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Movement in Literary Composition

by The Editor Company   


There is a close analogy between the compositions of music and those of literature. In each there is a central and dominant theme, and a secondary; a forward and a retrograde movement ; and in both are found introduction, andante, scherzo, waltz, adagio, and presto for finale or climax. True literature, being a record of the impressions of feeling, is, indeed in its structure and mission very closely allied to music. There is, however, a wider divergence in the tastes that it appeals to, a more cosmopolitan element in its mission, that renders literature the music of all humanity.

The dominant theme is, of course, the strong feature of the story. It is sounded in the introduction, and touched upon in all the successive stages of the composition. To avoid the danger of monotony, the secondary theme is introduced as running along near to the other, but not having such a strong bearing on the final outcome. It is usually of a different character from the master thought. Thus, mystery and love, adventure and love, murder and philanthropy are often woven into stories with pleasing variations.

In the dominant theme there is found the force of the forward movement. This element is one that requires the greatest care in handling, for by its very nature it is apt to push the writer into nervous haste and mar the effect of the story. To look your writing calmly in the face and say: "This part pushes the narrative forward. This marks progress toward the end to be attained," requires a steady nerve and a calm, analytical, closely self-critical quality of mind. Yet unless you are inspired and a genius, this is just what you will have to train yourself to do.

In order that the forward movement may be something more than mere narration of a succession of events the theme must present itself as one having quantity of matter. It must have weight and be worthy in order that the passions that move it may secure a telling momentum. The subject should be important, should be of vital interest, and should run either through the channels of human interest, like love between the sexes, love of families; or through those of strong habit in long associations, ardent endeavors in business, etc.; or through sudden inspiration of emotion, as in terror, hate, fear, etc. These furnish the basis for some of the strongest demonstrations of passion that the world has ever witnessed, yet they are themes that are within the comprehension of all or nearly all mankind.

In the secondary theme the emotions portrayed need not be so strong; or at most, are not presented in such a manner as to appeal strongly to the sympathies or attention of the reader. In this way there is secured a recess from the stronger concentration of thought and feeling that renders that same strength stronger by reason of the gentler companion's contrast.

The secondary theme, then, retards the movement of the principal and keeps the action more steady and uniform. There are several other means of retrograde movement whose use in literary composition is no less frequent than the introduction of slower lines of thought and feeling; and among these are Retrospection and Definite Description.

You will observe that in all the well-ordered stories of action there is a bit of swift, strong, forward movement at the beginning of the story. It is the opening gun with flourish of trumpets and bugle call, giving the reader the necessary impetus to rise up from the tents of dull inaction to the fervor and excitement of a literary engagement between reader and writer.

Thus roused and stimulated, the attention is held while the writer goes back in retrospection over what is necessary to give a full rounding out of the story. Thus, he may open with the verdict of a jury given with due solemnity and importance; and later can give the defendant or some one else a chance to tell why such a case was on the calendar and something of the reason for the verdict or findings, whichever the result may be.

By so doing the mind is halted on its onward march to the conclusion and fastened to the survey of the situation as if the reader were in fact one of the very parties of the occasion and had his part and parcel in deciding the final. This feeling he could not in good reason be expected to entertain without this premonitory push into the stream of action by the forward movement given at the outset. The moral of this has been often quoted by teachers of story writing: "Never begin with trite descriptions," "Avoid lengthy reviews or retrospection at the start," etc.

But the importance of the secondary or retrospective retrograde is really very strong. It foreshadows the really great events, but does not blaze by reason of its own light. There is great art in knowing how to keep the feelings in check, to drive well, yet not too fast, to glide along smoothly, but not be shivered and shaken by sudden spurts of too hasty action. There is, indeed, at the very point of stirring action, where the strong light is about to be put in focus on the climacteric scene, a veritable adagio of retrograde in the definite description given. Every path or byway, each tree, leaf and shrub that has a bearing on the plot, is pointed out with pardonable punctiliousness. For has the reader not reached now the strength of feeling, the keenness of attention and interest, that will make all of these important? If they keep his mind in suspense a little longer they will make him that much more eager for the conclusionó"a consummation devoutly to be wished."

The place of this form of retrograde movement is just before the climax, and closely associated therewith. It is so closely associated with the adagio that precedes the presto of a sonata, that the similarity of purpose must be more than highly probable.

How to take a simple narration of facts and time it to the human heart's sympathies is indeed a work for genius. The narration is the bare, bald recital of the story, it can be told in a very few lines ; indeed, it is wanting in unity if it can not be so epitomized; and that is, then, the subject for telling which men throw away the best moments of their lives in a vain endeavor to make something that will bring name and fame and fortune. The telling of a story; how easy it sounds; why, any one can tell a story, but who will listen?

The teller must always have thought for the one to whom it is to be told, and this one has to have first his attention called and called loudly, then his interest widened, and following these movements he may be rocked to sleep or danced into a whirlwind, but he must have sufficient retrograde movements, as well as forward movements, to make his progress one of change, one of importance to his own inner consciousness, or he will throw you down in disgust; but if you give him the story with proper grading of movement and feeling, he will swear by you to all posterity, and keep your coffers filled to eternity.