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Constructive Technique Of Narration[c]

Importance--Plot and Situation--Spiritual Values of Story--
Order of Events--Introduction--Primary and Secondary Events--
Climax--Naturalness--The End--Preparation--Proportion--
General Considerations.

A story is the relation of what certain persons did in certain places
and under certain conditions of existence, and in its broadest aspect
the art of narration includes the description of persons and delineation
of character, the depiction of scenes, and the suggestion of atmosphere.
But these matters bulk so large in themselves as to call for separate
treatment. My purpose here is to discuss constructive technique, how the
bare story, a succession and progression of events, should be planned
and built up before writing. The problem is constructive, not executive,
and should be considered and settled, within limits, before setting pen
to paper.

In fact, much of the technique of fiction writing concerns matters of
conception and construction. Giving the story its verbal flesh after it
is thoroughly mapped out in mind in accord with the canons of the art is
in truth a more or less simple matter to the writer who has any command
of language and literary facility. The result may not be a
masterpiece--which is a significant idea, justly elaborated, and
perfectly told--but it will possess one of the elements of a story
worthy to live. The trouble is that so many writers set about the task
of expression when all they have in mind is the merest germ of an
undeveloped idea or story, and then are forced to wrestle with
construction and with language at one and the same time. Each task is
great enough for the undivided attention of the ablest artist. I believe
that in the end the constructive task is pretty well done, but that the
more strictly literary task to give the conception verbally perfect
expression is usually somewhat slighted. We have so many well conceived
and elaborated stories, and so very few so perfect in expression that
they deserve to live, a fact indicating that construction can be learned
by nearly all, though literary power seems to be incommunicable. The
proper attitude for the beginner, who has not the facile practice of his
art at his fingers' ends, is to treat the first draft of his story as
merely tentative and an aid to development.


The discussion of plot and situation in the preceding chapter was
pointed to emphasize the importance of the constructive phases of
technique. A plot is not merely a climactic sequence of events or
happenings; a plot is some human struggle, some conflict between opposed
forces, that finds concrete expression in a climactic sequence of
events; and an infinite number of persons and incidents may be devised
to give specific expression to a single fundamental plot idea. Having
fixed upon a plot, the writer of fiction should realize precisely what
is the human problem or struggle involved, and should consider just what
sort of characters and just what sort of incidents will give most
effective, most interesting expression to the particular story idea.
This he should be the more ready to do because a story usually comes to
mind ready formed as a series of events, and only infrequently is the
first combination the best, that is, the one which will present most
forcefully the underlying plot, struggle, problem, or essential story
idea. The writer of fiction has for material vast infinity of imaginable
characters and imaginable events; he should manipulate that material to
a narrowly specific end, the end of giving most effective expression to
his particular story idea or plot. In other words, he is an artist, and
must devise and re-devise, select and reject, arrange and re-arrange
that with which he deals.

Another condition of his art requires the fiction writer to master the
technique of construction and always to practice it before approaching
his strictly executive task of writing. A story is usually more that a
mere physical spectacle, more than a sequence of physical happenings.
Each event, each situation is fictionally significant or interesting by
virtue of its relation to the natures or spirits of the persons
involved. Through the physical tissue of what happens runs the psychical
thread of personality, relating part to part and rendering the whole
indeed one story. A story is a thing of spiritual values as well as a
physical spectacle, and it cannot be written adequately by visualizing
its events and following them with the pen. Some part of its spiritual
value rests in necessary implication from what happens, but not all. The
rest must be brought out deliberately by the writer, and he cannot hope
to do so to the full unless before writing he realizes the necessity and
shapes his work accordingly. The point is of very great importance. It
would be hard to overestimate the number of potentially fine stories
that have been ruined through failure to realize that the main
situations or happenings of each fiction could not have full effect on a
reader unless many subtle matters of personality and spirit were
deliberately brought out in advance.

