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Conceptive Technique: Story Types

Conception and Execution--Utility to Know Types--Novel and
Romance--Short Story--The Three Types--Emphasis--Three
Elements of Any Story--Story of Character--Character and
Action--Story of Incident--Archetypal Character--Short
Story and Fallacy of Compression--Story of Atmosphere--Other

The labors of the fiction writer are of two sorts, conceptive and
executive. In actual practice, of course, the writer may have only the
faintest glimmering of his story when he begins to write, and may
simultaneously conceive, elaborate, and express as he goes along; but
that is not the method of the conscious literary artist. An
understanding adaptation of means to ends is impossible unless the
writer has a definite purpose fixed in mind from the first moment of
execution. And in writing on technique it is necessary to assume the
natural order of the total artistic or creative process, whether the
actual practice of any writer coincides with it or not. Therefore the
body of conceptive technique first calls for treatment. Strict executive
technique and also the technique of construction--which is both
conceptive and executive--will be taken up after dealing with the matter
of story types and the matter of plot.

I need not state that there is no technique of conception, mastery of
which will yield the writer the golden secret of how to create or find a
good story. That depends strictly on personal ability, and not on any
objective knowledge of the mechanics of the art of fiction. But a
knowledge of the several fundamental types of story, and of the how and
why of the differences between them, cannot fail to aid the writer in
estimating and realizing the potentialities and deficiencies of a
particular idea. The writer who knows precisely where his story idea
will classify under analysis has a standard that will prove most useful
in the work of development. If it classifies as a story of atmosphere,
rather than of plot or of character, the writer will be led to
concentrate upon his proper task of creating the atmospheric illusion,
and will not dissipate his energies and spoil the effect of the finished
work by interpolating unnecessary touches of emphasis upon character or

Another preliminary word may not be out of place. A story is a story,
whether long or short; but the novel or lengthy romance is so much more
inclusive in matter and complicated in structure than the short
story--viewing the latter as a distinct literary type--that it is less
essential for the writer of fiction of book length to know with exact
definition the effect he wishes to produce than it is for the writer of
the short story of a few thousand words. The potential and usual effects
of the novel are many; it may and usually does contain chapters or
passages emphasizing all three story elements of character, complication
of incident, and atmosphere; but the short story is limited by its
brevity to the creation of a single effect, and any touch of emphasis
looking elsewhere usually will detract from the power of the whole.
Therefore it is in short story writing that a firm preliminary grasp
upon all the implications and connotations of the basic idea is most
essential, also most attainable, and therefore a discussion of
fundamental story types concerns itself largely with the short story.

But much the same principles of constructive analysis utilized by the
writer of the short story may be profitably employed in developing the
various but more or less unified episodes of the novel.

The three fundamental types of story have a perfectly natural origin. A
story is the relation of what (1) certain persons (2) did (3) in a
certain place and under certain conditions of existence. Accordingly, as
the elements of personality, action, or surrounding conditions are
emphasized, we have the story of character, of incident, or of
atmosphere. As Stevenson has said, there are but three ways to create a
story, to conceive characters and select and devise incidents to develop
them, to take a plot--a climactic series of incidents--and devise
characters to enact it, or to take an atmosphere and precipitate it as
best the writer may.

There is, however, an obvious fact to remember. These several types of
story differ from one another only in point of emphasis; in each case an
element possessed by all is stressed; no type is entirely devoid of the
elements emphasized in the other two. An intended story lacking any one
of the three elements of character, of complication of incident, or of
setting is not a story, but something else. The most common example is
the composition portraying character without any plot or complication of
incident, which is not a character story, but a character sketch. It
cannot be too strongly insisted that a story is a story, consisting of a
climactic series of incidents, as distinguished from a tale, which is a
level series of incidents, unrelated save in that all happen to the same
group of characters. Plot is a matter not specifically under discussion
as yet, but half the difficulty and most of the inutility in writing on
fiction technique reside in the fact that one must treat in isolation
matters which are but elements of a unified artistic synthesis. A story
is a story; its people do not merely exist, they live and act. In the
case of the story of complication of incident, the complication supplies
the story-element of the fiction; in the case of character story, the
evolution or degeneration of character supplies the story-element; while
in the case of the story of atmosphere, the climactic progression of the
particular emotional impression to the point of highest intensity in
itself supplies much of the plot- or story-element of the conception.

Another qualification should be stated. The normal story, written for
its own sake, is emphatic in that it stresses some one of its three
elements. But there is also the thematic story, written to vivify an
abstract proposition or to point a moral. The type lays no special
emphasis on character, incident, or setting, and is written with an eye
to an ulterior purpose beyond the mere sake of the story. It is not a
natural type, and may be disregarded here. Incidentally, it is not a
very successful type, and of course any success it may achieve as a work
of art cannot derive from the truth or weight of the proposition or
moral behind it.

