudently wagging his ears at me as I drew near. I say he was somewhat solemnized just then; for with the admirable instinct of all men and animals under restraint, he had so wound and wound the halter about the tree that he could go neither back nor forwards, nor so much as put his head down to browse. There he stood, poor rogue, part puzzled, part angry, part, I believe, amused. He had not given up hope, and dully revolved the problem in his head, giving ever and again another jerk at the few inches of free rope that still remained unwound. A humorous sort of sympathy for the creature took hold upon me. I went up, and, not without some trouble on my part, and much distrust and resistance on the part of Neddy, got him forced backwards until the whole length of the halter was set loose, and he was once more as free a donkey as I dared to make him. I was pleased (as people are) with this friendly action to a fellow-creature in tribulation, and glanced back over my shoulder to see how he was profiting by his freedom. The brute was looking after me; and no sooner did he catch my eye than he put up his long white face into the air, pulled an impudent mouth at me, and began to bray derisively. If ever any one person made a grimace at another, that donkey made a grimace at me. The hardened ingratitude of his behavior, and the impertinence that inspired his whole face as he curled up his lip, and showed his teeth and began to bray, so tickled me and was so much in keeping with what I had imagined to myself of his character, that I could not find it in my heart to be angry, and burst into a peal of hearty laughter. This seemed to strike the ass as a repartee, so he brayed at me again by way of rejoinder; and we went on for awhile, braying and laughing, until I began to grow a-weary of it, and shouting a derisive farewell, turned to pursue my way. In so doing—it was like going suddenly into cold water—I found myself face to face with a prim, little old maid. She was all in a flutter, the poor old dear! She had concluded beyond question that this must be a lunatic who stood laughing aloud at a white donkey in the placid beech-woods. I was sure, by her face, that she had already recommended her spirit most religiously to Heaven, and prepared herself for the worst. And so, to reassure her, I uncovered and besought her, after a very staid fashion, to put me on my way to Great Missenden. Her voice trembled a little, to be sure, but I think her mind was set at rest; and she told me, very explicitly, to follow the path until I came to the end of the wood, and then I should see the village below me in the bottom of the valley. And, with mutual courtesies, the little old maid and I went on our respective ways."

Books of travel, memoirs, and biographies, as whole books, are generally without any arrangement serious enough to be termed a plot; yet a large part of the interest in such books would be lost were the incidents there collected not well told, with a conscious attempt to set them out in the very best fashion; indeed, if each incident did not have a plot. In "Vanity Fair" with its six hundred pages, in "Silas Marner" with its two hundred pages, in the short stories of our best magazines, in the spicy little anecdotes in the "Youth's Companion,"—in the least bit of a good story as well as the three-volume novel, the authors have used the means best suited to retain the interest to the end. They have constructed plots.

Unity, Mass, and Coherence.

In the construction of any piece of composition there are three principles of primary importance: they are Unity, which is concerned with the material itself; and Mass and Coherence, which are concerned with the arrangement of the material. A composition has unity when all the material has been so sifted and selected that each part contributes its share to the central thought of the whole. Whether of a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole composition, all those parts must be excluded which do not bring something of value to the whole; and everything must be included which is necessary to give a clear understanding of the whole. Mass, the second principle of structure, demands that those parts of a composition, paragraph, or sentence which are of most importance shall be so placed that they will arrest the attention. By coherence is meant that principle of structure which, in sentences, paragraphs, and whole compositions, places those parts related in thought near together, and keeps separate those parts which are separated in thought.

Main Incident.

For the construction of a story that will retain the reader's interest to the end, for the selection of such material as will contribute to a central thought, for the arrangement of this material so that the most important matter shall occupy the most important position in the theme, one simple rule is of value. It is this: First choose the main incident towards which all the other incidents converge, and for the accomplishment of which the preceding incidents are necessary. A few pages will be given to the application of this rule, and to the results of its application.

Its Importance.

