Monday, November 9, 2009

The "Ingenuity" Short Story

The "Ingenuity" story is one of the most modern forms of the short story, and, if I may be pardoned the prolixity, one of the most ingenious. It might be called the "fairy tale of the grown-up," for its interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous which no human being ever outgrows. It requires fertility of invention, vividness of imagination, and a plausible and convincing style. Yet it is an easy sort of story to do successfully, since ingenuity will atone for many technical faults; but it usually lacks serious interest and is short lived. Poe was the originator and great exemplar of the Story of Ingenuity, and all of his tales possess this cleverness in some degree.

(a) The Story of Wonder has little plot. It is generally the vivid description of some amazing discovery (Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy," Hale's "The Spider's Eye"), impossible invention (Adee's "The Life Magnet," Mitchell's "The Ablest Man in the World"), astounding adventure (Stockton's "Wreck of the Thomas Hyde," Stevenson's "House with Green Blinds"), or a vivid description of what might be (Benjamin's "The End of New York," Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim"). It demands unusual imaginative power.

(b) The Detective Story requires the most complex plot of any type of short story, for its interest depends solely upon the solution of the mystery presented in that plot. It arouses in the human mind much the same interest as an algebraic problem, which it greatly resembles. Poe wrote the first, and probably the best, one in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue;" his "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Gold Bug" are other excellent examples. Doyle, in his "Sherlock Holmes" stories, is a worthy successor of Poe.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Length of a Short Story

The question of length is but relative; in general a short story should not exceed 10,000 words, and it could hardly contain less than 1,000; while from 3,000 to 5,000 is the most usual length.

Yet Hawthorne's "The Gentle Boy" contains 12,000 words; Poe's "The Gold Bug," 13,000; and perhaps the majority of James' exceed the maximum, while "The Lesson of the Master" requires 25,000, and "The Aspern Papers" 32,000. Indeed, the length of any story is determined, not so much by some arbitrary word limit, as by the theme with which it deals. Every plot requires a certain number of words for its proper elaboration, and neither more nor less will do.

Just what the limit for any particular story may be, the writer must decide for himself. "It seems to me that a short story writer should act, metaphorically, like this—he should put his idea for a story into one cup of a pair of balances, then into the other he should deal out his words; five hundred; a thousand; two thousand; three thousand; as the case may be—and when the number of words thus paid in causes the beam to rise, on which his idea hangs, then is his story finished. If he puts in a word more or less, he is doing false work."

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Offbeat Short Story

This type of short story owes its interest to the innate love of the supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human nature—the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for "just one more" ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror of the last one. It may have a definite plot in which supernatural beings are actors; but more often it is slight in plot, but contains a careful psychological study of some of the less pleasant emotions.

(a) The Ghost Story usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost is an actor. The ghost may be a "really truly" apparition, manifesting itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the end, as in Irving's "The Spectre Bridegroom," and Kipling's "The Phantom 'Rickshaw;" or it may prove to be the result of a superstitious mind dwelling upon perfectly natural occurrences, as in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and Wilkins' "A Gentle Ghost." It requires art chiefly to render it plausible; particularly in the latter case, when the mystery must be carefully kept up until the denouement.

(b) The Fantastic Tale treats of the lighter phases of the supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate. Examples: Hawthorne's "A Select Party," "The Hall of Fantasy," and "Monsieur du Miroir;" and most of our modern fairy tales.

(c) The Study in Horror was first made popular by Poe, and he has had almost no successful imitators. It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check. The plot is used only to give the setting to the story. Most any of Poe's tales would serve as an illustration, but "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Fall of the House[32] of Usher" are particularly apt. Doyle has done some work approaching Poe's, but his are better classed as Stories of Ingenuity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The "Moral" Story

The Moral Story, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.

(a) The Fable makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but publishes it by a final labelled "Moral," which epitomizes the lesson it conveys. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and satire, as in George Ade's "Fables in Slang." Æsop is of course the immortal example of this sort of story.

(b) The Story with a Moral attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved by Hawthorne's use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example" of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The Grateful Negro," are excellent illustrations of how not to write. Many of Hawthorne's tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The Ambitious Guest," and "Miss Bullfrog." The stories of Miss Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed in a later division. Contemporary examples of this style of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and Temperance papers.

(c) The Allegory is the only really literary form of the Moral Story, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men. Examples: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Feathertop." Allegories which deserve the name are sometimes found in current periodicals.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Short Story Writing: The Subjective and Objective

Writers, in their methods of presentation, may be broadly divided into two classes, those who write subjectively and those who write objectively.

A subjective writer is one whose own personality, point of view, feeling, is insistent in what he writes. An objective writer, on the other hand, is one who leaves the things of which he makes record to produce their own impression, the writer himself remaining an almost impassive spectator, telling the story with little or no comment.