Starting from the proposition that there are three normal story types,
it may be profitable to examine them in detail. I am not yet concerned
with the technical devices whereby character may be drawn, a plot
devised and narrated, or atmosphere created; my sole purpose is to
suggest how the writer may recognize the true character of his idea,
that in developing it he may know exactly what he is trying to do.

The story of character is concerned with the infinitely diverse traits
of our common human nature as manifested by the people of a story. The
single trait or few traits, rather than the totality of each person's
nature, should be sought to be developed, for reasons that a moment's
thought will render apparent. Character can be truly realized only by
showing the person in characteristic actions and, unless the writer
desires to extend his work to a great length, he can formulate no course
of action which will illustrate a complete personality. In all its
aspects, fiction is a matter of selection, and the writer of a story of
character should concentrate his powers of description and exposition
upon the traits of personality involved in the acts of the persons. The
short story must present a relatively incomplete picture of each
character's soul; the novel may approach each person from a number of
angles; but even the novelist should consider whether he cannot give
maximum reality and vivacity to his people by not attempting a too
complete presentation of each.

If, then, the initial conception of a story involves or suggests true
traits of character, it may be advisable to develop the story so as to
throw into strong relief the quality or qualities involved. The
possibility of the wisdom of such development becomes a probability if
the traits are somewhat novel and not those possessed in common by all
men to some extent, such as the capacity to love, to hate, to sacrifice
self, ambition, the fear of death, and so forth.

It should be remembered that the hallmark of the true character story is
its progression; the persons of the story grow stronger or weaker in
their respective traits under the pressure of events. There is a
climactic moment of indecision and suspense when it is doubtful whether
the character will shape circumstances or circumstances the character.
This distinguishing attribute of the character story is its essential
quality as a story; the strict type is debarred from recourse to
complication of incident to save it from being a mere sketch; change or
progression in the characters is itself the story or plot element of the
fiction. Realization of the fact will give the writer a firmer grasp on
the truth that characters and events must be developed in strict
concert and harmony. Anticipating later statement a trifle, let me say
that portrayal of the actions of a character is portrayal of the
character himself, so that his actions must be characteristic, or two
elements of the story will be at cross purposes. In setting out to write
a character story, the author deliberately chooses to emphasize
character and to depend for interest on the spectacle of its evolution
or degeneration. Since he is after all writing a story--though of one
type--the author must devise some climactic series of incidents. But the
character element is the preponderant strain of the fiction, and each
successive incident should be chosen with an eye to that element, and
its climactic value should inhere in its being climactic and progressive
in relation to the trait of character sought to be developed.

This is all somewhat abstract, but the test is much easier to apply to a
concrete story idea than it is to formulate in terms. If the idea
consists of a tentative grouping of incidents which suggests an
interesting phase of character in an interesting phase of development,
the conception may be elaborated into the story which emphasizes
character. On the other hand, if the initial idea is simply of a phase
of character which can be adequately shown in progression by a series of
incidents devised to that end, the same treatment is advisable. In each
case it is possible that such treatment will give maximum effect to the

The story of complication of incident interests primarily because of its
plot, and not because of its people or the totality of its emotional
effect.[A] It is more than a type of story; in a way it is really the
archetype of all stories. An historical analysis will show the truth of
the statement. First came the tale, a chain of incidents having no
essential connection except that they all happened to the characters.
Then came the story, a chain of incidents which are not fortuitous and
accidental, but each essential to the whole design. And from the story
have sprung such variations as the character story, which emphasizes the
element of personality, and the story of atmosphere, which emphasizes
the setting, spiritual or material. But the story of plot, which
stresses the bare incident, is archetypal of all fiction in that
interest centers in the story rather than in the persons or their
environment. Perhaps the French conte, or brief dramatic narrative, is
the strictest story type of all.

I have chosen to touch upon the character story first, rather than the
more fundamental and inclusive story of plot, simply because the
potential story of plot is easily recognizable, and my sole aim here is
to state some of the tests which the writer may apply to his idea after
conception to discover its true character, that he may know how to
handle it. The germ of a plot can be distinguished at a glance, while
the question of what a plot really is requires separate treatment.