There should be in each story, however slight the plot, some incident that is more important than the others, and toward which all the others converge. A reader is disappointed if, after reading a story through, he finds that there is no worthy ending, that all the preparation was made for no purpose. If, in "Wee Willie Winkie," Kipling had stopped just before Miss Allardyce started across the river, it would have been a poor story. It would have had no ending. It is because a story gets somewhere that we like it. Yet not just somewhere; it must arrive at a place worthy of all the preparation that has preceded. A very common fault with the compositions of young persons is that they begin big and end little. It is not infrequent that the first paragraph promises well; the second is not quite so good; and the rest gradually fall off until the end is worthless. The order should be changed. Have the first paragraph promise well, make the second better, and the last best of all. The main incident should be more important than each incident that precedes it. Get the main incident in mind before beginning; be sure it is the main incident; then bend all your energies to make it the most important incident toward which all the other incidents converge.


The choice of a main incident will determine what incidents to exclude. The world is full of incidents—enough to make volumes more than we now have. A phonograph and a camera could gather enough any day at a busy corner in a city to fill a volume; yet these pictures and these bits of conversation, interesting as each in itself might be, would not be a unit,—not one story, but many. Few persons, indeed, would write anything so disjointed as the report made by this phonograph; yet good writers are often led astray by the brilliancy of their own ideas. They have so many good stories on hand which they would like to tell, that they force some of them into their present story, and so spoil two stories. In the very popular "David Harum," it would puzzle any one to know why the author has introduced the ladies from the city and the musical party at the lake. The episode is good enough in itself; but in this story it has not a shadow of excuse. There is a phrase of Kipling's that should ring in every story-teller's ears. Not once only, but a number of times, this prince of modern story-tellers catches himself—almost too late sometimes—and writes, "But that is another story." One incident calls up another; paragraph follows paragraph naturally. It is easy enough to look back and trace the road by which the writer arrived at his present position; yet it would be very hard to tell why he came hither, or to see how the journey up to this point will at all put him toward his destination. He has digressed; he has left the road. And he must get back to the road. By this digression he has wasted just as much time as it has taken to come from the direct road to this point added to the time it will take to go back. Do not digress; tell one story at a time; let no incident into your story which cannot answer the question, "Why are you here?" by "I help;" keep your eye on the main incident; things which do not unquestionably contribute something to the main incident should be excluded.

Introductions and Conclusions.

The choice of the main incident towards which all other incidents converge will rid compositions of worthless introductions and trailing conclusions. A story should get under way at once; and any explanations at the beginning, the introduction of long descriptions or tedious paragraphs of "fine writing," will be headed off if the pupil keeps constantly in mind that it must all lead directly toward the main incident. Again, if everything converges to the main incident, when that has been told the story is finished. After that there must be no explanations, no moralizing, nothing. When the story has been told it is a good rule to stop.

An excellent example of a short story well told is "An Incident of the French Camp," by Robert Browning. Only the absolutely necessary has been introduced. The incidents flash before the reader. Nothing can be said after the last line. "Herve Riel" is a vivid piece of narrative too. Such an exhibition of manliness appeals to all. Was it necessary to attach the last stanza? If this poem needed it, why not the other? If the story has no moral in it, no man can tie it on; if there is one, the reader should be accounted intelligent enough to find it without any help.

Tedious Enumerations.

Making all the incidents converge to one main incident will avoid tiresome enumerations of inconsequential events, which frequently fill the compositions of young pupils. Such essays generally start with "a bright, clear morning," and "a party of four of us." After recounting a dozen events of no consequence whatever, "we came home to a late supper, well repaid for our day's outing." These compositions may be quite correct in the choice of words, sentences, and paragraphs, and with it all be flat. There is nothing to them; they get the reader nowhere. Pick out one of the many incidents. Work it up. Turn back to the paragraph from Stevenson and notice how little there is to it when reduced to bare outline. He has worked it up so that it is good. Always remember that a short anecdote well told is worth pages of aimless enumeration.

What to include.