The first concern of the writer who has found his bare story is to
determine the order in which to cast both its major and minor events.
The necessity that the more important happenings of the story be given
some climactic arrangement, to hold and stimulate the reader's initial
interest, has been touched upon before, but the general ordering of
events is a matter of such importance that it will be discussed at

The aim of any story is to interest, and the writer should endeavor to
touch his reader's interest as quickly as possible. Long, purposeless,
and therefore dull introductions--usually the result of the writer's
having set to work with no very definite idea of what he has to
do--should be avoided; the writer should consider precisely what his
story is, and then how he may best set it in motion without delay. The
technique is easy to state but hard to meet. Perhaps it may be possible
to set off with a happening sufficiently unique and striking in itself
to arouse a reader's interest; descriptive touches as to setting or as
to a character may be employed; or--after the fashion of some modern
writers--one may indulge in a little philosophical overture forecasting
the nature of the tale. A classification of the several ways to open a
story might be made, but it would not be useful. In the first place,
each good story is perfectly unique; in the second place, independent
reading of fiction will show the ways much more completely than mere
statement. One slight matter is perhaps worth noting. Often inherently
dull introductory matter can be given piquancy on the lips of a
narrating character.

The writer should not distort his story merely to begin it
interestingly. The aim of fiction is to interest, but the person to be
interested is the cultured reader, not the mere sensation-sop. If a
particular story is forbidden by its content to begin with a rush, it
should not be wrenched and distorted to that end. The writer who seeks
merely to cater to current tastes with each tale will do well to devise
fictions that will subserve his purpose naturally. Thereby he will
achieve his aim the more easily, and may spare the reading public much
inferior work. But it is always well to make quite sure that any story
cannot be begun swiftly before adopting the more leisurely approach.
Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy" might have been begun so much less
invitingly by one less skilled.

The more complicated the plot, the more difficult it will be to arrange
its elements justly. The events of the structurally simple story usually
can be related in chronological order; one gives place to the other
without effort or preparation. The story with a complicated plot is not
so simple to order justly. In the structurally simple story nearly all
events have a primary value; each is a definite step in the climactic
ascension of the whole. In the story of complicated plot, on the
contrary, there are a comparatively small number of events having this
primary value in that they are definite steps in the climactic
ascension, and there are also a comparatively large number of minor
events having only a secondary value in that they serve to give the
primary events naturalness, intelligibility, and effect. Thus, in the
story displaying the conflict of two characters, the chief events will
be those giving the struggle the most intense expression, and the minor
events, having only a secondary value, will be those which serve to
prepare the various conflicts and to build up and vitalize the two
opposed persons. Even if these minor events are only secondary in
intrinsic significance, they are essential to the story, and the task of
its writer--no easy one--is to order its primary events so that they
will form a climactic ascension in point of tensity and interest, and to
order its secondary events so that they will function naturally in
endowing the primary events with the fullest measure of significance to
the reader.

Each story is unique and characteristic, and of course very little
specific advice can be given as to the just ordering of events, primary
and secondary. There are two main necessities; the story must be told,
and it must be told plausibly. The first necessity, that the story be
told, requires that the writer take care, not only to set forth its
primary events with due elaboration, but also to develop its characters
into individualized human beings--an office chiefly performed by the
secondary events--and to make due preparation for each successive
primary event, that the reader may fully understand its import. The
second necessity, that the story be told plausibly, requires that the
events be ordered naturally as well as climactically, be told in
accordance with the canons of life as well as of art. The difficult task
of the writer is to picture his single phase of life so deftly and with
so little apparent forcing of his matter that the whole will be endowed
with the significant simplicity of art and yet have the naturalness of
life. Of course it is hard, and of course it takes long and patient
practice to conquer the secret. That is why the writer who has full
command of technique is so rare.

The story itself largely determines the order of its primary events, for
their succession is the story. But the secondary events are as largely
subject to the control of the writer, who may devise, adapt, and order
them almost at will, and in just and natural ordering of them lies much
of the secret of verisimilitude. They are the mortar that binds the
stones of the edifice, and by slighting them many a fine initial
conception has been rendered feeble in execution. They need not be
elaborately treated; in fact, the technique to be acquired is to relate
them in due subordination to events intrinsically more important, though
giving them an easy and natural flow and succession. But the minor
events must be ordered justly, that the story may march becomingly from
major event to major event, and therefore the writer must struggle with
their ordering. No rules capable of statement regulate the matter; the
writer can only be told its importance and urged not to consider his
story fully developed and ready for writing simply because he has
determined the order of its main events.

