Emotion can be evoked only by the portrayal of passion and emotion. Sympathy, disgust, admiration, any spiritual excitement are the root of the appeal of fiction. There are other elements of interest, primarily intellectual, as in the detective story or any story of ratiocination, but emotional appeal is the one essential in work of any compass. The world pays its wage to the scientist for the narrow, intensive view; it pays its wage to the teller of tales for the broad, extensive view. Life is infinitely various, and the possibilities of the imagination are even more extensive; the writer of fiction has enough material at hand.
Too many critics and writers seem to entertain the idea that the short story is the result of compression, but emphatically that is not true. A short story is the result of its own inherent brevity. A naturally long story, it is true, may be shortened materially by mere rhetorical compression, but it cannot be rendered a short story. Its brevity results from careful selection of the incidents to be set forth, and not from concise expression of an indiscriminate welter of incidents.
The hardest thing in the world to do is to make a reader think, but the reader who does think is interested. That is why he is thinking. Since a plot is a problem, the reader of a story of plot is made to think, and the matter impinges upon him with some force. To repeat former phraseology, if the emphasis is on the events, he tries to figure out what will happen, at least wonders about it; if the emphasis is on the characters, he tries to foresee what they will do. Incidentally, the reader of to-day is habituated to the story of plot. If nothing happens he will chalk a black mark against author and magazine, as the editor knows.
There are three basic plot-themes, conflict between man and his environment or Nature, conflict between man and man, and conflict between opposed traits in the same man. The plot which presents conflict between man and man is distinctly social in nature. The possibilities for the writer of fiction in the general scramble for the almighty dollar, the rivalry of love, the desire for revenge, and a thousand other passions and ambitions that bring man into conflict with his fellows, are practically infinite. Three minutes spent in running over this field for plots will demonstrate the folly of bewailing the lack of something fresh to write about. Each conflict is the seed of a plot, and each plot may be written a hundred times, each story being made different from the last by varying the manner of treatment. There is not too little to write about; there is so very much that keen selection is essential. The entire world loves a winner, and all the world wants to find out whom it is to love. The story which seeks to present conflict between two opposed traits in the same man or woman is most difficult to write so as to create any fictional illusion. It deals almost exclusively with psychological data, of the facts of the soul, and requires knowledge and imaginative insight as well as verbal dexterity. It is supremely easy to conceive a plot involving struggle of the man with himself, but it is supremely hard to give such a struggle objectivity, to expand it into a fiction operative in action and yet developing the internal conflict.
There are two kinds of lives, or at least two kinds of incidents, the humdrum and the bizarre. Likewise and consequently there are two kinds of stories to be told, the humdrum and the bizarre. Each may be fashioned into something worthwhile. Whether the matter of a story is worthwhile depends on the significance of the phase of life involved; whether the story itself is worthwhile depends on its plausibility or verisimilitude, which depends on the way it is constructed and told.
The method of Defoe consists in showing the reader the strange course of events through a lattice of familiar thoughts and things. It is an attempt to give the essentially bizarre story something of the plausibility and power of the story of the commonplace by interpolating universally familiar matters of detail. They are unnecessary to the bare story, but they are useful to give the reader a thread of connection between his own experience and the strange fiction.
The humdrum story, that deals with the more common actualities of life, the little details that are significant only in combination or in relation to certain characters, can be told as simply as the writer desires. Simply because each incident is common and of universal occurrence the reader will accept it and the story compounded of such elements.
Each story has two primary fictional elements, the people and the events. It has three mechanical elements, the action, the speech of the characters, and the matter descriptive of persons or places. If the story permits—a proviso implied in discussing any matter of technique—it will be well for the writer to strive to distribute and intermingle its action, dialogue, and descriptive matter in a texture pleasing because varied. The whole should not be built of unwieldy chunks of description, speech, and action succeeding one another with monotonous regularity, but descriptive touches should be intermingled with the dialogue, and narrative matter with word-painting and the speech of characters. Obviously this is no absolute rule, and is perhaps not ever a matter of strict art, but it is true that a reader quickly wearies of much of the same thing, and a story is for its reader.
Lengthy description is not only inimical to a reader's interest; it is perfectly useless in a fictional sense. The fiction writer's proper aim is not so much to build up a physical picture of a character by itemizing the details of hair, complexion, stature, and so forth, as it is to reproduce the person's unique quality as an individual human being. Whether the character is an individual depends on the writer's creative genius, but whether he seems individual depends on his actions and the way he is described.