The selection of the main incident will guide in determining what to include; for every detail must be included that is necessary to make the main incident possible. A young pupil wrote of a party in the woods. The girls had found pleasant seats in a car and were chatting about their friends, when they felt a sudden lurch, and soon one of the party was besmeared by slippery, sticky whites of eggs. Now, if eggs were in the habit of clinging to the roofs of cars and breaking at unfortunate moments, there would be no need of any explanation; but as the cook forgot to boil the eggs and the girl had put them up into the rack herself, some of this should have been told. Enough at least should be told to make the main incident a possibility. Stories are full of surprises, but they can be understood easily from the preceding incidents; or else the new element is one that happens frequently, and of itself is nothing new. In the paragraph from Stevenson, the entrance of the "prim, little old maid" is a surprise, but it is a very common thing for ladies to walk upon a public highway. Any surprise must be natural,—the result of causes at work in the story, or of circumstances which are always occurring and by themselves no surprises. If the story be a tangled web of incidents culminating in some horror, as the death of the beautiful young wife in Hawthorne's "Birthmark," all the events must be told that are necessary to carry the reader from the first time he beholds her beauty until he sees her again, her life ebbing away as the fairy hand fades from her cheek. In "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" it would be impossible to pass directly from the sweet boy of the first chapter to the little liar of the last; something must be told of those miserable days that intervene, and their telling effect on the little fellow. So a reader could not harmonize his idea of old Scrooge gained in the first chapter with generous Mr. Scrooge of the last without the intermediate chapters. Keeping the main incident in mind, include all that is necessary to make it possible.


This same rule more than any other will make a story consistent. If incidents are chosen with relation to the one main incident, they will all have a common quality; they can scarcely be inconsistent. It is much more essential that a story be consistent than that it be a fact. Indeed, facts are not necessary in stories, and they are dangerous. Ian Maclaren says that the only part of his stories that has been severely criticised is a drowning episode, which was a fact, and the only one he ever used. Yet to those who have read "The Bonnie Brier Bush," the old doctor is as well known as any person who lives across the street; he is real to us, though he never lived. "Old Scrooge" and "Brom Bones" are better known than John Adams is. A good character or a good story need not be drawn from facts. Indeed, in literature as in actual life, facts are stubborn things, and will not accommodate themselves to new surroundings. Make the story consistent; be not too careful about the facts.

A story may be good and be entirely contrary to all known facts. "The Ugly Duckling" is as true as Fiske's "History of the United States," and every whit as consistent. "Alice in Wonderland" is an excellent story; yet it contains no facts. The introduction of a single fact would ruin the story; for between the realm of fact and the region of fancy is a great gulf fixed, and no man has successfully crossed it. Whatever conditions of life and action are assumed in one part of a story must be continued throughout. If walruses talk and hens are reasonable in one part of the story, to reduce them to every-day animals would be ruinous. Consistency, that the parts stand together, that the story seem probable,—this is more essential than facts. And to gain this consistency the surest rule is to test the material by its relation to the main incident.

The choice of the main incident, then, will determine to a great degree what to exclude and what to include; it will assist in ridding compositions of countless enumerations, aimless wanderings, and flat endings; it will help the writer to get started, and insure a stop when the story is told; and it will give to the story the quality most essential for its success, consistency.

An Actor as the Storyteller.

There is yet another condition that enters into the selection of materials: it makes a difference who tells the story. If the story be told in the first person, that is, if one of the actors tell the story, he cannot be supposed to know all that the other persons do when out of sight and hearing, nor can he know what they think. To take an illustration from a pupil's essay. A girl took her baby sister out upon the lake in a rowboat. A violent storm arose, lashing the lake into a fury. The oars were wrenched from her hands. Helpless on the water, how was she to be saved? Here the essayist recited an infinite amount of detail about the distress at home, giving the conversation and the actions. These things she could not have known in the character she had assumed at the beginning, that of the chief actor. All of that should have been excluded. When Stevenson tells of the fight in the round house, though he knew what those old salts were doing outside, matters of great interest to the reader, he does not let David say anything except what he could see or hear, and a very little of what he "learned afterwards." Stevenson knew well who was telling the story; David is too good a story-teller to tell what he could not know. In the pupil's essay and in "Kidnapped," all such matters would have a direct bearing on the main incident; they could be included without destroying the unity of the story. But they cannot be included when the story is told by one of the actors.

The Omniscience of an Author.

