The Novel: Its Principles, Plots and Plans
by The Editor Company
The author who aspires to novel writing must make certain of three facts: First, he must understand the fundamental principles governing long fiction; second, he must conceive a satisfactory plot; third, he must plan or outline his work. Not one beginner in a hundred takes into consideration these points; as a direct result not one first novel in a hundred is salable—or readable! This article does not attempt to cover the field, but merely to point out the beginnings of the paths to systematic labor.
Successful novelists have often been failures as short story writers. Most of them, however, have mastered the general principles of the briefer fiction, and have applied them in the longer. For the novel, it must be understood, is simply a series of units or chapters which for all practical purposes are of themselves short stories. First of all, the chapter is a unit; it demands oneness of time, scene, view-point, subject matter, aim and purpose, etc. Second, it corresponds with the short story in-so-far as it has a definite introduction, body proper (or development of plot) and conclusion or climax. The mastering of these simple principles would save thousands of careless authors from rushing to novel perdition.
A novel, as a matter of course, must have a plot; more, it must concern itself with motive, characterization, the development of some emotion, background, style, and similar topics. Unless the writer has clearly in mind the demands of such qualities, he can not expect to have the working knowledge essential to successful workmanship.
PLOT: The term plot may be defined as story, as any sequence of events making or marring happiness, success or achievement. It has aptly been called unity of design or plan. It is not necessarily emotional nor spontaneous. It demands incidents, which furnish the action; these are to be treated in accordance with the general unity of plan—some elaborated, some narrated without expansion or condensation and some omitted entirely. It is here, of course, that the study of subject matter and the preliminary outline comes into play. The story hinging upon the elopement of a rash woman furnishes a study frequently utilized. Now, obviously the reader's sympathy, apathy, condemnation, praise, etc., depend entirely upon the. manner in which the incidents are treated. The novel-plot, it will be noted, is capable of infinite modes of treatment, making rules valueless and instruction of little practical aid.
MOTIVE: All novels, of course, must have some general purpose,
necessarily of teaching, preaching or converting, but rather of
influencing the reader. In this connection, one must consider
verisimilitude. Here again, however, there is a warning provision, best
illustrated by quoting a criticism of Defoe, from Dawson's "Makers of
English Fiction": "He had unconsciously hit upon the primary principle
of fiction, that fiction is a kind of lie, and that it is useless to
lie unless you can lie so like the truth that you are believed."
Granted one has an initial absurdity, but follows it with real and
unquestionable analysis, there is verisimilitude to life. In general,
however, there should be verity of understanding on the part of the
writer, and verity of technique in its presentation to the reader. The
motive of a novel, then, may be defined as an attempt to present life,
to obtain verisimilitude. Henry James puts it: "The air of reality
seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel—the merit on
which all its other merits (including that conscious moral purpose of which Mr.
Besant speaks) helplessly and submissively depend."
CHARACTERIZATION: In presenting characters in a novel, there are three plans that have been followed: First, the story-people are portrayed as they are in real life in the abstract ; second, they are portrayed as ideals; third, they are portrayed as they are developed by their lives. The first method deals with characters of the everyday world,—not great in thoughts, in deeds, nor in achievements. Here, at least is verisimilitude. The second presents the commonplace man or woman in his or her best moods; the better side of humankind; the hero and heroine whom the reader is craftily lured.to believe reflects himself or herself. Fiction of this type aims to reform, to idealize, to present the "higher truth." It is with the last method, however, that the modern novelist concerns himself most. The action is designed to develop the characters ; the hero or heroine is of this world, faulty and sinful, and is swept along by life itself, sometimes to the pinnacle, sometimes to the depths.
In studying characterization, there are many points to be considered, but these coincide with the demands of the short story too closely to consider here. It may not be amiss, however, to note a few that apply particularly to the novel. First, the principal characters are not used at the very outset. There is preparation for them, suspense, discussion about, introduction in a group from which they eventually emerge and individualize. Second, first and last impressions are the most impressive. It behooves the author, therefore, to study well the introduction and the dismissal. In passing, it might be noted that an abrupt introduction often effects a dramatic impression of romance or even pure sensation. Third, in the novel there are many characteristics, and. one group is often allowed to remain in the background while another occupies the center of the stage. This affords not only mental rest by way of mechanical (chapter) variety, but it also offers great scope for comparison and contrast. Finally, characters are accorded their proper positions by their appellations, striking features of face or form, dress, actions, emotions, speeches, psychology, classification as to identity, individuality and type.
