Conceptive Technique: Plot And Situation

Definition of Plot--Character and Plot--Dramatic Value of

Plot--Complication--Interest--Plot as Problem--Three

Basic Themes--Conflict Between Man and Nature--Conflict

Between Man and Man--Conflict Within the Same Man--

Arrangement of Elements of Plot--Climax--Major Situations--

Situation and Plot.

The plot of a story is its heart and essence. This is obviously true in

the case of the strict story of plot, and it is very curiously true in

the case of the story of character or of atmosphere. For in the story

which lays emphasis on personality, the evolution or degeneration of the

particular trait which has been selected for presentation is the real

story-element of the fiction. The fact is the root of the necessity that

the action develop in concert with the trait of character, giving it

opportunity for expression. And in the story which lays emphasis on

atmosphere, the climactic progression of the particular atmosphere to

the point of highest intensity is the real story-element, which is the

root of the necessity that the action develop in strict keeping with the

atmosphere, that the effect may not be spoiled.

What is a plot? Many attempts at definition have been made, and the

results have not been illuminating. Everyone has an idea of what a plot

is, but those who have attempted to state their conception briefly have

encountered difficulties. Perhaps an indirect approach to the problem

will yield results.

A tale is not a story, for a tale is a relation of events which happened

to happen to the characters. It is episodal, and the interest of the

thing inheres in each episode separately, not in the whole. There is no

essential connection between the incidents, except that they all

happened to the same group of characters. The contrary is true of a

story, interest in which is in the whole, as a progression, and, since

the difference between tale and story is made by the presence or absence

of plot, it appears that a distinguishing mark of a plot is that its

events function together as a unit. There is some connection between

them other than chance, and that connection lies in the intimate

relation between the events of a story and its characters. Event and

personality each influence or even determine each other simultaneously.

Incidentally, realization of the fact will free the writer from any

misconception that the action and the characters are separable elements

of a story. For instance, jealousy, a trait of character, may cause a

murder, an event, and a husband's chance opening of a letter addressed

to his wife, an event, may give rise to Jealousy, the trait of

character. Or the husband's loyalty will be strengthened in the fiction

if he refuses to credit appearances.

Interaction, then, between incidents and characters, arising from the

unity of the whole conception, is the first essential element of a plot.

The second essential element--and there are but two--is that the several

incidents of the story possess climactic value, not necessarily

climactic value in the sense of ascending tensity--though that is most

desirable--but climactic value in that each event should have influence

in forwarding the story to a definite end, that state of quiescence

which is not attainable in real life short of the grave, but which

fiction must postulate. In other words, since a plot is made up of

incidents which influence and are influenced by the characters, and

since the story must move to an end, a plot presents a problem. What

will the persons do? if the emphasis is on personality; and what will

happen? if the emphasis is on the event.

To state it in the form of a definition, a plot is a series of events

which influence and are influenced by traits of personality, and which

are climactic in that they move to a definite conclusion, so that the

series embodies some problem of life brought to solution.

I state this merely for what it may be worth, which possibly is no great

matter to the writer of fiction. Plots are not to be found by vivifying

a definition, but a definition may prove useful in testing a story idea

when it is found, and the object of the whole discussion is merely to

give the writer some aid in appraising the essential fictional value of

his conceptions.

The fact that a plot is a problem gives the several events their

climactic value. They are steps and approaches to the solution. And a

plot is a problem simply because fiction concerns man, while man is a

free agent, in possibility at least. Given certain characters and an

event bearing upon them, and the problem of what they will do instantly

arises, and the problem of the ultimate result of their actions. Given

certain events, to reverse the emphasis, and characters on whom they

bear, and the same problems arise. A plot is question and solution in

one, and the solution must inevitably follow from the characters and


It will be perceived that the distinguishing quality of a plot is its

dramatic value. A plot is a problem of life, and a problem is a conflict

between opposing forces. Event and character wrestle with one another,

and the outcome is doubtful, wherein lies the interest of the story. It

is accurate to state that the conflict is between event and character,

for though character may struggle with character, nevertheless the

struggle is operative only in action, and the opposed persons struggle

with the doings, not the naked souls, of each other.

It will be perceived also that the element of complication is not

essential to a plot, as Poe has pointed out. Of course, in the story of

incident, where the reader's interest centers chiefly in the events, not

in the characters or atmosphere, complication is most useful, and in

fact supplies much of the problem- or plot-element of the fiction. But

complication is not a sine qua non, and should not be so regarded.

