A Manual of the Art of Fiction
by Clayton Hamilton
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Advantages of Romance.—But this great advantage of the realist—that he supports his theme with evidence—carries with it an attendant disadvantage. Since he lays his evidence bare before the reader, he makes it simpler for the reader to detect him in a lie. The romantic says, "These things are so, because I know they are"; and unless we reject him at once and in entirety as a colossal liar, we are almost doomed to take his word in the big moments of his story. But the realist says, "These things are so, because they are supported by actual facts similar to the imagined facts in which I clothe them"; and we may answer at any point in the story, "Not at all! On the very basis of the facts you show us, we know better than to take your word." In other words, when the reader disbelieves a romance, he does so by instinct, without necessarily knowing why; but when he disbelieves a realistic novel, he does so by logic, with the evidence before him.

A great romantic, therefore, must have the wisdom that convinces by its very presence and conquers credence through the reader's intuition. Who could disbelieve the author of "The Scarlet Letter"? We do not need to see his evidence in order to know that he knows. A great realist, on the other hand, while he need not have the triumphant and engaging mental personality necessary to a great romantic, must have a thorough and complete equipment of evidence discerned from observation of the actual. He must have eyes and ears, though he need not have a soul.

The Confinement of Realism.—A novelist of realistic vent is, therefore, almost doomed to confine his fiction to his own place and time. In no other period or nation can he be so certain of his evidence. We know the enormous labor with which George Eliot amassed the materials for "Romola," a realistic study of Florence during the Renaissance; but though we recognize the work as that of a thorough student, the details still fail to convince us as do the details of her studies of contemporary Warwickshire. The young aspirant to the art of fiction who knows himself to be an incipient realist had therefore best confine his efforts to attempted reproduction of the life he sees about him. He had better accept the common-sensible advice which the late Sir Walter Besant gave in his lecture on "The Art of Fiction": "A young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life; a writer whose friends and personal experiences belong to what we call the lower middle class should carefully avoid introducing his characters into society; a South-countryman would hesitate before attempting to reproduce the North-country accent. This is a very simple rule, but one to which there should be no exception—never to go beyond your own experience."

The Freedom of Romance.—The incipient realist is almost obliged to accept this advice; but the incipient romantic need not necessarily do so. That final injunction of Besant's—"never to go beyond your own experience"—seems somewhat stultifying to the imagination; and there is a great deal of very wise suggestion in Henry James' reply to it: "What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end?... The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military. Greater miracles have been seen than that, imagination assisting, she should speak the truth about some of these gentlemen." The romantic "upon whom nothing is lost," may, "imagination assisting," project his truth into some other region of experience than those which he has actually observed. Edgar Allan Poe is indubitably one of the great masters of the art of fiction; but there is nothing in any of his stories to indicate that he was born in Boston, lived in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, and died in Baltimore. "The Assignation" indicates that he had lived in Venice—where, in fact, he had never been; others of his stories have the atmosphere of other times and lands; and most of them pass in a dream-world of his own creation, "out of space, out of time."

So long as the romantic is sure of his truth and certain of his power to convince the reader, he need not support his truth by an accumulation of evidence imitated from the actual life he has observed. But on the other hand, there is nothing to prevent his doing so; and unless he be very headstrong—so headstrong as to be almost unreliable—he will be extremely chary of his freedom. He will not subvert the actual unless there is no other equally effective means of conveying the truth he has to tell. Many times a close adherence to actuality is as advisable for the deductive author as it is for the inductive; many times the romantic writer gains as much as the realist by confining his fiction to his own environment of time and place. Scott, after all, was less successful with his medieval kings and knights than with his homely and simple Scottish characters. Hawthorne, in "The Marble Faun," lost a certain completeness of effect by stepping off his own New England shadow. "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," with its subversion of the actual, is the sort of story that might be set out of space, out of time; but Stevenson enhanced the effect of its imaginative plausibility by setting it in contemporary London. More and more, in recent years, the romantics have followed the lead of the realists in embodying their truth in scenes and characters imitated from actuality. The early stories of the thoroughly romantic Mr. Kipling were set in his own country, India, and in his own time; and it was not until his actual experience had broadened to other lands, that, to any great extent, his subjects broadened geographically. In his stories of his own people, Mr. Kipling just as faithfully portrays the every-day existence he has actually observed as any realist. His method is romantic always: he deduces his details from his theme, instead of inducing his theme from his details. He is entirely romantic in the direction of his thought; but it is very suggestive of the tenor of contemporary romance, to notice that he has taken the advice of the realists and seldom gone beyond his own experience.

The range of romance is therefore far wider than the range of realism; for all that may be treated realistically may be treated romantically also, and much else that may be treated romantically is hardly susceptible of realistic treatment. Granted that a romantic have truths enough in his head, there is scarcely any limit to the stories he may deduce from them; while, on the other hand, the work of the inductive novelist is limited by the limits of his premises. But the greater freedom of romance is attended by a more difficult responsibility. If it be easier for the romantic to tell the truth, because he has more ways of telling it, it is surely harder for him to tell nothing but the truth. More often than the realist he is tempted to assert uncertainties—tempted to say with vividness and charm things of which he cannot quite be sure.

Neither Method Better Than the Other.—But whatever may be the comparative advantages and disadvantages of each method of exhibiting the truth, it is absolutely certain that either method of presentment is natural and logical; and hence all criticism that aims to exalt romance above realism, or realism above romance, must be forever futile. Guy de Maupassant, in his valuable preface to "Pierre et Jean," has spoken very wisely on this point. The ideal critic, he says, should demand of the artist merely to "create something beautiful, in the form most convenient to him, according to his temperament." And he states further:—"The critic should appraise the result only according to the nature of the effort.... He should admit with an equal interest the contrasted theories of art, and judge the works resultant from them only from the standpoint of their artistic worth, accepting a priori the general ideas from which they owe their origin. To contest the right of an author to make a romantic or a realistic work is to wish to force him to modify his temperament, refuse to recognize his originality, and not permit him to employ the eye and the intellect which nature has given him. Let us allow him the liberty to understand, to observe, and to conceive in whatever way he wishes, provided that he be an artist."

Surely this is the only sane view of the situation. Therefore, when Mr. W. D. Howells, in his dexterous little book on "Criticism and Fiction," pleads engagingly for realism as the only valid method for the modern novelist, and when Stevenson, in many an alluring essay, blows blasts upon the trumpet of romance, and challenges the realists to show excuse for their existence, each is fighting an unnecessary battle, since each is at the same time right and wrong. Each is right in asserting the value of his own method, and wrong in denying the value of the other's. The minds of men have always moved in two directions, and always will; and as long as men shall write, we shall have, and ought to have, both inductive and deductive fiction.

Abuses of Realism.—Neither of the two methods is truer than the other; and both are great when they are well employed. Each, however, lends itself to certain abuses which it will be well for us to notice briefly. The realist, on the one hand, in his careful imitation of actual life, may grow near-sighted and come to value facts for their own sake, forgetting that his primary purpose in setting them forth should be to lead us to understand the truths which underlie them. More and more, as the realist advances in technic and gains in ability to represent the actual, he is tempted to make photographs of life instead of pictures. A picture differs from a photograph mainly in its artistic repression of the unsignificant; it exhibits life more truly because it focusses attention on essentials. But any novel that dwells sedulously upon non-essentials and exalts the unsignificant obscures the truth. This is the fallacy of the photographic method; and from this fallacy arise the tedious minuteness of George Eliot in her more pedestrian moments, the interminable tea-cups of Anthony Trollope, and the mire of the imitators of Zola. Realism latterly, especially in France, has shown a tendency to degenerate into so-called "naturalism," a method of art which casts the unnatural emphasis of photographic reproduction upon phases of actual life which are base in themselves and unsignificant of the eternal instinct which leads men more naturally to look upward at the stars than downward at the mud. The "naturalistic" writers are deceived in thinking that they represent life as it really is. If their thesis were true, the human race would have dwindled to extinction long ago. Surely a photograph of a slattern in the gutter is no more natural than a picture of Rosalind in the Forest of Arden; and no accuracy of imitated actuality can make it more significant of truth.

