Short Story Writing - A Practical Treatise on the Art of The Short Story
by Charles Raymond Barrett
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[Footnote 24: "Bad Story-Telling," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's, Oct., '97.]

[Footnote 25: "Fact in Fiction," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's, July, '95.]

[Footnote 26: "The Art of Fiction." A lecture by Gilbert Parker. The Critic. Dec., '98.]

[Footnote 27: "Historical Relics of the White Mountains," by John H. Spaulding. (Boston, 1855.) "Destruction of the Willey Family," page 58.]



It is the tritest sort of a truism to say that the characters in a story are important, for stories are stories only in so far as they reflect life, and life is impossible without human actors. It is the hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows, the sins and moral victories of men that interest us. We men are a conceited lot, and find nothing of interest except as it relates to us. Thus in the most ingenious stories, where some marvelous invention or discovery is introduced, the interest centers, not in the wondrous things themselves, but in their influence on the people of the story; and in the few stories where a beast or a thing plays the hero, it is always given human attributes.

Fictitious characters, like the plots that they develop, are based primarily on fact, and they further resemble the plots in being different phases of a primal idea, rather than intrinsically diverse. We find many characters in fiction—Miss Wilkins' stories are full of them—which are evidently meant to be realistic, and which impress us as word photographs of existing persons; yet it is improbable that they are exact reproductions. A real person ordinarily has too much of the commonplace and conventional about him to serve in fiction, where—despite the apparent paradox—a character must be exaggerated to appear natural. A person in fiction is at the best but a blur of hieroglyphics on a sheet of paper, and can be comprehended only through the mentality of the author; therefore his description, his actions, his words, his very thoughts must be made so unnaturally striking that through the sense of sight alone they will stimulate the imagination and produce the effect which actual contact with the real person would induce. The character which seems most real is usually a composite of the most striking characteristics of several real persons. To this source of fictitious characters is due the fact that a literary puppet is often thought to be the reproduction of several very different real persons; for the reader, recognizing a particular trait which is characteristic of some one of his acquaintance, thinks that he recognizes the character.

"While the popular idea that every creature of the novelist's imagination has a definite original somewhere among his acquaintances is, of course, egregiously false, it has yet this much of truth, that they are, to a large extent, suggestions from life. Not one person, but half a dozen, often sit as models for the same picture, while the details are filled out by the writer's imagination. There are few people in real life sufficiently interesting or uncommonplace to suit the novelist's purpose, but he must idealize or intensify them before they are fit subjects for art. Dickens intensified to the verge of the impossible, yet we never feel that Dick Swiveller and Sam Weller and Mr. Micawber, and the rest of them, are unnatural; they are only, if I may coin the word, 'hypernatural.' It is the business of art to idealize. Even at its best art is so inferior to nature, that in order to produce the same impression it has to intensify its effects; to deepen the colors, heighten the contrasts, omit an object here, exaggerate an outline there, and so on, until it has produced the proper picturesque effect."[28]

A careful description of the appearance of the characters may be necessary to the understanding of the story, as in Irving's perfect picture of Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; but in our model the people are rather typical than individual, and Hawthorne devotes but little space to their external characteristics. A word or a phrase suffices to tell us all that is necessary to enable our minds to body them forth. Even the hero is outwardly distinguished only by a melancholy expression—a slight of which no school-girl "authoress" would have been guilty. It is more often necessary to give the mental characteristics of the puppets, and in "The Ambitious Guest" we have a deal of such detail concerning the young stranger; but here, too, you must exercise forbearance, as Hawthorne did in his partial analysis of the other characters.

It is by no means essential that the personages of a short story be attractive in person or in character. The taste of readers used to be so artificial that no romancer would have dared to present a heroine who was not perfect in face and figure, or a hero who was not an Apollo for manly beauty; but in these more practical days we have substituted good deeds for good looks and have made our characters more human—our men more manly and our women more womanly; and we exalt them now for heroic acts, rather than heroic mould.

A mistake which it seems hard for the novice to avoid is that of telling everything possible about a character and leaving nothing to the imagination of the reader. This exhaustive method leads to a multiplicity of detail which verges on baldness, and which is very apt to contain considerable irrelevant matter; the details are usually arranged with little regard for their true value; and the intended description becomes a mere catalogue of personal charms. For example, in these three descriptions, detailed though they are, there is nothing to distinguish the particular person described from the scores of other people possessing the same general traits:

He was a tall, deep-chested, broad-shouldered man, having a light complexion, dark moustache, hair and eyes.

We will take a look at our heroine, as she sits lazily rocking, the sunshine touching her hair. She is of medium height, with black hair and eyes and a winning smile that makes friends for her everywhere.

Lura was yet but a slight school girl; she was now fifteen and equally as large as Grace. She looked very beautiful as she came out to meet Grace and Mrs. Morton, on their return from the village. Her dark brown hair had been carefully combed back, but the short locks had fallen and formed in ringlets about the snowy neck and face. Her large gray eyes were bright. Her full curved lips were red, and in laughing and talking revealed two rows of small, even, pearly white teeth. Her cheeks were round and well formed; although at the present time they bore no marks of roses, they were generally rosy. The gray eyes, by the changing of the expression, often became almost black and greatly completed her beauty.

Clever character depiction consists in selecting and presenting only those salient details which will serve to body forth rather a vague image, which shall yet possess a definite personality, to which the reader may give such distinctness as his imagination may impart to the hints offered. It is in a manner building a complete character upon a single characteristic, after the familiar method of Dickens. It is this impressionistic method which is most used by masters to picture those characters which seem to us real persons.

In "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving thus describes the hero (?), Ichabod Crane, and the heroine, Katrina Van Tassel:

The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person. He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at the top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

She was a blooming lass of fresh eighteen, plump as a partridge, ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations. She was withal a little of a coquette, as might be perceived even in her dress, which was a mixture of ancient and foreign fashions, as most suited to set off her charms. She wore the ornaments of pure yellow gold which her great-great-grandmother had brought over from Saardam, the tempting stomacher of the olden time, and withal a provokingly short petticoat to display the prettiest foot and ankle in the country round.

Here are Hawthorne's pictures of Beatrice and her father in "Rappaccini's Daughter":

On again beholding Beatrice the young man was even startled to perceive how much her beauty exceeded his recollection of it—so brilliant, so vivid in its character, that she glowed amid the sunlight, and, as Giovanni whispered to himself, positively illuminated the more shadowy intervals of the garden path. Her face being now more revealed than on the former occasion, he was struck by its expression of simplicity and sweetness—qualities that had not entered into his idea of her character, and which made him ask anew what manner of mortal she might be. Nor did he fail again to observe or imagine an analogy between the beautiful girl and the gorgeous shrub that hung its gem-like flowers over the fountain—a resemblance which Beatrice seemed to have indulged a fantastic humor in heightening both by the arrangement of her dress and the selection of its hues.

His figure soon emerged into view, and showed itself to be that of no common laborer, but a tall, emaciated, sallow and sickly-looking man dressed in a scholar's garb of black. He was beyond the middle term of life, with gray hair, and a thin gray beard and a face singularly marked with intellect and cultivation, but which could never, even in his more youthful days, have expressed much warmth of heart.

And this is the way Dickens sets forth Scrooge, the old miser, in "A Christmas Carol":

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas.

There is very little of the catalogue style of description here; indeed, the characters can hardly be said to be described: the author gives rather the sensations which they produced on observers and so excites similar sensations in the mind of the reader.

When once introduced the characters should be allowed to work out their identities with the least possible interference from the author. Their characteristics must not be listed like invoices of goods: they must themselves display the psychological powers with which they were endowed by their creator. Their speeches and actions must seem the results of mental processes, and must appear natural, if not logical; indeed, it is an open question if they can be both at once, for there are few people who are always logical. One good method of presenting the characteristics of a fictitious personage is to indulge in a bit of mind reading, and give his thoughts as he thinks them; another and better way is to show the man actuated by his dominant mental qualities. In "The Cask of Amontillado" Poe builds a whole story on an elaboration of the latter method, and presents the picture of a man temporarily mastered by the spirit of revenge. It is only by thus allowing the characters to work out their own destinies that you can make them real; otherwise they will appear as mere painted puppets, without life or volition.

On account of the technical limitations of the short story the number of characters which may have principal or "speaking" parts is very small—in general only two, and frequently but one. There are usually other characters present to help out the action, but they are merely supernumeraries, without form, life or influence. There are many violations of this rule, I admit, among them such stories as Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face," "The Seven Vagabonds," and "The Great Carbuncle;" but analysis shows them to be panoramic or episodic in effect, and really violating the unity of action which the short story demands. For similar reasons the characters presented must be unnaturally isolated, with little past and less future, and most strangely lacking in relatives; for the few thousand words of the short story permit but a cursory treatment of the ancestry, birth, breeding and family of the one or two important characters. If by any trick they can be made the last of a long line, and be snatched from obscurity into the momentary glare of the lime light, so much the better for author, reader and character; but if some portion of their history bears upon the story, let it be presented by subtle touches, preferably by references in the dialogue, so that the reader obtains the necessary knowledge without being conscious of the means.

