VIEW THE MOBILE VERSION of Informational Site Network Informational
    Home   Articles   Quiz Questions   Punctuation   Fiction Writing   News Writing   Lecturing

The Novel

Novel and Romance--Romanticism and Realism--Techniques of
Novel and Romance--Incoherence of Novel Relative to Short
Story--Novel as Medium of Self-Expression--Interpolation of
Personal Comment--Significant Simplicity--Permissible
Inclusiveness of Novel--Full Development of Personality--
Variety of Action--Length--Initial Idea--Story--Life--
Society--Singleness of Story--Social Emphasis.

I have a small dictionary on my desk which defines the novel as a
"fictitious prose narrative or tale presenting a picture of real life,"
and the romance as "any fictitious and wonderful tale: a fictitious
narrative in prose or verse which passes beyond the limits of real
life." The definitions state a distinction easier to feel vaguely than
to justify. One may say with truth that Jane Austen's "Sense and
Sensibility" or Trollope's "The Warden" presents a picture of real life,
but can one also say with truth that Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" or
Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" passes essentially beyond the
limits of real life simply because each book states a physically
impossible thing--the brand of his sin over Arthur Dimmesdale's heart
and the metamorphosis of Dr. Jekyll? Either matter is a mere symbol,
devised to give concreteness to a spiritual fact. Is it not true than
human life, the material for fiction, has its spiritual actualities as
well as its physical facts? and does not the romance--as it is commonly
understood--differ from the novel merely in that it narrates a real
adventure of the soul rather than a real adventure of the body?

The fact is patent, I think, that the writer of fiction will gain small
benefit from conceiving the romance as something separate and apart from
the novel; likewise, that a book on technique without confusion may
treat the writing of long fiction generally as the writing of novels. It
is true, of course, that the essential bent of any particular writer may
lead him to deal with the facts of the soul rather than the facts of the
body, or that any particular story may be a spiritual rather than a
physical adventure; nevertheless the story of the spirit must still
develop facts and show their relations, and the technical resources of
its writer are precisely the same as those of the writer who deals
predominately with the more concrete physical facts of life.

It would be interesting to go at some length into this question of
romance, all its connotations and implications. In particular, there is
an antithesis in common thought, with romanticism and realism the two
opposed members, which it would not be too dull to discuss. But the
discussion would not give much light to one who desires to acquire a
knowledge of the mechanics of fiction, long or short. It is permissible
to call a realist one who transcribes predominately physical details,
and it is permissible to call a romanticist one who transcribes
predominated [typo for "predominantly"?] spiritual details, but in both
cases the basic technique is identical. The realist can confine himself
to physical facts because his story deals largely with the everyday
actualities of life, and its subordinate spiritual values will be felt
by a reader through inference from the facts. The romanticist must state
spiritual facts directly because they are the very stuff and essence of
his story. He is none the less a realist if there are spiritual
actualities--an indisputable proposition--and if he states them as they
exist for him.

The critical discussion that treats realism and romanticism as opposed
artistic philosophies is so confused that it would serve no useful
purpose to go into the matter here. What little I have to say on the
subject will be said in the next chapter. But it is not inappropriate to
call attention to the fact that every story conceived--in Stevenson's
phrase--from within outwards, the only genesis for a work of art, is
merely a subjective reality; it never happened. Perhaps it is so
essentially commonplace that it probably has happened sometime; perhaps
it is so little abnormal that very possibly it has happened. Or perhaps
it may be of such a nature that it never could have happened. In any
event, whatever the nature of the story, its verity and reality as a
fiction depend solely upon its writer's elaborative and executive
powers. If his hand falter, tangibility and concreteness in the matter
of the story will not save it, will not make it seem real to a reader.
The lives of most men are commonplace, but the relatively few lives that
are not commonplace are as real and actual as those that follow beaten
paths. In the lives of most, the spiritual element is subordinate,
perhaps, but in the lives of some few it is enormously influential and
supremely real. Realism, the artistic philosophy, asserts that fiction
should present only the real. The assertion is nonsense for two reasons.
First, the commonplace, or, if you please the inevitable, the only
reality which realism admits, is not the only reality. Second, the
verity or reality of fiction cannot be ascertained by any objective
test, cannot be determined by the physical possibility of its matter,
its people and their acts, for a fiction is purely subjective, a
conception, and conceivability is the sole test of its verity. The
writer of a story transcribes what he sees, not necessarily what is.[R]