Abuses of Romance.—The romantic, on the other hand, because he works with greater freedom than the realist, may overleap himself and express in a loose fashion general conceptions which are hasty and devoid of truth. To this defect is owing the vast deal of rubbish which has been foisted on us recently by feeble imitators of Scott and Dumas pere—imitators who have assumed the trappings and the suits of the accredited masters of romance, but have not inherited their clarity of vision into the inner truth of things that are. To such degenerate romance, Professor Brander Matthews has applied the term "romanticism"; and though his use of the term itself may be considered a little too special for general currency, no exception can be taken to the distinction which he enforces in the following paragraph: "The Romantic calls up the idea of something primary, spontaneous, and perhaps medieval, while the Romanticist suggests something secondary, conscious, and of recent fabrication. Romance, like many another thing of beauty, is very rare; but Romanticism is common enough nowadays. The truly Romantic is difficult to achieve; but the artificial Romanticist is so easy as to be scarce worth the attempting. The Romantic is ever young, ever fresh, ever delightful; but the Romanticist is stale and second-hand and unendurable. Romance is never in danger of growing old, for it deals with the spirit of man without regard to times and seasons; but Romanticism gets out of date with every twist of the kaleidoscope of literary fashion. The Romantic is eternally and essentially true, but the Romanticist is inevitably false. Romance is sterling, but Romanticism is shoddy."

But the Scylla and the Charybdis of fiction-writing may both be avoided. The realists gain nothing by hooting at the abuses of romance; and the romantics gain as little by yawning over realism at its worst. "The conditions"—to use a phase of Emerson's—"are hard but equal": and at their best, the realist, working inductively, and the romantic, working deductively, are equally able to present the truth of fiction.

[2] The theory which follows in this chapter was first announced by the present writer in The Dial for November 16, 1904.


1. Define the difference between realism and romance.

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the realistic method?

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the romantic method?

4. Which method is more natural to your own mind?

5. Upon what evidence have you based your answer to the foregoing question?


BLISS PERRY: "A Study of Prose Fiction"—Chapter IX, on "Realism," and Chapter X, on "Romanticism."

F. MARION CRAWFORD: "The Novel: What It Is."

HENRY JAMES: "The Art of Fiction."

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE: Preface to "The House of the Seven Gables."

SIR WALTER BESANT: "The Art of Fiction."

GUY DE MAUPASSANT: Preface to "Pierre et Jean."

WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS: "Criticism and Fiction."

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: "The Lantern-Bearers."

BRANDER MATTHEWS: "Romance Against Romanticism," in "The Historical Novel."



Transition from Material to Method—The Four Methods of Discourse—1. Argumentation; 2. Exposition; 3. Description; 4. Narration, the Natural Mood of Fiction—Series and Succession—Life Is Chronological, Art Is Logical—The Narrative Sense—The Joy of Telling Tales—The Missing of This Joy—Developing the Sense of Narrative—The Meaning of the Word "Event"—How to Make Things Happen—The Narrative of Action—The Narrative of Character—Recapitulation.

Transition from Material to Method.—We have now considered the subject-matter of fiction and also the contrasted attitudes of mind of the two great schools of fiction-writers toward setting forth that subject-matter. We must next turn our attention to the technical methods of presenting the materials of fiction, and notice in detail the most important devices employed by all fiction-writers in order to fulfil the purpose of their art.

The Four Methods of Discourse1. Argumentation.—Rhetoricians, as everybody knows, arbitrarily but conveniently distinguish four forms, or moods, or methods, of discourse: namely, narration, description, exposition, and argumentation. It may be stated without fear of well-founded contradiction that the natural mood, or method, of fiction is the first of these,—narration. Argumentation, for its own sake, has no place in a work of fiction. There is, to be sure, a type of novel, which is generally called in English "the novel with a purpose," the aim of which is to persuade the reader to accept some special thesis that the author holds concerning politics, religion, social ethics, or some other of the phases of life that are readily open to discussion. But such a novel usually fails of its purpose if it attempts to accomplish it by employing the technical devices of argument. It can best fulfil its purpose by exhibiting indisputable truths of life, without persuasive comment, ex cathedra, on the part of the novelist. In vain he argues, denounces, or defends, appeals to us or coaxes us, unless his story in the first place convinces by its very truthfulness. If his thesis be as incontestable as the author thinks it is, it can prove itself by narrative alone.

2. Exposition.—Exposition, for its own sake, is also out of place in fiction. The aim of exposition is to explain,—an aim necessarily abstract; but the purpose of fiction is to represent life,—a purpose necessarily concrete. To discourse of life in abstract terms is to subvert the natural mood of art; and the novelist may make his meaning just as clear by representing life concretely, without a running commentary of analysis and explanation. Life truly represented will explain itself. There are, to be sure, a number of great novelists, of whom George Eliot may be taken as the type, who frequently halt their story to write an essay about it. These essays are often instructive in themselves, but they are not fiction, because they do not embody their truths in imagined facts of human life. George Eliot is at one moment properly a novelist, and at the next moment a discursive expositor. She would be still greater as a novelist, and a novelist merely, if she could make her meaning clear without digressing to another art.

3. Description.—Description also, in the most artistic fiction, is used only as subsidiary and contributive to narration. The aim of description—which is to suggest the look of things at a certain characteristic moment—is an aim necessarily static. But life—which the novelist purposes to represent—is not static but dynamic. The aim of description is pictorial: but life does not hold its pictures; it melts and merges them one into another with headlong hurrying progression. A novelist who devotes two successive pages to the description of a landscape or a person, necessarily makes his story stand still while he is doing it, and thereby belies an obvious law of life. Therefore, as writers of fiction have progressed in art, they have more and more eliminated description for its own sake.

4. Narration, the Natural Mood of Fiction.—Since, then, the natural mood, or method, of fiction is narration, it is necessary that we should devote especial study to the nature of narrative. And in a study frankly technical we may be aided at the outset by a definition, which may subsequently be explained in all its bearings.

A narrative is a representation of a series of events. This is a very simple definition; and only two words of it can possibly demand elucidation. These words are series and event. The word event will be explained fully in a later section of this chapter: meanwhile it may be understood loosely as synonymous with happening. Let us first examine the exact meaning of the word series.

Series and Succession.—The word series implies much more than the word succession: it implies a relation not merely chronological but also logical; and the logical relation it implies is that of cause and effect. In any section of actual life which we examine, the events are likely to appear merely in succession and not in series. One event follows another immediately in time, but does not seem linked to it immediately by the law of causation. What you do this morning does not often necessitate as a logical consequence what you do this afternoon; and what you do this evening is not often a logical result of what you have done during the day. Any transcript from actual life that is not deliberately arranged and logically patterned is therefore likely not to be a narrative. A passage from a diary, for instance, which states events in the order of their happening but makes no attempt to present them as links in a chain of causation, is not, technically speaking, narrative in method. To illustrate this point, let us open at random the diary of Samuel Pepys. Here is his entry for April 29, 1666:—

"To Church, where Mr. Mills, a lazy sermon upon the Devil's having no right to anything in this world. To Mr. Evelyn's, where I walked in his garden till he come from Church, with great pleasure reading Ridley's discourse, all my way going and coming, upon the Civil and Ecclesiastical Law. He being come home, he and I walked together in the garden with mighty pleasure, he being a very ingenious man; and, the more I know him, the the more I love him. Weary to bed, after having my hair of my head cut shorter, even close to my skull, for coolness, it being mighty hot weather."