Complication of incident, indeed, in the story which is fundamentally of

character or atmosphere, may prove a positive handicap, adding to the

difficulties of execution and spoiling the unity of effect, if the

fiction is a short story. As has been stated, the novel is a broader

canvas, without a single emphasis if the writer wills, and here, within

the limits of naturalness, complication of plot is thoroughly desirable.

Any bid for a reader's interest is of use, only in the short story the

writer must necessarily limit himself to one sort of bid.

At that last of it, pretty nearly all of the technique of fiction

writing has root in the necessity first to gain the reader's interest

and then to hold it. That is the real object of perfection of form,

even, and the device of plot has root in the same object. In simpler and

more unsophisticated ages the stage presented not drama but mere

spectacles, as the tale did in the spoken word or printed page; the

plot, lending to the play its dramatic character and to the fiction its

story character, developed only when audience and readers lost the

child's vivid interest in whatever he sees, and began to yawn at the

episodal. Pageantry and the unrelated event became stale, in comparison

with the spectacle of life itself, and then plot was found, a method of

isolating a single one of life's strands, and, by showing it in high

relief, lending it an added dignity and appeal.

The basis of the more intense appeal of the plot over that of the

episode is psychological. The hardest thing in the world to do is to

make a reader think, but the reader who does think is interested. That

is why he is thinking. Since a plot is a problem, the reader of a story

of plot is made to think, and the matter impinges upon him with some

force. To repeat former phraseology, if the emphasis is on the events,

he tries to figure out what will happen, at least wonders about it; if

the emphasis is on the characters, he tries to foresee what they will

do. Incidentally, the reader of to-day is habituated to the story of

plot. If nothing happens he will chalk a black mark against author and

magazine, as the editor knows.

As has been said--and emphasis is not out of place--a plot is a problem.

Problem, in this connection, means conflict between opposing forces,

which gives the various events and situations of a story any dramatic

value they may possess. It follows that there are three basic

plot-themes, conflict between man and his environment or Nature,

conflict between man and man, and conflict between opposed traits in the

same man. It will be profitable for the writer to bear this in mind when

combing the world for his story.

In his essay on Victor Hugo's romances, Stevenson has touched upon the

emergence in fiction of the conflict between man and Nature. Briefly,

his argument is that in the works of such a one as Scott the world and

natural forces serve but as stage and stage devices for man and his

doings, while Hugo, particularly in "The Toilers of the Sea," draws

storm, cold, and heat as man's active enemies, almost endowing Nature

with a vindictive personality. Whatever the fact as to Hugo, it is

certain that to those who meet her face to face on sea and land Nature

is a somewhat stony-hearted mother, yielding food and shelter only at

the pistol-point of toil and struggle. To those of us who live in

cities, and whose concerns are mainly social, the constant struggle

of mankind against drought and flood, storm and cold, fire and famine

is obscured, but it is a living reality, nevertheless, and a rich

source of fiction that will get under the skin of the most pampered

apartment-dweller. The roots of our lives stretch far into the dim past,

when the unending struggle with natural forces was a bitter reality to

all, and adequate fictional presentment of the struggle with Nature

often proves to have an incisive appeal wanting in less fundamental

themes. Particularly, the writer may rely upon such a story's appealing

to the cultured and the uncultured mind alike, for the intrinsic human

importance of its theme is felt by all. The elements of the dramatic

problem presented are so simple that previous familiarity with them in

personal experience is not essential to their understanding.

A fine example of this theme given short story treatment is Bret Harte's

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat," while the portions of Stevenson's

"Kidnapped" dealing with David's experience on the Isle of Earraid and

his flight through the heather with Alan Breck find their dramatic

quality largely in the same theme. It is interesting to note that Harte,

however, does not emphasize the conflict between man and Nature to the

utmost of possibility, for in his story there is much emphasis on

character and the struggle of man with man. Whether the story gains or

loses in total effect thereby is immaterial; it will prove an

interesting experience for the writer to recast the tale so as to bring

out more exclusively the theme of conflict with Nature. In connection

with the general discussion as to plot, I will state that if Harte had

entirely excised the theft of the party's horses by the treacherous

member, and had not brought out the contrast between the gambler, the

prostitutes, and the innocents, the story still would have been

adequately plotted. The bare situation of men and women snowbound in a

mountain cabin is a plot germ, for it suggests the problem whether they

will survive or perish.

