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Writing the Short Story 3: The Plot

by The Editor Magazine   


In this survey, which by reason of the many intricacies of the subject must be offered in two installments, the plot will be defined, sources will be traced, impossible situations outlined and explained, classifications arranged, germ-developments taught, forms and constructions exhibited, and a working plot analyzed and dissected for the purpose of showing a practical example of the various theories propounded.

Taking up first the simple or fundamental straight line of action or movement in a story, it will be seen that plot is the basis or framework of short fiction. It embraces a problem and a solution. Every plot is capable of two or more outcomes, although, of course, only one is artistic, only one satisfying, only one the happy combination of realism and imagination. The problem to be solved, is of no greater importance than the solution.

In reality, plot is a situation and an outcome. It is the business of the story-writer to outline clearly and skillfully the relations and conditions of the characters and surroundings, and then to alter, to separate, to unite in such a way as to leave an entirely changed situation at the end. The possibilities arc limitless. No better statement of the fundamental or primary plot-idea of two men and a woman has come to the writer's notice than this clipping from a short story in a recent magazine:

There ar,e two men in this story. And for that reason there is a woman. It is the inevitable triangle. The men are better men than most, and the woman—but this is the beginning of the story. When two men and one woman do things, or just don't do things, sufficiently interesting, abominable, curious or idiotic to become matter for a story, it is always for one of four reasons. If the woman is unmarried—she mostly isn't—both men are fools and desire nothing on earth but to marry her. If the laws of her country permit of it the woman marries both men, and the finale is tragic. If the laws of her country do not permit of it she marries one of the men, and again the finale is tragic. She marries the wrong man. If the other man is a greater fool than the lucky man and the rest of us, he runs away with the woman, and again the end is tragic. If the other man happens by accident to be the one wise man on earth, he loves the other man's wife just so long as it suits his convenience, but bids her a firm good-bye at the bare suggestion of running away. And again the end is tragic for the lucky man.

Plot comes into being when the true and natural course of events is thwarted. A story with plot is a situation in which there is forward movement and action, in which there is some definite end or aim to be achieved—plus some reason which makes that end problematical, difficult or apparently impossible of achievement. To reach it, an obstacle must be removed, a barrier must be swept aside, a dam must be burst. To revert to the clipping, plot forms when the obstacle of the second man appears. But for him, life would move along tranquilly. Taking, as an example, the unmarried woman, we have narrative without plot if she meets a man, loves and is loved, and marries. It is the introduction of the second man that makes plot. He is the barrier to the true and natural course of events. He loves, also, or is loved by her; because of him, the couple can not marry until he is thrust from the story. He may die, he may prove unworthy, his love may turn to hate, her love may have an awakening, or—and this is the other solution of the problem—he may win, making the other man the obstacle that has formed the plot and that must be overcome.

The requirements of a satisfactory plot are simple. It must be reasonable, plausible, natural, interesting, unusual or out of the ordinary, and properly developed from the lowest level of interest at the beginning to the highest at the climax. The precise construction and the unities will be considered later.

The next question is the source of plots. For the purpose of discussion, these have been separated into ten genera) divisions, as follows :

1. Newspaper accounts. Practically every paper contains some account out of the ordinary. Here are two examples that were utilized. A few years ago, there was an accident in the tunnel being built under the East River between New York and Brooklyn, and one of the workmen was blown by the compressed air straight through the roof of the tunnel to the surface of the river, where he was picked up, quite uninjured, by . a tug. Again, some years ago, in the great Northwest, a man threw a stick of dynamite, with the fuse lighted, into a body of water to kill fish. His dog, not understanding the motive of the act, swam out, caught the sputtering explosive in his mouth and started gleefully back toward his master, who promptly fled.

Now--and here is the danger of this method—one editor refused a story based upon the former incident because he knew others would be written about it, and charges of plagiarism made. It was not a suggestion; it was a story ready-built. Jack London sold a story based upon the second idea—and so did two other authors. All were accused of plagiarism, although an investigation proved conclusively that none had borrowed from the other. This source, therefore, while it furnishes the basis or nucleus of a great number of stories, must be utilized discriminatively. Stories full-blown should be rejected promptly; suggestions—beginnings, hints, conclusions, characters, situations, and the like—should be accepted and the story developed about them.

2.  Pictures. A favorite exercise in school and college composition classes is to display a painting or drawing and ask the student to weave a story about it. The method is an admirable one for study, and often a scene, a character, a facial expression, an atmosphere will prove the foundation of a strong and a remarkable plot. Used simply to facilitate plot-conception, the idea is of great worth; used to develop the plans of artistic short-stories, it is often responsible for successful and noteworthy fiction.