Perhaps the whole philosophy of the ordering of events, major and minor,
can be stated broadly to be that in ordering the more important events
of a story the writer must regard chiefly the necessities of climax,
that is, of art, while in ordering the secondary events he must regard
chiefly the necessity to be natural, that is, to achieve verisimilitude.
Art is life raised to a higher power, and the struggle of the artist is
to present his phase of life as simply and pungently as can be done
without entirely severing the relation between his conception and life

One function of the secondary events of a story is to prepare the
elements of the main events. In the love story, John meets Joan that he
may subsequently make love to her. Another function of the secondary
events is to develop character. In London's "The Sea Wolf" most of the
earlier episodes and many of the later are narrated to build up the
impression of Wolf Larsen's ruthlessness.[D] It follows that any minor
event will serve a double purpose when devised and placed so that it
will forward the mechanical progress of the story and also illustrate
character. Tarkington, in "Monsieur Beaucaire," begins the story with a
scene over the card table which not only gives the barber-prince his
necessary introduction to society but also shows the stuff of which he
is made. In constructing his story before writing, the author should
select and place each incident with an eye to its serving as many
purposes as possible. The story will gain thereby in compactness and
uniformity of interest. It is golden advice to urge the writer not to
accept the secondary events of a story as they first come to mind, but
to re-arrange and re-devise until each happening performs as many
functions as the necessities of the story permit.

There is nothing particularly new and striking about the main events and
situations of many stories that not only are getting published to-day,
but are truly interesting and worth while. Their interest--and therefore
their worth--derives from their writers' management of secondary events.
By varying the nature and succession of minor events, any fundamental
plot theme, such as the "eternal triangle" of two men and a woman, may
be utilized a thousand times without essential loss of interest. As has
been stated, the naturalness and plausibility of a story depend largely
upon just selection and ordering of its secondary events, and, curiously
enough, in a very real sense the reader's interest depends on the minor
happenings. The plot must be a real plot and an interesting one, but, at
the last of it, the plot is only the skeleton. The minor events of the
story are the comely flesh that gives the conception the attraction and
interest of life. The figure may be grewsome, but it is accurate. A
thousand skulls look much alike, but no face is precisely the same as
another, even to the casual eye. The flesh makes the difference, and the
minor events of a story are its flesh.

The chief necessity in beginning a story is to begin it interestingly,
if its nature permits; the chief necessity in ending a story is to end
it--and there is no proviso as to its nature. A story is a fiction with
a plot, and a plot is a chain of events with a definite and significant
ending. The writer who has discovered or devised a true plot upon which
to hang his fiction will not struggle on aimlessly after narrating the
climax, for there will be nothing more to relate. I believe that absence
of true plot is most often responsible for the story that stumbles to a
lame and inconclusive halt--not an end--rather than executive inaptitude
on the writer's part, for the climax of a true plot is a hard thing not
to feel and realize. At any rate, when the climax is reached and the
story told it must be ended, justly but finally. There is nothing more
for the reader, unless the characters are caught in another chain of
significant events. "But that is another story."

To recapitulate, a story is a progression of events, major and minor.
The story largely determines the character and order of its main
events, for they are the story itself; nevertheless the writer should
give them climactic arrangement, as far as possible. The minor events
are more subject to his control, and he should devise and order them
chiefly with an eye to verisimilitude and plausibility, not forgetting
that each should serve some definite purpose and will be the more useful
if it can be made to serve more than one.


Two sorts of preparation must engage the attention of the writer of a
story. The first is purely mechanical, and is the result of the writer's
realization of the physical necessities of his story. If at some
definite point the hero is to be found in some definite place by other
characters, the writer must prepare to place him there. The necessity is
obvious, and this sort of preparation requires little discussion, except
the warning that in the complicated story it will demand close
attention. But the second sort of preparation is a much more delicate
matter, and in a sense is a great part of the art of fiction. I have
reference to the necessity that the writer individualize and vitalize
the people of his story so that the significant situations of the
fiction may have maximum effect on a reader. The problem is not so much
how to delineate character, which will be taken up later, as to plan the
whole story so that it will have body and not be a mere report.

