Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Literary Presentation of the Story

There are some fundamental principles of literary presentation which we may briefly review here. All our study of science, and in a less obvious fashion, of all the physical, social, and artistic world about us, is more or less an attempt to classify, simplify, and unify facts whose relations we do not see at a glance. We must observe and learn the facts first, but they will be of no great utility to us as unrelated items of knowledge. The need of establishing some sort of law and order in our understanding of the mass of phenomena of which we must take cognizance is so insistent that we early acquire the habit of attempting to hold in mind any new fact through its relation to some other fact or facts. In other words, we can retain the knowledge we acquire only by making one fact do duty for a great many other facts included in it. Our writing must not violate what is at once a necessity and a pleasure of the mind. Unity, simplicity, coherence, harmony, or congruity, must all be sought as essential qualities of any writing. We must also indicate our sense of the relative values of the things with which we deal by a proper selection of details for presentation, a careful subordination of the less important to the more important through the proportion of space and attention given to each, and through other devices for securing emphasis. Let us keep in mind value, selection, subordination, proportion, emphasis, as a second group of terms for principles involved in writing. We may also wish to give our subject further elements of appeal through what may be suggested beyond the telling, through the melody and rhythm of the words, or through a quickening of the sense of the beautiful. Suggestion, melody, rhythm, beauty, are to be included, then, in a third group of qualities that may contribute to the effectiveness of what we write.

Monday, November 10, 2008


The moods in the characters of a story and their changes are connected with the incidents of the story, since they are in part happenings, and with the characters, since they reveal character. Apart from direct statement of them, we understand the moods of the actors in the little drama which we are made to imagine is being played before us from the things they say, from the things they do, and from gestures, attitudes, movements, which the author visualizes for us. If these moods are not made clear to us or we cannot see that they are natural, definite reactions from previous happenings in accord with character, we do not have a sense of organic unity in the narrative. We become confused in trying to establish the dependence of incident and feeling upon something preceding, and our interest flags. Everything that happens in a well-told story gives us feelings which we look to find in those whom the happenings affect in the tale, feelings which should call forth some sort of responsive action for our satisfaction. Clearly, if the characters are cold, if we cannot find in them moods of the kind and intensity that to us seem warranted, the story will be a disappointment.

Conceptual and Emotional Writing

Theoretically all writing is divided easily into two classes, conceptual and emotional, the literature of thought and the literature of feeling. In the actual attempt to classify written composition on this basis, however, no sharp distinction can be maintained. Even matters of fact, certainly such matters of fact as we care to write about, are of more or less moment to us; we cannot deal with them in a wholly unemotional way. In our daily lives we are continually reaching conclusions that differ from the conclusions reached by others about the same matters of fact, and are trying to make these matters of fact have the same value for others that they have for us. This is true of our business life as well as of our social and home life. It always will be so. It is doubtless true that if our knowledge of matters of fact embraced a knowledge of the universe, and if the experience of each of us were just like that of his fellow and included all possible experience, we might reach identical conclusions. This is not true and never can be true. It is in effect true of a small portion of the things about which we think,—the addition of one to two makes three for every one,—but outside of these things, writing need not be and seldom is purely conceptual.

Kinds of Description

Description is primarily of two kinds, that which is to give accurate information, and that which is to produce a definite impression not necessarily involving exactness of imagery. The first of these forms is useful simply in the way of explanation, serving the first purpose indicated in paragraph four. The second is useful for other purposes than that of exposition, often appealing incidentally to our sense of the beautiful, and requiring always nice literary skill in its management. It should be borne in mind always that literary description must not usurp the office of representations of the material in the plastic arts. It should not be employed as an end in itself, but only as subsidiary to other ends

Concealing Your Purpose

An attempt to bring about a visualization or any other artistic effect in the mind of the reader is foredoomed to failure when in any way the writer's purpose too evidently betrays itself as such. Too much in the way of direct statement or predication is one indication of such purpose, and is therefore more or less ineffectual. For effective visualization some sort of preparation of the mood or sympathies of the reader is generally required. This, however, should be concealed, being accomplished through suggestion, as is the visualization itself.

Uses of Description

Inasmuch as there are other interests in our lives than those which are established by our relations with our fellows, interests connected with the material world about us, any narrative will probably have occasion to include some description. It may be necessary merely as an aid to our understanding of some of the details upon which the plot turns, it may help us to realize the personalities of the characters, and it is often useful in creating background and atmosphere, giving us some of the feelings of those with whom the story deals as they look upon the beauty, or the gray dullness, of the changing panorama of their lives. Stevenson's description of the "old sea-dog" in "Treasure Island" is an excellent illustration of the effectiveness of a few lines of description in making us know something very definite in the man.

Interesting Characters

We can hardly have any vital interest in a story apart from an interest in the characters. It is because things happen to them, because we are glad of their good fortune or apprehensive of evil for them, that the incidents in their succession gain importance in our emotions. We are concerned with things that affect our lives, and secondarily with things that affect the lives of others, since what touches the fortunes of others is but a part of that complex web of destiny and environment in which our own lives are enmeshed. In the story it is not so true as in the drama that, for the going out of our sympathies toward the hero or the heroine, there should be other contrasting characters; but a story gains color and movement from having a variety of individualities. Especially if the story is one of action, definite sympathies are heightened when they are accompanied by emotional antagonisms. In "The Master of Ballantrae," we come to take sides with Henry Durrie almost wholly through having found his rival, the Master, so black a monster. Such establishment of a common bond of interest between us and the character with whom our sympathies are to be engaged is a most effective means of holding us to a personal involvement in the development of the plot. There must not be too many characters shown, the relations between them must not be too various or too complexly conflicting, but where the interplay of feeling and clashing motives is not too hard to grasp, a variety of characters gives life and warmth of human interest to a story.

A Succession of Incidents Required

A series of unconnected happenings may be interesting merely from the unexpectedness—or the hurry and movement of the events, but ordinarily a story gains greatly in its appeal to the reader through having its separate incidents developed in some sort of organic unity. The handling of incidents for a definite effect gives what we call plot. A plot should work steadily forward to the end or dénouement, and should yet conceal that end in order that interest may be maintained to the close. Evidently a writer who from the first has in mind the outcome of his story will subordinate the separate incidents to that main purpose and so in that controlling motive give unity to the whole plot. Further, the interest in the plot will be put on a higher plane, if in the transition from incident to incident there is seen, not chance simply, but some relation of cause and effect. When the unfolding of the plot is thus orderly in its development, the reader feels his kindling interest going forward to the outcome with a keener relish because of the quickening of thought, as well as of emotion, in piecing together the details that arouse a glow of satisfaction.

Elements of the Story

This is meant to be a discussion of but one of the various forms that literature takes, and it will be first in order to see what are the elements that go to the making of a narrative having literary quality. A story may be true or false, but we shall here be concerned primarily with fiction, and with fiction of no great length. In writing of this sort the first essential is that something shall happen; a story without a succession of incidents of some kind is inconceivable. We may then settle upon incident as a first element. As a mere matter of possibility a story may be written without any interest other than that of incident, but a story dealing with men will not have much interest for thoughtful readers unless it also includes some showing of character. Further, as the lives of all men and women are more or less conditioned by their surroundings and circumstance, any story will require more or less description. Incidents are of but little moment, character showing may have but slight interest, description is purposeless, unless the happenings of the story develop in the characters feelings toward which we assume some attitude of sympathy or opposition. Including this fourth element of the story, we shall then have incident, description, character, mood, as the first elements of the narrative form.