The few real characters in the story must be made unusually interesting on account of their loneliness. They compose the story, they represent the human race, and if they fail us we are in sad straits. They must be individual; they must stand out sharply from the page, clear and attractive, and leave no doubt of their personalities. More than any other form of fiction, the short story depends upon its hero and heroine, who have "star parts" and monopolize the stage of action. We must see them so vividly that when they speak and act we shall perceive them as actual personages. It is such accuracy of depiction that makes Rip Van Winkle, Sherlock Holmes, Van Bibber, and a host of others enter into our thoughts and speech as if they had really lived.

The names with which we label these dolls may be of importance. In these days names have little significance, yet we still feel that a name from its very sound may be appropriate or otherwise, and no careful writer would give to his characters appellations selected at random. Names are frequently used to good advantage as aids to character depiction or to enhance humorous effects, as in the case of Hawthorne's Feathertop and Monsieur du Miroir, and Irving's Ichabod Crane, and in many other instances familiar to readers of Dickens.

"Dickens's names are marvelously apt, as we see from the passing into common phrase of so many of them. Not a few have become synonyms for the kind of character to which they were attached.... If a name is to hint at character it should do so in the subtlest manner possible—in a manner so subtle as to escape all but the quickwitted, who will forgive the inartistic method in their pride at being so clever as to detect the writer's intention.... In these days, when craftsmanship is cared for and looked for more than ever, ... novelists must sacrifice nothing that will lend a trick of reality to their imaginings. If they take any pains to select names for their characters they should hit upon such as will be seen to suit them when their books have been read (like Sir Willoughby Patterne or Gabriel Oak); names that attempt with clumsy impertinence to give a clew to character at the outset are best left to the inept amateur of letters who has not wit enough to dispense with such aid.

"To be avoided, also, are out-of-the-way names that may have living owners in the real world. No John Smith or Tom Jones can complain if writers christen their characters after them; but if a man owns a peculiar name he dislikes having it borrowed and attached to some figure in fiction whose proceedings very likely do it little credit.... Every writer must know the satisfaction that comes when an 'exquisitely right' name is hit upon. But it is just as well to take reasonable precautions to avoid indignant protests such as that which Hawthorne drew upon himself"[29] for his use of the name Judge Pyncheon in "The House of the Seven Gables."

The dramatic trend of the short story is responsible for its tendency to advance action by speech. Good short stories have been written and will be written which contain little or no dialogue; they succeed through vividness of plot, skill in character depiction, ingenuity of construction, or some such quality; but they would be more interesting and more natural if they held more conversation. A short story should be full of talk of the proper kind; there are few people who preserve silence at all times, and in the exciting moments which a short story usually presents, most persons would find tongue to voice their teeming thoughts. Speech adds naturalness and vividness to the actors, it lends them a personal interest, it gives insight into character, and it aids the development of the plot.

This is a modern tendency, for the stories of Kipling, Stevenson, Wilkins, Davis and Doyle contain much more of the conversational element than those of Poe, Hawthorne or Irving. Where the latter would present a mental struggle or a crisis by some paragraphs of description, the former express it in the short exciting words of the actors themselves; even soliloquies and asides and other of the most mechanical devices of the drama are forced into the service of the short story, to replace the long explanatory passages such as were used by Irving. It has been predicted that in the short story of the future the characters will be briefly introduced and then will be allowed to speak for themselves; if this prophecy comes true we shall have stories similar to Hope's "The Dolly Dialogues," or Howells' little dramas, where there is almost no comment by the author. It is more probable, though, that there is something of a "fad" in the present liking for pure dialogue, and that the short story will never attain the absolute purity of the drama.

If these fictitious personages are to talk, however, they must talk naturally and interestingly—and "there's the rub!" As in real life a man often shows himself to be a fool when he begins to talk, so in fiction a character frequently proves to be but a poor puppet of straw when he opens his mouth. The only way to make your characters talk naturally is to imitate the speech of the persons whom they in some degree represent. People in general do not talk by book: they use colloquial language, full of poor grammar, slang, and syncopated words; and their sentences are neither always logical nor complete. In reproducing this, however, you must "edit" it a little, using your own judgment as to which are the characteristic idioms; for the speech of the people in books is admittedly a little better than in real life—except in dialect stories, where it is usually worse; and you must avoid equally the heavy rhetorical style of the extreme romantic school, and the inane commonplaces of the radical realists.

Conversation like the following is commonly termed "bookish"; it is painfully correct and laboriously profound—but it is not natural. If it were meant for a burlesque upon polite and "cultured" society it would be exquisite, but it is the manner in which the writer believes people really talk, though it is easy to guess that he himself is far from such absurd affectations in his familiar speech.

"By way of preliminary, I have to say that my name is Athlee—Felix Athlee, and yours is Miss India Lemare. I've seen you before."

"In the flesh, I hope," she answered.

"Yes, I like you better that way, though you now wear the expression of one older in years and experience. Wherefore, may I ask?"

"Shadows fall on the young as well as the old. One is fortunate, indeed, to keep always in the sunshine."

"And flit like the butterfly, without volition or effort? Human appointments are different. Work is the inevitable, and with the proper tools, it is pleasant enough."

"They must, long ago, have rusted, for the want of use."

"No, we have simply to consider our specialty and we find them ready at hand. Have you done so?"

"I am dazed, and my brain works capriciously."

"Except in the interest of your desires. What are they?"

"Wealth for independence, leisure for indulgence, and fame, the outcome of talent."

His luminous eyes looked out over the water, as he said: "The universal hunt of mankind is for happiness, and he searches for it in as many ways as there are peculiarities of disposition. Does he ever really find it? Many weary hearts are covered with the soft down of wealth. Mischief lurks in indulgence, and fame dazzles but to elude. It is wiser to accept what the gods give, and use the gifts for the betterment of others as well as ourselves."

"Meaningless words, when one is at enmity with the gods for withholding. What fine spun theories we mortals have!"

To the listener every conversation contains a deal of commonplace: it may be that the speakers really have nothing interesting to say, and it may be that their conversation is so personal as to interest themselves only. The reader occupies the position of a listener, and it is the duty of the author to suppress all commonplace dialogue, unless, as sometimes happens, it assists in plot or character development. Conversation like the following is—let us hope—interesting to the parties concerned, but the reader would be delivered from it as from a plague.

"I am so glad to get one desire of my heart."

"And that is?" said Al.


"So glad that is all. I thought you had spied my new tie and was planning some 'crazy design' upon it."

"Oh, let me see! Now, really, that is becoming to your style, but I think it would suit mine better. 'Brown eyes and black hair should never wear blue—that is for grey eyes, the tried and true.' See?"

"Neither the eyes nor the tie," said Al, as he turned his back and looked up at the ceiling.

The real difficulty with this dialogue is that the writer attempted to make his characters "smart" and so permitted them to indulge in repartee; but as they were only commonplace people the privilege was too much for them and they merely twaddled. They did succeed in being humorous, but the humor is unconscious.

Yet unconscious humor is preferable to the forced and desperate attempt at fun-making which we have in this extract:

"I don't believe he is proud," said Joe to Tom, his younger brother. "But you know he has been to the Holy Land and cannot now associate with such wicked sinners as we are. Or else he has turned Jew and thinks we are Samaritans."

"You two are getting no better fast," said the doctor, after a hearty laugh. "Wait until you get sick, I'll give you a pill that will make you repent."

"We are never going to get sick," said Joe, "but expect to live until we are so old that we will dry up and blow away with the wind, or go to heaven in a 'Chariot of Fire.'" Turning to the doctor Joe continued: "You know Will has a girl, and he is awful pious. If one looks off his book in church, even to wink at his best girl, he thinks it an awful sin. And that the guilty one should be dipped in holy water, or do penitence for a week."

It is a common trick for the novice to put into the mouths of his characters just such stale jokes and cheap jests, with the idea that he is doing something extremely funny. He is, but his audience is laughing at him, not at his characters.

But most exasperating of all is the author who, while making his characters suffer the most dreadful afflictions, lets them think and talk only commonplaces still, like the poor sawdust dolls that they are:

"What is the matter with you, Annie?" I said one day, about five months after she had come home....

"You will know some time, Cicely," she answered....

"Why can't you tell me now?" I asked.

"You will know soon enough," she answered. "By the by," she went on, "I am going to Mr. Denham's to-morrow."


"No, I am going with Cousin Ivan."

"When will you be back?" I asked, for Mr. Denham lived twenty miles away.

"I don't know," she answered sadly.

The next morning I went over to see Annie off. I had been there but a few minutes when her cousin, Ivan Carleon, came. He was about six feet high, with dark, brown eyes, and black hair and moustache. He was a quiet man and I liked him. When they got ready to start, Annie came and kissed me.