Many stories, probably most stories, are told in the third person. In this case the author assumes the position of an omniscient power who knows everything that is done, said, or thought by the characters in his story. Not only what happens in the next room, but what is thought at the other side of the world, is comprehended in his omniscience. This is the position assumed by Irving in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," by Kipling in the series of stories included with "Wee Willie Winkie," by Scott in "Marmion," and by most great novelists. Omniscience is, however, a dangerous prerogative for a young person. The power is so great that the person who has but recently come into possession of it becomes dizzy with it and uncertain in his movements. A young person knows what he would do under certain conditions; but to be able to know what some other person would do and think under a certain set of circumstances requires a sure knowledge of character, and the capability of assuming entirely different and unaccustomed points of view. It is much safer for the beginner to take the point of view of one of the actors, and tell the story in the first person. Then when the grasp has become sure from this standpoint, he may assume the more difficult role of the omniscient third person.

To sum up what has been said about the selection of materials: only those materials should be admitted to a story which contribute to its main incident, which are consistent with one another, and which could have been known by the narrator.

The Climax.

When the materials for a story have been selected, the next consideration is their arrangement. If the materials have been selected to contribute to the main incident and converge toward it, it will follow that the main incident will come last in the story; it will be the climax towards which the several parts of the story are directed. Moreover, it should be last, in order to retain the interest of the reader up to that time. This is in accordance with the demands of the second great principle of structure, Mass. An essay is well massed if the parts are so arranged that things of importance will arrest the attention. In literature to be read, to arrest the attention is almost equivalent to catching the eye. The positions that catch the eye, whether in sentence, paragraph, or essay, are the beginning and the end. Were it not for another element which enters into the calculation, these positions would be of nearly equal importance. Since, however, the mind retains the most vivid impression of the thing it received last, the impression of the end of the sentence, paragraph, or essay is stronger than the impression made by its beginning. The climax of a story should come at the end, both because it is the result of preceding incidents, and because by this position it receives the additional emphasis due to its position.

Who? Where? When? Why?

The beginning is the position of second importance. What, then, shall stand in this place? A story resembles a puzzle. The solution of the puzzle is given at the end; the thing of next importance is the conditions of the puzzle. In "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" the story culminates in the surprise of a devoted mother when she discovers that her boy is a secretive little liar, who now deserves to be called "Black Sheep." This is the end; what was the beginning,—the conditions necessary to bring about this deplorable result? First, they were the persons; second, the place; third, the time. In many stories there is introduced the reason for telling the story. These conditions, answering the questions Who? Where? When? and Why? are all, or some of them, introduced at the beginning of any narrative, and as soon as it can be done, they ought all to be given. In a short essay, they are in the first paragraph; in a novel, in the first chapters. In "Marmion" the time, the place, and the principal character are introduced into the first canto. So Irving begins "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with the place and time, then follow the characters. In all stories the beginning is occupied in giving the conditions of the story; that is, the principal characters, the time, and the place.

In what Order?

Having the end and the beginning clearly in mind, the next question is how best to get from one to the other. Shall the incidents be arranged in order of time? or shall other considerations govern? If it be any narrative of the journal form, whether a diary or a biography, the chronological arrangement will direct the sequence of events. Again, if it be a simple story with a single series of events, the time order will prevail. If, however, it be a narrative which contains several series of events, as a history or a novel, it may be wise, even necessary, to deviate from the time sequence. It would have been unwise for Scott to hold strictly to the order of time in "Marmion;" after introducing the principal character, giving the time and the setting, it was necessary for him to bring in another element of the plot, Constance, and to go backward in time to pick up this thread of the story. The really essential order in any narrative is the order of cause and effect. As causes precede effects, the causal order and the time order generally coincide. In a single series of events, that is, where one cause alone produces an effect, which in turn becomes the cause of another effect, the time order is the causal order. In a novel, or a short story frequently, where there are more than one series of incidents contributing to and converging towards the main incident, these causes must all be introduced before the effect, and may break the chronological order of the story. In "Roger Malvin's Burial," it would be impossible to tell what the stricken father was doing and what the joyous mother was thinking at the same time. Hawthorne must leave one and go to the other until they meet in their awful desolation. The only rule that can be given is, introduce causes before effects. In all stories, short or long, this will result in an approximation to the order of time; in a simple story it will invariably give a time sequence.

