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The Technique Of The Short Story Post by :designguy Category :Essays Author :Myrtle Reed Date :November 2011 Read :1253

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The Technique Of The Short Story

An old rule for those who would be well-dressed says: "When you have finished, go to the mirror and see what you can take off." The same rule applies with equal force to the short story: "When you have written it out, go over it carefully, and see what you can take out."

Besides being the best preparation for the writing of novels, short-story writing is undoubtedly, at the present time, the best paying and most satisfactory form of any ephemeral literary work. The qualities which make it successful are to be attained only by constant and patient practice. The real work of writing a story may be brief, but years of preparation must be worked through before a manuscript, which may be written in an hour or so, can present an artistic result.

The first and most important thing to consider is the central idea. There are only a few ideas in the world, but their ramifications are countless, and one need never despair of a theme. Your story may be one of either failure or success, but it must have the true ring. Given the man and the circumstances, we should know his action.

The plot must unfold naturally; otherwise it will be a succession of distinct sensations, rather than a complete and harmonious whole.

There is no better way to produce this effect than to follow Edmund Russell's rule of colour in dress: "When a contrasting colour is introduced, there should be at least two subordinate repetitions of it."

Each character should appear, or be spoken of, at least twice before his main action. Following this rule makes one of the differences between artistic and sensational literature.

The heroine of a dime novel always finds a hero to rescue her in the nick of time, and perhaps she never sees him again. In the artistic novel, while the heroine may see the rescuer first at the time she needs him most, he never disappears altogether from the story.

Description is a thing which is much abused. There is no truer indication of an inexperienced hand than a story beginning with a description of a landscape which is not necessary to the plot. If the peculiarities of the scenery must be understood before the idea can be developed, the briefest possible description is not out of place. Subjectively, a touch of landscape or weather is allowable, but it must be purely incidental. Weather is a very common thing and is apt to be uninteresting.

It is a mistake to tell anything yourself which the people in the story could inform the reader without your assistance. A conversation between two people will bring out all the facts necessary as well as two pages of narration by the author.

There is a way also of telling things from the point of view of the persons which they concern. Those who have studied Latin will find the "indirect discourse" of Cicero a useful model.

The people in the story can tell their own peculiarities better than the author can do it for them. It is not necessary to say that a woman is a snarling, grumpy person. Bring the old lady in, and let her snarl, if she is in your story at all.

The choice of words is not lightly to be considered. Never use two adjectives where one will do, or a weak word where a stronger one is possible. Fallows' 100,000 Synonyms and Antonyms and Roget's Thesaurus of Words and Phrases will prove invaluable to those who wish to improve themselves in this respect.

Analysis of sentences which seem to you particularly strong is a good way to strengthen your vocabulary. Take, for instance, the oft-quoted expression of George Eliot's: "Inclination snatches argument to make indulgence seem judicious choice." Substitute "takes" for "snatches" and read the sentence again. Leave out "seem" and put "appear" in its place. "Proper" is a synonym for "judicious"; substitute it, and put "selection" in the place of "choice."

Reading the sentence again we have: "Inclination takes argument to make indulgence appear proper selection." The strength is wholly gone although the meaning is unchanged.

Find out what you want to say, and then say it, in the most direct English at your command. One of the best models of concise expressions of thought is to be found in the essays of Emerson. He compresses a whole world into a single sentence, and a system of philosophy into an epigram.

"Literary impressionism," which is largely the use of onomatopoetic words, is a valuable factor in the artistic short story. It is possible to convey the impression of a threatening sky and a stormy sea without doing more than alluding to the crash of the surf against the shore. The mind of the reader accustomed to subtle touches will at once picture the rest.

An element of strength is added also by occasionally referring an impression to another sense. For instance, the newspaper poet writes: "The street was white with snow," and makes his line commonplace doggerel. Tennyson says: "The streets were dumb with snow," and his line is poetry.

"Blackening the background" is a common fault with story writers. In many of the Italian operas, everybody who does not appear in the final scene is killed off in the middle of the last act. This wholesale slaughter is useless as well as inartistic. The true artist does not, in order that his central figure may stand out prominently, make his background a solid wall of gloom. Yet gloom has its proper place, as well as joy.