"I am ready now, Ivan." And then he helped her into the buggy, and they drove off.

Two days afterwards, as I was sitting under the shade of a tree, where Annie and I had played when we were small, Miss Jones, an old school fellow, came along.

"Have you heard the news?" she asked, before she had got up to me.

"What news?"

"Why, Ivan Carleon has killed Annie."

"Explain yourself, Daisy," I answered anxiously.

"Well," she said, "we ain't sure Ivan killed her; but every one thinks so. You know that big gate, about a mile this side of Mr. Denham's? Well, day before yesterday Ivan came running up to Mr. Denham, and said that Annie had shot herself, down at the big gate. They all went down and found Annie stone dead. A note in her pocket merely stated that she was tired of life. But every one thinks Ivan killed her, and that he wrote the note himself. I hope Ivan didn't do it," she said, as she started off, "for I liked him."

The evening of the third day, as I was sitting under the same tree, I was startled to feel a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw Ivan Carleon standing by my side. I gave a low cry, and shrank from him. He turned pale to his lips.

"Surely you don't think I murdered her?" he said.

"I don't know what to think," I answered, bursting into tears.

"Sit down and tell me all about it," I continued, moving for him on the bench.

He sat down beside me; and laid his head in his hands.

Imagine, if you can, the bearer of terrible news who would unburden herself with as little excitement as Miss Jones exhibits; or a real girl who, on hearing of the tragic death of her bosom friend, would be merely "anxious" and bid her informant "Explain yourself!" The author of this could not have had the slightest conception of the tragedy which he had created, or even his poor lifeless puppets must have been galvanized into some show of real feeling.

It is neither necessary nor desirable that you should report every conversation at length, even though it bear upon the story. Do not reproduce long conversations simply to say something or to air your views on current topics. It is just as much a fault to introduce useless chatter as it is to fill page after page with descriptions of unused places. If the hero and the heroine, by a brief bright conversation, can put the reader in possession of the facts concerning the course of their true love, they should be given free speech; but if they show a tendency to moralize or prose or talk an "infinite deal of nothing," shut them up and give the gist of their dialogue in a few succinct sentences of your own. Note how in 10, 11 Hawthorne has condensed the conversation which doubtless occurred at the supper table, and has given us the salient points without the commonplaces that it must have contained:

He was of a proud yet gentle spirit, haughty and reserved among the rich and great, but ever ready to stoop his head to the lowly cottage door and be like a brother or a son at the poor man's fireside.... He had traveled far and alone; his whole life, indeed, had been a solitary path, for, with the lofty caution of his nature, he had kept himself apart from those who might otherwise have been his companions....

The secret of the young man's character was a high and abstracted ambition. He could have borne to live an undistinguished life, but not to be forgotten in the grave.

and how in 13 he has given us the trend of the young man's rhapsody, instead of wearying us with what was probably rather a long and tiresome speech:

There was a continual flow of natural emotion gushing forth amid abstracted reverie which enabled the family to understand this young man's sentiment, though so foreign from their own.

One form of the talkative short story that forms a serious stumbling block to the novice is the dialect story. If you have an idea of trying that style of composition, let me warn you: Don't! Dialect stories never were very artistic, for they are a paradoxical attempt to make good literature of poor rhetoric and worse grammar. They have never been recognized or written by any great master of fiction. They are a sign of a degenerate taste, and their production or perusal is a menace to the formation and preservation of a good literary style. They are merely a fad, which is already of the past; and to-day public and publisher turn in nausea from a mess of dialect which yesterday they would have greedily devoured; so that now there is even no pecuniary excuse for dialect stories. They were doomed to an ephemeral existence, for what little charm they ever possessed was based upon the human craving for something odd and new; the best stories of Barrie and Maclaren live because of their intense human feeling, and they would have succeeded as well and endured longer if they had been clothed in literary English.

"That there is good in dialect none may deny; but that good is only when it chances, as rarely, to be good dialect; when it is used with just discretion and made the effect of circumstances naturally arising, not the cause and origin of the circumstance itself. When the negro, the 'cracker' or the mountaineer dialect occurs naturally in an American story, it often gives telling effects of local color and of shading. But the negro or 'cracker' story per se can be made bearable only by the pen of a master; and even then it may be very doubtful if that same pen had not proved keener in portraiture, more just to human nature in the main, had the negro or the 'cracker' been the mere episode, acting on the main theme, and itself reacted on by that."[30]

Study carefully, as models of good character analysis and presentation, Stevenson's "Markheim;" Hawthorne's "The Great Stone Face;" Ichabod Crane in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow;" Poe's "William Wilson;" Louisa Ellis in Wilkins' "A New England Nun;" Van Bibber in Davis' "Van Bibber and Others;" Henry St. George in James' "The Lesson of the Master."


[Footnote 28: "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.]

[Footnote 29: "Names in Fiction," by H. H. F. Literature. Jan. 19, '99.]

[Footnote 30: "The Day of Dialect," by T. C. De Leon. Lippincott's. Nov., '97.]



Not only must you have a story to tell, but you must tell it well. The charm and interest of a story come not from the plot itself but from your handling of it. The question of the proper method of narration is to a considerable extent a matter of suitability—of giving the narrative an appropriate setting; it is also a matter of the point of view of the narrator—whether he is to tell the story as one of the actors, or simply as an impersonal observer. A dozen master story writers would tell the same tale in a dozen different ways, and each of them would seem to be the right way; for each writer would view the events from a particular angle, and would make his point of view seem the natural one. But the novice is not always happy in his choice of a view point; or rather, he lacks the knowledge and experience that would teach him how to treat his subject from the particular side from which he has chosen to consider it. Yet a capable and clever writer may sometimes find himself puzzled to choose between a number of methods, any one of which seems appropriate and any one of which he feels himself competent to handle satisfactorily: the question is which one will be for him the most successful method of exploiting his thoughts.

That question should be settled with regard to the suitability of the method to the matter of the story—and here suitability is synonymous with naturalness. It must not be forgotten that story writing is only a modern phase of the world-old custom of story telling, and that the printed page should appear as natural and easy to the eye as the voice would to the ear. When in the twilight the grandmother gathers the children about her knee for a story, whether it be a bit of her own life or a tale from a book, she does not strive after effect, but tells the story simply and naturally, just as she knows it will best suit the children. And so the story writer should tell his tale—so naturally and easily that the reader will forget that he is gazing at the printed page, and will believe himself a spectator at an actual scene in real life.

The great difficulty of the novice is to subordinate his own personality. He knows that he must individualize his story, and that that is best done by putting something of himself into it; and he does not always understand that it is only his spirit that is wanted, and that his body will be very much in the way. Then, too, he is apt to be a little self-conscious, if not actually self-conceited, and he rather likes the idea of putting himself into his work so thoroughly that the reader must always be conscious of his presence. He likes to show his superior knowledge and to take the reader into his confidence; so he indulges in side remarks, and criticisms, and bits of moralizing, and in general exhibits an exasperating tendency to consider himself and his personal opinion of far greater importance than the story which he is expected to tell.

But above all things else the author must keep himself out of sight, and must refrain from interpolating his opinions. He is supposed to be an impersonal person, a human machine through the medium of which the story is preserved, and he has no proper place in his narrative. One no more expects or desires a speech from him than a sermon from a penny-in-the-slot phonograph which has been paid for a comic song. He may stand behind the scenes and manipulate the puppets and speak for them, but his hand must be unseen, his voice carefully disguised, and his personality imperceptible; no one cares for the man who makes the Punch and Judy show—he is judged by the success of his imitation of life, and his own appearance will speedily disillusionize his public. Every time you address your public as "dear reader," "gentle reader,"—or, as Mark Twain has it, "savage reader"—you force upon that public a realization of your presence which is as disagreeable and inartistic as the appearance of the Punch and Judy man, hat in hand, seeking a few coppers in payment of the amusement he has provided.

In the short story no personal confidences, moralizing comments, or confessions are allowed. If you must express your opinions and make your personality felt, write lectures, sermons, essays, books, letters for the public press—but don't write short stories. Men read short stories to be amused, not instructed; and they will quickly revolt at any attempt on your part to introduce into your narrative a sugar-coated argument or sermon.

There are certain methods of story telling much affected by the amateur which are particularly difficult to do well. He should especially eschew stories related in the first person, those told by letters, and those in the form of a diary. Notice, I do not say that these methods are absolutely bad: they have been successfully used by masters; but they are at least questionable, and they contain so many pitfalls for the unwary that it is far better for the uninitiated to let them severely alone.

Narrative in the first person gives a certain realism through the mere use of the pronoun "I," and so excites some measure of the desired personal interest; but the same result may be secured, without the accompanying disadvantages, by making the characters do a good deal of talking. That method escapes the danger of getting the narrator between the story and the reader; for the puppet who "I's" his way through the narrative is apt to be rather an important fellow, who intrudes on the most private scenes, and who prefers moralizing and philosophizing to the legitimate furthering of the plot; thus he runs no small risk of making himself unpopular with the reader, and so proving of detriment to the success of the story and of the author.