The plot which presents conflict between man and man is distinctly

social in nature. The possibilities for the writer of fiction in the

general scramble for the almighty dollar, the rivalry of love, the

desire for revenge, and a thousand other passions and ambitions that

bring man into conflict with his fellows, are practically infinite.

Three minutes spent in running over this field for plots will

demonstrate the folly of bewailing the lack of something fresh to write

about. Perhaps some ingenious mathematician, given the data that there

are a hundred million men and women in the United States, and that each

one has some small number of desires and passions active or dormant,

will calculate the potential conflicts resulting. Each conflict is the

seed of a plot, and each plot may be written a hundred times, each story

being made different from the last by varying the manner of treatment.

There is not too little to write about; there is so very much that keen

selection is essential.

Any magazine offers examples of the exploitation, by short story

writers, of the conflict between man and man, while to portray the

conflict is peculiarly the field of the novel, with its social emphasis.

Balzac and Thackeray are supreme masters in presenting a slice of the

social spectacle; "Vanity Fair" and "Cousin Pons" depict struggle

between their people, and but little else. At the top of the social

ladder the struggle is carried on by intrigue and sugared words, at the

bottom with the knife and naked fist, but the struggle is the same in

essence, and of enthralling interest to a reader. All the world loves a

winner, and all the world wants to find out whom it is to love. The mere

mechanical details wherein the struggle finds expression and operation

are the least of the plot, which is indebted for its dramatic quality to

the bare fact of struggle. Doubtless the girl who runs daily to the

public library for a novel would be shocked to be told that she is

impelled by the same human quality that makes street-loafers and

passersby gather about two fighting boys, but she is, nevertheless. The

writer who would please her--and her father, mother, and brothers--will

do well to remember the fact.

The story which seeks to present conflict between two opposed traits in

the same man or woman is most difficult to write so as to create any

fictional illusion. It deals almost exclusively with psychological data,

of the facts of the soul, and requires knowledge and imaginative insight

as well as verbal dexterity. It is supremely easy to conceive a plot

involving struggle of the man with himself, but it is supremely hard to

give such a struggle objectivity, to expand it into a fiction operative

in action and yet developing the internal conflict. I cannot think of a

finer example than Stevenson's "Markheim." A close and critical study of

this story by one who is qualified to taste its full flavor will reveal

at once the great difficulties that face the writer who chooses such a

theme, and the high pitch of achievement attainable through proper

handling of material.

The greatest practical drawback to the giving of much time to mastering

the technique of soul-analysis lies in the narrow appeal of such a

story even when perfectly conceived and written. To recur to the always

apposite Stevenson, it is safe to say that his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

is a thousand times more interesting to the average reader than

"Markheim," simply because the soul-struggle is so much more completely

made objective and given expression in action in the first fiction than

in the second. This is done so very emphatically that nine readers out

of ten entirely miss the point of "Jekyll and Hyde," and fail to realize

that the struggle is between two tendencies in the same man, who is

split into his good and bad selves merely for the sake of concreteness.

Most fiction readers have little love for abstractions and fine spun

analysis--witness the common repute of Henry James, to an extent

undeserved, it may be said in passing. Exclusive emphasis upon the

struggle of the man with himself will tend to confine the writer's

appeal to the intellectuals, in the special modern sense, a matter

inimical to the pocketbook, at the least of it. Psychological analysis

is most useful in developing almost any type of story, but as the sole

theme for a fiction it has its disadvantages.

When the writer has his hands on a plot, of whatever type and however

found, his conceptive labors are by no means over. It remains to recast

and rearrange the elements of the idea, that the most effective

arrangement may be discovered. A first invention is very rarely

incapable of improvement, and in the interests of artistry the author

should exhaust all the possibilities of his idea before writing, that he

may not chance upon unsuspected potentialities in his story only when it

is half written, or not discover them at all. Within limits, of course,

any story will tend to shape itself; in particular, there is much

testimony as to the intractability of characters; but one cannot

consciously strive to do any particular thing or to produce any

particular effect without first knowing just what the thing or effect

is to be.