Chaucer, in the prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," betrays his personal feeling for his characters continually, and so is subjective. Shakespeare in his plays is objective, presenting all sorts of men and women without show of his own attitude toward them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Methods of Characterization

In our everyday life we are continually drawing inferences in regard to the characters of those about us, and we do the same thing in a story. Some writers tell us as clearly as they can the natures of the men and women they are revealing to us, while others leave that almost wholly for us to conjecture.

We shall employ, then, two sets of symbols for character, one for direct statement of character, and one for character effects. The realization of character through direct statement may include presentation of motives, ideas, passions, will, special phases of development. It may come through report of the talk of others, or through statement of opinion generally entertained. c1 we will use for direct statement of character,—"John was a hard old miser,"—and we will add to this symbol the symbol a to indicate that this is only so far potent with us as to make us know the writer's understanding of the character merely, b to indicate that we recognize the writer's feeling for the character but do not share it, and c to indicate that the writer's feeling for his character affects us sympathetically to a like feeling.

Another group of symbols, c2, c3, and c4, we will use for character "effects," for such knowledge of character as we gain by inference. c2 is a symbol for a general inference regarding a group of people or a community; c3 and c4 are symbols for inferences regarding the individual, c3 indicating the recognition of type or class qualities, c4, the recognition of more individual traits of character. The distinction here is merely one of matter of fact, a distinction not always to be made with sureness, since it is one of degree rather than altogether one of kind. When the way in which a man is good or cheerful or avaricious is differentiated for us from the way in which another man is good or cheerful or avaricious, he is so far individualized.

Class characterization, c3, may be found along with individualization. The extreme accentuation of one or a few characteristics to the disregard of others gives the effect of individualization, but we shall understand this as in fact type characterization, since our natures are so complex that in almost no case can the conduct of any one be understood through knowledge of a few dominant traits of character.

Individualization gives us intimacy of acquaintance; type or class characterization makes us see merely the striking, peculiar, or controlling expressions of personality. Guy Mannering in Scott's "Guy Mannering" is but a type of the conventional soldier. Tito Milema in George Eliot's "Romola" presents so many sides of a complex nature that we easily distinguish him from all other characters in fiction whatever.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Two Things Requisite in Writing

Gardiner in his "Forms of Prose Literature" says very truly that the "essential elements, not only of literature, but of all the fine arts, are: first, an organic unity of conception; and second, the pervasive personality of the artist." It is true that much of our writing does not aspire to literary character, but in very little of our writing of any sort can we afford to neglect the first of these elements, and in very little of it do we care to leave the second out of account. Even in exposition of the simpler sort we may give to our writing the distinction of a more luminous style and the stronger appeal of a warmer personal interest, if we shape it into organic unity and make evident in it "the pervasive personality of the artist."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Studying Short Stories

The following is an outline that can be used for studying short stories:

1. a. Upon what is the interest of the story especially dependent? b. Are the incidents presented rapidly and coherently, or slowly and disconnectedly? c. Is there a clearly defined plot or not? d. Does the plot have a climax of entanglement, or does it fail in developing this feature of the story interest?

2. a. How is character presented? b. Are the characters well chosen for their reactions among themselves? c. Are the things they do and say continually consistent or not? d. Are they sufficiently individualized to escape the appearance of the conventional and to hold interest?

3. a. Does the story state facts and happenings merely, or does it get hold of vital sensations and revive them? b. If so, in what ways does it seem to do that? c. In general does it seem to you subjective or objective in method?

4. a. How much of the interest of the story is in the development of the plot and how much in the stirring of vital sensations, including sympathetic moods? b. Does the development of the story center about any idea or attitude toward life? c. What excellences and what faults do you find in the story?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The "Tale" Short Story

The "Tale" is the relation, in an interesting and literary form, of some simple incident or stirring fact. It has no plot in the sense that there is any problem to unravel, or any change in the relation of the characters; it usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd happenings, which depend on their intrinsic interest, without regard to their influence on the lives of the actors.

(a) It is often a genuine True Story, jealously observant of facts, and embellished only to the extent that the author has endeavored to make his style vivid and picturesque. Such stories are a result of the tendency of the modern newspaper to present its news in good literary form. The best illustrations are the occasional contributions of Ray Stannard Baker to McClure's Magazine.

(b) It may, however, be an Imaginative Tale, which could easily happen, but which is the work of the author's imagination. It is a straightforward narration of possible events; if it passes the bounds of probability, or attempts the utterly impossible, it becomes a Story of Ingenuity. It has no love element and no plot; and its workmanship is loose. The best examples are the stories of adventure found in the better class of boys' and children's papers.