Then, too, when the author is speaking in his own proper person the reader cannot help wondering at times how one man could know so much about what was going on, even if he were a veritable Paul Pry; while we have become so used to granting the omniscience and omnipresence of the invisible third person author that we never question his knowledge. If, however, the hero-narrator attempt natural modesty and profess to but slight information concerning the story, he is usually a most dull and uninteresting fellow, who is endeavoring to relate a matter of which he has missed the most essential parts. And at all times, though he be a model in all other respects, the very fact that the hero is telling the story lessens its interest, since no matter what harrowing experiences he has suffered, he has come safely through; thus the narrative lacks that anxiety for the hero's welfare which is so large a factor in the delights of fiction.

"It (first person narrative) is better adapted, no doubt, to adventure than to analysis, and better to the expression of humour than to the realization of tragedy. As far as the presentation of character is concerned, what it is usual for it to achieve ... is this: a life size, full length, generally too flattering portrait of the hero of the story—a personage who has the limelight all to himself—on whom no inconvenient shadows are ever thrown; ... and then a further graceful idealization, an attractive pastel, you may call it, the lady he most frequently admired, and, of the remainder, two or three Kit-Cat portraits, a head and shoulders here, and there a stray face."[31]

Stories written in the epistolary or diary form suffer all the disadvantages of first person narrative; but they are also liable to others, equally serious, which are peculiarly their own. They are seldom natural, in the first place, for granted that people really do keep interesting diaries or write literary letters, it is rare in either case that a story would be told with technical correctness. And such narratives are usually poor in technique, for their form necessitates the introduction of much that is commonplace or irrelevant, and it also requires the passage of time and causes breaks in the thread of the plot. These forms are favorites with the inexperienced because they seem to dodge some of the difficulties that beset the way of the literary aspirant. Their form is necessarily loose and disjointed, and their style rambling and conversational, and these qualities are characteristic of the work of novices.

"But if fictitious letters are so seldom anything but tiresome, is this because 'the age of letter writing is past?'... The unpopularity of the epistolary form as a method of authorship is, in fact, due quite as much to a change of taste as to the decay of letter writing. The old practice was of a piece with the unrealities of the eighteenth century, both in art and letters. It necessitated an abundance of superfluous detail, and it was a roundabout, artificial way of doing what the true artist could do much better, simply and directly. It gave, of course, an opportunity of exhibiting subjectively many 'fine shades' of feeling. But it is certainly much more difficult to carry conviction in inventing letters for fictitious persons than in making them converse. In the latter case there is a background; there is the life and movement of the various characters, the spontaneity of question and reply, and the running interchange of talk, all helping to keep a spell upon the reader. The letter gives much less chance of illusion, and we may very soon become conscious of the author—instead of the suffered correspondent—beating his brains for something to say next."[32]

Another poor method, indicative of callowness, is making the hero, so to speak, an animal or a thing, and permitting it to tell its own story. This has peculiar charm for the tyro because of its supposed originality, but it is really as old as story telling itself. It offends greatly against naturalness, for however one may believe in the story of Balaam's ass, or delight in AEsop's talking brutes or Greece's talking statues, one cannot restrain a feeling of skepticism when a dog or a coin is put forward, given human attributes, and made to view the world through man's eyes. On the other hand, if the writer attempts to read the thoughts of the brute or the thing, the difficulty at once presents itself that he can only guess at the mental processes of the one, and that the other is incapable of thought; so that in either case the result is unsatisfactory. One exception to this statement must be made: Kipling, in his "Jungle Book" stories, seems to have achieved the impossible and read for us the very thoughts of the brute creation. Unfortunately it is not given us to know how nearly he has hit their mental processes; but his animals certainly do not think with the thoughts of men and their cogitations, as he interprets them, appear to us perfectly logical and natural. Yet the success of Kipling does not at all lessen the force of my general statement, for there are few writers who would care to cross pens with him here. Even our own Joel Chandler Harris, in his delightful Uncle Remus stories, has succeeded only in giving his animals human ideas and attributes. The whole endeavor to endow the rest of creation with man's intelligence is too thoroughly artificial to offer a profitable field to the short story writer.

Again, novices err frequently through introducing a multiplicity of narrators, either writing a patchwork story in which all take a hand, or placing narration within narration as in the "Arabian Nights." The method of allowing a number of persons consecutively to carry on the plot is very attractive, since it offers a way of introducing a personally interested narrator without making him preternaturally wise; and it also affords opportunity for the author to exhibit his skill in viewing events from all sides and through the minds of several very different persons. It is, however, open to most of the first person objections, and it is liable to produce a disjointed narrative; but it is particularly unhappy in the short story because it necessitates the introduction and disposition of a number of important people.

The use of narration within narration is more objectionable. It is of little importance who tells the story, or how it came to be told; the less the narrator appears the better. It is seldom that more than one narrator is necessary, yet two, three, or even more are often introduced, with full descriptions of persons and circumstances. "It is a frequent device of the unpractised to cover pages with useless explanations of how they heard a tale which is thus elaborately put too far off from the reader to appeal to his sympathies. One writer, after describing a rural station, his waiting for the train, its appearance when it arrives, the companions of his journey, and so on, is wrecked, and spends the night on a log with an old farmer, who spins him a domestic yarn that has nothing to do with what went before. Why not give the tale direct, in the character of the old farmer? There is no law against that."[33]

This practice is due to the fact that amateurs usually begin by writing strictly true stories, and they always consider it of prime importance that they had the tale from grandmother, or that it actually occurred to John's wife's second cousin's great aunt; forgetting, in their unconscious egotism, that the reader cares only for the narrative, and nothing for the narrator. Stories told to interested listeners by "grandma," an "old hunter," or some loquacious "stranger," usually need to be so revised that the intrusive relater will disappear, merged in the unobtrusive author. Indeed, it is policy so to revise them, for the editor usually considers the author who begins thus too amateurish for him:

"Your turn now, Captain," was the exclamation of several gentlemen who were seated around a table, telling stories, narrating adventures, playing cards and drinking each others' healths.

"What will you have, gentlemen?" inquired Captain R——, a tall, handsome man of middle age, who had been in command of a large ocean steamer many years.

"Oh, one of your adventures," said one of the party; "for surely you must have had some."

"Ah, very well, gentlemen—I remember one that will no doubt interest you; here it is:"

For at the outset he knows, and he knows that his readers will know, that the tale ends thus:

"So ends my story, gentlemen; now let us have a drink to the health of the young sailor's wife, the dearest woman in the world."

"And why not the sailor's health, too?" asked one of the gentlemen.

"All right, sir, just as you please, gentlemen, for I was that sailor."

and that the intervening story is apt to be every whit as stale and conventional as its beginning and its end. Irving's "Tales of a Traveller" show how this method may be used successfully; yet it required all of Irving's art to make the extra-narrative passages readable, and it is an open question if the stories would not have been improved by isolation.

The best method of narration, the simplest and most natural, is to tell the story in the third person, as if you were a passive observer; to make the characters active and conversational; and to permit nothing, not even your own personality, to get between the reader and the story.


[Footnote 31: "The Short Story," by Frederick Wedmore. Nineteenth Century. Mar., '98.]

[Footnote 32: "The Epistolary Form." Literature. Apr. 7, '99.]

[Footnote 33: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]



The crucial test of the short story is the manner in which it begins. Of three-fourths of the MSS. submitted to him the editor seldom reads more than the first page, for he has learned by experience that if the story lacks interest there, it will in all probability be lacking throughout. Therefore it behooves you to make the beginning as attractive and correct as possible.

The beginning of a good short story will seldom comprise more than two or three paragraphs, and often it can be compressed into one. If it cannot get to the story proper in that space there is something radically wrong—probably in the plot; for the conventional brevity of the short story requires particular conciseness in the introduction.

In every story there are certain foundation facts that must be understood by the reader at the outset if he would follow the narrative easily. These basic truths differ greatly in different stories, so that it is difficult to give a complete list; but they are usually such details as the time and scene of the story, the names, descriptions, characteristics, and relationships of the different characters, and the relation of events prior to the story that may influence its development. You must make sure that the details which you select are fundamental and that they do have a definite influence which requires some knowledge of them. Any or all of these facts, however, may be introduced later in the narrative when their need appears; or they may be left in abeyance to enhance the element of suspense or mystery.

But because they are necessary these facts need not be listed and ticketed like the dramatis personae of a play bill. They should be introduced so deftly that the reader will comprehend them involuntarily; they must seem an intrinsic part of the warp and woof of the narrative. In themselves they are commonplaces, tolerated only because they are necessary; and if they cannot be made interesting they can at least be made unobtrusive. To begin a story thus is to make a false start that may prove fatal:

This happy family consisted of six; a father, mother, two sons, and two daughters. Clara, the eldest, had completed a course at college, and during the past few months had been completing one in cooking, guided and instructed by her mother. Bessie, the youngest, was five years old. She sat rocking Amanda, her new doll, and was asking her all manner of questions. John and Henry, aged respectively ten and fourteen years, were helping their father.

