Writing the Short Story 4: The Mechanics of Plot Building
by The Editor Magazine
1. It must introduce the principal character or characters.
2. It must suggest the setting or background as to time and place.
3. It should preferably pique the curiosity enough to force the reader to go on to the succeeding development of plot.
4. It must actually get the story under way.
5. It must grip the attention and interest of the reader, who will discard the story unless the introduction holds out promise.
The best introductions are incidents enough out of the ordinary, either by reason of peculiarity or dramatic appeal, to force a perusal of the story as a whole.
Development of Plot: As has been already suggested, the story plot is a problem. First of all, therefore, must be outlined the problem; next, must be considered the method or process of solution; finally, the story must reach its climax in the solution itself.
In following this apparently simple rule of construction, there is need of bearing constantly in mind certain demands, which may be enumerated as follows:
1. There must be steady progress of idea and action. A good general rule to follow, indeed, is to make the first sentence plunge the reader into the action, allowing each succeeding sentence to carry it one step nearer the climax, and sifting in the necessary explanations and descriptions as the story progresses, without clogging the action in any way. The rule can not be followed to the letter, but it should be borne in mind as a general principle.
2. The story must move forward in a constantly increasing plane of interest until it reaches its final culmination or climax.
3. The story must follow a straight line from introduction to climax. There must be no digressions, no superfluous incidents, no backward movement, no varying from the main plot thread. The action must be given, in other words, in the natural sequence of events, with careful discrimination as to the rejecting and accepting of incidents.
The matter between the introduction and the climax must be pure story and not padding. A climax or so-called "last paragraph" story, in which all action and development is just at the end, following an undue elaboration and emphasis of the general situation, produces a story that fails to hold the interest.
The development must be a preparation for the climax. The reader must be made to sympathize with the proper characters and to distrust the others. The atmosphere must forecast the conclusion. The forward movement must be so insistent, so steady, so determined, that despite the obstacles to be overcome, the reader must necessarily hope and believe with the hero or heroine. This bit of advice does not mean that the climax should be clearly anticipated, nor that the possibility of another outcome should be reduced to the minimum chance. Without suspense, without reasonable doubt as to the ending, without a clear presentation of the various possibilities of climax, the story will hardly hold the interest.
Climax or Conclusion: The climax marks the highest point of interest in the story, and should be at or near the conclusion, although the two terms are by no means synonymous. The climax is a crisis, a culmination, a solution, a logical outcome of the preceding plot development. It may deal with tragedy, humor, pathos, or emotion of any kind, depending, of course, upon the story itself.
The beginner turns naturally to tragedy because death is essentially the truest climax. Were it not for the fact that tragedy is unquestionably a drug on the market, the subject would warrant greater consideration.
The artistic climax is often merely suggested. A love story usually ends with an engagement; but it is only the amateur who deliberately writes out the man's question and the girl's answer, with the words and acts of endearment. Simply the suggestion is enough. Stockton, in "The Lady or the Tiger," stops just short of even the suggestion, giving a conceit which is excellent reading, but weak in constructive plot because it lacks definite conclusion and climax, and because he has developed it in such a way as to prepare the reader for the appearance of the lady quite as much as for the appearance of the tiger—but no more! The climax is missing; the suggestion is impartial. For the beginner, or for the older writer not quite sure of his powers, the story that fails to develop to a logical climax is a dangerous production.
With an appreciation of these three portions of the short-story—Introduction, Development of Plot and Climax or Conclusion—the writer is ready to make his outline or plan. It must necessarily depend altogether upon his material, but a study of the general points to be noted, followed by a specific example of the process of planning the story, can hardly fail to serve.
1. Paragraph recital of plot.
3. Comparisons and contrasts.
4. Major and minor divisions.
3. Explanation of situation.
4. Setting showing type of story..
5. Outline of obstacle that gives plot.
5. Development of plot:
2. Steady action or suspense.
3. Intensifying or complicating of problem or situation.
4. Incidental development of characters, atmosphere, etc., by situations.
5. Suggestions as to probable outcome.
6. Preparation for climax.
4. Failure or success of ambition or determination.
6. Reformation, revulsions of emotion, change of attitude, etc.
1. Climax itself.
2. Adjusting of situation.
3. Disposition of characters.
An example of the conception, expansion and treatment of a simple, unified plot might be selected from the short-story masterpieces. Because of modern demands, however, a story in McClure's Magazine (April, 1908) has been chosen. It is "The Hate That Saved," by James Hopper, and, although by no means a masterpiece, it is an admirable example of the mechanics of story building for the modern magazine. It is outlined as follows :
The rescue of a man by his greatest enemy.
Quarrel between two men results in a threat of death by one. Other awakens in the night, on the plains, to find a snake on his breast, ready to strike at the faintest move. Situation becomes unbearable and he begs his companion to save him. The man who has threatened to kill him shoots the snake and saves his life.