Possibly the most important matter is to arrange the incidents, the

separate elements of the problem or conflict which the plot presents, in

such manner as to give the progression a climactic character. Not only

should each major event be a definite step toward the conclusion,

solution, or denouement, but each succeeding event should be more

striking, significant, and tense than its predecessor. This sort of

climactic movement is not essential to a plot, but it is an essential

element of a good plot, particularly a good plot for a short story. The

short story is a much more strict and artificial type of fiction than

the novel; in other words, its writer has fewer resources to impress a

reader, and he must utilize to the full whatever is open to him. Among

his resources is the device of sensible movement to a crisis or climax.

Like the rest of fiction technique, the device is useful because it

tends to keep alive and stimulate a reader's interest. This it does

because ascending tensity suggests further struggle. Any flat incident,

on the contrary, less tense or striking than its predecessor, infallibly

suggests that the story is already falling to its end, and the end seems

dull because the problem is not fully worked out or even stated.

Psychologically, the point is delicate; it is a queer paradox that a

reader at once hates to think and yet wants to be made to think. But

that is a reader's condition. With equal readiness he will welcome

climactic movement and continue to read, or welcome any premature fall

in tensity and throw the story aside.

To show by example the results that may be achieved by use of the device

of movement to a climax is impracticable; these matters that cannot be

displayed by pungent quotation the student must dig out for himself by

intelligent reading. Almost any successful story will display climactic

arrangement of its major events. I cannot forbear to mention the

ascension whereby Thackeray leads a reader of "Vanity Fair" up to Rawdon

Crawley's confrontation of Becky and Lord Steyne. Hawthorne's "The House

of the Seven Gables," a book in most respects so totally dissimilar,

shows a like process in leading up to the death of Judge Pyncheon.

George Douglas's "The House With the Green Shutters," less widely known,

is strongly climactic in its latter part. But examples, in short story

and novel, are infinite in number and sort.

To recapitulate, a plot is a problem of human life brought to a fitting

and convincing solution, and consists of a series of events which

displays the fact and result of a conflict between opposing forces,

spiritual and material, actuating and affecting men and women. Therefore

the chief characteristic of a plot is its dramatic value. The definition

may be turned to use not so much in the discovery of plots as in

appraising their fictional value, their power to arouse and hold a

reader's interest, after they have been found or invented.

Since a plot is a conflict between opposing forces, and since fiction

deals with man, the three fundamental plot-themes are conflict between

man and his environment, conflict between man and man, and conflict in

the soul of the same man. Realization of the fact will serve to give

point and definition to the writer's search for the idea.

Finally, a just regard for his readers will lead the writer to cast his

incidents into some climactic arrangement. The first, last, and only

proper aim of a story is to interest, and break in the expected movement

to a climax is fatal to interest.

It would be interesting to go into the matter of plot-analysis at some

length--I have in mind particularly the deficiencies of Poe's

definition that a plot is a series of incidents contrived to produce a

single effect--but this book is for the writer. I shall try throughout

to keep to the writer's viewpoint and to develop nothing not of

practical utility in the work of conception, elaboration, and execution.

Thus far the discussion has been concerned with plot as a whole; it

remains to consider the events, incidents, or situations which compose a

plot. The situations of the plot or story are what its writer must cast

into a climactic consequence, and he must have some standard to measure

each before he can determine its proper place.

The fictionally significant aspect of a plot is that it embodies a

conflict between opposing forces, that is, it is dramatic. Likewise, the

fictionally significant aspect of a situation is that it displays

opposed persons--or at least opposed forces--in conflict. The writer

manipulates his material--preferably before writing--so that two or more

persons, actuated by incompatible motives, are brought into conflict;

there is a moment of indecision; then some person bends the other or

others to his will; and the situation determines. Or the writer brings a

character or group of characters into conflict with Nature, as did Harte

in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Here, also, there is a period of

indecision, and then either the human force or the natural force


The dramatic quality of any situation inheres in the struggle between

opposing forces which each presents, and rises or falls with the

essential strength of such forces. Take two instances of conflict

between opposed motives in the same person. In some humorous story a

character may be unable to decide which of two women he wants to marry.