Grandma and grandpa were expected to dinner; also Mr. Draco, or "Harry," as every one called him. He was a friend of the family's, and Clara's lover.

Note how Hawthorne handles a very similar family group in the initial paragraph of "The Ambitious Guest." He inserts his details without apparent effort; and yet he makes the persons individual and distinct. He does not say:

This family was happy, and comprised father, mother, grandmother, daughter of seventeen, and younger children.


The faces of the father and mother had a sober gladness; the children laughed. The eldest daughter was the image of Happiness at seventeen, and the aged grandmother, who was knitting in the warmest place, was the image of Happiness grown old.

Sometimes, in stories which consist largely of conversation, as so many of our modern stories do, the author never directly states the situation to the reader: it is made sufficiently plain either directly in the conversation itself, or indirectly in the necessary comments and descriptions. Or it may be presented as a retrospect indulged in by one of the characters. On the stage this takes the form of a soliloquy; but since few men in their right minds really think aloud, in the short story it is better for the author to imagine such thoughts running through the mind of the character, and to reproduce them as indirect discourse. We are so used to consider the author as omniscient that we experience no surprise or incredulity at such mind-reading. Such stories approach very nearly to the pure Dramatic Form. These are at once the most natural and the most artistic methods of introducing essential facts, and they are methods which can be advantageously employed to some extent in almost any story. With this method in mind read carefully any one of Hope's "Dolly Dialogue" stories and note how cleverly the facts are presented through the words and actions of the characters.

In the novel essential details are frequently held in suspense for some time, in order that the opening pages may be made attractive by the introduction of smart conversation or rapid action. A similar method is often followed in the short story, and it cannot be condemned offhand, for if used skillfully it is a clever and legitimate device for immediately fixing the reader's attention; but it holds danger for the uninitiated, for the amateur is liable to postpone the introduction of the details until the story is hopelessly obscure, or until he is reduced to dragging in those essential facts in the baldest manner. Even if he is otherwise successful, he runs the risk of destroying the proportion of his story by practically beginning it in the middle and endeavoring to go both ways at once. The conventions of the short story allow of little space for the retrospection necessary to such an introduction; and when the writer begins to say, "But first let me explain how all this came about," the reader begins to yawn, and the charm of the opening sentences is forgotten in the dreariness of the ensuing explanations. This method is of the modern school of short story writers, but Hawthorne, in "The Prophetic Pictures," gives us an excellent example of how it may be used to advantage; and the following well illustrates the absurd lengths to which it may be carried, and the desperate means to which the writer must then resort to patch up the broken thread of the narrative:

Joseph Johnson was a young man whose name appeared in the list of the dead heroes who had fallen at Santiago.

When Mamie Williams read the startling fact, her eyes filled with tears, as past history was unfolding itself in her mind, presenting one event after another. She thought about their early love, how she had clasped his hand and how his lips lingered long upon hers when last they parted before he started to the cruel war.

With a wounded heart and tear-stained eyes, she sank into a chair, and with her hands over her face, many reflections of the past chased each other through her mind.

She tried to console herself and smooth out the wrinkles in her troubled mind with the thought that God knows and does all things well. She was an intelligent girl, and reasoned farther with herself, "As all hope for Joseph has fled, I ought to marry some one else, and make most of what I have. There is Thomas Malloy, who loves me almost as well; however, my affection for him is not very great, but I think I shall unite my life with his, and do my best to make myself and the world around me happy."

Her mind, moved by an emotion of a noble heart, caused her to make the last remark.

Soon they were married, but there was no happiness in life for her; for the one she lived for was gone, and had carried off her affection with him.

Returning to the war we find that Joseph was not killed in the battle but was taken prisoner by the enemy.

There is a questionable sort of beginning, which might be called dilatory, that consists in carrying the literary aspect of the essential facts to the extreme, and making them occupy a deal more valuable space than is rightly theirs. This is generally the method of a past school of short story writers, or of the writers of to-day who are not yet well versed in the technique of their art. Of this class Washington Irving is a great example. In "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" he devotes to the introduction almost as much space as a writer to-day would give to the whole tale. He is so skillful in gently urging the narrative along, while he introduces new essentials and interpolates literary but non-essential matter, that in neither story can one exactly fix the bounds of the beginning; but in each a modern story teller would combine the first ten paragraphs into one introductory paragraph. I do not mean to say that this is a fault in Irving: if it is a fault at all it belongs to his time; then, too, these tales were supposed to be written by the garrulous antiquarian, Diedrich Knickerbocker; but their discursive style is not in vogue to-day, and is therefore to be avoided.

As an awful example of the extent to which this dilly-dallying may be carried, let me introduce the following:

The train rolled onward with a speed of twenty-five miles an hour, the great iron engine puffing and screeching as if its very sides would burst. In the rear car of the six coaches which seemed to follow the monstrous iron horse with dizzy speed, sat an aged man holding a pretty child of four summers, who was fast asleep. The grandfather gazed on the sleeping face and deeply sighed. His thoughts returned to the long ago when his only child was the same age as the little one he held so fondly clasped in his dear old arms. He thought how years ago he had held his own darling thus; how happy and bright his home had been in those sweet bygone days. He recalled how she had been reared in a home of plenty, how she had everything which constitutes the happiness of a young girl.

The Story.

The time was a warm summer evening in August, the place one of those quiet little towns west of the great Mississippi, and the scene opens in a neat little parlor where a number of young folks had gathered to tender a fitting reception to a newly married couple. A few days previous a stranger had arrived in the town to visit some former friends; these friends attended the reception and were accompanied by their guest. The stranger was formally introduced to the crowd of merry-makers as Elmer Charleston. He was a tall, splendidly formed, intelligent looking young man. Among the young women present was one Jennie Shelby, who was but little more than twenty; she was a blonde, of graceful figure, with a peculiarly animated expression of countenance. Her complexion was beautiful, her dimples deep and mischievous, her large blue eyes full of latent fire, and her features would pass muster among sculptors. Suitors had she by the score. At last she had met her fate. Elmer Charleston accepted a position in the town and at once began to court the only daughter of Squire Shelby.

It seems almost incredible that any writer, however inexperienced, should begin his narrative in this fashion. The introductory paragraph is of course entirely unnecessary—even the author had some inkling of that fact, for he takes pains to specify when "the story" proper actually begins; but even after he is supposed to be in the midst of his narration, he stops to give us wholly gratuitous information concerning the time of day, the state of the weather, and the occasion when Elmer Charleston first met Jennie Shelby—all of which was apparently introduced for the purpose of discouraging further interest: at least, that is what it certainly accomplishes.

The short story has no space for the "glittering generalities" with which young writers delight to preface their work. A tale which requires a page or even a paragraph to elucidate its relation to life and things in general is seldom worth the perusal, much less the writing. These introductory remarks are usually in the nature of a moral, or a bit of philosophizing; but if the story has any point it will be evident in the narrative itself, and no preliminary explanation will atone for later neglect to make it of human interest. There is no good reason, unless it be the perversity of human nature, why you should begin a story by making trite remarks about things in general, as this writer did:

Love is a very small word, but the feeling that it expresses bears the richest and choicest fruit of any vine that curls its clinging tendrils around the human heart. And a bosom without it is a bosom without warmth; a life without it is like a honeysuckle without its nectar; a heart that has never felt its sweet emotions is like a rosebud that has never unfolded. But in some people it remains latent for a number of years, like an apple which remains green and hard for a time, but suddenly ripens into softness, so when love flashes into the human breast, the once hard heart is changed into mellowness.

Mary Green was just such a character as the one last described, etc.

It would be wrong, however, to say that the prefatory introduction is the sign of a poor story, for many good writers produce such stories, and many critical editors accept and publish them. A large majority of Poe's tales begins so; yet in nearly every case the beginning could have been cut and the story improved. Kipling, too, has a liking for this method of beginning; usually he states his abstract idea, as a preacher announces his text, and then proceeds to make the practical application. With these masters the transition from the general to the specific is usually easy and gradual, but in the following example from Kipling's "On the Strength of a Likeness" the line of demarcation is well defined:

Next to a requited attachment, one of the most convenient things that a young man can carry about with him at the beginning of his career is an unrequited attachment. It makes him feel important and business-like, and blase, and cynical; and whenever he has a touch of liver, or suffers from want of exercise, he can mourn over his lost love, and be very happy in a tender, twilight fashion.

Hannasyde's affair of the heart had been a godsend to him. It was four years old, etc.

There is no real abruptness here, and the author's observations are apt and sound; but the fact remains that they are not essential and so a strict observance of conventions requires their elimination.