Four men searching for gold: the narrator, the two men who quarrel, and another minor or secondary character. It should be noted that freshness and strength of character portrayal contribute largely to the success of the story.
In the mountains, far from any habitation. A reversion to primitive emotions and actions.
The relations of the characters are strained almost to the breaking point by disappointment and constant association. (Introductory sentence: "We had been too long, we four, altogether too long in that flaming solitude, plodding after the gold that ever lured and ever evaded.")
A quarrel, resulting in a fight with fist and epithet and revolver, between two of the men over the burning of the pancakes by the one who was cooking. It should be noted that the incident hinges purposely upon the most trivial matter; first, to keep the interest on a plane above which the climax may rise; second, to emphasize the general tenseness of the situation and to show how the strained relations needed only a touch to produce deadly enmity.
A threat by one character to murder the other:
"But Alva showed no hysteria. 'You've struck me, Byng,' he said, and his voice, his sharply carved enunciation, had a taste of iron. 'You struck me—you knocked me down. I'm going to kill you, Byng; sometime, somewhere, I'm going to kill you.'"
Development of Plot:
Fears of other two men, knowing the character of the one who has threatened. Determination to keep awake during the night to prevent the tragedy. Promise of avenger not to do anything before morning. Eventual sleep for all. Sudden soft, insistent call discovered to be that of man whom other had threatened to kill. Discovery that he lay motionless fifty feet away, with a rattlesnake coiled over his heart. Awakening of Alva, and his diabolical pleasure upon learning the situation. Plea of man in danger for help: "Shoot it or shoot me. Shoot me—I'm going to move!" Realization that other two men are too frightened and too nervous to aim steadily. Call upon Alva, who is cool and calm, and who sights without trembling.
"A moment passed—long as torture in hell. Then Wall's hand leaped across and clutched the weapon. 'What are you aiming at, Alva?' he said, his eyes dilated with suspicion.
" 'Guess,' said Alva."
Eventually shoots and kills the snake.
"'I hate him,' he said, looking past Byng at us. 'That's why I could shoot. I didn't care whether I hit the beast above or the--------beneath.'
"And venomously he whipped out the word, the deadly insult, of the day before.
"And we could do nothing. Silently we saw him stride off, out of our lives, into the desert—a life-saver without grace, lonely and implacable, and bearing with him no good will."
This, then, is the process which the author has followed. He has begun with a general theme. He has conceived characters and a dramatic situation. He has supplemented these with a logical introduction, showing the relations of character, setting, etc., and worked rapidly to an incident to grip the reader's attention. He has piqued the curiosity as to what is to follow. He has suggested the two possibilities of climax. He has preserved the unities. He has given the story the interest of tension or suspense. He has readied his climax when the shot is fired. He has shown its effect, questionable at first, to suggest the other ending. He has disposed of his characters. Finally, in all probability, he has revised and rewritten—but that has to do with a subject other than plot mechanism.
All plots may be developed in this general manner. The example is quoted, not because of any merit of the story or the idea itself, but to lay bare to the aspiring writer the precise method, plan or outline of the process. As a working example, it will probably teach more than any citation of rules, principles or laws of construction.
1. Analyze the plots of Poe's "The Gold Bug," Maupassant's "The Necklace," Irving's "Rip Van Winkle." Read all possible essays and books upon the short-story and plot structure. Understand what is accomplished by each, what complications arise and how they must overcome or be overcome before climax is reached.
2. Study newspaper reports of dramatic and unusual events and indicate wherein these lack plot and wherein minor changes would give them plot form.
3. Select a given situation marking a climax and fill in the balance of the plot.
4. Select a situation marking the introduction and work out a narrative reaching a definite climax.
5. Originate a plot from each of the other sources cited in the first installment of this article.
6. Originate a plot designed to bring out a certain theory or motive. Show how a man's worth, courage, honesty, kindness, etc., are proved. See Hawthorne's unusued ideas in his "American Note-Books" for a study of general themes and situations.
7. Originate a plot with a false climax, that is, one which ends in an entirely unexpected, surprising manner. The story should suggest exactly the reverse climax.
8. Originate plots for an adventure story, for a fantastic story, for a character study story, for a detective story, etc.
9. Read some book of masterpieces of short fiction and set down in a paragraph or two the outline of each plot, noting in particular the contrasting conditions of characters at the outset and at the conclusion, exactly what the story accomplishes, how it moves forward on a constantly ascending plane of interest until it reaches a culmination or climax.
10. Select a general theme and evolve a plot, as the writer has done in the outlined story. Suggestions for general ideas: Two men in love with the same woman; unjust suspicion; the proving of heroism, mental ability, strength, etc., sacrifice; clash of wits with love, business, fame, etc., for the goal.