In the old tragedies of the Greeks, just before the final catastrophe, the chorus is supposed to advance to the centre of the theatre and sing a bacchanal of frensied exultation.

In the Antigone of Sophocles, just before the death of Antigone and her lover, the chorus sings an ode which makes one wonder at its extravagant expression. When the catastrophe occurs, the mystery is explained. Sophocles meant the sacrifice of Antigone to come home with its full force; and well he attained his end by use of an artistic method which few of our writers are subtle enough to recognise and claim for their own purposes.

"High-sounding sentences," which an inexperienced writer is apt to put into the mouths of his people, only make them appear ridiculous. The schoolgirl in the story is too apt to say: "The day has been most unpleasant," whereas the real schoolgirl throws her books down with a bang, and declares that she has "had a perfectly horrid time!"

Her grammar may be incorrect, but her method of expression is true to life, and there the business of the writer ends.

Put yourself in your hero's place and see what you would do under similar circumstances. If you were in love with a young woman, you wouldn't get down on your knees, and swear by all that was holy that you would die if she didn't marry you, at the same time tearing your hair out by handfuls, and then endeavour to give her a concise biography of yourself.

You would put your arm around her, the first minute you had her to yourself, if you felt reasonably sure that she cared for you, and tell her what she meant to you--perhaps so low that even the author of the story couldn't hear what you said, and would have to describe what he saw afterward in order to let his reader guess what had really happened.

It is a lamentable fact that the description of a person's features gives absolutely no idea of his appearance. It is better to give a touch or two, and let the imagination do the rest. "Hair like raven's wing," and the "midnight eyes," and many similar things, may be very well spared. The personal charms of the lover may be brought out through the mediations of the lovee, much better than by pages of description.

The law of compensation must always have its place in the artistic story. Those who do wrong must suffer wrong--those who work must be rewarded, if not in the tangible things they seek, at least in the conscious strength that comes from struggling. And "poetic justice," which metes out to those who do the things that they have done, is relentless and eternal, in art, as well as in life.

"Style" is purely an individual matter, and, if it is anything at all, it is the expression of one's self. Zola has said that, "art is nature seen through the medium of a temperament," and the same is true of literature. Bunner's stories are as thoroughly Bunner as the man who wrote them, and The Badge of Courage is nothing unless it be the moody, sensitive, half-morbid Stephen Crane.

Observation of things nearest at hand and the sympathetic understanding of people are the first requisites. Do not place the scene of a story in Europe if you have never been there, and do not assume to comprehend the inner life of a Congressman if you have never seen one. Do not write of mining camps if you have never seen a mountain, or of society if you have never worn evening dress.

James Whitcomb Riley has made himself loved and honoured by writing of the simple things of home, and Louisa Alcott's name is a household word because she wrote of the little women whom she knew. Eugene Field has written of the children that he loved and understood, and won a truer fame than if he had undertaken The Master of Zangwill. Kipling's life in India has given us Plain Tales from the Hills and The Jungle Book, which Mary E. Wilkins could not have written in spite of the genius which made her New England stories the most effective of their kind. Joel Chandler Harris could not have written The Prisoner of Zenda, but those of us who have enjoyed the wiles of that "monstus soon beast, Brer Rabbit," would not have it otherwise.

* * * * *

You cannot write of love unless you have loved, of suffering unless you have suffered, or of death unless some one who was near to you has learned the heavenly secret. A little touch of each must teach you the full meaning of the great thing you mean to write about, or your work will be lacking. There are few of us to whom the great experiences do not come sooner or later, and, in the meantime, there are the little everyday happenings, which are full of sweetness and help, if they are only seen properly, to last until the great things come to test our utmost strength, to crush us if we are not strong, and to make us broader, better men and women if we withstand the blow.

And lastly, remember this, that merit is invariably recognised. If your stories are worth printing, they will fight their way through "the abundance of material on hand." The light of the public square is the unfailing test, and a good story is sure to be published sooner or later, if a fair amount of literary instinct is exercised in sending it out. Meteoric success is not desirable. Slow, hard, conscientious work will surely win its way, and those who are now near the bottom of the ladder are gradually ascending to make room for the next generation of story-writers on the rounds below.


(The end)
Myrtle Reed's essay: Technique Of The Short Story

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