There is no logical continuity in the worthy diarist's faithful chronicle of actuality. What occasioned the weariness with which he went to bed? It could not have been the company of Mr. Evelyn, whom he loved; it could hardly have been the volume on the civil and ecclesiastical law, though its title does suggest the soporific. Was his strength, like Samson's, shorn away with the hair of his head; or can it be that that lazy sermon of Mr. Mills' got in its deadening effects at bedtime? We notice, at any rate, that the diarist's remarks need considerable re-arrangement to make them really narrative.

Life Is Chronological, Art Is Logical.—Yet it is just in this way that commonly event succeeds event in the daily life of every one. It is only in the great passionate crises of existence that event treads upon event in uninterrupted sequence of causation. And here is the main formal difference between life as it actually happens and life as it is artistically represented in history, biography, and fiction. In every art there are two steps; first, the selection of essentials, and secondly, the arrangement of these essentials according to a pattern. In the art of narration, events are first selected because they suggest an essential logical relation to each other; and they are then arranged along the lines of a pattern of causation. Let us compare with the haphazard passage from Pepys a bit of narrative that is artistically patterned. Here is the conclusion to Stevenson's story of "Markheim." The hero, having slain a dealer in his shop on Christmas day, spends a long time alone, ransacking the dealer's effects and listening to the voice of conscience. He is interrupted by a ringing of the door-bell. The dealer's maid has returned from holidaying.—

"He opened the door and went downstairs very slowly, thinking to himself. His past went soberly before him; he beheld it as it was, ugly and strenuous like a dream, random as a chance-medley—a scene of defeat. Life, as he thus reviewed it, tempted him no longer; but on the further side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark. He paused in the passage, and looked into the shop, where the candle still burned by the dead body. It was strangely silent. Thoughts of the dealer swarmed into his mind as he stood gazing. And then the bell once more broke out into impatient clamor.

"He confronted the maid upon the threshold with something like a smile.

"'You had better go for the police,' said he: 'I have killed your master.'"

The last sentence of this passage is an effect which is logically led up to by many causes that are rapidly reviewed in the preceding sentences. Stevenson has here patterned a passage of life along lines of causation; he has employed the logical method of narration: but Pepys, in the selection quoted, looked upon events with no narrative sense whatever.

The Narrative Sense.—The narrative sense is, primarily, an ability to trace an event back to its logical causes and to look forward to its logical effects. It is the sense through which we realize, for instance, that what happened at two o'clock to-day, although it may not have resulted necessarily from what happened an hour before, was the logical outcome of something else that happened at noon on the preceding Thursday, let us say, and that this in turn was the result of causes stretching back through many months. A well-developed narrative sense in looking on at life is very rare. Every one, of course, is able to refer the headache of the morning after to the hilarity if the night before; and even, after some experience, to foresee the headache at the time of the hilarity: but life, to the casual eye of the average man, hides in the main the secrets of its series, and betrays only an illogical succession of events. Minds cruder than the average see only a jumble of happenings in the life they look upon, and group them, if at all, by propinquity in time, rather than by any deeper law of relation. Such a mind had Dame Quickly, the loquacious Hostess in Shakespeare's "Henry IV." Consider the famous speech in which she accuses Falstaff of breach of promise to marry her:—

"Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing man of Windsor, thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and call me gossip Quickly? coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone down stairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere long they should call me madam? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book-oath: deny it, if thou canst."

There are, of course, many deficiencies in Dame Quickly's mental make-up; but the one for us to notice here is her utter lack of the narrative sense. She would never be able to tell a story: because, in the first place, she could not select from a muddle of events those which bore an intelligible relation to one another, and in the second place, she could not arrange them logically instead of chronologically. She has no sense of series. And although Dame Quickly's mind is an exaggeration of the type it represents, the type, in less exaggerated form, is very common; and everybody will agree that the average man, who has never taken pains to train himself in narrative, is not able in his ordinary conversation to tell with ease a logically connected story.

The Joy of Telling Tales.—The better sort of narrative sense is not merely an abstract intellectual understanding of the relation of cause and effect subsisting between events often disparate in time; it is, rather, a concrete feeling of the relation. It is an intuitive feeling; and, being such, it is possessed instinctively by certain minds. There are people in the world who are natural born story-tellers; all of us have met with them in actual life: and to this class belong the story-telling giants, like Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, Dumas pere, Stevenson, and Mr. Kipling. Narrative is natural to their minds. They sense events in series; and a series once started in their imagination propels itself with hurrying progression. Some novelists, like Wilkie Collins, have nothing else to recommend them but this native sense of narrative; but it is a gift that is not to be despised. Authors with something important to say about life have need of it, in order that the process of reading their fiction may be, in Stevenson's phrase, "absorbing and voluptuous." In the great story-tellers, there is a sort of self-enjoyment in the exercise of the sense of narrative; and this, by sheer contagion, communicates enjoyment to the reader. Perhaps it may be called (by analogy with the familiar phrase, "the joy of living") the joy of telling tales. The joy of telling tales which shines through "Treasure Island" is perhaps the main reason for the continued popularity of the story. The author is having such a good time in telling his tale that he gives us necessarily a good time in reading it.

The Missing of This Joy.—But many of the novelists who have had great things to say about human life have been singularly deficient in this native sense of narrative. George Eliot and Anthony Trollope, for example, almost never evidence the joy of telling tales. George Eliot's natural habit of mind was abstract rather than concrete; she was born an essayist. But, largely through the influence of George Henry Lewes, she deliberately decided that fiction was the most effective medium for expressing her philosophy of life. Thereafter she strove earnestly to develop that sense of narrative which, at the outset, was largely lacking in her mind. To many readers who are not without appreciation of the importance and profundity of her understanding of human nature, her stories are wearisome and unalluring, because she told them with labor, not with ease. She does not seem to have had a good time with them, as Stevenson had with "Treasure Island," a story in other ways of comparative unimportance. And surely it is not frivolous to state that the most profound and serious of thoughts are communicated best when they are communicated with the greatest interest.

Developing the Sense of Narrative.—It could hardly be hoped that a person entirely devoid of the narrative sense should acquire it by any amount of labor; but nearly every one possesses it in at least a rudimentary degree, and any one possessing it at all may develop it by exercise. A simple and common-sensible exercise is to seize hold of some event that happens in our daily lives, and then think back over all the antecedent events we can remember, until we discern which ones among them stand in a causal relation to the event we are considering. Next, it will be well to look forward and imagine the sort of events which will logically carry on the series. The great generals of history have won their most signal victories by an exercise of the narrative sense. Holding at the moment of planning a campaign the past and present terms of a logical series of events, they have imagined forward and foreseen the probable progression of the series. This may perhaps explain why the great commanders, like Caesar and Grant, have written such able narrative when they have turned to literature.

The young author who is trying to develop his narrative sense may find unending exercise in the endeavor to ferret out the various series of events which lie entangled in the confused and apparently unrelated successions of incidents which pass before his observation. When he sees something happen in the street, he will not be satisfied, like the casual looker-on, merely with that solitary happening; he will try to find out what other happenings led up to it, and again what other happenings must logically follow from it. When he sees an interesting person in a street-car, he will wonder where that person has come from and whither he is going, what he has just done and what he is about to do; he will look before and after, and pine for what is not. This exercise is in itself interesting; and if the result of it be written down, the young author will gain experience in expression at the same time that he is developing his sense of narrative.