If the writer would produce a strict short story, he cannot rest content
with the apparent fact that his initial conception is the germ of a
story plot, that being the case. The story of plot may be easy to
recognize as a genre, but not all stories of plot are potential short
stories. All plot germs are not susceptible of adequate development
within the narrow limits of the short story. Ten thousand words is
probably the extreme limit of the type as a commercial possibility, and,
in a space so brief, if the chain of events is at all complicated or
lengthy, it is impossible to bring out all its nuances and implications.
Too many critics and writers seem to entertain the idea that the short
story is the result of compression, but emphatically that is not true.
The synopsis of previous chapters before an instalment of a serial novel
is an example of compression, and a most repellent one. A short story is
the result of its own inherent brevity. A naturally long story, it is
true, may be shortened materially by mere rhetorical compression, but it
cannot be rendered a short story thereby, for the short story develops
its fewer incidents with as much rhetorical elaboration as the novel or
romance develops its many happenings. The short story that is a short
story--such as Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy," Stevenson's
"Markheim," or Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher"--gives off no
impression of verbal bareness. The short story is a literary form, with
all the elaboration of expression that the term implies. Its brevity
results from careful selection of the incidents to be set forth, and not
from concise expression of an indiscriminate welter of incidents.

Undoubtedly the matter requires emphasis. Too much has been written and
said as to the necessity of compression in short story writing. If what
is meant is rhetorical compression, bare statement without verbal
elaboration, no such necessity exists. What is necessary is care in
making certain that the story is a short story, and care to relate
nothing not essential to its development.

The French type of short story in general, and Maupassant's work in
particular, are often cited to illustrate the need for compression. In
the first place, the essential genius of the French language is such
that in translations, to English or American apprehension, fully
elaborated statement often seems somewhat bare. Moreover, I cannot
admit that Maupassant's best work is equal in rounded artistry and
appeal to that of others who have chosen to write less barely and
mathematically. If compression means anything, it means squeezing
something into less space than it would normally occupy, which is not
artistry, but an attempt to do in execution the proper work of
conception and construction, to devise a story which can be given
adequate literary expression in a limited number of words.

A critical reading of almost any successful short story will disclose
that the manner of its telling is as truly the source of its interest
and appeal as is the novelty or human importance of the naked story
idea. The difference between a recital of facts and a work of fiction is
the difference between mere reporting and true literature. The writer
who strives to compress in expression, instead of carefully selecting
the matter for expression, deliberately rejects his only means to
produce a sufficiently full and rounded presentment of the particular
phase of life he seeks to depict. That means is to write with due
elaboration, lest the phrasing seem stark and flat in comparison with
the softly moulded contours of life itself. There are two elements in
literature, the fact and the form; they are equally important and should
be equally complete. When considering the fitness of a plot to serve as
the skeleton for a short story, remember that in execution the thing
must be written with due verbal elaboration, else it will be angular and
unattractive, and that the idea of many incidents, people, or places
cannot be so written in the space available. In execution, write
adequately, and in conception and construction, select.

The story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the setting in which its
people move, and seeks to bring out the emotional value of the physical
or spiritual environment, is not difficult to recognize, being like the
story of plot in this respect. But it is most difficult to do well. The
story of character deals with concrete people, and the story of plot
deals with concrete events; the story of atmosphere deals with these and
something more, an intangible sensual or emotional impression, as of
beauty or horror, correspondingly more difficult to create. It demands
imaginative powers of the highest order, and perfect technical powers.
Within limits, the unimaginative author may write effectively of
characters and events, for he can see and study them objectively in
daily life, and, again within limits, they may also be presented
effectively by matter of fact phrasing. But atmosphere cannot be
seen--even physical atmosphere must be felt, or there is no emotional
effect--and all the resources of language at times become pitifully
inadequate to precipitate an emotion. It is all a matter of clear
conception and careful design, and the secret cannot be stated, but must
be learned, each for himself. However, I am not concerned in this place
with executive technique, or even with constructive technique, and
whatever hints can be given as to the creation of atmosphere would be
out of place. My object is merely to state the fundamental types of
story and the necessity that the writer recognize the true character of
his conception, that he may develop it with emphasis properly laid.

Other types of story exist, but the lines between them are not drawn by
the inherent character of the art of fiction. The love story, for
instance, may be told with emphasis on character, on incident, or on
atmosphere, and the placing of emphasis determines its artistic
character. The technique of conception is concerned only with
fundamental types, and the sole object of its mastery is to give the
writer knowledge of the essential artistic character of each of his
conceptions, that he may work with a definite aim in development. My
object is not to discuss or analyze pedantically, for the sake of the
analysis itself, but simply to state the importance of discovering the
basic fictional character of the idea, that it may be properly expanded.
Strict constructive and executive technique of course require separate


[A] One might expand here on the distinction that in the story stressing
character it is the particular persons who interest the reader, while in
the story of plot his interest centers in the events, and the people of
the story are followed less as individuals than as the human focal
points whereon the events take effect. Such fine analysis is tempting,
but of little use, for any story is a compact unity of the three

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