One can cook, let us say, and he is a gourmand; the other is pretty,

and he has leanings that way, too. The dramatic quality in such a story

will be slight, because the motives involved are relatively weak, yet it

will be present. But take the story of a French girl who is outraged by

a German soldier and gives birth to a child by him. Her quality of

patriotism can be built up to great intensity, if the writer wills, even

to the point where the reader will accept an impulse on her part to kill

her child. Her quality as a mother can be built up likewise. It would be

a most effective touch to have her hate the unborn child furiously, then

to arrange matters so that she should be unable to carry out her first

impulse to kill it and be forced to care for it, giving it opportunity

to awaken her dormant maternal instinct. Finally, love for France and

hatred for Germany can be stimulated again, so that she is shown veering

between the impulse to kill and the impulse to cherish. Such a situation

is intensely dramatic, for it involves conflict between two of the most

intense human qualities, love of one's country and love of one's child.

The more terrific the opposed forces in any situation, the higher its

dramatic value.

At first glance it may seem that the relative position in a story of

each of its various major situations is determined by the plot itself,

but that is not the case. It appears to be the case because it is usual

to regard the plot of a story as the entire mechanical arrangement of

the fiction, including the nature and order of the situations, which is

a false view of plot. As the previous discussion has attempted to

demonstrate, plot is merely the conflict between opposed forces of

personality and environment, at least one of the forces being of

personality. Any two stories which display conflict between the same

forces have the same plot, though one may vary widely from the other in

the means employed to give the struggle objectivity and expression in


The writer of fiction should realize the point. The imagination produces

concrete pictures and conceptions, and, when a story is imagined, it

will come to life in terms of concrete people and events, more or less

definitely ordered and determined. But the writer should not stop there.

He should ascertain just what opposed forces of personality or

environment give the story and its situations plot and dramatic value,

and then should seek to find whether he cannot give the basic conflict

involved more effective presentment than will be given by the persons

and situations which he has already conceived. An essentially weak

conception may offer a clue to a dramatic conflict that will have

fictional power if properly developed by persons and situations

different from those first conceived.

It will be perceived how far it is within the writer's power to

manipulate situation in the interests of art, which, in this connection,

means climax. Starting with some basic conflict, which will be his plot,

the writer can devise situation after situation in which the struggle

will become more and more acute, until, finally, it will become so

serious as to involve all the elements of the story. And with the

determination of the dramatic situation which involves all the elements

of the story, the story itself will terminate, for the struggle which it

embodies will have been settled one way or the other. This final

situation will be the climax of the story, and its outcome or result

will be the denouement. The story will be ended because the struggle or

conflict it serves to embody will have ended. One force or the other

will have triumphed.

In considering the question of situation, the writer of fiction is

considering a more specific aspect of the question of plot. Usually he

desires to find a plot of real dramatic value, and likewise he usually

desires to find a situation or situations of real dramatic value. The

dramatic value of plot and of situation resides in the struggle between

the opposed forces which it presents. The more powerful the forces

involved in either case, the greater the dramatic value of the

conception. Each major situation of a story derives its dramatic quality

from the opposition of incompatible motives or forces that endows the

story's plot with its dramatic quality. In fact, it is not too loose to

say that the situation of a story is its plot, provided the main

situation or climax is meant.[B]

The purpose of the action or incidents of a story is to give the

dramatic struggle it embodies concrete expression. That is to say, the

dramatic quality of a story is specific in relation to certain persons

and certain events. Two definite men, for instance, will engage in a

definite fight over a definite woman. The writer will seek to

individualize the persons involved, which is a matter of description and

characterization, and he will seek also to picture the physical struggle

as definitely as possible, which is a matter of descriptive narration.

It is not enough to conceive a plot or dramatic situation; the writer

must also expand it into a story, which should be as concrete and

specific as its nature permits. Only thus can a reader be made to feel

the essential power of the whole conception. It follows that the action

or incidents of a story should be devised with a view to express the

dynamic elements of the plot and that no incident should be

incorporated in the story unless it will serve to build up some one of

the forces involved or else serve to illustrate the conflict of forces

that have been built up previously.


[B] Polti, in "The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations," uses the word

"situation" in a sense practically inclusive of plot. Plot is a word so

abused that it even might be advisable to abandon it in discussion in

favor of situation. The latter suggests more nearly the requisite idea

of persons keyed for struggle. In particular, plot carries too many

connotations of mere complication, which is not one of its essential


Changes In Radio-active Bodies Conceptive Technique: Story Types facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail