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Conceptive Technique: Plot And Situation

Definition of Plot--Character and Plot--Dramatic Value of
Plot--Complication--Interest--Plot as Problem--Three
Basic Themes--Conflict Between Man and Nature--Conflict
Between Man and Man--Conflict Within the Same Man--
Arrangement of Elements of Plot--Climax--Major Situations--
Situation and Plot.

The plot of a story is its heart and essence. This is obviously true in
the case of the strict story of plot, and it is very curiously true in
the case of the story of character or of atmosphere. For in the story
which lays emphasis on personality, the evolution or degeneration of the
particular trait which has been selected for presentation is the real
story-element of the fiction. The fact is the root of the necessity that
the action develop in concert with the trait of character, giving it
opportunity for expression. And in the story which lays emphasis on
atmosphere, the climactic progression of the particular atmosphere to
the point of highest intensity is the real story-element, which is the
root of the necessity that the action develop in strict keeping with the
atmosphere, that the effect may not be spoiled.

What is a plot? Many attempts at definition have been made, and the
results have not been illuminating. Everyone has an idea of what a plot
is, but those who have attempted to state their conception briefly have
encountered difficulties. Perhaps an indirect approach to the problem
will yield results.

A tale is not a story, for a tale is a relation of events which happened
to happen to the characters. It is episodal, and the interest of the
thing inheres in each episode separately, not in the whole. There is no
essential connection between the incidents, except that they all
happened to the same group of characters. The contrary is true of a
story, interest in which is in the whole, as a progression, and, since
the difference between tale and story is made by the presence or absence
of plot, it appears that a distinguishing mark of a plot is that its
events function together as a unit. There is some connection between
them other than chance, and that connection lies in the intimate
relation between the events of a story and its characters. Event and
personality each influence or even determine each other simultaneously.
Incidentally, realization of the fact will free the writer from any
misconception that the action and the characters are separable elements
of a story. For instance, jealousy, a trait of character, may cause a
murder, an event, and a husband's chance opening of a letter addressed
to his wife, an event, may give rise to Jealousy, the trait of
character. Or the husband's loyalty will be strengthened in the fiction
if he refuses to credit appearances.

Interaction, then, between incidents and characters, arising from the
unity of the whole conception, is the first essential element of a plot.
The second essential element--and there are but two--is that the several
incidents of the story possess climactic value, not necessarily
climactic value in the sense of ascending tensity--though that is most
desirable--but climactic value in that each event should have influence
in forwarding the story to a definite end, that state of quiescence
which is not attainable in real life short of the grave, but which
fiction must postulate. In other words, since a plot is made up of
incidents which influence and are influenced by the characters, and
since the story must move to an end, a plot presents a problem. What
will the persons do? if the emphasis is on personality; and what will
happen? if the emphasis is on the event.

To state it in the form of a definition, a plot is a series of events
which influence and are influenced by traits of personality, and which
are climactic in that they move to a definite conclusion, so that the
series embodies some problem of life brought to solution.

I state this merely for what it may be worth, which possibly is no great
matter to the writer of fiction. Plots are not to be found by vivifying
a definition, but a definition may prove useful in testing a story idea
when it is found, and the object of the whole discussion is merely to
give the writer some aid in appraising the essential fictional value of
his conceptions.

The fact that a plot is a problem gives the several events their
climactic value. They are steps and approaches to the solution. And a
plot is a problem simply because fiction concerns man, while man is a
free agent, in possibility at least. Given certain characters and an
event bearing upon them, and the problem of what they will do instantly
arises, and the problem of the ultimate result of their actions. Given
certain events, to reverse the emphasis, and characters on whom they
bear, and the same problems arise. A plot is question and solution in
one, and the solution must inevitably follow from the characters and

It will be perceived that the distinguishing quality of a plot is its
dramatic value. A plot is a problem of life, and a problem is a conflict
between opposing forces. Event and character wrestle with one another,
and the outcome is doubtful, wherein lies the interest of the story. It
is accurate to state that the conflict is between event and character,
for though character may struggle with character, nevertheless the
struggle is operative only in action, and the opposed persons struggle
with the doings, not the naked souls, of each other.