DEVELOPMENT OF EMOTION: It has been claimed, by Stoddard, in "Evolution of the English Novel," that "the emotional period in life is the great period of life." The novel has been called variously "the study of the human heart," "the portrayal of passion," etc. It is this type, perhaps, which the French masters have so ably presented. In some modern novels there has been a tendency to analyze rather than to depict sentiment, but this will hardly survive. As to the development of the emotions, there are few general rules. Usually it is the motif of the story. If the hero and heroine both love at the outset, there is little story; rather, it is the growth of love, its sweeping aside of obstacles, that make the story. So, also, with pathos, tragedy, hate, humor and the like. The growth and culmination of such emotions run parallel with the development of characters, and intertwines with—or even forms—the plot itself.
BACKGROUND: The background of a novel includes not only the physical features of the landscape, but also the atmosphere or every touch or point that serves to reveal or impress environment. There is a direct connection between background and emotion; the proper setting produces and prepares the proper effect. The nature of the novel itself directly affects the background, as one will note when he considers the general types, the novel of manners, of politics, of locality, of history, etc. Still another classification, dividing novels into those of incident, of artifice, of ordinary life, of the inevitable, will reveal the same truth. Simply the general suggestive definition will enable the student to work out this subject for himself.
STYLE: Often the manner in which a novel is written determines its success or failure. Style readily divides itself into two parts: First, the phraseology itself, depending upon the details, wording, vocabulary, clearness, propriety, force, elegance, simplicity, etc; second, with the general construction of the novel as a whole. It is presupposed that the author who attempts a novel knows how to express his thoughts in clear, entertaining English. The first part, therefore, concerns itself with writing in general, rather than with the novel. The second deals more with what might be termed the method of narration. There are first, second and third person narrations. There are actor-author and spectator-author points of view. In general these present again the problems of the short story; the writer personally believes in the third person method, with the author becoming the mind of some one of the characters. In the novel, however, the chapters entail many points of difference. Each chapter may have a new point of view; all the chapters may be narrated from one point of view; there may be, say, three or four points of view for the entire story, each separate and not conflicting at any time with another. The author-hero is narrow-minded ; the letter form is prolix. If the author must appear, it is better to keep his own individuality as author.
Now let us sum up very briefly the first part of our discussion governing the fundamental principles of the novel. First, the story must have plot; namely, a series of incidents working out some problem of life to a satisfactory conclusion. Second, the general motive of the novel is to picture life, to preserve verisimilitude. Third, there must be artistic character delineation, showing the real, the ideal and the developed man or woman, pictured by adroit introduction and dismissal, group and individual growth and comparison and contrast, etc., and by the usual process based upon appellation, physiognomy, dress, actions and emotions, speeches, psychology, classification as to identity, individuality and type, etc. Fourth, to achieve successful characterization and story, the development of emotion must be traced, as it affects love, hate, pathos, tragedy, humor, etc. Fifth, the novel must have a distinct background or atmosphere and classification. Sixth, the phraseology and method must be considered and planned, resulting preferably in an original and simple narration in the third person.
Having considered the hints which open the door for a study of the general laws of novel writing, we are ready for a consideration of subject or theme and plan or outline.
The plot of a novel is complicated. To secure it, the writer usually begins by studying a general problem, later fitting it to scenes and characters. It is so utterly impossible to teach an author how to achieve a plot that one can do no more than point the method followed by others. Hawthorne was extremely methodical and leaves some excellent examples for study. Perhaps his notes on the plot of "The Birthmark" serve best to indicate the usual plan of formation.
The initial conception is to be found in these three successive entries:
"A person to be in the possession of something as perfect as mortal man has a right to demand; he tries to make it better, and ruins it entirely."
"A person to spend all his life and splendid talents in trying to achieve something naturally impossible—as to make a conquest over Nature."