3.  Consideration of topics and conditions of the day. Little can be said upon this subject, other than the statement that timeliness plays a greater part in fiction than the average writer suspects. The problem-novel is the product, at least in part, of this source. Conditions that have suggested work may be enumerated as slavery, oppressions, business defects, "graft," trial marriages, general social relations, religious beliefs, etc.

4. Life. This source is closely allied to No. 1 (newspaper accounts), but varies because of the individual view-points of story writers and reporters. A scene on the street may suggest a story, whereas it would not be worth a line in a newspaper. The chance glimpse of a face, the strange resemblance, the pitiful scene or situation, the related account of a friend— any of these may furnish the nucleus for a short-story provided it is artistically handled and developed.

5. Suggestions from reading. This source is remarkably productive in two ways: First, the absorption of facts and figures often gives the clue to a short-story plot. The reading may range from business reports and statistics to glowing prospectuses and claims. But in it are curious facts, queer comparisons, odd possibilities, and probabilities, all awaiting the imagination of the story-writer to be molded into plots. It is not amiss, at this point, to call attention to the wide range of knowledge upon scores of subjects which is a very common characteristic of the successful writer. Second, to the fertile brain, one story suggests another. Not only is this admittedly true, but the stimulus to write, given by the reading of a moving piece of fiction, is keenly compelling in thought-origin. This advice must not be misread; plagiarism is as deadly and sure in its effect upon fame and selling ability as the bite of the cobra. At the same time, the active brain races far ahead of the eye and the impressionistic mind. While one cell records the written words, another is planning, guessing, prophesying as to the outcome of the tale. Now, it has been pointed out that there are numberless possibilities from every situation; one writer has it that the sources of all plots are based upon love, hunger, death and identity. Granting that there are but these four general beginnings for the thousands upon thousands of stories to be written, the astute and imaginative reader will work out a half dozen situations every time he reads one; and nowhere in his tale will the clue of his source be apparent nor the line of parallelism be drawn. This method, then, dangerous as it is to the clumsy or narrow-thinking beginner, is of tremendous profit to the fertile-brained author.

6. A situation from which the characters must extricate themselves. In a way, this is putting the cart before the horse, as the average story hinges upon a climax or concluding situation. Good fiction has been written in the past and will be written in the future, however, by the simple plot-building process of constructing a situation from which escape seems impossible for the characters, and then allowing them to avoid the apparently inevitable. The versatile creator of Nick Carter, the half-dime detective, has confessed that his hero's adventures are from this source. He builds up to them, gets his man in tight places, and then leans back and smokes until he can conceive a way to get him out again. Mark Twain obviously followed this plan when he made two clubmen give to a tramp a £1,000,000 bank-note as the result of a wager upon his ability to make use of it. A search of the records of fiction will reveal scores of plots conceived from this source or method.

7. A climax to which the story must lead. In this plan, a situation is first evolved as a climax, and the story—characters, general setting, mechanism—filled in from the first. A short-story magazine once gave to a literary club the climax of a pretty, respectable girl discovered alone in a barber-shop chair at midnight. Upon this finale five stories were evolved. The method is perhaps the one in most general use, although in a way it depends upon the sources already outlined and others to be mentioned later. Edgar Allan Poe says: "Nothing is more clear than that every plot worth the name must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence of causation by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention."

8. Characters plus situations. Bring together under certain unusual conditions two or more characters, already fully conceived and from the consequent actions and emotions evolve the tale. In an editorial comment some years ago, Current Literature had this to say: "The true method for the making of a plot is the development of what may be termed the plot-germ. Take two or three characters, strongly individualized morally and mentally, place them in a strong situation and let them develop. There are hundreds of these plot-germs in our every-day life, conversation and newspaper reading, and the slightest change in the character at starting will give a wide difference in ending. Change the country and the atmosphere is changed, the elements are subjected to new influences which develop new incidents and so a new plot. Change any vital part in any character and the plot must be different. One might almost say two plots thus developed from the same germ can have no greater resemblance than two shells cast up by the ocean.""