It will be perceived also that the element of complication is not
essential to a plot, as Poe has pointed out. Of course, in the story of
incident, where the reader's interest centers chiefly in the events, not
in the characters or atmosphere, complication is most useful, and in
fact supplies much of the problem- or plot-element of the fiction. But
complication is not a sine qua non, and should not be so regarded.
Complication of incident, indeed, in the story which is fundamentally of
character or atmosphere, may prove a positive handicap, adding to the
difficulties of execution and spoiling the unity of effect, if the
fiction is a short story. As has been stated, the novel is a broader
canvas, without a single emphasis if the writer wills, and here, within
the limits of naturalness, complication of plot is thoroughly desirable.
Any bid for a reader's interest is of use, only in the short story the
writer must necessarily limit himself to one sort of bid.

At that last of it, pretty nearly all of the technique of fiction
writing has root in the necessity first to gain the reader's interest
and then to hold it. That is the real object of perfection of form,
even, and the device of plot has root in the same object. In simpler and
more unsophisticated ages the stage presented not drama but mere
spectacles, as the tale did in the spoken word or printed page; the
plot, lending to the play its dramatic character and to the fiction its
story character, developed only when audience and readers lost the
child's vivid interest in whatever he sees, and began to yawn at the
episodal. Pageantry and the unrelated event became stale, in comparison
with the spectacle of life itself, and then plot was found, a method of
isolating a single one of life's strands, and, by showing it in high
relief, lending it an added dignity and appeal.

The basis of the more intense appeal of the plot over that of the
episode is psychological. The hardest thing in the world to do is to
make a reader think, but the reader who does think is interested. That
is why he is thinking. Since a plot is a problem, the reader of a story
of plot is made to think, and the matter impinges upon him with some
force. To repeat former phraseology, if the emphasis is on the events,
he tries to figure out what will happen, at least wonders about it; if
the emphasis is on the characters, he tries to foresee what they will
do. Incidentally, the reader of to-day is habituated to the story of
plot. If nothing happens he will chalk a black mark against author and
magazine, as the editor knows.

As has been said--and emphasis is not out of place--a plot is a problem.
Problem, in this connection, means conflict between opposing forces,
which gives the various events and situations of a story any dramatic
value they may possess. It follows that there are three basic
plot-themes, conflict between man and his environment or Nature,
conflict between man and man, and conflict between opposed traits in the
same man. It will be profitable for the writer to bear this in mind when
combing the world for his story.

In his essay on Victor Hugo's romances, Stevenson has touched upon the
emergence in fiction of the conflict between man and Nature. Briefly,
his argument is that in the works of such a one as Scott the world and
natural forces serve but as stage and stage devices for man and his
doings, while Hugo, particularly in "The Toilers of the Sea," draws
storm, cold, and heat as man's active enemies, almost endowing Nature
with a vindictive personality. Whatever the fact as to Hugo, it is
certain that to those who meet her face to face on sea and land Nature
is a somewhat stony-hearted mother, yielding food and shelter only at
the pistol-point of toil and struggle. To those of us who live in
cities, and whose concerns are mainly social, the constant struggle
of mankind against drought and flood, storm and cold, fire and famine
is obscured, but it is a living reality, nevertheless, and a rich
source of fiction that will get under the skin of the most pampered
apartment-dweller. The roots of our lives stretch far into the dim past,
when the unending struggle with natural forces was a bitter reality to
all, and adequate fictional presentment of the struggle with Nature
often proves to have an incisive appeal wanting in less fundamental
themes. Particularly, the writer may rely upon such a story's appealing
to the cultured and the uncultured mind alike, for the intrinsic human
importance of its theme is felt by all. The elements of the dramatic
problem presented are so simple that previous familiarity with them in
personal experience is not essential to their understanding.

A fine example of this theme given short story treatment is Bret Harte's
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat," while the portions of Stevenson's
"Kidnapped" dealing with David's experience on the Isle of Earraid and
his flight through the heather with Alan Breck find their dramatic
quality largely in the same theme. It is interesting to note that Harte,
however, does not emphasize the conflict between man and Nature to the
utmost of possibility, for in his story there is much emphasis on
character and the struggle of man with man. Whether the story gains or
loses in total effect thereby is immaterial; it will prove an
interesting experience for the writer to recast the tale so as to bring
out more exclusively the theme of conflict with Nature. In connection
with the general discussion as to plot, I will state that if Harte had
entirely excised the theft of the party's horses by the treacherous
member, and had not brought out the contrast between the gambler, the
prostitutes, and the innocents, the story still would have been
adequately plotted. The bare situation of men and women snowbound in a
mountain cabin is a plot germ, for it suggests the problem whether they
will survive or perish.

