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The Art of Story Writing : CHAPTER II The Writing of Novels

by Nathaniel C. Fowler, JR   

CHAPTER II The Writing of Novels

THE would-be novelist, or writer of fiction, naturally is looking for some one to tell him what he should know, and what he should do, to become proficient in his prospective calling. He will continue his inquiries up to the limit of his capacity to question, and he may expect an answer; but he will not find it in this book, or receive a truthful answer to his inquiry, or any answer at all, except one based upon generalities ; because, if there were ever any rules or regulations for the production of the novel or the work of fiction, they are hidden so far below the surface that neither the modern dredge nor the penetrating digger is large enough, strong enough, or sharp enough, to excavate them.

It would be as difficult for me, or for any other writer, to furnish specific directions for the writing or or making of fiction, as it would be to frame a statute law which the state could effectively use for the manufacture of gentlemen. All that I can do, and all that anybody else can do, is to make a few suggestions, which may and may not be of assistance to one who would produce fiction.

A novel, or work of fiction, as commonly defined, is a written or printed story, having one or more leading characters, who appear upon the paper stage, and act according to the directions of the author, say the things he writes into their mouths, whether or not the plot or action of the story is founded upon what has actually occurred.

The author assumes the right to make his characters do and say what he wants them to do and say, and to create situations for them. If he is wise, he will have them say the words, and do the things, which he thinks they would say and do if they were subjected to the conditions and environments in which he has placed them. Literary license permits the fiction writer to exaggerate, to create impossible conditions and situations, and to do practically what he pleases with his characters, provided that he produces something interesting to a sufficient number of readers to justify the publication of his work.

The best novels are, however, those which are realistic and natural, with characters and scenes drawn from real life, although not necessarily from common, everyday life. Extraordinary characters, doing extraordinary things, and saying extraordinary words, are not, however, objectionable, if an extraordinary, and yet possible, environment is provided for them. While the mirror of fiction should reflect nature, it need not reflect only the common things we see, or be the sounding board for the common words we hear.

The average successful novel has, for its leading character or characters, a man and woman, or men and women, who are able to converse more intelligently and more brilliantly than can the majority of people we meet. The tame, everyday, ordinary character cannot sustain a leading part in a novel. If ordinary men and women are to be introduced, they should appear as supernumeraries. The floor of the stage of the story may be on common ground, but upon it must appear characters which walk faster than most folks walk, and scenes which, although natural and true to life, are, at least, somewhat unusual.

Comparatively few novels are without two prominent characters, one a man, the other a woman, and the author usually makes them into lovers, and allows them to marry at some stage in the story, but postpones the wedding until the last chapter. Few successful works of fiction are without sentiment, portrayals of love between men and women. The shadows, as well as the sunbeams, of love should be in evidence, and the author almost invariably introduces disaster of some kind, with the assistance of one or more disreputable characters, or villains.

It is obvious that even the purest fiction needs a dark setting for the full display of its whiteness; and the author, therefore, may very properly introduce characters and situations, which, by contrast, allow the hero and heroine to appear in a light which would not seem to be as clear or as brilliant if the scenes and situations of the story permitted no contrast. It would seem, then, that contrast, or difference, should be a part of the composition of the successful novel, and of other works of fiction, even of adventure; and love in no way interferes with the excitement of danger, but rather enhances its intensity. The historical novel, that is, fiction written around historical facts, need not necessarily contain more than a small amount of sentiment, but there would appear to be no good reason why the silken thread of love should not be interwoven into the dark fabric of the past. The acceptable novel has, as a rule, plenty of action. The characters do not sit still or leisurely walk or talk. They do something or say something, except within the pauses of description or explanation. They are passed rapidly from one situation to another; meet alternately with good luck and with disaster; they are kept on the firing-line, ever ready for action; they are grouped in the daylight and transferred in the dark; and by word of mouth and action they make it unnecessary for the author to insert long paragraphs of explanation or pages of moralizing. The successful novel somewhat resembles a play, except that the play is all dialogue or conversation.

Practically all of the acceptable novels have a happy ending. If the story is one of love or sentiment, the male character invariably wins the woman of his choice, even though the author finds it. expedient to have him lose her a dozen times, and to fight a hundred battles to win her. Misunderstanding and intrigue often occur, but everything is cleared up before the book closes.

As I have already intimated, most of the best novels, and the so-called best sellers, even though they may be purely fiction, are drawn from life, and frequently the characters are living, or have lived, in the flesh. The names of persons and places have been changed, and situations which have occurred have been portrayed, or new ones have been created. If the later method is used, the proficient author makes his characters do and act as they would if they were literally placed within the environment, or under the conditions, that the author has created for them.

From among his friends or acquaintances, the author selects characters to represent his heroes, and as many other characters as are essential for the working out of the plot. He carries these characters through the book, attempting to make each one do and say what he imagines they would do and say under similar conditions. In no other way can he hope to produce a story both realistic and interesting. It is not necessary that the characters should have experienced, in real life, all of the conditions created for them in the story, if the author is sufficiently close to his characters, and has the ability to so diagnose their characteristics, that at no time they are likely to get far away from what they would probably do under the given circumstances.

