The Plot of a Short Story
by Leslie W. Quick
If you want to write a short story, and doubt if you have anything worth the telling, go to bed early some night, get up with the sun the next morning, and take a long walk. Now, with the smell of nature in your nostrils, let your imagination run "as wild as a spook on a spree."
Suppose that cloud up there were an air-ship, with a kidnapper aboard, and suppose the boy who had been stolen were the king of Spain. Can't you work out the details of what might happen? Or suppose that girl over there should come to you, silently and mysteriously, and place a roll of greenbacks in your hand, with the words, "To pay for your burial." How would it end? Or suppose you stumbled over that bush there and dropped into a deep hole, where you lay, far below the surface, listening to the drip! drip! of water near you. And suppose you became thirsty and crawled nearer for a drink, and instead of water found a stream of red blood gurgling among the rocks. Can't you make a story out of that?
All this smacks of the sensational, I grant, but I am going at this theme in a practical manner. I believe your first story will be sold because of its plot. Nine first stories out of ten are. The language is handled carelessly, the situations clumsily, and the development illog-ically. Yet the stories go right into the heart of things, and are different from those of the rank and file. So I say, if you want to get into print, your story must have a strong plot.
Write love stories. "All the world loves a lover," and editors are human. But make your love story one of action. Don't, as many writers do, take a man and a woman and a dozen meetings and an engagement, and call it a story. Make it unique, make it worth while, make it different from the other love stories of yesterday and the day before. Make it dramatic; melodramatic, if you will. But wake up your reader; startle the editor and make him read it in spite of himself.
It may interest you to know that fully three-fourths of all the stories submitted nowadays are rejected because of weak or trite plot-interest. In this connection, the following statement, issued by the Frank A. Munsey Co. to its contributors, is of interest:
"We want stories; not dialect sketches, not washed out studies of effete human nature, not weak tales of sickly sentimentality, not pretty writing. We want fiction in which there is a story—action, force, complications. Good writing is as common as clam shells; good stories are as rare as statesmanship. We get thousands of manuscripts, alleged stories, in which the story is not worth the telling, meaningless, flat, inane; and yet many of these stories are cleverly told. They lack merely one thing, and that is the story itself."
In this statement lies the nucleus of all I would say. Your first story is not going to be accepted because it has the grace and polish of a master-hand, but because it has something in it worth the telling. This does not mean that it must be sensational or impossible, by any means, but that it is something out of the rut, something that has not been repeated again and again since the beginning of time, something that shall interest the editor and make the public glad that it has been written.
The prime requisite in the manufacture of all such plots is imagination. You may get your suggestion as you will, in the night-time staring hard into the darkness, from a stray paragraph in a paper, from a scene on the street, or in any other way; but you must dress it up, and smooth off the corners that are impossible, and the edges that are not to be told; and build up the hollow places, all with your imagination.
Your plot must be simple enough to meet the requirements of a short story. In novels and in dramas there are a dozen skeins to be untangled, and a dozen joyous reunions in the last chapter, or just before the curtain drops. The short story should concern itself with but one of these tangles.
Action is the fundamental requisite of a good plot. It transposes affections and situations from what they were at the beginning. A good, selling-plot should bridge seeming impossibilities over practically certain disasters to a pleasing end. It should have unity of time, place and action; it should be brief, compact and plausible.
All these qualities are the result of the molder's skill. Let me outline a few methods of obtaining the raw material.
Since the origin of advice, writers have been told to search the newspapers for plots. It is probable, indeed, that a majority are secured through these mediums. Sometimes the plot is the development of a hint or suggestion, sometimes the completion of an unfinished bit of action, and sometimes, more rarely, an incident itself, precisely as it happened.
Again, writers are told to observe the unrecorded incidents of a busy world, the everyday events of their own lives. This method, too, is responsible for many good plots.
In spite of a process for manufacturing plots, however, there are many writers who sit at their desks, gazing blankly at the white paper and praying for inspiration, which in most cases includes something to write and the thoughts to clothe that something. If writers would only concede that in many instances inspiration is only another name for inclination, there would be less praying of this nature.
Very naturally the voluminous writer, i. e., the much inspired writer, soon runs short of plots. Here the amateur flounders; the experienced writer plods on with scarcely a pause. If plots fail him for the moment, he creates situations that afford ample opportunity for dramatic action. The man who writes the Nick Carter weeklies confesses that he forces his characters into some position from which escape, by all the laws of chance, is impossible. Then he leans back, presumably elated over his skill, and for the first time conceives some method by which the characters may once more acquire liberty and the privilege of more adventures.
In this method lies another plot producer. Outline, in your mind, some situation, improbable, inconsistent, inexplicable. Then fit in the characters and incidents necessary to make it altogether probable, consistent, explainable. Have the country lass, whom the hero loves devoutly, discover him in her father's chicken-coop with a fat pullet under his arm. There's material for a little love comedy. Or have the tourist, begging a drink at the hermit's hut, suddenly cringe at his feet. There's material for a melodramatic tale. Or have a page from a diary, telling of a man's undying passion for a woman, flutter to her feet in some deserted place, preferably from a balloon, an air-ship, an exploding shell far overhead, or what you will. There's material for an unique love story.
It takes imagination, of course, to work out the logical explanation; but if your intellect is not equal to the task, you have no business in the profession of writing fiction. And even when you have supplied your plot in this fashion, and written your story, it will not be a literary production. It will be just the "stuff" of a hack-writer, just a "potboiler"; but pot-boilers sell.