There are three fundamental types of story, it is true, in that a story
may emphasize any one of its elements of character, of complication of
incident, or of atmosphere. But the story which depends for its appeal
on the novelty or intrinsic significance of the bare succession of its
events is somewhat rare; at least it is true that fiction concerns man
primarily, and in the normal story, or, better, in the story which the
necessities of plot-structure most frequently produce,[E] the man is as
important as the event. Since the person is as important as the event,
the persons involved in any significant situation of a story must be
developed as well as the situation itself. The aim is to give the
situation maximum effect, and the concern of the writer is not so much
to develop character, strictly, as to give the body of reality to the
whole story. It is about human beings, and, however novel and
interesting the plot, unless they are given some of the vivacity and
concreteness of real men and women the fiction will be devoid of the
breath of life. The first sort of preparation builds up the physical
situations of a story; the preparation now under discussion builds up
its people.

Nothing is more common than for the beginning writer to devise or
discover an eminently worthy plot idea, and nothing is more uncommon
than for him to utilize it to the full and develop it adequately. The
reason for the failure is simple. The better the plot, the more humanly
significant its situations. They are so very significant, in the case of
the fine plot, that the beginning writer is led to think that his only
task is to outline them. But merely to outline a significant situation
or event will not give it the emotional force that fiction must possess,
otherwise the newspaper would be read in tears. The event must involve
real people, if the emotion of a reader is to be aroused. A newspaper
item may state that Mary Smith has committed suicide because deserted by
her lover, but though the casual reader will realize intellectually and
abstractly the pathos of the situation, his emotion will not be stirred
unless he is a more sensitive human precipitate than most readers. To
move his heart, rather than his mind, some particular Mary Smith, like
no one else in the world, must walk a living presence through the story
built about such a theme. The difference is between merely reporting
events and picturing life.

Like most other matters of technique, this of giving individuality and
life to the people of a story is based on the necessity to achieve
verisimilitude and interest. Human life is a great complex of millions
of men and women doing certain things, and in a story, which is a
picture of a phase of life, the people must be drawn with as much
definition and detail as the events, or the reader will not accept the
fiction as fictional truth.

In great part, the matter of developing the human elements of a story is
a problem of construction, as is the matter of preparing a natural
succession of events. The writer first must order his main events as
interestingly and plausibly as possible. He then must devise and order
his secondary events as to give the requisite spacing and naturalness to
the whole, and he also must take care to provide for such action on the
part of the characters that when they come to the main events they will
be something more than named abstractions. Of course, the writer has
means at command to vitalize his people other than to draw them in
actions illustrating their peculiarities, but it is difficult enough at
best to vivify a character, and the writer who depends solely on his
powers of direct description will achieve very meager results. I have
already referred to the part the secondary events of a story play in
developing character, and have cited London's "The Sea Wolf" as an
instance. A great part of the book is devoted to a succession of
episodes which develop Larsen's striking personality. It is very
skillfully done in this respect, and the result is as memorable a figure
as exists in recent fiction. The beginning writer and even the more
practiced hand will do well to note the great part that just
construction must have played in producing the impression of the Wolf's
virility and ruthlessness.

It all may be termed a matter of drawing character, but the necessity is
to realize that in constructing his story before writing an author must
prepare for the development of its people as well as for the development
of its events. The work will have to be done sometime, if the story is
to be more than a report, and it should be done before writing, so far
as it is a matter of construction. The writer who has conceived a plot
of real merit has done much, but he has not done all. The striking
events of a plot are significant only in relation to the people of the
story, and a reader must be made to feel the reality of the characters
as well as the reality of the events. The single concern of the writer
of fiction is to lay on his page a picture of a phase of life that is
effective because it is plausible, and he must give equal attention to
the persons of the story and to what they do, both in construction and


In planning his story with an eye to giving it the greatest semblance
of reality, the writer has one means ready to his hand which is the more
useful because somewhat mechanical. I have reference to the preservation
of proportion.