As stated, the writer of fiction will derive small benefit from
conceiving novel and romance as entirely different types of fiction. The
distinction between them used to be insisted upon much more pedantically
than is the case to-day, and the present tendency to call any story of
book-length a novel is a healthy sign. The technique of the novel, in
the narrow sense of a picture of society, and the technique of the
romance, in the narrow sense of a story not of "real" life, are broadly
the same. And where there is no difference in technique the artist
should admit no difference in type. If he does admit any difference in
type, and allows it to influence him, his conceptive faculty will be
hampered and that is artistic death. It is hard enough to find a story
that is worth while, a story that will interest, without subjecting
one's self to the added and totally unnecessary difficulty to bring all
one's ideas to the measure of some fancied type as a first test. The
writer of fiction should be warned that it is supremely difficult to
avoid becoming artificial and mechanical, and that he will surely become
so if he does his conceptive thinking in terms of analysis. In the first
place, the analytical habit of mind is directly opposed to the creative;
in the second place, the analysis that divides long stories into novels
and romances in the special sense is false. The way to find a story is
to look for a story, forgetting all that pedants have written and
failures practiced. The silly criticism that classifies fiction by its
content is beneath contempt; the writer of fiction who heeds it is
supremely foolish.

In the following discussion the term "novel" will be used simply to
denote a plotted fiction of book-length.

Contrasting the short story and the novel, and dwelling on the relative
coherence of the briefer form, I had occasion to state that the novel is
relatively incoherent in that much of its interest for a reader quite
permissibly may inhere in matter with little or no relation to the main
thread of the story. Of course, incoherence is not a point of the
technique of the novel. Incoherence is not a point of the technique of
anything, except of some of the ultra modern schools in music, painting,
and verse. The statement as to the incoherence of the novel was made
incidentally in developing the argument that the short story cannot be
incoherent because its brevity forbids that it present even its single
story-idea adequately and also set forth irrelevant matter. On the other
hand, the novel may set forth irrelevant matter because its length is
not only a greater but a more elastic quantity than that of the short
story; if the interruptions of the story are not too frequent and
sustained, the power of the story over a reader will not be lessened to
any appreciable extent. That is not to say that the novelist should seek
to interrupt himself.

A good many serious writers--so-called--choose to write the novel simply
because it does offer an opportunity for direct self-expression greater
than any afforded by briefer fiction. They are confined to fiction--may
they pardon the remark--because they have met, or feel that they will
meet, difficulty in finding a publisher for their various theories
stated as such; so they blithely write a novel, with insertions of
politics, religion, sociology, what not, and palm it off on the unhappy
public for a story. Of course such direct expression of one's opinions
is not self-expression through the medium of a work of art. It is only
choosing deliberately to do poor work for the sake of money or
notoriety or vanity. Writing the "problem novel" is not quite the same
thing. If a social problem, as the friction between capital and labor,
is utilized as the fundamental plot--or conflict-theme of a novel, a
good deal of personal opinion may be introduced by the author without
injury to the artistic coherence of the story. But it is well to
remember that the primary aim of fiction is to interest, an aim that can
be achieved most easily and most completely by telling a good story.
Propaganda is apt to be supremely dull anyway, and it is bound to seem
dull to one who is looking for a story and nothing else. The practical
implications of a work of art must be mere implications, resting in
inference, or the work will be feeble and misshapen.

The novelist can indulge in personal comment and yet present the whole
of his story, for his space is practically unlimited. The writer of the
short story must sacrifice either the comment or the story. The result
is that the typical novel is more incoherent than the typical short
story. The finer the book as a whole, the easier it is to forgive or
overlook the defect, for defect it is. One can forgive Thackeray his
rambling asides and his diffidence in approaching his story, for in all
of his books the story is present and in each it is a fine thing. But
"Vanity Fair," for instance, is too significant a fiction to suffer
constant interruption without causing a reader to become impatient. If a
story is essentially weak, interpolating personal comment and unrelated
matter generally will make it weaker; if it is essentially fine and
significant, passages without bearing on the story will irritate the