The Meaning of the Word "Event."—It remains for us now to consider philosophically the significance of the word event. Every event has three elements: the thing that is done, the agents that do it, and the circumstances of time and place under which it is done; or, to say the matter in three words,—action, actors, and setting. Only when all three elements conspire can something happen. Life suggests to the mind of a contemplative observer many possible events which remain unrealized because only one or two of the necessary three elements are present,—events that are waiting, like unborn children on the other side of Lethe, until the necessary conditions shall call them into being. We observe a man who could do a great thing of a certain sort if only that sort of thing were demanded to be done at the time and in the place in which he loiters wasted. We grow aware of a great thing longing to be done, when there is no one present who is capable of doing it. We behold conditions of place and time entirely fitted for a certain sort of happening; but nothing happens, because the necessary people are away. "Never the time and the place and the loved one all together!" sang Robert Browning; and then he dreamed upon an event which was waiting to be born,—waiting for the imagined meeting and marriage of its elements.

How to Make Things Happen.—It is the function of the master of creative narrative to call events into being. He does this by assembling and marrying the elements without which events cannot occur. Granted the conception of a character who is capable of doing certain things, he finds things of that sort for the character to do; granted a sense of certain things longing to be done, he finds people who will do them; or granted the time and the place that seem expectant of a certain sort of happening, he finds the agents proper to the setting. There is a conversation of Stevenson's, covering this point, which has been often quoted. His biographer, Mr. Graham Balfour, tells us: "Either on that day or about that time I remember very distinctly his saying to me: 'There are, so far as I know, three ways, and three ways only, of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or lastly—you must bear with me while I try to make this clear'—(here he made a gesture with his hand as if he were trying to shape something and give it outline and form)—'you may take a certain atmosphere and get action and persons to express it and realize it. I'll give you an example—"The Merry Men." There I began with the feeling of one of those islands on the west coast of Scotland, and I gradually developed the story to express the sentiment with which the coast affected me.'"

In other words, starting with any one of the three elements—action, actors, or setting—the writer of narrative may create events by imagining the other two. Comparatively speaking, there have been very few stories, like "The Merry Men," in which the author has started out from a sense of setting; and nearly all of them have been written recently. The feeling for setting as the initial element in narrative hardly dates back further than the nineteenth century. We may therefore best consider it in a later and more special chapter, and devote our attention for the present to the two methods of creating narrative that have been most often used—that in which the author has started with the element of action, and that in which he has started with the element of character.

Very few of the great masters of narrative have, like Honore de Balzac, employed both one and the other method with equal success: nearly all of them have shown an habitual mental predilection for the one or for the other. The elder Dumas, for example, habitually devised a scheme of action and then selected characters to fit into his plot; and George Meredith habitually created characters and then devised the elements of action necessary to exhibit and develop them. Readers, like the novelists themselves, usually feel a predilection for one method rather than the other; but surely each method is natural and reasonable, and it would be injudicious for the critic to exalt either of them at the expense of the other. There is plenty of material in life to allure a mind of either habit. Certain things that are done are in themselves so interesting that it matters comparatively little who is doing them; and certain characters are in themselves so interesting that it matters comparatively little what they do. To conceive a potent train of action and thereby foreordain the nature of such characters as will accomplish it, or to conceive characters pregnant with potentiality for certain sorts of deeds and thereby foreordain a train of action,—either is a legitimate method for planning out a narrative. That method is best for any author which is most natural for him; he will succeed best working in his own way; and that critic is not catholic who states that either the narrative of action or the narrative of character is a better type of work than the other. The truth of human life may be told equally well by those who sense primarily its element of action and by those who sense primarily its element of character; for both elements must finally appear commingled in any story that is real.

The critic may, however, make a philosophical distinction between the two methods, in order to lead to a better understanding of them both. Those writers who sense life primarily as action may be said to work from the outside in; and those who sense it primarily as character may be said to work from the inside out. The first method requires the more objective, and the second the more subjective, consciousness of life. Of the two, the objective consciousness of life is (at its weakest) more elementary and (at its strongest) more elemental than the subjective.

The Narrative of Action.—Stevenson, in his "Gossip on Romance," has eloquently voiced the potency of an objective sense of action as the initial factor in the development of a narrative. He is speaking of the spell cast over him by certain books he read in boyhood. "For my part," he says, "I liked a story to begin with an old wayside inn where, 'towards the close of the year 17—,' several gentlemen in three-cocked hats were playing bowls. A friend of mine preferred the Malabar coast in a storm, with a ship beating to windward, and a scowling fellow of Herculean proportions striding along the beach; he, to be sure, was a pirate. This was further afield than my home-keeping fancy loved to travel, and designed altogether for a larger canvas than the tales that I affected. Give me a highwayman and I was full to the brim; a Jacobite would do, but the highwayman was my favourite dish. I can still hear that merry clatter of the hoofs along the moonlit lane; night and the coming of day are still related in my mind with the doings of John Rann or Jerry Abershaw; and the words 'post-chaise,' the 'great north road,' 'ostler,' and 'nag' still sound in my ears like poetry. One and all, at least, and each with his particular fancy, we read story-books in childhood, not for eloquence or character or thought, but for some quality of the brute incident." For the writer who works from the outside in, it is entirely possible to develop from "some quality of the brute incident" a narrative that shall be not only stirring in its propulsion of events but also profound in its significance of elemental truth.

The Narrative of Character.—The method of working from the inside out—of using a subjective sense of character as the initial factor in the development of a narrative—is wonderfully exemplified in the work of Ivan Turgenieff; and the method is very clearly explained in Henry James' intimate essay on the great Russian master. Henry James remarks: "The germ of a story, with him, was never an affair of plot—that was the last thing he thought of: it was the representation of certain persons. The first form in which a tale appeared to him was as the figure of an individual, or a combination of individuals, whom he wished to see in action, being sure that such people must do something very special and interesting. They stood before him definite, vivid, and he wished to know, and to show, as much as possible of their nature. The first thing was to make clear to himself what he did know, to begin with; and to this end he wrote out a sort of biography of each of his characters, and everything that they had done and that had happened to them up to the opening of the story. He had their dossier, as the French say, and as the police has of that of every conspicuous criminal. With this material in his hand he was able to proceed; the story all lay in the question, What shall I make them do? He always made them do things that showed them completely; but, as he said, the defect of his manner and the reproach that was made him was his want of 'architecture'—in other words, of composition. The great thing, of course, is to have architecture as well as precious material, as Walter Scott had them, as Balzac had them. If one reads Turgenieff's stories with the knowledge that they were composed—or rather that they came into being—in this way, one can trace the process in every line. Story, in the conventional sense of the word—a fable constructed, like Wordsworth's phantom, 'to startle and waylay'—there is as little as possible. The thing consists of the motions of a group of selected creatures, which are not the result of a preconceived action, but a consequence of the qualities of the actors."—And yet, for the writer who, like Turgenieff, works from the inside out, it is entirely possible to develop from "the qualities of the actors" a train of action that shall be as stirring as it is significant.

Recapitulation.—The main principle of narrative to bear in mind is that action alone, or character alone, is not its proper subject-matter. The purpose of narrative is to represent events; and an event occurs only when both character and action, with contributory setting, are assembled and commingled. Indeed, in the greatest and most significant events, it is impossible to decide whether the actor or the action has the upper hand; it is impossible, in regarding such events, for the imagination to conceive what is done and who is doing it as elements divorced. A novelist who has started out with either element and has afterward evoked the other may arrive by imagination at this final complete sense of an event. The best narratives of action and of character are indistinguishable, one from another, in their ultimate result: they differ only in their origin: and the author who aspires to a mastery of narrative should remember that, in narrative at its best, character and action and even setting are one and inseparable.

For the conveniences of study, however, it is well to examine the elements of narrative one by one; and we shall therefore devote three separate chapters to a technical consideration of plot, and characters, and setting.