There is one exception to this rule which should be noted. It is necessary at the very beginning to have some incident that will arrest the attention. This does not mean that persons, place, and time shall not come first. They shall come first, but they shall be so introduced as to make an interesting opening to the story. The novels of some decades ago did not sufficiently recognize the principle. One can frequently hear it said of Scott's stories, "I can't get started with them; they are too dry." The introductory chapters are often uninteresting. So much history is introduced, so much scenery is described before the author sets out his characters; and all this is done before he begins the story. Novelists of to-day realize that they must interest the reader at the beginning; when they have caught him, they are quite certain that he will bear with them while they bring up the other divisions of the story, which now have become interesting because they throw light on what has already been told. Even more than novelists, dramatists recognize this principle. When the curtain rises on the first act, something interesting is going on. The action frequently begins far along in the time covered by the story; then by cleverly arranged conversation all circumstances before the time of the opening that are necessary to the development of the plot are introduced. The audience receives these minor yet essential details with no impatience, since they explain in part a situation already interesting. The time order may be broken in order to introduce at the beginning of the story some interesting situation which will immediately engage the reader's attention.

In arranging the materials of a story, the main considerations are Mass and Coherence. Mass demands important matters at the beginning and at the end of a story. Coherence demands that events closely related shall stand close together: that an effect shall immediately follow its cause. Beginning with some interesting situation that will also introduce the principal characters, the time, and the setting, the story follows in the main the order of time, and concludes with the main incident.

An Outline.

One practical suggestion will assist in arranging the parts of a story. Use an outline. It will guard against the omission of any detail that may afterward be found necessary, and against the necessity of offering the apology, inexcusable in prepared work, of "forgetting to say;" it will help the writer to see the best arrangement of the parts, to know that causes have preceded effects. The outline in narration should not be too much in detail, nor should it be followed if, as the story progresses, new light comes and the writer sees a better way to proceed. The writer should be above the outline, not its slave; but the outline is a most valuable servant of the writer.


Movement is an essential quality of narrative; a story must advance. This does not mean that the story shall always go at the same rate, though it does mean that it shall always go. If a story always had the rapidity and intensity of a climax, it would be intolerable. Music that is all rushing climaxes is unbearable; a picture must not be a glare of high lights. The quiet passages in music, the grays and low tones in the background of the picture, the slow chapters in a story, are as necessary as their opposites; indeed, climaxes are dependent on contrasts in order to be climaxes.


The question of movement resolves itself into these two: how is rapidity of movement obtained, and how can the writer delay the movement. Rapidity is gained by the omission of all unnecessary details, and the use of the shortest, tersest sentences to express the absolutely essential. Dependent clauses disappear; either the sentences are simple, just one sharp statement, or they are made of coordinate clauses with no connectives. Every weight that could clog the story is thrown away, and it runs with the swiftness of the thought. At such a time it would be a waste of good material to introduce beautiful descriptions or profound philosophy. Such things would be skipped by the reader. Everything must clear the way for the story.


What has been said of rapidity will indicate the answer to the second question. Slowness of movement is obtained by introducing long descriptions, analyses of characters, and information regarding the history or customs of the time. Sentences become long and involved; dependent clauses abound; connective words and phrases are frequent. Needless details may be introduced until the story becomes wearisome; it has almost no movement.

Very closely connected with what has been said above is another fact concerning movement. Strip the sentences as you may, there are still the verbs remaining. Verbs and derivatives from verbs are the words which denote action. If other classes of words be taken out, the ratio of verbs to the other words in the sentence is larger. Shorter sentences and an increased ratio of verbs mark the passages in which the movement is more rapid. In "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" the sentences average twenty-five words in the slower parts; in the intenser paragraphs the sentences have an average of fifteen words. Poe's "Gold-Bug" changes from thirty-eight to twenty-one. Again, Stevenson's essays have a verb to eight words, while the fight at the round house has a verb to about five and a half words. One of Kipling's stories starts in with a verb to eight and a half words, and the climax has a verb in every four words. These figures mean that as the sentences are shortened, adjectives, adverbs, phrases, connectives, disappear. Everything not absolutely necessary is thrown away when the passage is to express rapid movement.