The author begins by the construction of a. plot; that is to say, he outlines the scheme of his story, either with or without writing it upon paper. He has before him a mental picture of what he purposes to have occur, and the places which are necessary for the carrying out of his story. Of course, he has a right to take liberties with his characters, and with the situations in which he has placed them. His descriptions of places need not be geographically correct, so long as similar places exist or could exist. His characters remain and work out their destiny in his brain; and while thus engaged, he writes about them, giving each a touch of the real, which would be impossible if he did not keep in the closest contact with them and the environment he has created for them. While much latitude is allowed, descriptions of places should be taken from what exists, but two or more places may be combined into one. A reasonable amount of elimination is permissible, but do not attempt to create a town or locality out of your own mind. Select a place that you know something about, and allow your action to occur within it. This will materially assist you, and add much realism to your story.

Have a real town or one which approaches the real, and place real characters within it, making them do what you think they would do if they were there and subjected to the conditions you have made for them. Realism plus imagination makes the best combination. One without the other is not likely to be interesting to the average reader.

Now as to style. There is no acceptable one, and there is no definite rule covering it. It is obvious that no matter how much you have read or studied, you cannot hope to succeed, except in a very moderate way, unless you possess a style of your own, not necessarily one which is a great departure from the styles of others, but one in which there is something which is characteristic of you, and not an exact copy of others. The greatest artist cannot acceptably duplicate a great painting from the brush of another. He may obtain inspiration from it, but the real brush-work must be his own, if he would produce more than a mere copy.

The writer of fiction should be well read. He should be familiar with literature in general, and intimately acquainted with novels, and the lives, methods, characteristics, and moods of the novelist. He will naturally absorb some of the style of others, but provided he does not actually reproduce it, this borrowing will not injure his work. Above all, he must be himself, he cannot be anybody else and succeed. He cannot successfully duplicate the success of another.

Individuality counts more in literature than it does in any other department of work. Without personality, no book can be more than mediocre. If you have not enough of it to produce a good story, take up some other calling. I regret to say that fully ninety per cent of book writers would be better off if they shelved their literary ambition. They cannot, or do not, produce matter worthy of publication; and any attempt on their part outrages the public taste and is a failure, even though their work may be printed. Do not allow yourself to feel that you possess great story-writing ability, because in-discriminating friends flatter you. I will guarantee to produce a manuscript, worthless and senseless, and yet find among my friends at least a dozen who will tell me that I have written a work of merit. The majority of our friends either do not discriminate, or are unintentionally unfair.

They condemn what should not be condemned, and praise what should not be praised. Most of them will tell the writer what he wants to be told, irrespective of the truth. The opinion of one friend, even though he be a literary expert, should not be considered conclusive, whether he condemns a manuscript or commends it. The judgment of several discriminating literary persons should be obtained, if possible, before the manuscript is sent to the publisher. Of course, I am aware that many a manuscript has been uncompromisingly condemned, and yet the reading public has placed upon it the stamp of approval. And, conversely, it is true that hundreds of manuscripts have received enthusiastic approval and have passed muster, yet have been dismal failures.

Public opinion is the only court of final resort, and even that is not infallible, for the public has accepted, read, and purchased thousands of books which desecrate white paper.

There is not, at the present time, any rule, gauge, or scale which will accurately measure or weigh literary values. Books succeed without apparent literary or other quality, and books fail to meet public approval when they are worthy of the highest commendation.

The competent literary adviser, reader, or expert, will tell you that neither he, nor any one else, can diagnose the future of a manuscript, with more than an ordinary degree of correctness. But this condition must not be taken by the would-be writer to indicate that he should, or should not, attempt to produce literature. If he is incompetent to do so, sooner or later he will meet his Waterloo, even though several of his books may appear to be well armored. If he has in him the stuff that authorship is made of, he will win in the end, if he lives long enough.

Thousands of would-be writers believe that they have been called to write fiction, and they write; and occasionally gain the appearance of success. The mere call to write should not be considered as prima facie evidence of literary ability, until the call comes from several disconnected directions. Any one with an education may feed upon a dictionary and string words together, and the lines and sentences may be of good construction and not outrage the rules of rhetoric; and yet, comparatively few can lay tracks with words fit for the train of public approval to travel upon.

Fiction writing, with a possible exception of play writing, is the most remunerative of all. More money has probably been made by story writing than in any other form of literature. The field is broad and unconfined, although strewn with the rocks of competition, the intervening spaces being filled with ever-growing crops.

Let not the would-be writer comfort himself with the feeling that because he has an education he can produce acceptable fiction. Some education is necessary for the proper handling or juggling of words, but it is a fact that many of our greatest novelists did not pass academically beyond the common school.

I am not condemning a college education for the would-be novelist. It should help him. But a liberal education in itself will be of little value, unless the holder of it has the proper temperament and imagination, and the ability to create well-conceived and stirring scenes, and to construct dialogue or conversation which will, at least, appear to ring true to life, and present to the reader the kind of matter which will interest and entertain him with or without instructing; him.

In other chapters I have discussed several phases of fiction writing, and have spoken particularly of the financial returns. Probably more writers, and would-be writers, take up fiction than any other class of literature, because it appeals to them, and because it is supposed to be the most remunerative.