1. What is a narrative?

2. Distinguish between a succession and a series of events.

3. What are the two steps in any art?

4. What are the three component elements of every event?

5. Is life itself narrative in pattern?

6. Can the foregoing question be answered without qualification?

7. Discuss the comparative advantages of the narrative of action and the narrative of character.


WILLIAM TENNEY BREWSTER: Introduction to "Specimens of Prose Narration."

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: "A Gossip on Romance."

HENRY JAMES: Essay on Turgenieff, in "Partial Portraits."



Narrative a Simplification of Life—Unity in Narrative—A Definite Objective Point—Construction, Analytic and Synthetic—The Importance of Structure—Elementary Narrative—Positive and Negative Events—The Picaresque Pattern—Definition of Plot—Complication of the Network—The Major Knot—"Beginning, Middle, and End"—The Sub-Plot—Discursive and Compacted Narratives—Telling Much or Little of a Story—Where to Begin a Story—Logical Sequence and Chronological Succession—Tying and Untying—Transition to the Next Chapter.

Narrative a Simplification of Life.—Robert Louis Stevenson, in his spirited essay entitled "A Humble Remonstrance," has given very valuable advice to the writer of narrative. In concluding his remarks he says, "And as the root of the whole matter, let him bear in mind that his novel is not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity. For although, in great men, working upon great motives, what we observe and admire is often their complexity, yet underneath appearances the truth remains unchanged: that simplification was their method, and that simplicity is their excellence." Indeed, as we have already noted in passing, simplification is the method of every art. Every artist, in his own way, simplifies life: first by selecting essentials from the helter-skelter of details that life presents to him, and then by arranging these essentials in accordance with a pattern. And we have noted also that the method of the artist in narrative is to select events which bear an essential logical relation to each other and then to arrange them along the lines of a pattern of causation.

Unity in Narrative.—Of course the prime structural necessity in narrative, as indeed in every method of discourse, is unity. Unity in any work of art can be attained only by a definite decision of the artist as to what he is trying to accomplish, and by a rigorous focus of attention on his purpose to accomplish it,—a focus of attention so rigorous as to exclude consideration of any matter which does not contribute, directly or indirectly, to the furtherance of his aim. The purpose of the artist in narrative is to represent a series of events,—wherein each event stands in a causal relation, direct or indirect, to its logical predecessor and its logical successor in the series. Obviously the only way to attain unity of narrative is to exclude consideration of any event which does not, directly or indirectly, contribute to the progress of the series. For this reason, Stevenson states in his advice to the young writer, from which we have already quoted: "Let him choose a motive, whether of character or passion: carefully construct his plot so that every incident is an illustration of the motive, and every property employed shall bear to it a near relation of congruity or contrast; ... and allow neither himself in the narrative, nor any character in the course of the dialogue, to utter one sentence that is not part and parcel of the business of the story or the discussion of the problem involved. Let him not regret if this shortens his book; it will be better so; for to add irrelevant matter is not to lengthen but to bury. Let him not mind if he miss a thousand qualities, so that he keeps unflaggingly in pursuit of the one he has chosen." And earlier in the same essay, he says of the novel: "For the welter of impressions, all forcible but all discreet, which life presents, it substitutes a certain artificial series of impressions, all indeed most feebly represented, but all aiming at the same effect, all eloquent of the same idea, all chiming together like consonant notes in music or like the graduated tints in a good picture. From all its chapters, from all its pages, from all its sentences, the well-written novel echoes and re-echoes its one creative and controlling thought; to this must every incident and character contribute; the style must have been pitched in unison with this; and if there is anywhere a word that looks another way, the book would be stronger, clearer, and (I had almost said) fuller without it."

A Definite Objective Point.—The only way in which the writer of narrative may attain the unity that Stevenson has so eloquently pleaded for is to decide upon a definite objective point, to bear in mind constantly the culmination of his series of events, and to value the successive details of his material only in so far as they contribute, directly or indirectly, to the progress of the series toward that culmination. To say the thing more simply, he must see the end of his story from the beginning and must give the reader always a sense of rigorous movement toward that end. His narrative, as a matter of construction, must be finished, before, as a matter of writing, it is begun. He must know as definitely as possible all that is to happen and all that is not to happen in his story before he ventures to represent in words the very first of his events. He must not, as some beginners try to do, attempt to make his story up as he goes along; for unless he holds the culmination of his series constantly in mind, he will not be able to decide whether any event that suggests itself during the progress of his composition does or does not form a logical factor in the series.

Construction, Analytic and Synthetic.—The preliminary process of construction may be accomplished in either of two ways. Authors with synthetic minds will more naturally reason from causes to effects; and authors with analytic minds will more naturally reason from effects to causes. The former will construct forward through time, the latter backward. Standing at the outset of a narrative, it is possible to imagine forward along a series of events until the logical culmination is divined; or standing at the culmination, it is possible to imagine backward along the series to its far-away beginnings. Thackeray apparently constructed in the former manner; Guy de Maupassant apparently constructed in the latter. The latter method—the method of building backward from the culmination—is perhaps more efficacious toward the conservation of the strictest unity. It seems on the whole a little easier to exclude the extraneous in thinking from effects to causes than in thinking from causes to effects, because analysis is a stricter and more focussed mood of mind than synthesis.

The Importance of Structure.—But in whichever way the process of construction be accomplished, the best stories are always built before they are written; and that is the reason why, in reading them, we feel at every point that we are getting somewhere, and that the author is leading us step by step toward a definite culmination. Although, as is usually the case, we cannot, even midway through the story, foresee what the culmination is to be, we feel a certain reassurance in the knowledge that the author has foreseen it from the start. This feeling is one of the main sources of interest in reading narrative. In looking on at life itself, we are baffled by a muddle of events leading every whither; their succession is chaotic and lacking in design; they are not marshaled and processional; and we have an uncomfortable feeling that no mind but that of God can foresee their veiled and hidden culminations. But in reading a narrative arrangement of life, we have a comfortable sense of order, which comes of our knowledge that the author knows beforehand whither the events are tending and can make us understand the sequence of causation through which they are moving to their ultimate result. He makes life more interesting by making it more intelligible; and he does this mainly by his power of construction.

Elementary Narrative.—The simplest of all structures for a narrative is a straightway arrangement of events along a single strand of causation. In such a narrative, the first event is the direct cause of the second, the second of the third, the third of the fourth, and so on to the culmination of the series. This very simple structure is exhibited in many of the tales which have come down to us from early centuries. It is frequently employed in the "Gesta Romanorum," and scarcely less frequently in the "Decameron" of Boccaccio. It has the advantage of being completely logical and entirely direct. But we feel, in reading stories so constructed, that the method of simplification has been carried too far, and that simplicity has therefore ceased to be an excellence. Such a story is in this way misrepresentative of life:—it fails utterly to suggest "the welter of impressions which life presents," the sudden kaleidoscopic shifts of actual life from one series of events to another, and the consequent intricacy and apparent chaos of life's successive happenings. The structure is too straightforward, too direct, too unwavering and unhesitant.

Positive and Negative Events.—The simplest way to introduce the element of hesitance and wavering, and thereby make the story more truly suggestive of the intricate variety of life, is to interrupt the series by the introduction of events whose apparent tendency is to hinder its progress, and in this way emphasize the ultimate triumph of the series in attaining its predestined culmination. Such events are not extraneous; because, although they tend directly to dispute the progress of the series, they tend also indirectly to further it through their failure to arrest it. The events in any skilfully selected narrative may, therefore, be divided into two classes: events direct or positive, and events indirect or negative. By a direct, or positive, event is meant one whose immediate tendency is to aid the progress of the series toward its predetermined objective point; and by an indirect, or negative, event is meant one whose immediate tendency is to thwart this predetermined outcome. It would be an easy matter, for example, in examining "Pilgrim's Progress," to class as positive those events which directly further the advance of Christian toward the Celestial City, and to class as negative those events whose immediate tendency is to turn him aside from the straight and narrow path. And yet both classes of events, positive and negative, make up really only a single series; because the negative events are conquered one by one by the preponderant power of the positive events, and contribute therefore indirectly, through their failure, to the ultimate attainment of the culmination.