9. The effect of environment. This source, of course, is closely allied with the one just discussed, but possesses even greater possibilities. Most of us are good, it has been said, either because we have had no strong temptations or because we are cowards. Now, by a stroke of the writer's wand, remove fear and create temptation. Put a weak character in the atmosphere, a strong, a weak and a strong, characters of both sexes, etc. The plots will arise like soap-bubbles. Again, alter suddenly the environment, and study character changes. The country boy is a new being in the city, and his place can not be taken by the city boy.. The poor man become suddenly rich is facing tremendous possibilities, that are capable of working into plots by the author. Simply as an example, recall the condition of a rich man who must rid himself of his wealth, and note how it has been worked out in "Brewster's Millions." Royalty that would be peasantry is portrayed in Mark Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." And so it runs, limitless with possibilities.

10. Pure imagination. The recipe for all these plot-constructions calls for a liberal pinch of originality of thought both in conception and in execution. Imagination, therefore, is after all the chief spice. Plots are conceived full-grown, plots are dreamed, plots are evolved without suggestions. No method for forcing them can be outlined; but it is a recognized fact that they are often evolved without excuse or reason.

Following these hints for plot-creation, it seems imperative to add a word to caution. There are certain plots that are too trite to admit of use, certain that are too frail, certain that are objectionable because of subject matter, certain that can produce only unsalable work because of editorial prejudices, based or supposed to be based upon the public's likes and dislikes.

1. The trite plot is the situation with which editorial offices have been dinned since the Kingdom of Letters was founded. To catalogue them would be to devote pages to the list; only the most hopeless can be mentioned: (1) the mistaken identity idea, based upon the nurse who "mixed those babies up," the cousin whose name is the same as the sweetheart's, the error in the newspaper wedding note, the disguised lover, and scores of others; (2) the "rescue" plot, ranging from "fiery steeds" and "puffing autos" to "watery graves" and a "living death," always with the love-gratitude climax; (3) the lost, forged or inaccessible will; (4) the poor versus the rich suitor; (5) the cruel father, the tough kid and the kindly farmer, the stepmother and similar characters about which trite plots are always woven; (6) the temptation to be dishonest, which is overcome right manfully; (7) the "heaping of coals of fire"; (8) the girl who is wrongly suspected at school, in a social matter, in an impossible relationship, etc.; (9) the neglect of "mother" and "poor old dad" by the polished son or daughter; (10) the overheard prayers; (11) the reformation of the villain by the little child; (12) the miraculous coincidences that never occur in real life; and a host of other old enemies that constantly bob up.

2. The frail plot lacks necessary backbone to stand alone. Generally it materializes into a story of a meeting between a man and a woman, a conversation, a very commonplace incident (frequently omitted altogether), and an engagement. In these stories the strength of the plot is not in correct proportion to the length of the narrative. There are not two distinct incidents for introduction and climax. The juvenile story, also, is a great sufferer in this respect, owing partly to its demand for more constant action than the story for adults, and partly to the fact that the average writer considers the mere winning of a game, the bare victory that means only a prize, the promised reformation, as climax sufficient.

3.  The objectionable theme deals generally with a discussion of sex. The masterpieces of fiction reveal scores of short-stories of gripping interest and power based upon this idea; but the American magazines offer no market for the story in which it obtrudes. Handled with consummate skill and delicacy, it is sometimes salable; but it takes an artist in the fullest sense of the word to shade and blend in the drabs and scarlets. It must not be forgotten, however, that nine-tenths of all fiction is based, directly or indirectly upon the contrast of sex.

4.  Editorial prejudices begin and end with tragedy. The amateur insists on death-bed scenes, stern renunciations that leave all the characters distressed, and sacrifices of heroes' lives to save worthless foils. Tragedy is a drug upon the market, and when offered by the writer without reputation not one story in five thousand harping upon this string ever sells. Minor prejudices are based upon vulgar themes, distressing ideals, impossible or weird situations, ghostly or supernatural visitations not explained by psychic phenomena, stories of writing for publication, stories following closely the general themes of masterpieces or well-known bits of fiction.

Having glanced at the sources and been warned from undesirable themes, it is time to study the classifications and demands of the plot.

1. The ingenious plot, depending for its appeal upon its odd situation or surprise climax, is perhaps the first evolution of the apprentice. The conclusion is logical, the interest of the reader held continuously, and the plot answers all demands upon it. It depends upon its striking climax, however, for a large part of its appeal.

2. The detective plot deals with the ferreting out of crime or mystery. It subdivides, of course, into many classes, depending upon the motives. A love story may hinge on a. mystery that must be solved. Riches must be recovered. An unworthy suitor must be shown in his true colors. The honor of a relative, or of the lover himself, must be restored. The police story deals with the bringing to justice of a criminal and offers vast possibilities. The ghost story of modern days may come under this general head, as it requires a logical explanation of supposedly supernatural incidents. Other examples will occur to the reader.