Whatever the art, whoever the artist, his task is to hold pen or chisel
or brush true to the outlines of his conception. If his hand leave its
proper course, whether of set purpose or through inaptitude, his work
must suffer. The art of fiction is so infinitely difficult that the
practitioner should welcome rather than bewail his obligation to hew to
the line, for by concentrating upon the story and nothing else he will
be led to leave no gaps in his presentment. A work of art is a thing of
significant simplicity. Just because the novelist works in words, just
because his materials have some significance for a reader in
themselves--unlike the clay and marble of the sculptor, the stone of the
architect, and the pigments of the painter, which, unwrought upon, have
no message for an observer--the novelist is not at liberty to throw
words together without some set purpose. The inherent significance of
each word must have just relation to the whole, if the whole is to have
the direction and significant simplicity of a work of art. The real
condition is that the novelist, unlike the writer of the short story,
may tell his story adequately and do something else, but the artistic
quality of his work will suffer, that is, its power over a reader will
be diminished, if he interpolates foreign matter. Artistry is simply the
faculty to realize to the utmost the inherent power of one's
conceptions, and the artistry of any fiction lessens as the appeal of
the story for a reader diminishes. And the appeal of a story as such
must diminish with every interruption, unless its power over a reader be
very great, and in that case any break in its movement will irritate and

I have cited Stevenson's "The Ebb-Tide" a number of times already, and
the book may be instanced here. It is a tremendously powerful bit of
work, considering the nature of its matter, and its power over a reader
in large part results from its author's having confined himself strictly
to the story. The conception is significant, and the story as written is
significant because the conception is set forth whole and unmarred. The
reader's attention is not distracted by matter irrelevant to the story.
Its theme, the impossibility that a weak man should be other than weak,
however he may be circumstanced, is developed adequately, and nothing
else is developed. No book could be more wisely recommended to the
writer of fiction for study of the essential technical processes of
fiction. It shows adequate treatment of personality, adequate treatment
of events, and adequate treatment of setting, shows fictionally real
people doing fictionally real things in a fictionally real environment.
Above all, it is a story, nothing else, and is pointed to bring out its
value as a whole; that is it has the significant simplicity of a true
work of art. It is coherent as to the story it embodies, and in its
coherence lies its power. The bare conception is somewhat weak in that
it tends to arouse an intellectual rather than an emotional interest in
a reader; moreover, the conception is positively unpleasant and
depressing, in the conventional sense; but the book as written is a
powerful thing because it realizes to the full the inherent capacity of
its matter to interest and impress by telling the story adequately and
by bringing out nothing but the story.[S]

The novel, then, should be coherent as to the story it embodies, but
that is not the whole of its peculiar technique. The story itself may be
widely inclusive, may, in a way, involve a number of stories. The
novelist should not seek deliberately to combine the unrelated, but he
need not follow a single thread. He can turn aside into bypaths of
action that will bring out the natures of his people with more fullness
than the straight course of the story itself, and he can involve his
minor characters in sub-plots, relatively unimportant stories of their
own. Generally, the novelist will seek to develop personality with
greater fullness and detail than the writer of the short story, and, as
a result, the action of the novel will be more diffused and looser, less
pointed, than the action of the short story. Or, conversely, the long
story necessarily involves more varied action than the briefer form, and
therefore develops more varied traits in the actors. Relative to the
short story, the novel is a natural type of fiction in that it can make
some approach to presenting the whole man, with all his contradictory
and inconsistent traits and impulses; relative to the novel, the short
story is an artificial type of fiction in that the comparatively direct
and pointed character of its action forbids that it develop more than
one or a few significant traits of personality. The writer of the short
story cannot qualify and distinguish as to his people's natures, and
that is why the fine short story is less humanly significant than the
fine novel, for no man is pure saint or pure villain, pure this or pure
that. We are all bewilderingly inconsistent, wherein lies most of the
interest of life. The novel can show its people blown here and there by
the winds of desire, as in life, and that is what the short story cannot

Each story is a rule to itself, so far as the question of scope and
variety of action is concerned, but the novelist will derive small
benefit from introducing unnecessary people and unnecessary events
merely to lend a greater illusion of movement or bustle to the whole.
Action, in fiction, is action which plays a necessary part in the story,
and the novelist should not interpolate insignificant events any more
than he should interpolate his own opinions on life and morals. His task
is to tell some particular story, no more, no less.