When a straightway arrangement of positive events along a single strand of causation is varied and emphasized in this way by the admission of negative events, whose tendency is to thwart the progress of the series, the structure may be made very suggestive of that conflict of forces which we feel to be ever present in actual life. This structure is exhibited, for example, in Hawthorne's little tale of "David Swan." The point of the story is that nothing happens to David; the interest of the story lies in the events that almost happen to him. The young man falls asleep at noon-time under the shade of a clump of maples which cluster around a spring beside the highroad. Three people, or sets of people, observe him in his sleep. The first would confer upon him Wealth, the second Love, the third Death, if he should waken at the moment. But David Swan sleeps deeply; the people pass on; and all that almost happened to him subsides forever to the region of the might-have-been.

The Picaresque Pattern.—A simple series of this sort, wherein the events proceed, now directly, now indirectly, along a single logical line, may be succeeded by another simple series of the same sort, which in turn may be succeeded by a third, and so on indefinitely. In this way is constructed the type of story known as picaresque, because in Spain, where the type was first developed, the hero was usually a picaro, or rogue. The narrative expedient in such stories is merely to select a hero capable of adventure, to fling him loose into the roaring and tremendous world, and to let things happen to him one after another. The most widely known example of the type is not a Spanish story, but a French,—the "Gil Blas" of Alain Rene Le Sage. As soon as Gil Blas arrives at the culmination of one series of adventures, the author starts him on another. Each series is complete in itself and distinct from all the rest; and the structure of the whole book may be likened, in a homely figure, to a string of sausages. The relation between the different sections of the story is not organic; they are merely tied together by the continuance of the same central character from one to another. Any one of the sections might be discarded without detriment to the others; and the order of them might be rearranged. Plays, as well as novels, have been constructed in this inorganic way,—for example, Moliere's "L'Etourdi" and "Les Facheux." If the actors, in performing either of these plays, should omit one or two units of the sausage-string of incidents, the audience would not become aware of any gap in structure. Yet a story built in this straightforward and successive way may give a vast impression of the shifting maze of life. Mr. Kipling's "Kim," which is picaresque in structure, shows us nearly every aspect of the labyrinthine life of India. He selects a healthy and normal, but not a clever, boy, and allows all India to happen to him. The book is without beginning and without end; but its very lack of neatness and compactness of plan contributes to the general impression it gives of India's immensity.

Definition of Plot.—But a simple series of events arranged along a single strand of causation, or a succession of several series of this kind strung along one after the other, may not properly be called a plot. The word plot signifies a weaving together; and a weaving together presupposes the coexistence of more than one strand. The simplest form of plot, properly so called, is a weaving together of two distinct series of events; and the simplest way of weaving them together is by so devising them that, though they may be widely separate at their beginnings, they progress, each in its own way, toward a common culmination,—a single momentous event which stands therefore at the apex of each series. This event is the knot which ties together the two strands of causation. Thus, in "Silas Marner," the culminating event, which is the redemption of Marner from a misanthropic aloofness from life, through the influence of Eppie, a child in need of love, is led up to by two distinct series of events, of which it forms the knot. The one series, which concerns itself with Marner, may be traced back to the unmerited wrong which he suffered in his youth; and the other series, which concerns itself with Eppie, may be traced back to the clandestine marriage of Eppie's father, Godfrey Cass. The initial event of one series has no immediate logical relation to the initial event of the other; but each series, as it progresses, approaches nearer and nearer to the other, until they meet and blend.

Complication of the Network.—A type of plot more elaborate than this may be devised by leading up to the culmination along three or more distinct lines of causation, instead of merely two. In the "Tale of Two Cities," Sydney Carton's voluntary death upon the scaffold stands at the apex of several series of events. And a plot may be still further complicated by tying the strands together at other points beside the culmination. In "The Merchant of Venice," the two chief series of events are firmly knotted in the trial scene, when Shylock is circumvented by Portia; but they are also tied together, though less firmly, at the very outset of the play, when Antonio borrows from Shylock the money which makes it possible for Bassanio to woo and win the Lady of Belmont. Furthermore, any event in one of the main strands of causation may stand at the culmination of a minor strand, and thus may form a little knot in the general network of the plot. In the same play, the minor strand of the elopement of Lorenzo and Jessica attains its culmination in a scene which stands only midway along the progress of the two main strands, that of the bond and that of the caskets, toward their common result in the defeat of Shylock.

The Major Knot.—But however intricately woven a plot may be, and however many minor knots may tie together the various strands which enter into it, there is almost always one point of greatest complication, one big knot which ties together all the strands at once, and stands as the common culmination of all the series, major and minor. The story concerns itself chiefly with telling the reader how the major knot came to be tied; but in a plot of any complexity, the reader naturally desires to be told how the knot became untied again. Therefore this point of greatest complication, this culmination of all the strands of causation which are woven in the plot, this objective point of the entire narrative, is seldom set at the very end of a story, but usually at a point about three quarters of the way from the beginning to the end. The first three quarters of the story, speaking roughly, exhibit the antecedent causes of the major knot; and the last quarter of the story exhibits its subsequent effects. A plot, therefore, in its general aspects, may be figured as a complication followed by an explication, a tying followed by an untying, or (to say the same thing in French words which are perhaps more connotative) a nouement followed by a denouement. The events in the denouement bear a closer logical relation to each other than the events in the nouement, because all of them have a common cause in the major knot, whereas the major knot is the ultimate effect of several distinct series of causes which were quite separate one from another at the time when the nouement was begun. For this reason the denouement shows usually a more hurried movement than the nouement—one event treading on another's heels.

"Beginning, Middle, and End."—Undoubtedly it was this threefold aspect of a plot—1. The Complication; 2. The Major Knot; 3. The Explication—which Aristotle had in mind when he stated that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. These words were not intended to connote a quantitative equality. What Aristotle called the "middle" may, in a modern novel, be stated in a single page, and is much more likely to stand near the close of the book than at the centre. But everything that comes after it, in what Aristotle called the "end," should be an effect of which it is the cause; and everything that comes before it, in what Aristotle called the "beginning," should be, directly or indirectly, a cause of which it is the effect. Only under these conditions will the plot be, as Aristotle said it should be, an organic whole. Only in this way can it conform to the principle of unity, which is the first principle of all artistic endeavor.

The Sub-Plot.—Bearing the principle of unity ever in his mind, Stevenson, in a phrase omitted for the moment in one of the quotations from "A Humble Remonstrance" set forth at the beginning of this chapter, advised the fiction-writer to "avoid a sub-plot, unless, as sometimes in Shakespeare, the sub-plot be a reversion or complement of the main intrigue." It seems safe to state that a sub-plot is of use in a novel only for the purpose of tying minor knots in the leading strands of causation, and should be discarded unless it serves that purpose. There is no reason, however, why a novel should not tell at once several stories of equal importance, provided that these stories be deftly interlinked, as in that masterpiece of plotting, "Our Mutual Friend." In this novel, the chief expedient which Dickens has employed to bind his different stories together is to make the same person an actor in more than one of them, so that a particular event that happens to him may be at the same time a factor in both one and the other series of events. Through the skilful use of this expedient, Dickens has contrived to give his novel unity of plot, in spite of the diversity of its narrative elements. But on the other hand, in "Middlemarch," George Eliot has told three stories instead of one. She has failed to make her plot an organic whole by deftly interweaving the three strands which she has spun. And therefore this monumental novel, so great in other ways, is faulty in structure, because it violates the principle of unity.