The plot which presents conflict between man and man is distinctly
social in nature. The possibilities for the writer of fiction in the
general scramble for the almighty dollar, the rivalry of love, the
desire for revenge, and a thousand other passions and ambitions that
bring man into conflict with his fellows, are practically infinite.
Three minutes spent in running over this field for plots will
demonstrate the folly of bewailing the lack of something fresh to write
about. Perhaps some ingenious mathematician, given the data that there
are a hundred million men and women in the United States, and that each
one has some small number of desires and passions active or dormant,
will calculate the potential conflicts resulting. Each conflict is the
seed of a plot, and each plot may be written a hundred times, each story
being made different from the last by varying the manner of treatment.
There is not too little to write about; there is so very much that keen
selection is essential.

Any magazine offers examples of the exploitation, by short story
writers, of the conflict between man and man, while to portray the
conflict is peculiarly the field of the novel, with its social emphasis.
Balzac and Thackeray are supreme masters in presenting a slice of the
social spectacle; "Vanity Fair" and "Cousin Pons" depict struggle
between their people, and but little else. At the top of the social
ladder the struggle is carried on by intrigue and sugared words, at the
bottom with the knife and naked fist, but the struggle is the same in
essence, and of enthralling interest to a reader. All the world loves a
winner, and all the world wants to find out whom it is to love. The mere
mechanical details wherein the struggle finds expression and operation
are the least of the plot, which is indebted for its dramatic quality to
the bare fact of struggle. Doubtless the girl who runs daily to the
public library for a novel would be shocked to be told that she is
impelled by the same human quality that makes street-loafers and
passersby gather about two fighting boys, but she is, nevertheless. The
writer who would please her--and her father, mother, and brothers--will
do well to remember the fact.

The story which seeks to present conflict between two opposed traits in
the same man or woman is most difficult to write so as to create any
fictional illusion. It deals almost exclusively with psychological data,
of the facts of the soul, and requires knowledge and imaginative insight
as well as verbal dexterity. It is supremely easy to conceive a plot
involving struggle of the man with himself, but it is supremely hard to
give such a struggle objectivity, to expand it into a fiction operative
in action and yet developing the internal conflict. I cannot think of a
finer example than Stevenson's "Markheim." A close and critical study of
this story by one who is qualified to taste its full flavor will reveal
at once the great difficulties that face the writer who chooses such a
theme, and the high pitch of achievement attainable through proper
handling of material.

The greatest practical drawback to the giving of much time to mastering
the technique of soul-analysis lies in the narrow appeal of such a
story even when perfectly conceived and written. To recur to the always
apposite Stevenson, it is safe to say that his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
is a thousand times more interesting to the average reader than
"Markheim," simply because the soul-struggle is so much more completely
made objective and given expression in action in the first fiction than
in the second. This is done so very emphatically that nine readers out
of ten entirely miss the point of "Jekyll and Hyde," and fail to realize
that the struggle is between two tendencies in the same man, who is
split into his good and bad selves merely for the sake of concreteness.
Most fiction readers have little love for abstractions and fine spun
analysis--witness the common repute of Henry James, to an extent
undeserved, it may be said in passing. Exclusive emphasis upon the
struggle of the man with himself will tend to confine the writer's
appeal to the intellectuals, in the special modern sense, a matter
inimical to the pocketbook, at the least of it. Psychological analysis
is most useful in developing almost any type of story, but as the sole
theme for a fiction it has its disadvantages.

When the writer has his hands on a plot, of whatever type and however
found, his conceptive labors are by no means over. It remains to recast
and rearrange the elements of the idea, that the most effective
arrangement may be discovered. A first invention is very rarely
incapable of improvement, and in the interests of artistry the author
should exhaust all the possibilities of his idea before writing, that he
may not chance upon unsuspected potentialities in his story only when it
is half written, or not discover them at all. Within limits, of course,
any story will tend to shape itself; in particular, there is much
testimony as to the intractability of characters; but one cannot
consciously strive to do any particular thing or to produce any
particular effect without first knowing just what the thing or effect
is to be.