No person should think that, by eliminating all dependent clauses, cutting away all unnecessary matters, and putting in a verb to every four words, he can gain intensity of expression. These are only accompanying circumstances. Climaxes are in the thought. When the thought moves rapidly, when things are being done with a rush, when the climax has been reached, then the writer will find that he can approach the movement of the thought most nearly by using these means.

Description and Narration.

A valuable accessory to narration is description; in truth, description for its own sake is not frequently found. The story must be somewhere; and it is more real when we know in what kind of a place it occurs. Still it is not wise to do as Scott so often has done,—give chapters of description at the beginning of the story. Rather the setting should be scattered through the story so that it is hardly perceptible. At no time should the reader halt and realize that he is being treated to a description. Even in the beautiful descriptions by Stevenson quoted in the next chapter, the work is so intimately blended with the story that the reader unfortunately might pass over it. A large part of the pleasure derived from the best stories is supplied by good descriptions, giving a vivid picture of the setting of the story.

Description has another use in narration beside giving the setting of the story; it is often used to accent the mood of the action. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Poe, much of the gloomy foreboding is caused by the weird descriptions. Hawthorne understood well the harmony between man's feelings and his surroundings. The Sylvan Dance in "The Marble Faun" is wonderfully handled. Irving, in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," throws about the story a "witching influence," and long before the Headless Horseman appears, the reader is quite sure that the region abounds in "ghosts and goblins," dwelling in its "haunted fields, and haunted brooks, and haunted bridges, and haunted houses." The danger in the use of description for this purpose is in overdoing it. The fact is, as Arlo Bates says, "the villains no longer steal through smiling gardens whose snowy lilies, all abloom, and sending up perfume like incense from censers of silver, seem to rebuke the wicked." Yet when handled as Stevenson and Irving handled it, description assists in accenting the mood of the action.

Characters few, Time short.

The number of characters should be few and the time of the action short. Pupils are not able to handle a large number of persons. There is, however, a stronger reason for it than incapacity. A young person would have great trouble in remembering the large number of persons introduced into "Little Dorrit." Many of them would always remain entire strangers. Such a scattering of attention is unfavorable to a story. To focus the interest upon a few, to have the action centred in these few, increases the movement and intensity of the narrative. The writers of short stories in France (perhaps the best story-tellers of the present), Kipling, Davis, Miss Wilkins, and some others of our best authors, find few characters all that are necessary, and they gain in intensity by limiting the number of characters.

For the same reason the time should be short. If all the incidents chosen are crowded into a short period of time, the action must be more rapid. The reader does not like to know five years have elapsed between one event and the next, even if the story-teller does not try to fill up the interim with matters of no consequence to the narrative. One exception must be made to this rule. In stories whose purpose is to portray a change of character, a long time is necessary; for the transformation is not usually the result of a day's experience, but a gradual process of years. "Silas Marner" and "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" demand time to make naturally the great changes recounted. In general, however, the time should be short.

Simple Plot.

Moreover, the plot should be simple. This is not saying that the plot should be evident. No one is quite satisfied if he knows just how the story will turn out. There are, however, so many conditions in a story that the accentuation of one or the subordination of another may bring about something quite unexpected, yet perfectly natural. Complicated plots have had their day; simple plots are now in vogue. They are as natural as life, and quite as unfathomable. In Davis's "Gallegher" there is nothing complicated; one thing follows another in a perfectly natural way; yet there are many questions in the reader's mind as to how the little rascal will turn out, and whether he will accomplish his mission. Much more cleverness is shown by the sleight-of-hand trickster, who, unassisted and in the open, with no accessories, dupes his staring assembly, than by him who, on the stage, with the aid of mirrors, lights, machines, and a crowd of assistants, manages to deceive your eyes. A story that by its frank simplicity takes the reader into its confidence, and brings him to a conclusion that is so natural that it should have been foreseen from the beginning, has a good plot. The conclusion of a story must be natural,—the result of the causes at work in the story. It must be an expected surprise. If it cannot be accounted for by the causes at work in the story, the construction is faulty. In the world of fiction there is not the liberty one experiences in the world of fact. There things unexpected and unexplainable occur. But the story-teller has no such privilege. Truth is stranger than fiction dare be. A simple, natural story, with few characters and covering but a short period of time, has three elements of success.