Discursive and Compacted Narratives.—According to the extent of complication in the plot, novels may be grouped into two classes,—the discursive and the compacted. Thackeray wrote novels of the former type, Hawthorne of the latter. In "Vanity Fair" there are over half a hundred characters; in "The Scarlet Letter" there are three, or possibly four. The discursive novel gives a more extensive, and the compacted novel a more intensive, view of life. English authors for the most part have tended toward the discursive type, and Continental authors toward the compacted. The latter type demands a finer and a firmer art, the former a broader and more catholic outlook on the world.

Telling Much or Little of a Story.—The distinction between the two types depends chiefly upon how much or how little of his entire story the author chooses to tell. In actual life, as was stated in a former chapter, there are no very ends; and it may now be added that also there are no absolute beginnings. Any event that happens is, in Whitman's words, "an acme of things accomplished" and "an encloser of things to be"; and in thinking back along its causes or forward along its effects, we may continue the series until our thought loses itself in an eternity. In any narrative, therefore, we are doomed to begin and end in mid-career; and the question is merely how extended a section of the entire imaginable and unimaginable series we shall choose to represent to the reader. For instance, it would be a very simple matter to trace the composition of Rossetti's "House of Life" back along a causal series to the birth of a boy in Arezzo in 1304; for it is hardly likely that Rossetti would have written a cycle of love sonnets if many other poets, such as Shakespeare and Ronsard, had not done so before him; and Shakespeare and Ronsard, as Sir Sidney Lee has proved, were literary legatees of Petrarch, the aforesaid native of Arezzo. And yet, if we were to tell the story of how Rossetti's sonnets came to be composed, it is doubtful if we should go further back in time than the occasion when his friend Deverell introduced him to the beautiful daughter of a Sheffield cutler who became the immediate inspiration of his poetry of love.

Dickens, in many novels, of which "David Copperfield" may be taken as an example, has chosen to tell the entire life-story of his hero from birth up to maturity. But other novelists, like George Meredith in "The Egoist," have chosen to represent events that pass, for the most part, in one place, and in an exceedingly short stretch of time. It is by no means certain that Meredith does not know as much about the boyhood and youth of Sir Willoughby Patterne as Dickens knew about the early years of David Copperfield; but he has chosen to compact his novel by presenting only a brief series of events which exhibit his hero at maturity. Surely Turgenieff, after writing out that dossier of each of his characters to which Henry James referred, must have known a great many events in their lives which he chose to omit from his finished novel. It is interesting to imagine the sort of plot that George Eliot would have built out of the materials of "The Scarlet Letter." Probably she would have begun the narrative in England at the time when Hester was a young girl. She would have set forth the meeting of Hester and Chillingworth and would have analyzed the causes culminating in their marriage. Then she would have taken the couple overseas to the colony of Massachusetts. Here Hester would have met Arthur Dimmesdale; and George Eliot would have expended all her powers as an analyst of life in tracing the sweet thoughts and imperious desires that led the lovers to the dolorous pass. The fall of Hester would have been the major knot in George Eliot's entire narrative. It would have stood at the culmination of the nouement of her plot: the subsequent events would have been merely steps in the denouement. Yet the fall of Hester was already a thing of the past at the outset of the story that Hawthorne chose to represent. He was interested only in the after-effects of Hester's sin upon herself and her lover and her husband. The major knot, or culmination, of his plot was therefore the revelation of the scarlet letter,—a scene which would have been only an incident in George Eliot's denouement. It will be seen from this that any story which is extended in its implications may offer a novelist materials for any one of several plot-structures, according to whichever section of the entire story happens most to interest his mind.

It will be seen, also, that much of the entire story must, in any case, remain unwritten. A plot is not only, as Stevenson stated, a simplification of life; it is also a further simplification of the train of events which, in simplifying life, the novelist has first imagined. The entire story, with all its implications, is selected from life; and the plot is then selected from the entire story. Often a novelist may suggest as much through deliberately omitting from his plot certain events in his imagined story as he could suggest by representing them. Perhaps the most powerful character in George Meredith's "Evan Harrington" is the great Mel, whose death is announced in the very first sentence of the novel. Hawthorne, in "The Marble Faun," never clears away the mystery of Miriam's shadowy pursuer, nor tells us what became of Hilda when she disappeared for a time from the sight and knowledge of her friends.

Where to Begin a Story.—After the novelist has selected from his entire story the materials he means to represent, and has patterned these materials into a plot, he enjoys considerable liberty in regard to the point at which he may commence his narrative. He may begin at the beginning of one or another of his main strands of causation, as Scott usually does; or he may adopt the Homeric device, commended by Horace, of plunging into the midst of his plot and working his way back only afterward to its beginning. In the first chapter of "Pendennis," the hero is seventeen years old; the second chapter narrates the marriage of his father and mother, and his own birth and boyhood; and at the outset of the third chapter he is only sixteen years of age.

Logical Sequence and Chronological Succession.—It is obvious that, so long as the novelist represents his events in logical sequence, it is not at all necessary that he should present them in chronological succession. Stories may be told backward through time as well as forward. Thackeray often begins a chapter with an event that happened one day, and ends it with an event that happened several days before; he works his way backward from effects to causes, instead of forward from causes to effects. In carrying on a plot which is woven out of several strands, it is hardly ever possible to represent events in uninterrupted chronological succession, even when the author consistently works forward from causes to effects; for after he has pursued one strand of his plot to a certain point in time, he is obliged to turn backward several days or weeks, or possibly a longer period, to pick up another strand and carry it forward to the same point in time at which he left the first. Retrogression in time, therefore, is frequently not only permissible but necessary. But it is only common-sensible to state that chronological sequence should be sacrificed merely for the sake of making clear the logical relation of events; and whenever juggling with chronology tends to obscure instead of clarify that logical relation, it is evidence of an error of judgment on the part of the narrator. Turgenieff is often guilty of this error of judgment. He has a disconcerting habit of bringing a new character into the scene which stands for the moment before the eye of the reader, and then turning the narrative backward several years in order to recount the past life of the newcomer. Frequently, before this parenthetic recital is completed, the reader has forgotten the scene from which the author turned to the digression.

Tying and Untying.—In most plots, as has been stated, the nouement is more significant than the denouement, and the causes leading to the tying of the major knot are more interesting than the effects traced during the process of untying it. This is the reason why the culmination is usually set well along toward the conclusion of the story. Sometimes even, when the major knot has been tied with a Gordian intricacy, the author sets it at the very end of his narrative, and suddenly cuts it instead of carefully untying it. But there is no absolutely necessary reason why it should stand at the end, or, as is more frequently the case, at a point about three quarters through the story. It may even be set at the very beginning; and the narrative may concern itself entirely with an elaborate denouement. This is the case, for example, in the detective story, where a very intricate knot is assumed at the outset, and the narrative proceeds to exhibit the prowess of the detective-hero in untying it.

Transition to the Next Chapter.—A well-constructed plot, like any other sort of well-articulated pattern, is interesting in itself; and certain novels and short-stories, like Wilkie Collins' "Moonstone" and Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue," maintain their interest almost through the element of plot alone. But since the purpose of fiction is to represent reality, a story will fail of the highest effect unless the people acting in its pattern of events produce upon the reader the illusion of living human beings. We must therefore turn our attention next to a study of the element of character.


1. How may unity be best attained in narrative?

2. Distinguish between the analytic and synthetic methods of construction.

3. Distinguish between positive and negative events.

4. Explain the pattern of picaresque romance.

5. What are the essential phases of a plot?

6. Explain the meaning of nouement and denouement.

7. Must a story always follow the order of chronology?

8. At what point in the exposition of a plot is the major knot most usually found? What is the logical reason for this usual position?


ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: "A Humble Remonstrance."

BLISS PERRY: "A Study of Prose Fiction"—Chapter VI, on "The Plot."