Possibly the most important matter is to arrange the incidents, the
separate elements of the problem or conflict which the plot presents, in
such manner as to give the progression a climactic character. Not only
should each major event be a definite step toward the conclusion,
solution, or denouement, but each succeeding event should be more
striking, significant, and tense than its predecessor. This sort of
climactic movement is not essential to a plot, but it is an essential
element of a good plot, particularly a good plot for a short story. The
short story is a much more strict and artificial type of fiction than
the novel; in other words, its writer has fewer resources to impress a
reader, and he must utilize to the full whatever is open to him. Among
his resources is the device of sensible movement to a crisis or climax.
Like the rest of fiction technique, the device is useful because it
tends to keep alive and stimulate a reader's interest. This it does
because ascending tensity suggests further struggle. Any flat incident,
on the contrary, less tense or striking than its predecessor, infallibly
suggests that the story is already falling to its end, and the end seems
dull because the problem is not fully worked out or even stated.
Psychologically, the point is delicate; it is a queer paradox that a
reader at once hates to think and yet wants to be made to think. But
that is a reader's condition. With equal readiness he will welcome
climactic movement and continue to read, or welcome any premature fall
in tensity and throw the story aside.

To show by example the results that may be achieved by use of the device
of movement to a climax is impracticable; these matters that cannot be
displayed by pungent quotation the student must dig out for himself by
intelligent reading. Almost any successful story will display climactic
arrangement of its major events. I cannot forbear to mention the
ascension whereby Thackeray leads a reader of "Vanity Fair" up to Rawdon
Crawley's confrontation of Becky and Lord Steyne. Hawthorne's "The House
of the Seven Gables," a book in most respects so totally dissimilar,
shows a like process in leading up to the death of Judge Pyncheon.
George Douglas's "The House With the Green Shutters," less widely known,
is strongly climactic in its latter part. But examples, in short story
and novel, are infinite in number and sort.

To recapitulate, a plot is a problem of human life brought to a fitting
and convincing solution, and consists of a series of events which
displays the fact and result of a conflict between opposing forces,
spiritual and material, actuating and affecting men and women. Therefore
the chief characteristic of a plot is its dramatic value. The definition
may be turned to use not so much in the discovery of plots as in
appraising their fictional value, their power to arouse and hold a
reader's interest, after they have been found or invented.

Since a plot is a conflict between opposing forces, and since fiction
deals with man, the three fundamental plot-themes are conflict between
man and his environment, conflict between man and man, and conflict in
the soul of the same man. Realization of the fact will serve to give
point and definition to the writer's search for the idea.

Finally, a just regard for his readers will lead the writer to cast his
incidents into some climactic arrangement. The first, last, and only
proper aim of a story is to interest, and break in the expected movement
to a climax is fatal to interest.

It would be interesting to go into the matter of plot-analysis at some
length--I have in mind particularly the deficiencies of Poe's
definition that a plot is a series of incidents contrived to produce a
single effect--but this book is for the writer. I shall try throughout
to keep to the writer's viewpoint and to develop nothing not of
practical utility in the work of conception, elaboration, and execution.

Thus far the discussion has been concerned with plot as a whole; it
remains to consider the events, incidents, or situations which compose a
plot. The situations of the plot or story are what its writer must cast
into a climactic consequence, and he must have some standard to measure
each before he can determine its proper place.

The fictionally significant aspect of a plot is that it embodies a
conflict between opposing forces, that is, it is dramatic. Likewise, the
fictionally significant aspect of a situation is that it displays
opposed persons--or at least opposed forces--in conflict. The writer
manipulates his material--preferably before writing--so that two or more
persons, actuated by incompatible motives, are brought into conflict;
there is a moment of indecision; then some person bends the other or
others to his will; and the situation determines. Or the writer brings a
character or group of characters into conflict with Nature, as did Harte
in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Here, also, there is a period of
indecision, and then either the human force or the natural force