Paragraph structure, sentence structure, and choice of words are taken up in subsequent chapters. Of paragraphs it may be wise to say that there will be as many as there are divisions in the outline; and sometimes, by reason of the length of topic, a subdivision may be necessary. The paragraph most common in narration is the paragraph of details, the first form presented in the chapter on paragraphs. What needs to be said of sentences has already been said when treating of movement. Of words one thing may be suggested. Choose live words, specific words, words that have "go" in them.

It should be remembered that everything cannot be learned at once. The study of the whole is the principal occupation just now. Select the main incident; choose other incidents to be consistent with it; start out at once giving the conditions of the story; proceed now fast, now slow, as the thought demands, arriving at a conclusion that is an expected surprise, the result of forces at work in the story.


The questions are only suggestive. They indicate how literature can be made to teach composition. Some questions may seem hard, and will provoke discussion. To have even a false opinion, backed by only a few facts, is better than an entire absence of thought. Encourage discussion. The answers to the questions have not been suggested in the questions themselves. The object has been to throw the pupil upon his own thinking.

These questions upon the "Method of the Author" should not be considered until the far more important work of deriving the "Meaning of the Author" has been finished. Only after the whole piece has been carefully studied can the relation of the parts to the whole be understood. Reserve the questions for the review.


THE GREAT STONE FACE. (Riverside Literature Series, No. 40.)

In what paragraphs is the main incident?

Can you find one sentence on the second page of the story that foreshadows the result?

How many incidents or episodes contribute to the story?

Do these help in the development of Ernest's character? If not, what is the use of them?

Why are they arranged in this order?

Introduce into its proper place an incident of a scientist. Write it up.

Do you think one of the incidents could be omitted? Which one?

Are the incidents related in the order in which they occurred? Is one the cause of another?

Has the story a plot? Why do you think so? What is a plot?

Where are introduced the time, place, and the principal character?

What is the use of the description of "the great stone face"?

Why does the author tell only what "was reported" of the interior of Mr. Gathergold's palace? Is it better so?

Are the descriptions to accent the mood of the story? or are they primarily to make concrete and real the persons and places?

Is there any place where the movement of the story is rapid?

Does the author begin at once, and close when the story is told?

Did you find any use of comparisons in the piece? (See top of p. 6, top of p. 19, middle of p. 22.)[3]

Of what value are they in composition?

THE GENTLE BOY. (Riverside Literature Series, No. 145.)

What is the main incident?

In relation to the whole story, in what place does it stand?

Do the other incidents serve to develop the character of "the gentle boy"? or are they introduced to open up to the reader that character? (Compare with "Wee Willie Winkie.")

Do you consider all the incidents necessary?

Why has the author introduced the fact that Ilbrahim gently cared for the little boy who fell from the tree?

What is the use of the first two pages of the story?

Where does the story really begin?

How could you know the time, if the first page were not there? Is it a delicate way of telling "when"?

Notice that time, place, and principal characters all are introduced into the first paragraph of the real story.

Why does the author note the change in Tobias's circumstances? Does it add to the interest of the story? Would you omit it?

Do you think this plot more complicated than that of "The Great Stone Face"?

What is the use of the description on p. 31?

What do you note as the difference between (a) second line of p. 19, sixth line of p. 27, sixteenth line of p. 29, and (b) fourth line of p. 25, the figure in the complete paragraph on p. 40?

THE GRAY CHAMPION. (Riverside Literature Series, No. 145.)

Note the successive stages by which the time is approached. (Compare with the beginning of "Silas Marner.")

Can you feel any difference between the movement of this story and the movement in "The Gentle Boy"?

Is there any difference in the length of the sentences? (Remember that the independent clauses of a compound sentence are very nearly the same as simple sentences.)

Is there any difference in the proportion of verbs and verbals? What parts of speech have almost disappeared?

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