The normal human being has more than the sense of sight; he can also hear, feel, and smell; and verbal appeals to these other senses may be effective. The timbre of a character's voice or sound of his step, the feel of his hand when shaken, an odor about him or her, as of liquor, tobacco, or perfume, may be stated in describing the person. Such a descriptive touch will often prove most useful, the more so because it gives another dimension to the person, so to speak.
The senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch can all be utilized on occasion. A character at sea can be stated to have seen the waves of a storm, felt the force of the gale and the sting of driven raindrops, and tasted the salt spray, also to have smelt the musty fo'c'sle when he went below. Each touch will give the whole picture added reality for a reader. A deserted house has a smell as characteristic as its look, and the fragrance of violets is as impressive as their visual beauty. Night can be told from day by its odor, and the rattle of typewriter keys in an office is as suggestive of modern industry as a serenade is of other days and other loves. A hero can feel his sweetheart's soft or toil-roughened fingers as well as see her expensive silks and furs or cheap and much worn dress. Life is a complex of many sense-perceptions, and the more numerous and varied the fleeting impressions a character is stated to have caught, the more concrete and real the story will be for a reader.
Jones is Jones but the Jones who discusses preparedness with Smith is a different Jones from him who telephones to summon the doctor for his dying child, and his speech in each case will not be the same. The head bookkeeper talking to a subordinate and to the boss would impress a listener as two different persons. The man and his speech are influenced by the event. A sentimental man will reveal his sentimentality when he says sentimental things, just as a hypocrite will reveal his hypocrisy in hypocritical words. Cruel words will reveal cruelty in the person who utters them, and generous words will indicate that their speaker is generous. So far as possible, the speech of any character should have relation to that phase of his character which is significant in the story. The cruel man may be avaricious also, but, if his cruelty and not his avarice is the trait which has influence upon the events of the story, his words should reveal his cruelty rather than his avarice. The content of his speeches should indicate his possession of that trait of his character which is influential as to the events of the story.
The speech of class and class varies, as does the speech of man and man. A lawyer in a story should be distinguishable from a sailor by the very content of his vocabulary. So should a doctor from an engineer or a brakeman, or a musician from an artist. But it must all be done naturally. The writer cannot drag in by the ears technical terms of any profession solely that a reader may be informed indirectly of the speaker's profession. But a doctor or lawyer, for instance, will generally be in a story because it requires the presence of a lawyer or doctor, and therefore the story will offer opportunity for him to reveal his place in society by his speech. It is true, of course, that no two lawyers talk precisely alike, but it is also true that it is possible to suggest a lawyer speaking by a proper choice of words, and that is the thing to do, naturally and unobtrusively. If the speech of a character is individualized in some manner, and if, in addition, a reader can gather his business or profession from his words, he will gain much in reality and definition.
Powerful men are not always even large men. Action is greatly useful to reveal the soul, but not very useful to reveal appearance. A person may be described as having a sneaking look. That is strict description. But the writer also may relate how the person slunk down an alley to avoid meeting someone he dared not face. The descriptive value of the word "slunk" as to the person will be as great as the narrative value of the word to the event.
All the acts of a person's life, great and small, would reveal his whole nature. But a story usually does not take a person from birth to death, and, if it does, it is concerned with a phase of the life rather than with the whole life. The art of fiction is highly selective, and necessarily so. The significance of one man's life may lie in his constant loyalty to and sacrifice for his family; the significance of another's in his complete disregard of his obligations as a husband and father. Viewed superficially, a story is a mere string of events that happened to happen, a thing easy to write without forethought and calculation. But the truth is that a story is a chain of events at least influenced and sometimes even determined by character. If the influence of character in the fiction is predominant, it cannot be written justly without careful weighing and selection of the incidents that suggest themselves to the writer.
Most fiction readers have little love for abstractions and fine spun analysis. A writer has fewer resources to impress a reader, and he must utilize to the full whatever is open to him. Among his resources is the device of sensible movement to a crisis or climax. Like the rest of fiction technique, the device is useful because it tends to keep alive and stimulate a reader's interest. This it does because ascending intensity suggests further struggle. Any flat incident, on the contrary, less tense or striking than its predecessor, infallibly suggests that the story is already falling to its end, and the end seems dull because the problem is not fully worked out or even stated. Psychologically, the point is delicate; it is a queer paradox that a reader at once hates to think and yet wants to be made to think. But that is a reader's condition. With equal readiness he will welcome climactic movement and continue to read, or welcome any premature fall intensity and throw the story aside.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Technique of Fiction Writing, by Robert Saunders Dowst)