The dramatic quality of any situation inheres in the struggle between
opposing forces which each presents, and rises or falls with the
essential strength of such forces. Take two instances of conflict
between opposed motives in the same person. In some humorous story a
character may be unable to decide which of two women he wants to marry.
One can cook, let us say, and he is a gourmand; the other is pretty,
and he has leanings that way, too. The dramatic quality in such a story
will be slight, because the motives involved are relatively weak, yet it
will be present. But take the story of a French girl who is outraged by
a German soldier and gives birth to a child by him. Her quality of
patriotism can be built up to great intensity, if the writer wills, even
to the point where the reader will accept an impulse on her part to kill
her child. Her quality as a mother can be built up likewise. It would be
a most effective touch to have her hate the unborn child furiously, then
to arrange matters so that she should be unable to carry out her first
impulse to kill it and be forced to care for it, giving it opportunity
to awaken her dormant maternal instinct. Finally, love for France and
hatred for Germany can be stimulated again, so that she is shown veering
between the impulse to kill and the impulse to cherish. Such a situation
is intensely dramatic, for it involves conflict between two of the most
intense human qualities, love of one's country and love of one's child.
The more terrific the opposed forces in any situation, the higher its
dramatic value.

At first glance it may seem that the relative position in a story of
each of its various major situations is determined by the plot itself,
but that is not the case. It appears to be the case because it is usual
to regard the plot of a story as the entire mechanical arrangement of
the fiction, including the nature and order of the situations, which is
a false view of plot. As the previous discussion has attempted to
demonstrate, plot is merely the conflict between opposed forces of
personality and environment, at least one of the forces being of
personality. Any two stories which display conflict between the same
forces have the same plot, though one may vary widely from the other in
the means employed to give the struggle objectivity and expression in

The writer of fiction should realize the point. The imagination produces
concrete pictures and conceptions, and, when a story is imagined, it
will come to life in terms of concrete people and events, more or less
definitely ordered and determined. But the writer should not stop there.
He should ascertain just what opposed forces of personality or
environment give the story and its situations plot and dramatic value,
and then should seek to find whether he cannot give the basic conflict
involved more effective presentment than will be given by the persons
and situations which he has already conceived. An essentially weak
conception may offer a clue to a dramatic conflict that will have
fictional power if properly developed by persons and situations
different from those first conceived.

It will be perceived how far it is within the writer's power to
manipulate situation in the interests of art, which, in this connection,
means climax. Starting with some basic conflict, which will be his plot,
the writer can devise situation after situation in which the struggle
will become more and more acute, until, finally, it will become so
serious as to involve all the elements of the story. And with the
determination of the dramatic situation which involves all the elements
of the story, the story itself will terminate, for the struggle which it
embodies will have been settled one way or the other. This final
situation will be the climax of the story, and its outcome or result
will be the denouement. The story will be ended because the struggle or
conflict it serves to embody will have ended. One force or the other
will have triumphed.

In considering the question of situation, the writer of fiction is
considering a more specific aspect of the question of plot. Usually he
desires to find a plot of real dramatic value, and likewise he usually
desires to find a situation or situations of real dramatic value. The
dramatic value of plot and of situation resides in the struggle between
the opposed forces which it presents. The more powerful the forces
involved in either case, the greater the dramatic value of the
conception. Each major situation of a story derives its dramatic quality
from the opposition of incompatible motives or forces that endows the
story's plot with its dramatic quality. In fact, it is not too loose to
say that the situation of a story is its plot, provided the main
situation or climax is meant.[B]

The purpose of the action or incidents of a story is to give the
dramatic struggle it embodies concrete expression. That is to say, the
dramatic quality of a story is specific in relation to certain persons
and certain events. Two definite men, for instance, will engage in a
definite fight over a definite woman. The writer will seek to
individualize the persons involved, which is a matter of description and
characterization, and he will seek also to picture the physical struggle
as definitely as possible, which is a matter of descriptive narration.
It is not enough to conceive a plot or dramatic situation; the writer
must also expand it into a story, which should be as concrete and
specific as its nature permits. Only thus can a reader be made to feel
the essential power of the whole conception. It follows that the action
or incidents of a story should be devised with a view to express the
dynamic elements of the plot and that no incident should be
incorporated in the story unless it will serve to build up some one of
the forces involved or else serve to illustrate the conflict of forces
that have been built up previously.


[B] Polti, in "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations," uses the word
"situation" in a sense practically inclusive of plot. Plot is a word so
abused that it even might be advisable to abandon it in discussion in
favor of situation. The latter suggests more nearly the requisite idea
of persons keyed for struggle. In particular, plot carries too many
connotations of mere complication, which is not one of its essential

Next: Constructive Technique Of Narration[c]

Previous: Conceptive Technique: Story Types

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