"The background of a story should always be the last thing to be chosen, but it is the first thing to consider when one comes to actual writing out. A story is much like a painting.... In story writing it appears to be simple portraits that need least background."[34] Scenes may play an important part in a story by influencing the actors or by offering a contrast to the events; in such cases they must be made specific, but rather after the broad free manner of the impressionist. The employment of the contrast or harmony of man and nature is one of the oldest devices of story telling, but also one of the most artistic and effective. It is not an artificial device, though it occasionally appears so from its misuse: it is a fact that all of us must have experienced in some degree, for we are all, though often unconsciously, influenced by the weather or by our environments; and though our emotions may be so intense as to counteract that influence, we are sufficiently self-centered to think it strange that all nature should not be in harmony with us.

You should, however, take care that the scene is important before you attempt to present it. Unless it does influence the action of the story or is necessary for the understanding of what is to come it has no place in the narrative, no matter how great may be its beauties or how artistic your description of them. Above all things, never clutter your story with commonplaces and details which would serve to picture any one of a hundred different places. "When a tale begins, 'The golden orb of day was slowly sinking among the hills, shedding an effulgent glory over the distant landscape,' the discerning reader, whether official or volunteer, is apt to pause right there. He knows exactly what happens when the orb of day finds it time to disappear, and he does not care for your fine language unless it conveys a fact or an idea worth noting."[35]

The best method of procedure is to suggest the scene, as you do the character,[36] by the few specific features which distinguish it from other similar scenes, and to permit the reader's imagination to fill in the details. Hawthorne gives a very distinct idea of the setting of "The Ambitious Guest;" and yet, from his description alone, no two persons would draw the same picture. It suffices that they would all possess the essential elements of loneliness, bleakness and haunting terror. At the same time he effects a sharp contrast between the wildness and discomforts of the night and the peace and cheer of the tavern.

In locating the story it is absurdly shiftless to designate the place by a dash or a single letter, or a combination of the two. One of your first objects is to make your story vivid, and you will not further that end by the use of impossible or indefinite substitutes for names. If you are relating a true story and desire to disguise it, adopt or invent some appellation different enough to avoid detection; but never be so foolish as to say:

The story I am about to relate occurred to my friend X., in the little village of Z——, during the latter part of the year 18—.

It would be just as sensible to go through the rest of the story and substitute blanks or hieroglyphics for the important words. Specificness in minor details is a great aid to vividness, and you cannot afford to miss that desirable quality through sheer laziness.

The safest way to begin a story is to begin at the beginning, state the necessary facts as succinctly as possible, and lead the reader into the quick of the action before he has had time to become weary. For it must be remembered that the object of the short story is always to amuse, and that even in the introductory paragraphs the reader must be interested. If he is not he will very likely cast the story aside as dry and dull; if he does read it through he will be prejudiced at the outset, so that the result will be about the same.

In "The Ambitious Guest" the introduction occupies 1-4, or one-eleventh of the entire story, measured by paragraphs. In that space Hawthorne locates the scene, introduces and individualizes the characters, determines the atmosphere of the tale, and recounts the necessary preliminaries; and all this he does in the easiest way, while skillfully leading up to the story proper. A writer of to-day would probably condense these four paragraphs into one, without neglecting any essentials; but he would hardly attain the literary finish of Hawthorne's work.

To prove further that the beginning of a story does influence its success, I would ask you to consider the following, which is typical of the style of introduction most affected by the novice:

It was a bright, crisp, twilight evening, and two young girls sat together in a richly furnished parlor of a splendid country house.

One, tall and slender, with a richly moulded figure; handsome brunette features, and raven tresses—Edith Laingsford, the daughter of the house; the other, a girl of medium height, with a figure perfectly rounded, and a fair Grecian face.

Her eyes were of a soft gray, and her hair a waving chestnut. She was Marion Leland, a dependent cousin of Miss Laingsford's.

Now, frankly, do you care to read further? Surely there is nothing in the glimpse of the plot here presented that encourages you to hope that the tale may improve upon further perusal. From these three paragraphs you can construct the whole story: you know that the "dependent cousin" and the girl with the "handsome brunette features" will be rivals for the affections of some "nice young man" of corresponding conventionality, and that the poor relation will finally win him—chiefly because it always happens so in stories and seldom in real life. And you know from these specimen paragraphs that there will be nothing in the handling of this poor old hackneyed plot that will repay its perusal. Of course there is always a chance that you may be mistaken in your surmises; but the chance is too slight, and you cast the story aside with a yawn, even as the editor would do. See to it, then, that your own stories do not deserve like treatment.


[Footnote 34: "How to Write Fiction." Published anonymously by Bellaires & Co., London. Part I, Chapter VII.]

[Footnote 35: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]

[Footnote 36: See Chapter VI.]



The correct short story possesses unity of form as well as unity of plot. In the novel there may be wide gaps of time and scene between adjacent chapters; but the short story allows of no such chasms of thought, much less of chapters. Parts or chapters in a short story are uncanonical. A short story is essentially a unit, and the necessity of divisions indicates the use of a plot that belongs to some larger form of literature; but the indicated "parts" or "chapters" may be false divisions introduced through the influence of the conventions of the novel.

The various divisional signs to be avoided are the separate entries or letters of the diary or epistolary forms, the introduction of stars or blank spaces to indicate a hiatus, and the division of the narrative into parts or chapters. The evils of the diary and epistolary forms have already been discussed and need no further comment. The use of stars or spaces either is due to an improper plot, or is entirely unnecessary. In the first instance the fault is radical, and the only remedy is complete reconstruction; in the second case the difficulty resolves itself into an ignorance or a disregard of rhetorical conventions. Often the story is deliberately divided and forced to appear in several chapters when its plot and treatment make its unity very evident; and solely because the amateur has an idea, caught from his novel reading, that such divisions are essential to a well told story. They are not necessary to many novels, though they may be convenient; and they have no place in the scheme of the short story. There are stories, "short" at least in length, in which divisions are necessary to indicate breaks which do not seriously interrupt the coherency of the narrative; they may be readable stories, but they can never be models.

The ideal short story, from the point of unity, is one which requires the passage of the least time and presents the fewest separate incidents. It is the relation of a single isolated incident, which occupies only the time required to tell it. "The Ambitious Guest" impresses the reader as a single incident and would seem to approach this perfection, but a careful analysis of it resolves it into a number of minor incidents, so closely related and connected that at first glance they appear to form a perfect whole. The component incidents of the body of "The Ambitious Guest" ( 5-39) are:

5-7. The stranger praises the fire and reveals his destination.

8, 9. A stone rolls down the mountain side. (Lapse of time indicated here.)

10, 11. The characters are described, as they reveal themselves through their conversation.

12-23. They converse rather frankly of their several ambitions.

24-27. A wagon stops before the inn, but goes on when the landlord does not immediately appear.

28-31. A touch of sentimental byplay between the stranger and the maid.

32. A sadness creeps over the company, caused, perhaps, by the wind wailing without.

33-39. The grandmother discusses her death and burial.

None of these incidents, except those containing the rolling stone and the passing travelers, possess sufficient action or identity to be called an incident, except for some such analytical purpose. They are rather changes in the subject under discussion than separate happenings. With the exception already noted, it may be said that there is no time gap between these incidents, for each one begins at the expiration of its predecessor. The connection and relation of the sub-incidents is not always as close as this. In a longer story they could be more distinct and definite and yet preserve the unity of the work; but they should never disintegrate into minor climaxes,[37] nor into such a jerky succession of disassociated scenes as the following:

On a fair sweet spring morning in the lovely month of May, Squire Darley finishes an important letter. He reads it over the second time to see that there is no mistake.

"There, that'll do, I think," he soliloquizes. "And that'll fetch him, I think. Peculiar diseases require peculiar remedies." And he chuckled to himself. Then with deliberate care he addressed it to "Mr. H. C. Darley, New York City."

A few words to my reader, and we will then follow this important letter. Five years before the time of which we write, Abner Vanclief, a poor but honorable gentleman, had died, leaving his motherless daughter to the sole care of his lifelong friend, Horace Darley, a wealthy country gentleman, a widower, with only one son.

Squire Darley was quite at a loss to know what to do with this, his new charge. He did not think it fit and proper to take her to Darley Dale, with only himself and servants as companions. Then, too, she was sadly in need of schooling.

At last after much worry on his part, it was satisfactorily arranged between himself and a maiden sister, that resided in Albany, that Violet was to remain with her, attend the best college, pay strict attention to her studies and music, and when her education should be completed, she, if she wished, was to make Darley Dale her future home.

Four years passed swiftly by, and then "Dear Aunt Molly," as Violet had learned to call her, was taken violently ill; and before her brother came her sweet spirit had flown away and poor Violet was again alone. But after she became fairly installed as mistress at Darley Dale, she soon learned to love the place and also to love the dear old man that had been to her so staunch a friend.

As for his son Harley, she had heard his praises sung from morning until night. She had never seen him, for at the time of her father's death he was attending college, and before she returned to Darley Dale he had hied himself off to New York City, there to open a law office and declare that his future home.