Fundamentally, proportion is a mere matter of space or length. In real
life events vary in point of the time they take to happen, and in the
story proportion may be preserved by dividing the available space justly
between the several events. Normally a love scene will take longer to
happen than a murder, which is an affair of one high-pitched moment, and
in planning and writing a story which contains both a love scene and a
murder a proper amount of space should be assigned to each. In the story
the reader passes through days in an hour and through hours in a minute;
he must not be made to pass through minutes in an hour, and through
hours of events as important to the story in a minute. A murder may be
more important in the story than a love scene, and so require emphasis,
but it cannot be stressed by great expansion without violating
proportion. Emphasis must be laid by narrating vividly, a matter to be
taken up in its proper place when discussing executive technique.

The mere fact that the writer must narrate the main events of his story
in some detail usually will lead him unconsciously to preserve
proportion so far as they are concerned. The space necessary to develop
a murder will have roughly the same relation to the space necessary to
develop a love scene as the duration of a real murder has to the
duration of a real love scene. But the minor events of a story function
on a different plane from its major happenings, and so cannot be
proportioned similarly. If a murderer must sail from London to New York
to reach his victim--either on account of the place necessities of the
story, or to fasten an impression of his animosity on the reader--the
minutes of the days of the voyage cannot be related with as much detail
as the minutes of the actual killing. In planning a story, the writer
should make provision for the secondary events and the strict matter of
transition, as well as for the main events, but he should not plan to
narrate in detail until a main event is reached. The beginning writer
seems very often to be afraid to narrate in general terms, even where
the story demands no detail, and the fault probably arises from a vague
feeling that the reader will not accept the author's say-so, but must be
"shown." To an extent, that is true. However, where the matter is of

transition, merely to forward the mechanical progress of the story,
detailed narration is distortion. It will inevitably cause loss of
suspense and interest.

Realization of the relative importance to the story of each of its parts
will give the writer the standard whereby to distribute its space. In
writing the short story the preservation of proportion is most
essential; there is so little space at hand that two words cannot be
wasted in detailed narration where more general narration will suffice,
and it all comes under the reader's eye so nearly at one moment that any
disproportion in the treatment of events of equal importance will be
detected. In the novel, lack of proportion may be a more secret fault,
but it will have its effect.


In casting about for a story the writer should regard chiefly the
intrinsic merits of each idea that comes to him. But when he has pitched
upon his theme or plot, and approaches the task of construction and
elaboration, he should change his viewpoint and strive to view his
conception with the cold eye of a reader. A reader has nothing to go
upon except what the writer sets down, and realization of the fact will
lead the writer in construction to provide for every matter essential to
give the story full appeal. Unless it is developed completely, it will
fail to impress one who has no knowledge of the conception except that
imparted by the writer's words. Nothing essential can be omitted or
slighted without risking failure. On the other hand, nothing unessential
can be brought out without obscuring the real story. Careful
construction and elaboration of the initial idea is necessary before
writing, that the author may have his hands free for the difficult task
of execution, and in construction the writer should occupy the detached
position of a reader when estimating what should be developed and what


[C] In discussing the principles of construction it is obviously
impossible to illustrate the text by quotation, for just construction
could be shown only by reprinting an entire story. The reader must
supplement what is said here by independent analytical reading. The only
fortunate thing about the situation is that the matters which can be
adequately illustrated by brief quotations--such as vividness in
narrating--are chiefly matters of execution and least subject to
profitable objective study.

[D] This story is a particularly instructive instance of how much the
secondary events are within the writer's control, and also of how much
depends on their just selection and ordering. The twin plot themes of
the book are the struggle of man with man and the struggle of man with
nature; they are developed almost entirely without aid from the
superficially main events of the story, Maud's coming aboard the
schooner and what follows. That is precisely the artistic defect of the

[E] The three fundamental plot themes are man's struggle with nature,
man's struggle with man, and man's struggle with himself. The human
element is inherently a part of any plot.

[F] It would be difficult to overstate how much of its appeal such a
story as Fannie Hurst's "T. B.," reprinted in "The Best Short Stories of
1915," owes to its author's careful development of the personality of
Sara Juke. Yet the story is not strictly a character story. In less
competent hands the bare story would have been nothing; as it is, it is
a fiction of real worth and significance.

Next: Executive Technique Of Narration

Previous: Conceptive Technique: Plot And Situation

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