"A person to be the death of his beloved in trying to raise her to more than mortal perfection; yet this should be a comfort to him for having aimed so highly and holily."
First, it is to be noted, comes the general problem for study; second, the narrowing down to a definite idea; third, the individualizing, thus giving the human, sympathetic appeal.
The general theme of "Silas Marner" is the influence of the love of a child on the lonely and embittered nature of a hermit. In the story itself, it is expressed in this paragraph:
"In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction; a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently toward a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's."
This method, varied according to the writer and the subject, has served since novels assumed their modern form.
Granting that the author can evolve a suitable plot, the next step is to block out roughly the story. Catalogue the characters. Create a hero and a heroine, a villain and a villainess—subdued to suit your story. Remember there must be major and minor characters, there must be contrasts, there must be two sets working in opposition. In many stories, there are two or more groups which either are separated at first, to meet later, or meet first and separate later. Here, then, is a distinct division. If half the book is to deal with one group and half with the other, so plan and outline it, giving us first one and then the other, chapter by chapter or part by part. Plan the lines of convergence or divergence. Study the climax, and work always with it in mind. Number your chapters and give each its incidents, its story, its aims and accomplishments. It will be impossible to plan exactly, but the rough draft will serve its purpose.
Next comes the actual writing. The book is blocked out in from twenty to forty chapters of from 2,000 to 4,000 words each. Unless absolutely necessary, there should be no preface or prologue. Any preliminary survey is very apt to be amateurish.
Chapter I is the first taste for the reader. It should be appetizing. None of your heavy descriptions of character or scene here; none of your moralizing, philosophizing or teaching; instead, the story should actually begin. The principal characters should be introduced in the first chapter, either directly by their appearance or indirectly by comment about them. The nature of the story should be suggested; it should strike out toward the inevitable and logical outcome, without wavering from side to side. The chapter should have an introduction that whets the curiosity, a development of story that carries forward the interest on a constantly ascending plane and a conclusion that furnishes some form of climax to what has been told and still invites a perusal of the second chapter by anticipation of what is to come. In brief, the introductory chapter should bring before the reader certain of the principal characters, should suggest the nature of the novel, should be a unit of construction, and should be so invitingly presented as to force the reader to go on with the next.
Chapter II rapidly gets beyond the limits of rule or advice. It may be a continuation of the story of the first, possibly with a change of time or scene; or it may be a new portion of the theme, dealing with another group of characters. As a general suggestion, however, it may be well to hold to the main story-thread and one group of characters until the grip upon the reader is secure.
Succeeding chapters serve simply to unfold the story. Each must be a step in the great stairway, leading forward toward the inevitable and upward as the interest ascends toward the climax. Each is a short story of itself, dovetailing into the preceding and succeeding chapters. There may be a straight line from first to last, or several converging at some one point, or even at two or more. Finally, when the climax is reached, there must be a solution of the general problem, the working out of the whole idea.
The last chapter of most novels is in the form of anti-climax, and is reserved for the final distribution and disposition of the various characters. The effect has been produced. The hero or heroine is at the end of the suspense. Now, in this chapter, the minor or secondary characters must work out their final destinies.
Last of all comes revision. It is doubtful if ever a novel was written that did not demand some reshaping, rewriting and reconstructing. An incident is in the wrong chapter, one division is too long or too short, one is ill written, one creates a wrong impression, one is over or under-elaborated. Each sentence, possibly, does not carry forward the story; there is verbosity, redundancy, prolixity. All this—and many kindred weaknesses—must be overcome. Then the story is ready for the typewriter, who will present it upon sheets of white paper, neither heavy nor transparent, about 8.5x11, the pages of each chapter fastened together with a removable clip and perhaps a loose cover for the whole. The box in which the paper came makes an admirable one in which to pack the manuscript in expressing it to publishers.
Finally, it must be emphasized again that there is no short cut to success in novel writing, and that its principles are so variable that they elude rule and direction. To know nothing of them presages sure failure; to be bound too closely by straight-laced law means a warping of individuality that achieves the same end. Know the general rules of construction, evolve a strong plot properly, write simply and clearly and effectively, and success is yours!