O. HENRY: "Roads of Destiny."—The plotting of this story illustrates in practice most of the important points expounded in this chapter.



Characters Should Be Worth Knowing—The Personal Equation of the Audience—The Universal Appeal of Great Fictitious Characters—Typical Traits—Individual Traits—The Defect of Allegory—The Defect of Caricature—Static and Kinetic Characters—Direct and Indirect Delineation—Subdivisions of Both Methods—I. Direct Delineation: 1. By Exposition; 2. By Description; [Gradual Portrayal]; 3. By Psychological Analysis; 4. By Reports from other Characters—II. Indirect Delineation: 1. By Speech; 2. By Action; 3. By Effect on other Characters; 4. By Environment.

Characters Should Be Worth Knowing.—Before we proceed to study the technical methods of delineating characters, we must ask ourselves what constitutes a character worth delineating. A novelist is, to speak figuratively, the social sponsor for his own fictitious characters; and he is guilty of a social indiscretion, as it were, if he asks his readers to meet fictitious people whom it is neither of value nor of interest to know. Since he aims to make his readers intimate with his characters, he must first of all be careful that his characters are worth knowing intimately. Most of us, in actual life, are accustomed to distinguish people who are worth our while from people who are not; and those of us who live advisedly are accustomed to shield ourselves from people who cannot, by the mere fact of what they are, repay us for the expenditure of time and energy we should have to make to get to know them. And whenever a friend of ours asks us deliberately to meet another friend of his, we take it for granted that our friend has reasons for believing that the acquaintanceship will be of benefit or of interest to both. Now the novelist stands in the position of a friend who asks us to meet certain people whom he knows; and he runs the risk of our losing faith in his judgment unless we find his people worth our while. By the mere fact that we bother to read a novel, thus expending time which might otherwise be passed in company with actual people, we are going out of our way to meet the characters to whom the novelist wishes to introduce us. He therefore owes us an assurance that they shall be even more worth our while than the average actual person. This is not to say that they should necessarily be better; they may, of course, be worse: but they should be more clearly significant of certain interesting elements of human nature, more thoroughly representative of certain phases of human life which it is well for us to learn and know.

The Personal Equation of the Audience.—In deciding on the sort of characters that will be worth his readers' while, the novelist must of course be influenced by the nature of the audience he is writing for. The characters of "Little Women" may be worth the while of children; and it is not an adverse criticism of Louisa M. Alcott to say that they are not worth the while of mature men and women. Similarly, it is not an adverse criticism of certain Continental novelists to say that their characters are decidedly unfit companions for adolescent girls. Our judgment of the characters in a novel should be conditioned always by our sense of the sort of readers to whom the novel is addressed. Henry James, in his later years, wrote usually for the super-civilized; and his characters should be judged by different standards than the pirates of "Treasure Island,"—a story which was written for boys, both young and old. One reader may be bored by pirates, another by super-subtle cosmopolitans; and each reader has the privilege of avoiding the society of the characters that weary him.

The Universal Appeal of Great Fictitious Characters.—But the very greatest characters of fiction are worth everybody's while; and surely the masters need have felt no hesitancy in asking any one to meet Sancho Panza, Robinson Crusoe, Henry Esmond, Jean Valjean, or Terence Mulvaney. In fact, the most amazing thing about a great fictitious figure is the multitude of very different people that the character is capable of interesting. Many times we willingly absent ourselves from actual society to pass an evening in the company of a fictitious personage of a class with which we never associate in actual life. Perhaps in the actual world we would never bother to converse with illiterate provincial people; and yet we may not feel it a waste of time and energy to meet them in the pages of "Middlemarch." For my own part, I have always, in actual life, avoided meeting the sort of people that appear in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair"; and yet I find it not only interesting but profitable to associate with them through the entire extent of a rather lengthy novel. Why is it that a reader, who, although he has crossed the ocean many times, has never cared to enter the engine-room of a liner, is yet willing enough to meet on intimate terms Mr. Kipling's engineer, Mac Andrew? And why is it that ladies who, in actual society, are fastidious of their acquaintanceship, should yet associate throughout a novel with the Sapho of Daudet? What is the reason why these fictitious characters should seem, for nearly every reader, more worth while than the very same sort of people in actual life?

Typical Traits.—The reason is that great fictitious characters are typical of their class, to an extent rarely to be noticed in any actual member of the class they typify. They "contain multitudes," to borrow Whitman's phrase. All idealistic visionaries are typified in Don Quixote, all misers in Harpagon, all hypocrites in Tartufe, all egoists in Sir Willoughby Patterne, all clever, tricksy women in Becky Sharp, all sentimentalists in Barrie's Tommy. But the average actual man is not of sufficient magnitude to contain a multitude of others; he is comparatively lacking in typical traits; he is not, to such a great extent, illustrative of life, because only in a small measure is he representative of his class. There are, of course, in actual life, certain people of unusual magnitude who justify Emerson's title of "Representative Men." Benjamin Franklin, for example, is such a man. He is the only actual person entirely typical of eighteenth-century America; and that is the main reason why, as an exhibition of character, his autobiography is just as profitable a book as the master-works of fiction. But men so representative are rare in actual life; and the chief business of fiction is therefore to supply them.

Individual Traits.—It is mainly by supplying this need for representative men and women that the novelist can make his characters worth the while of every reader. But after he has made them quintessential of a class, he must be careful also to individualize them. Unless he endows them with certain personal traits that distinguish them from all other representatives or members of their class, whether actual or fictitious, he will fail to invest them with the illusion of reality. Every great character of fiction must exhibit, therefore, an intimate combination of typical and individual traits. It is through being typical that the character is true; it is through being individual that the character is convincing.

The Defect of Allegory.—The reason why most allegorical figures are ineffective is that, although they are typical, they are not at the same time individual. They are abstractly representative of a class; but they are not concretely distinguishable from other representatives or members of the class. We know them, therefore, not as persons but merely as ideas. We feel very little human interest nowadays in reading over the old morality plays, whose characters are merely allegorical abstractions. But in criticising them we must remember that they were designed not so much to be read as to be performed upon the stage; and that the actors who represented their abstract and merely typical characters must necessarily have endowed them with concreteness and with individuality. Though a character in one of these allegorical plays might be called "Everyman," it was one particular man who walked and talked upon the boards; and he evoked sympathy not so much for the type as for the individual. But allegory written to be read is less likely to produce the illusion of reality; and it is only when allegorical characters are virtually conceived as individuals, instead of mere abstractions, that they touch the heart. Christian, in Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," is so conceived. He is entirely representative of seventeenth-century Christianity; in a sense he is all men of Bunyan's time and Bunyan's religion; but he is also one man and one only, and we could never in our thought confuse him with any other character in or out of fiction.

The Defect of Caricature.—But just as a character may be ineffective through being merely typical, so also a character may be unsignificant through being merely individual. The minor figures in Ben Jonson's Comedies of Humours are mere personifications of exaggerated individual traits. They are caricatures rather than characters. Dickens frequently commits the error of exhibiting figures devoid of representative traits. Tommy Traddles is sharply individualized by the fact that his hair is always standing on end; but he exhibits no essential truth of human nature. Barkis, who is always willin', and Micawber, who is always waiting for something to turn up, are emphatically distinguished from everybody else in or out of fiction; but they lack the large reality of representative characters. They are individualities instead of individuals. They do not exhibit an agglomeration of many different but consistent traits rendered unified and single by a dominant and informing characteristic, such as ambition in Macbeth, senility in Lear, or irresoluteness in Hamlet. A great fictitious character must be at once generic and specific; it must give concrete expression to an abstract idea; it must be an individualized representation of the typical qualities of a class. It is only figures of this sort that are finally worth while in fiction,—more worth the reader's while than the average actual man.

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