Many times the Squire had written him beseeching him to return, but always met with a courteous refusal.

When Violet had been at Darley Dale a year she was surprised beyond measure by an offer of marriage from Squire Darley.

He had enlarged upon the fact that his son was a most obstinate young man, that he himself was growing old, and that he wished to see her well cared for before he died.

She had assured him that she could work, and that she was willing to work when the time came, but the old Squire proved himself to be as obstinate as his wilful son. And at last Violet, with a white drawn face, and dark frightened eyes, consented to become his wife at some future time.

And the letter addressed to Mr. H. C. Darley contained the announcement of the engagement of Squire Horace to Miss Violet Vanclief.

It is seldom that even a model short story plot will be a perfect unit, for in the story, as in the life which it pictures, some slight change of scene and some little passage of time are inevitable. Thus in any short story there is usually a slight hiatus of thought, due to these causes, which must be bridged over. The tyro will span the chasm by means of stars or some such arbitrary signs, but the master will calmly ignore such gaps and preserve the unity of his narrative so deftly that even the lines of the dovetailing will be scarcely visible. Thus in "The Ambitious Guest" ( 9, 10) Hawthorne had need to indicate the passage of some little time, during which the guest had his supper; but the breach is passed in so matter-of-fact a manner that there is no jolt, and yet the sense of time is secured:

Let us now suppose the stranger to have finished his supper of bear's meat, and by his natural felicity of manner to have placed himself on a footing of kindness with the whole family; so that they talked as freely together as if he belonged to their mountain-brood.

When the plot comprises a series of closely related episodes the story should be located in the time of the most important one, and all necessary preliminary matter should be introduced as briefly and casually as possible in one of the several ways already given.[38] Indeed, the whole difficulty is usually due to a poor beginning, and properly belongs to the preceding chapter.

Next to the use of divisions comes the error, also caught from the novel, of making the short story a carryall for divers bits of wisdom, moralizing, description, and literary small talk, which have no part in the narrative, but which the clever and self-appreciative author has not the heart to withhold from the public. The art of omission is an important branch of the art of authorship. It is seldom necessary to tell the novice what to put in; but it is frequently necessary to tell him—and oh! so hard to persuade him!—that to introduce an irrelevant idea is worse than to omit a necessary detail. The young writer must learn early and learn once for all the absolute necessity for the exclusion of non-essentials. Selection of details plays an important part in any literary work, but in the short story extreme care is indispensable, for the short story has too little space to sacrifice any to pretty but useless phrases. Such irrelevant matter is usually called "padding," and its presence is a serious detriment to the success of any story, however clever in conception.

One of the chief causes of padding is the desire for "local color"—a term by which we characterize those details which are introduced to make a story seem to smack of the soil. These details must be eminently local and characteristic—possible of application to only the small community to which they are ascribed—or they are mere padding. The need of local color depends much upon the character of the story: it varies from a doubtful addition to the story of ingenuity or adventure, to a necessary part of the story portraying human life and character. "Without blindly indulging in local color one must be accurate in indicating facts. A work of art must not be crowded with so-called local color, but certain facts must be known and used to give the effect of a true relation.... The atmosphere, the feeling and idiosyncrasy—a word or a phrase which reveals character—are the only true local color, not passing phrases of unkempt speech."[39] The stories of Miss Wilkins, Octave Thanet, Bret Harte, and Joel Chandler Harris are full of excellent examples of local color.

Every perfect short story will contain a strong argument for good, through its subtle exposition of the earning of the "wages of sin," but any attempt to make it a medium for the spreading of ethical and spiritual truths will entail ridicule upon the writer and failure upon his work. The only legitimate purpose of the short story is to amuse, and didacticism in literature is always inartistic. "Novels with a purpose" may find publishers and readers; but no one, except the author, cares for "polemic stories—such as set forth the wickedness of Free Trade or of Protection, the Wrongs of Labor and the Rights of Capital, the advantages of one sect over another, the beauties of Deism, Agnosticism, and other unestablished tenets.... Genius will triumph over most obstacles, and art can sugar-coat an unwelcome pill; but in nineteen cases out of twenty the story which covers an apology for one doctrine or an attack upon the other has no more chance than if it were made up of offensive personalities."[40] "Though ordinary dramatic short stories do not have a moral which shows itself, still under the surface in every story is something which corresponds to the moral, and which we shall call the soul of the story."[41] The short story cannot properly be a mere sermon, such as are so often penned under the caption of "The Drunkard's Wife," "The Orphan's Prayer," "The Wages of Sin," and other similar titles. It must teach its moral lesson in its own way—its artistic presentation of the great contrast between the sort of men who work deeds of nobility and of shame. If it be saddled with didacticism or tailed with a moral, it ceases to be a story and becomes an argument; when it no longer concerns us.

Indirectly, and perhaps unintentionally, the short story is a great factor for good. The world is weary of the bald sermons of the Puritans, and of their endeavor to "point a tale" by every ordinary occurrence; it is rather inclined to a Pharisaical self-righteousness; and needs to have its sins, and the practical benefits of goodness, cunningly insinuated; but it can never fail to admire and strive to emulate the noble deeds of noble men, whether creatures of flesh or phantoms of the brain. To be sure, many of our best short stories deal with events so slight and really unimportant that they might be said to have no moral influence; yet, if they simply provide us with innocent amusement for an idle hour, their ethical value must not be overlooked; and when they do involve some great moral question or soul crisis their influence is invariably on the right side.

The point is that religion is not literature. The mere fact that the heroine of a story is a poor milk and water creature, full of bald platitudes and conventional righteousness, does not make that narrative correct or readable; indeed, it is very apt to make it neither, for the platitudes will be irrelevant and the righteousness uninteresting. When this old world of ours becomes really moral we may be content to read so-called stories in which goody-good characters parade their own virtues and interlard their ordinary speech with prayers and hymns and scriptural quotations; but while a tithe of the present sin and crime exists our fiction will reflect them with the other phases of our daily life.

Now by this I do not at all mean that religion has no place in literature. Such a ruling would not only be contrary to the practice of our best writers, but would also deprive us of a recognized and important element in human life. The religious influence is one of the most powerful to which man is subject, and as it plays so great a part in our lives it must necessarily figure largely in our stories. But it must be treated there because of the manner in which it influences human life and action, and not from the ethical standpoint: it must be made literature and not religious dogmatism. That it can be so treated and yet retain the full strength of its power for good is best illustrated in the works of Miss Wilkins. Nearly every one of her stories possesses a strong element of New England Puritanism, but there is no attempt to preach or moralize.

The short story must be well proportioned: those parts which are essential differ materially in their importance, and they must be valued and handled in accordance with their influence upon the plot. No scene, however cleverly done, must be allowed to monopolize the space of the story, except in so far as it is necessary to an understanding of what follows; and no incident which furthers the plot, however trivial or ordinary it may seem to you, must be slighted. The preservation of the balance of the story is not wholly a matter of the number of words involved: often a page of idle chatter by the characters makes less impression on the reader than a single terse direct sentence by the author himself; but in general the practice is to value the various parts of the story by the word space accorded them. This rule will not, however, hold good in the case of the climax, which is estimated both by its position and by the manner in which it is worked up to.

The story proper is really only the preparation for the climax. Most stories depend for their interest upon the pleasure with which we follow the principal characters through various trying episodes, and the great desire which we all experience to know "how it all comes out." It is this innate sense, which seems to be a phase of curiosity, that affords the pleasure that the average reader derives from fiction. One seldom stops to consider how a story is written, but judges it by its power to keep him absorbed in the fortunes of its hero and heroine. This is the element of suspense.

However, there finally comes a point when the suspense cannot be longer continued, and the strained attention of the reader is on the verge of collapsing into indifference, when the curiosity must be gratified by at least a partial revelation; and so the element of surprise enters. Too long a strain on the interest is invariably fatal, and the thing is to know when to relieve the tension. Just when this relief should occur depends upon the plot and the length of the story, so that the question must be settled separately for each particular case. As has already been said, the plot of a short story should not be involved; yet it may be permitted some degree of complexity. In such a case it is probable that there must be some preliminary relief of suspense before the final relief which the climax offers. However, because of the usual simplicity of the plot, the length of the story has greater influence in regulating the relief of the suspense. In a story of 3,000 words or less there is neither room nor necessity for any preliminary surprise, and the most effective method is to withhold all hints at the outcome until the actual climax, as Hawthorne did in "The Ambitious Guest." But when the story approaches or exceeds 10,000 words it is probable that there must be some lessening of the tension previous to the climax, as in Henry James' "The Lesson of the Master." This story, which contains 25,000 words, is divided into six parts, each representing a separate scene in the progress of the story; and yet, so skillful is James, there is no hiatus between the parts, and the story as a whole has unity of impression. At the end of each part the reader has made a definite advance toward the point of the story, through the preliminary relief of suspense afforded by that part, as a study of this brief outline will show:


At the end Paul Overt first sees Henry St. George, and the reader receives a definite picture of the great author, who has hitherto been only a name.