3. The problem plot reduces the subject to its fundamental principles and, while showing both solutions of the problem leaves the outcome entirely in doubt. As a rule, beginners are unable to grasp the possibilities of this construction, and present problems which they can not solve themselves.

These are the three general classifications, but the minor divisions are many. There is the adventure plot, the love plot, the buried treasure plot, the reformation plot, the reclamation plot, the humorous situation plot, etc. There is the plot dependent upon the magazine which must use it: the religious plot, the homely or "homey" plot, the plot bristling with "go" and action, the business plot, the fantastic plot, the society plot, etc. There is the plot which serves as the sugar about the coated pill: the plot with a purpose, the plot that gives local color and fame to a place, the plot that serves to introduce characters, the plot that appeals to the artistic or sense of beauty and appreciation, the plot that educates, the plot that teaches, the plot that preaches, the plot that points a moral. All these overlap, of course; but it is worth while studying the list and adding to it.

Reverting to the statement that all plots are based upon love, identity, hunger and death, an exhaustless mine is discovered, offering a thousand subdivisions. Love, for example, emphasizes the need of womankind in fiction. Her purity, faithfulness, charm, appeal, sensuousness; her position as mother, nurse, guide, teacher, sweetheart, wife; her world-contact as organizer, maker of home, influencer of politics, business, courtship—all offer boundless possibilities. Sacrifice, always based upon love of characters, honesty, religion or a kindred sentiment, is one of many offsprings. The musician's love of his violin, the love of animals, the love of money, is another. Identity divides into personality, disguise, transference of individuality, dominance of personality as shown in hypnotism, and the like, suspension of personality in sleep, everlasting identity, inheritance of character, etc. Fiction could no more exist without eating and drinking than could the people of real life. The hunger motive divides into cannibalism, starvation, intoxication, pestilence and disease resulting directly from lack of proper nutrition, the cry for wealth as a food or safeguard against hunger, treasure-seeking, hunting and fishing, commerce in general, the devouring hunger of the earth and of the sea. Death, which is the end of all things, will ever be a climax of fiction. It divides into destruction of hope, fear, faith, ambition, possibilities, characters, portions of the earth, etc.

It is proper that the first chapter of this subject end here, with the completion of the survey; the next will deal with the actual formation of plots from these sources and classifications, the construction of the stories from them, and the breaking up into parts of some story that illustrates the theories advanced. The exercises for the student will also be reserved until he has studied the subject in its entirety. It is almost imperative, however, that working examples of the points made in this installment be read in connection with the article. For this reason, a portion of the reading list is appended.

For the purpose of studying source, read the following and determine each plot-nucleus or method of conception; "The £1,000,000 Bank-Note," by Mark Twain; "Outcasts of Poker Flat," by Bret Harte; "The Man Who Would Be King," by Kipling; "Markheim," by Stevenson; "Silas Marner," by George Eliot; "Under the Lion's Paw," by Hamlin Garland ("Main Travelled Roads") ; "The Suicide Club," by Stevenson. A study of any good collection of short-story masterpieces, with this idea in mind, will yield helpful results.

For the plot of ingenuity, read "The Sire de Maletroit's Door ("New Arabian Nights"), by Stevenson; "The.Notary of Perigneux," by Longfellow; for the detective plot, read "Murders in the Rue Morgue," or "The Gold Bug," by Poe; "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," by Doyle; for the problem plot, read "The Lady or the Tiger," by Stockton.

For examples of plots founded on the love motive, read— why specialize? All masterpieces, with but few exceptions, strike this note. For plots founded on identity, read: "Tale of  Two Cities," by Dickens ; "My Double and How He Undid Me," by Hale; "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," by Stevenson; "Rip Van Winkle," by Irving; "Ghosts," by Ibsen; "The Wandering Jew." Strive to discover the precise division of each motive, as outlined earlier in the article. For plots founded on hunger, read: "Arabian Nights," for pure dining scenes; the chapter showing Jane Eyre's starvation on her flight; "Robinson Crusoe," for hunger, for wealth, food, shelter, comfort; "Monte Cristo," for wealth; Gray's "Elegy" or Bryant's "Thanatopsis" for the hunger of earth. For plots founded on death, read "The Death of Little Nell," by Dickens, etc. The writer without reputation may study this classification, but should avoid experimenting with it.