Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Basics of Short Story Plots

The plot is the nucleus of the story, the bare thought or incident upon which the narrative is to be built. When a child says, "Grandma, tell me the story of how the whale swallowed Jonah," he gives the plot of the story that he desires; and the grandmother proceeds to elaborate that primal idea to suit the taste of her auditor. In like manner, before you put pen to paper, you must have in mind some interesting idea which you wish to express in narrative form; the absence of such an idea means that you have no plot, no story to tell, and therefore have no business to be writing. If you undertake to tell a short story, go about it in a workmanlike manner: don't begin scribbling pretty phrases, and trust to Providence to introduce the proper story, but yourself provide the basic facts. If you do not begin correctly, it is useless for you to begin at all.

A plot implies action—that is, something must happen; at the conclusion of the story the characters must be differently situated, and usually differently related one to another, from what they were at the beginning. The event need not be tragic, or even serious; but it must be of sufficient importance, novelty and interest to justify its relation in narrative form. In general the plot of a short story involves an incident or a minor crisis in a human life, rather than the supreme crisis which makes or mars a man for good. The chief reason for this is that the supreme crisis requires more elaborate preparation and treatment than is possible in the short story. There may be a strong tragic element which makes it seem that the denouement must be tragic, but that is usually to obtain the effect of contrast. Yet the short story may be a supreme crisis and a tragedy, as are Stevenson's "Markheim," Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" and "The Birthmark," and many of Poe's tales; but these are stories of an exceptional type, in which the whole life of the chief actor comes to a focus in the crisis which makes the story.

The short story plot must be simple and complete. The popular idea of a plot, derived from the requirements of the novel and the drama, is that it should be a tangled skein of facts and fancies, which the author shall further complicate in order to exhibit his deftness in the final disentanglement. Such a plot is impossible for the short story, which admits of no side issues and no second or under plot. It must not be the synopsis of a novel, or the attempt to compress into the tiny compass of the short story a complicated plot sufficient for a novel, as are so many of the "Short Stories of the Day" now published by newspapers.

As nearly as possible it must deal with a single person, in a single action, at a single place, in a single time. More than any other modern form of literature, the short story requires the observance of the old Greek unities of time, place and action: its brevity and compactness do not admit of the proper treatment of the changes wrought by the passage of time, the influences of different scenes, or the complications resulting from the interrelation of many characters of varied importance. If the plot chosen requires the passage of ten years' time, if it involves a shift of scene from New York to Timbuctoo, or if it introduces two or three sets of characters, it may by some miracle of ingenuity make a readable story, but it will never be a model one. In "The Ambitious Guest" the time is less than three hours, the place is a single room, and the action is the development of the guest's ambition.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The "Dramatic" Short Story

The Dramatic Story is the highest type of the short story. It requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act out their parts. In its perfect form it is the "bit of real life" which it is the aim of the short story to present. It is the story shorn of all needless verbiage, and told as nearly as possible in the words and actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax. Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the short story.

(a) The short story has Dramatic Form when the author's necessary comments correspond to the stage directions of the drama. Such a story is, in fact, a miniature drama, and is often capable of being acted just as it stands. It has a definite plot, but it is developed by dialogue as frequently as by action. It is the extreme of the modern tendency toward dramatic narrative, and is just a little too "stagey" and artificial to be a perfect short story. It is, however, in good literary standing and in good favor with the public, and it is most excellent practice for the tyro, for in it he has to sink himself completely in his characters.

Examples: Hope's "The Dolly Dialogues;" Kipling's "The Story of the Gadsbys;" and Howells' one act parlor plays, like "The Parlor Car," "The Register," "The Letter," and "Unexpected Guests."

(b) A short story has Dramatic Effect when it deals with a single crisis, conveys a single impression, is presented chiefly by the actors themselves, and culminates in a single, perfect climax. It may, or may not, be capable of easy dramatization. It is less artificial than the story of pure Dramatic Form, but is just as free from padding and irrelevant matter, and just as vivid in effect. It allows of greater art and finish, for the writer has wider freedom in his method of presentation.

Examples: Poe's "'Thou Art the Man!'" and "Berenice;" James' "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Passionate Pilgrim;" Wilkins' "A New England Nun" and "Amanda and Love;" Stevenson's "The Isle of the Voices;" and Irving's "The Widow and Her Son" and "Rip Van Winkle." But, indeed, every good short story belongs in this class, which is not so much a certain type of the short story, as the "honor class" to which each story seeks admittance.