It is difficult to state the relative inclusiveness of the novel without
laying a false emphasis on its permissible scope and variety of content,
for the novel should be exclusive as well as inclusive. That is, it
should not be a mere welter of people and what they do, but should
possess some single human significance, some primary reason for being,
by which its writer can test the availability of matter that suggests
itself to him. Between the conciseness and singleness of "The Ebb-Tide"
and the unnecessary length and complexity of some of the Victorians lies
a golden mean easier to recognize in specific books than to state
abstractedly. "The Ebb-Tide," though not a short story in point of
length, is somewhat brief, and it is a short story in structure, in
point of the singleness of its story-idea, the small number of its
characters, and the comparative simplicity of its action. Of course, it
is none the less a fine novel, a fine long story; the point is that
there are thousands of other stories, equally fine, perhaps more humanly
significant, which cannot be written so concisely, but which need not
run to the length of "David Copperfield," "The Virginians," or "The
Cloister and the Hearth." To attempt to set mechanical limits of length
for the novel would be mere silliness, but it is true that the average
idea for a long story can be given complete and adequate expression in
one or two hundred thousand words. Usually there is no need to write at
much greater or inordinate length, unless irrelevant matter is
introduced for its own sake. And the introduction of such matter for its
own sake can only hinder the effect of the story itself on a reader. It
may render the book, the mere sequence of words, more interesting, but
irrelevant matter cannot render the story itself more interesting. The
distinction should be noted and realized, for the novelist's aim is to
interest through his story, not merely to interest.

There is another way to approach the matter of the novel's relative
inclusiveness and length, perhaps a better way. Where the novelist first
conceives his story definitely as such, as a course of events, he should
bring all matter which suggests itself for writing to the test of
relation to the story. He has only to write the story, duly elaborated,
and thereby he will take care of the matters of length and complexity
and inclusiveness without detached calculation to that end. But if the
novelist finds his initial idea in terms of a life or of a phase of
society, the idea does not plot or diagram the whole story for him. He
has yet to evolve the story as such, and he may devise as short and
simple a thing as "The Ebb-Tide" or as long and complicated a thing as
Tolstoi's "War and Peace." Usually it will be found, I think, that the
very long novel--"Tom Jones," "Jean Christophe," "David Copperfield,"
"Anna Karenina," "Les Miserables," "The Virginians"--was first conceived
in terms of a life or a society, rather than in terms of a definite
story. It is certainly true that only the life of an individual or the
life of a society can serve to bind together the motley elements of a
very long novel, giving it some artistic coherence. "David Copperfield"
can be called one story in that it consists of Copperfield's life and
related matters, but "Our Mutual Friend" is in no sense a single story.
It is merely a number of stories devised to be told together and
therefore dovetailing to some extent.

It all comes down to this: if the novelist conceives a definite story,
he has only to tell it, but if he conceives a life or a society he has
yet to devise his story. And the matters which can have some relation to
a life or a society are much more varied than those which can have some
relation to a course of events. In other words, the conception of a
story as such limits the writer's choice of matter. If one starts with a
story, one can tell only the story. If one starts with a life or a
society, one can write pretty much at large.

In discussing the short story, it was possible to state that it must
embody one story-idea, for the physical brevity of the form prohibits
adequate development of more than a single story. But if I stated that
the novel must embody one story-idea, no more, no less, the statement
would be false, for the length of the form is practically unlimited. As
Dickens did in "Our Mutual Friend" and other books, the novelist can
tell together three or four unrelated stories if he so desires. He has
the space. The question is not whether he can but whether he should tell
more than one. The answer is that he should confine himself to one.
Perhaps a little supporting argument is called for.

The most obvious criticism of this limitation upon the novelist is that
it savors strongly of artificiality, rather than of art. The reader may
think of Dickens himself, his marvelous people, the world of delight in
his books. But Dickens, it may be said with all reverence, was no
story-teller. His is a fictional world turned upside down. His stories
are less than nothing; his major characters are less than nothing; but
his little people are gods. All his books are mere cardboard beside the
works of such a one as Dostoievsky, but in each book--with a few
exceptions--there is some stupendous Weller or Micawber, not a man, but
a god. One goes to Dickens almost as to vaudeville, and "Pickwick" is
his best book because it is no story. In it Weller and the others run
wild unrestrained by the necessities of any predetermined course of
events. But a story is a predetermined course of events, actually or in
effect, and the mere fact that Dickens could write poor stories and yet
interest by his wonderful people does not falsify the technique of

Again, the fact that the novelist should confine himself to one story at
a time does not debar him from following side-issues, provided they have
relation to the main course of events, or from creating minor people
like Dickens', if he has the power. Dickens could have placed his people
in real stories instead of in the weak fictions they serve to ennoble.