At the end the two meet, and the picture is given life.


All through this division St. George reveals to Overt his real character, so that when the end comes Overt has a less exalted idea of the master than that which he had cherished.


At the end Marion Fancourt tells Overt of St. George's declared intention to cease visiting her. This relieves suspense by making Overt's position toward her more definite, but also involves matters because of St. George's failure to give any good reason for his action.


At the end Overt, by the advice of St. George, sacrifices in the cause of true art all his natural desires for love and domestic joys.


In the first part Overt learns of St. George's engagement to Miss Fancourt.

At the end St. George tells Overt that he has given up writing to enjoy those very things which he advised Overt to renounce.

A study of this outline will show you the necessity, in the case of this story, of these preliminary reliefs of the suspense. It would have been absurdly impossible to have tried to hold in abeyance until the climax all these matters; nor does the solving of any of these minor perplexities at all lessen the interest in the denouement. Each bit of information comes out at the proper time as a matter of course, just as it would come to our knowledge if we were observing a similar drama in real life.

When the outcome of the writer's meanderings is finally revealed, it should be a veritable surprise—i. e., be unexpected. This is a matter that is rather easily managed, for it is a poor plot that does not afford at least two settlements—either the heroine marries the hero, or she marries the villain; and often there is a third possibility, that she marries neither. If he has provided a proper plot, the author has but little to do with making the surprise genuine, and that little is rather negative. He opens the possibility of the hero doing any one of a number of things, and he may even give rather broad hints, but he should take care never to give a clue to the outcome of the story, unless he purposely gives a misleading clue. The most artistic method is to make these hints progressive and culminative, so that though each one adds to the knowledge of the reader, it is only when they all culminate in the climax that the mystery is completely solved.

This preparation for the climax is one of the most delicate tasks required of the short story writer. The climax must seem the logical result of events and personal characteristics already recited. If it is too startling or unexpected it will be a strain on the credulity of the reader, and will be dubbed "unnatural;" for though fiction allows great license in the employment of strange people and situations, it demands that they be used with some regard for plausibility. The ending must appear inevitable—but its inevitableness must not be apparent until the end has come. It is only after the story has been read that the reader should be able to look back through the narrative and pick out the preparatory touches. They must have influenced him when first he read them and prepared him for what was to come, but without his being conscious of their influence.

The novice usually prepares the way for his climax so carefully that he gives it away long before he should. This he does either by means of anticipatory side remarks, or by making the outcome of his story so obvious at the start that he really has no story to tell, and a climax or surprise is impossible. The first fault is much the easier to correct: most of the side remarks can be cut out bodily without injury to the story, and those which are really necessary can be so modified and slurred over that they will prepare the way for the climax without revealing it. The other fault is usually radical: it is the result of a conventional plot treated in the conventional manner. It is beyond help so far as concerns that particular story, for it requires a new plot handled in an original manner; but its recurrence can be prevented if the writer will be more exacting in his selection of plots, and more individual in his methods. It can usually be detected in the beginning, as in the case of the last example quoted in Chapter VIII.

In "The Ambitious Guest" the climax is led up to most skillfully by Hawthorne; indeed, his preparation is so clever that it is not always easy to trace. Throughout the story there are an air of gloom and a strange turning to thoughts of death that seem to portend a catastrophe; and I believe the following passages are intentional notes of warning:

1 ... a cold spot and a dangerous one.... stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight.

2 ... the wind came through the Notch and seemed to pause before their cottage, ... wailing and lamentation.... For a moment it saddened them, though there was nothing unusual in the tones.

3 ... whose fate was linked with theirs.

8 (Entire.)

9 (Entire.)

10 ... a prophetic sympathy ... the kindred of a common fate....

12 (Entire.)

14 "... a noble pedestal for a man's statue." (Doubtful.)

16 "... things that are pretty certain never to come to pass."

17 "... when he is a widower."

18 "When I think of your death, Esther, I think of mine too. But I was wishing we had a good farm ... round the White Mountains, but not where they could tumble on our heads.... I might die happy enough in my bed.... A slate gravestone would suit me as well as a marble one...."

20 "They say it's a sign of something when folk's minds go a-wandering so."

22 "... go and take a drink out of the basin of the Flume." (Doubtful; unless regarded as the result of some subtle warning to fly the spot.)

26 ... though their music and mirth came back drearily from the heart of the mountain.

28 ... a light cloud passed over the daughter's spirit....

32 ... it might blossom in Paradise, since it could not be matured on earth ... the wind through the Notch took a deeper and drearier sound.... There was a wail along the road as if a funeral were passing.

36 (Entire.)

38 (Entire.)

39 (Entire.)

A novice writing the same story would hardly have refrained from introducing some very bald hints concerning the fate of the ambitious stranger; for the novice has a mistaken idea that wordy and flowery exclamations make sad events all the sadder, forgetting that silent grief is the keenest. Thus the novice would have interlarded his narrative with such exclamations as:


Ah! could the unfortunate stranger but have guessed the culmination of his bright dreams, how would he have bewailed his fate!


Unhappy youth! his grave was to be unmarked, his very death in doubt!


Poor girl! had she a premonition of her awful death?

Such interpolations are very exasperating to the reader, for he much prefers to learn for himself the outcome of the tale; and they also greatly offend against the rhetorical correctness of the story, for they are always utterly irrelevant and obstructive.

The only stories which may properly anticipate their own denouements are what might be called "stories of premonition," in which the interest depends upon comparing actual events to the prophecy of dreams or some other mystical agency. In such tales the real interest is usually in the weirdness of the whole affair—though, to be sure, they do not always turn out as they are expected to. For, after all, this introduction of surprise into fiction is simply an imitation of nature, and "it is the unexpected that always happens."


[Footnote 37: See Chapter X.]

[Footnote 38: See Chapter VIII for the best methods of introducing foundation facts.]

[Footnote 39: "The Art of Fiction." A lecture by Gilbert Parker. The Critic. Dec., '98.]

[Footnote 40: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]

[Footnote 41: "How to Write Fiction." Published anonymously by Bellaires & Co., London. Part I, Chapter V.]



If the overworked editor, hastily skimming the heap of MSS. before him, comes upon one which promises well in the opening paragraphs, he will turn to its conclusion, to learn how well the author has kept his promise; and if he finds there equal evidence of a good story, he will put the MS. by for more careful reading and possible purchase. Experience has taught him that the end of a story is second only to the beginning as a practical test of the narrative; and therefore to the author as well the conclusion is of extreme importance.

The end of a short story comprises the climax and the conclusion. The climax is the chief surprise, the relief of the suspense, or the greatest relief, if there is more than one; it is the apex of interest and emotion; it is the point of the story; it is really the story. The conclusion is the solving of all problems, the termination of the narrative itself, and the artistic severing of all relations between narrator and reader.

The climax, in spite of its importance, is but a small part of the story, so far as mere words are concerned. In a properly constructed narrative its influence is felt throughout the whole story, which, as already stated, is but one long preparation for it. But in itself the climax is usually confined to a single paragraph of ordinary length; and the climax proper, the real point of the story, is usually conveyed in a half dozen words. For the climax, and particularly the climax proper, is the story concentrated in a single phrase. It must have been prepared for carefully and worked up to at some length; but when it does come it must be expressed so directly and so forcefully that it will make the reader jump mentally, if not physically. It is the desire to produce this startling effect that leads some writers to endeavor to gain artificial force by printing their climax proper in italics, or even in capitals. In "The Ambitious Guest" we have an unusually strong and perfect climax in 40, 41:

... a sound abroad in the night, rising like the roar of a blast, had grown broad, deep and terrible before the fated group were conscious of it. The house and all within it trembled; the foundations of the earth seemed to be shaken, as if this awful sound was the peal of the last trump. Young and old exchanged one wild glance and remained an instant pale, affrighted, without utterance or power to move. Then the same shriek burst simultaneously from all their lips:

"The slide! The slide!"

while the climax proper—the climax of the climax—occurs in the four words which compose 41.

"The slide! The slide!"

It is hardly necessary to say that the climax should be very near the end of the story, for even those stories which attempt to begin in the middle and go both ways at once place the climax properly. But there is a danger that the climax will come too soon. After they have reached what is properly a central point in their story, amateurs often become lazy or in too great a hurry, and rush the latter part of the narrative through unceremoniously. In the first part they may have been inclined to go into needless detail; but when once they come in sight of the finish, they forget everything except that their task is nearly ended; they plunge ahead regardless, treat important matters most superficially, neglect those skillful little touches which go to make a story natural and literary, and reach the end to find that they have skeletonized an important part of the narrative. In such a case the reader is very apt to come upon the climax unexpectedly, and so to find it forced and illogical; whereas if the author had preserved the proportions of his narrative, and led up to his climax properly, it would have been accounted strong and inevitable.

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