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The Point of Attack

by The Editor Company   


Is literary power a kind of magic? It is not, and it is. It is not, because we can analyze its method quite definitely. It is, because the faithful pursuit of its method will not produce a result of equal value in every case.

Under one touch the product is mechanical, dead. Under another, life springs into fact. Its creation of life distinguishes literary power from the mere trick of the trade. Not that the trick of the trade is to be despised. It is indispensable, though some may be gifted with its unconscious exercise. But when it works alone it does not produce literature.

Because literary power creates life, it shares with life its mystery and its paradox. What is life? Who has ever told? We define life by telling what it does, rather than what it is. The presence of life is declared, not because we see the vital principle itself, but because we see its activities—the beat of the heart, the nerve's recoil from the needle, the mist from the breath upon the mirror. What is literary power? Who knows? But we can tell you what it does. It makes Meg Mer-rilees and Dick Swiveller and Doctor M'Clure and Lily Bart and Joe Louden real people. It finds you in your easy chair and transfers you in a second to Arizona, the Smoky Mountains, the Klondike, or the Labrador. It makes you prefer "Adirondack Tales" and "The Ruling Passion," to fishing and hunting yarns from the prosy lips of the man at your club.

The paradox of literature is allied to its mystery. In life the finest things, like happiness and love, do not come because we seek them. So with literary power. Its finish of expression, its vivid pictures, its dramatic intensity and its emotional appeal come of themselves when we cease to be anxious about them and devote our energies to seeking something else. Now what is this point of attack?

A boy brought his father a sentence from his school composition. It was plain that he took pride in it. He read with unction, and waited. "That has a fine sound," the older man reflected. "Just what did you mean by it?" Irritated and taken aback, the boy flung out impatiently a terse statement of his idea. "Very good!" was the unexpected reply. "Why didn't you say so?"

The point is Precision. Say what you mean, and say it


But does this not oblige you to sacrifice literary form and dramatic and emotional effect? By no means. You sacrifice these advantages when you fail in precision. They depend upon the subject-matter, which finds its appropriate style of expression if you allow it to speak for itself. Stevenson does not lack literary beauty, nor does Kipling miss dramatic force. And each of them could have told you the precise reason for every word of his best work. The grace of the one and the strength of the other are alike the result of strict attention to making their meaning clear. They waste no words. What could you spare from "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"? or from "The Man Who Would Be King" ? The two stories will repay your careful analysis.

For emotional appeal study Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue." Could pathos be more powerful? Why does it start your tears? Because, though written in verse (where, if ever, you forgive superfluous diction) it is the barest statement of fact. The poet is busy with minute details which he is too true an artist to explain. He allows his details to make their own appeal.

A good prose example of the fact that precision insures other valuable qualities is the writing of Grant's "Personal Memoirs." The plain soldier made no pretension or attempt at literature. He told the direct story of matters within his own knowledge, and the story was a genuine literary surprise.

Two rules which will help to attain precision are:

A.  "When you have nothing to say, say nothing." How can you tell? Translate your story into "just talk." If it wilts too perceptibly in the process, spare the long envelope— lest thou also wilt in undue season! If this plan leaves something of the story as a whole, pursue a similar method with each paragraph and sentence—even with each word—-holding the blue pencil as a penalty for all that is futile.

B.  "Tell something you know."

(1)   It is unimportant whether you have seen it in the world around you, or in the world you read about, or in some fairy world of your dreams.

(2)   It need not deter you that somebody else has seen the same thing and told it already. If you see it yourself, you will see it for yourself, and nobody else has seen it in quite the same way.

(3) You do not know a fact until you know the truth which explains it. This may suggest why so many practical people tell you never to write a "true" story. As a matter of fact, you have no business ever to write anything else! The point is that what you call the "actual occurrence," besides being barren and incomplete, is not the real story in any case. Particular incidents are of no consequence. The story is what is behind them—a truth concerning relations.

(4) You do not know a truth when you vaguely understand that it exists behind a certain fact. You know it when you take it out of the place where you find it, set it in the midst of conditions which you borrow or invent, and allow it to work there in accordance with its inevitable laws.

For example. A girl runs away from a strict home, goes upon the stage, wins fame and fortune, visits her home and effects a reconciliation with her people. These are the facts, but not your story. Behind them are truths: Uncompromising strictness expresses an honest nature under certain limitations. Strictness induces revolt. Talent and character conquer obstacles. Here you find the story, but you are not ready to tell it. First you decide which truth shall hold the central place in your plot. Your hero or heroine is the one of your characters who best personifies this truth. Suppose it is the girl. What temperament and ideals belong to her character? How would these act and be acted upon in her home ? What would follow their contact with the stage world? Construct your minor characters in a similar way. Then you are ready to present a particular girl in definite relations with specified people in the natural sequence of such scenes from her life as you have chosen to bring out your plot.

(5) You do not know a thing until you can tell it. You will hear people say, "I understand, but I can not explain." They, are mistaken. Either they do not understand, or could explain if they tried. There is something hazy about an idea when it can not be put in plain words. Obscurity of expression never implies depth of thought, but always either obscurity of thought, disregard of the reader, or unpardonable laziness— Browning enthusiasts to the contrary notwithstanding.

<>(6) You do not tell what you know until you tell it as you know it. Precision involves saying what you mean, not what somebody else meant under similar circumstances. The individual point of view gives freshness and vigor to the most familiar scene. Find your own metaphors. Cultivate a turn of expression of your own patent-right. If you can't do this, do not be afraid "just to talk." Literary "cant" may not be as nauseating as the religious variety, but it destroys life quite as effectively.

Now what is the final test of a story? It must find the reader. And we have so much in common that the precise record of your own impression is the surest road to your neighbor's understanding. When some reader sees the picture you have seen, precision has guided the brush. When he lives with real people in the places where you have known them, precision has "personally conducted" him.