Finally, I will state abstractly the conditions from which result the
artistic, not the physical necessity that the novelist confine himself
in each book to a single story-idea.

The aim to interest is the aim of fiction, long and short, and the body
of a writer's resources to accomplish the aim make up the body of
fiction technique. But the aim of the writer of plotted fiction is not
simply to interest; it is to interest through a story, a course of
events functioning together in that they embody some sort of problem.
Leaving aside the matter of executive artistry, and premising that the
writer will realize to the full the possibilities of his story, it is
accurate to state that the interest a story will arouse will be in
accordance with the human significance of the problem it embodies.
Adequate fictional treatment of the problem to win love or to make a
living will be more interesting than adequate fictional treatment of the
problem to escape payment of an income tax. And the possibilities of any
problem of life to arouse a reader's interest can be realized to the
full only by setting out that problem and nothing else. Only by showing
the thing in isolation and high relief can the writer reveal to, and
force home upon a reader its ultimate significance. If anything
unrelated to the story or problem is brought out, something of the power
of the story as such will be lost. Likewise, if two or more stories or
problems are each completely developed in one book, neither will have
that singleness of appeal to a reader which is essential if each is to
have maximum effect.

In other words, a novel does not function as a mere physical spectacle;
being a story, it must have a motive, an artistic purpose; and if it has
more than one it will be at cross purposes as a work of art. That is not
a mere "artistic" defect. It is a practical defect in that motive,
purpose, and story will not have extreme effect. Nor is it to say that
the novel may not be very complicated as to any or all of its three
elements of people, events, and setting. "Anna Karenina" is complicated
enough, in all conscience, but every item of the novel has relation to
its one story either in that it serves directly to develop the horrible
tragedy of Anna's life or in that it forwards the presentment of the
society which she renounced.

The painter cannot put two different pictures side by side on the same
canvas without hampering the effect of each; still less can he commingle
the two. The architect cannot build on two designs at once. Nor can the
novelist--if he would have each story realize to the full its inherent
capacity to interest--combine different stories in the same book. He can
develop personality in great detail; he can follow by-paths of action;
he can involve his minor characters in subplots; but the main course of
the story must be single, not duplicate or triplicate, that the whole
may have point and significance.

The reader will observe that this book lays absolutely no restrictions
on the conceptive faculty. It preaches that the way to write fiction is
to look for a story, and, when it is found, to write it so as to give it
full effect. It may be a short story; it may be a novel. It may have its
genesis in a dream, in a life, in a situation, in a society. But,
whatever its nature, whatever its length, its effect on, its interest
for, a reader, can result only from itself. The story as such cannot be
fortified by the introduction of foreign matter, although the interest
of the writer's text as a mere sequence of words may be heightened
thereby. But the aim of the writer of novel or short story is to
interest through his story as such, not merely to interest. A newspaper
is interesting, yet a newspaper is not a story, however much fiction it
may embody.

The novel or long story is apt to have a strong social emphasis simply
because the interplay of society and the conflict of its members supply
much more material for stories than the more isolated phases of human
life. The novelist is under no obligation to reproduce a social
spectacle in each book, but more often than not he will find that he
must do so to bring out the full value of his conception. It follows
that he will do well to go about with an observant eye, for it is the
little details of the novel of manners that lend verisimilitude to the
whole. And such matters cannot be invented; they must have been
observed; for a reader knows them whether or not the writer does too.


[R] For a plainer, because less philosophical discussion of the
fallacies of realism, the artistic philosophy, see p. 199.

[S] "The Ebb-Tide" is interesting in connection with the general
question of plot. Its plot is the struggle within Robert Herrick between
an artificially stimulated resolution and an essential weakness of moral
fibre. The mere mechanical complication that he and his fellows steal a
schooner laden with bottled water thinking her laden with champagne is
no part of the plot, only a circumstance of the action, yet, as plot is
commonly understood, the circumstance would be taken as the heart of the
plot in itself. Also, "The Ebb-Tide" is interesting in connection with
the matter of realism and the fallacies of the cult. The realists might
claim the book, but they would have a merry time to point any essential
difference between it and "The Master of Ballantrae," which they would
reject. And a distinction that can be justified only when applied to
extreme types-say "Pride and Prejudice" and "Frankenstein"--is not very

Next: Discovery Of Radio-activity

Previous: The Short Story

Add to Informational Site Network