Conceptive Technique: Story Types

Conception and Execution--Utility to Know Types--Novel and

Romance--Short Story--The Three Types--Emphasis--Three

Elements of Any Story--Story of Character--Character and

Action--Story of Incident--Archetypal Character--Short

Story and Fallacy of Compression--Story of Atmosphere--Other


The labors of the fiction writer are of two sorts, conceptive and

executive. In actual practice, of course, the writer may have only the

faintest glimmering of his story when he begins to write, and may

simultaneously conceive, elaborate, and express as he goes along; but

that is not the method of the conscious literary artist. An

understanding adaptation of means to ends is impossible unless the

writer has a definite purpose fixed in mind from the first moment of

execution. And in writing on technique it is necessary to assume the

natural order of the total artistic or creative process, whether the

actual practice of any writer coincides with it or not. Therefore the

body of conceptive technique first calls for treatment. Strict executive

technique and also the technique of construction--which is both

conceptive and executive--will be taken up after dealing with the matter

of story types and the matter of plot.

I need not state that there is no technique of conception, mastery of

which will yield the writer the golden secret of how to create or find a

good story. That depends strictly on personal ability, and not on any

objective knowledge of the mechanics of the art of fiction. But a

knowledge of the several fundamental types of story, and of the how and

why of the differences between them, cannot fail to aid the writer in

estimating and realizing the potentialities and deficiencies of a

particular idea. The writer who knows precisely where his story idea

will classify under analysis has a standard that will prove most useful

in the work of development. If it classifies as a story of atmosphere,

rather than of plot or of character, the writer will be led to

concentrate upon his proper task of creating the atmospheric illusion,

and will not dissipate his energies and spoil the effect of the finished

work by interpolating unnecessary touches of emphasis upon character or


Another preliminary word may not be out of place. A story is a story,

whether long or short; but the novel or lengthy romance is so much more

inclusive in matter and complicated in structure than the short

story--viewing the latter as a distinct literary type--that it is less

essential for the writer of fiction of book length to know with exact

definition the effect he wishes to produce than it is for the writer of

the short story of a few thousand words. The potential and usual effects

of the novel are many; it may and usually does contain chapters or

passages emphasizing all three story elements of character, complication

of incident, and atmosphere; but the short story is limited by its

brevity to the creation of a single effect, and any touch of emphasis

looking elsewhere usually will detract from the power of the whole.

Therefore it is in short story writing that a firm preliminary grasp

upon all the implications and connotations of the basic idea is most

essential, also most attainable, and therefore a discussion of

fundamental story types concerns itself largely with the short story.

But much the same principles of constructive analysis utilized by the

writer of the short story may be profitably employed in developing the

various but more or less unified episodes of the novel.

The three fundamental types of story have a perfectly natural origin. A

story is the relation of what (1) certain persons (2) did (3) in a

certain place and under certain conditions of existence. Accordingly, as

the elements of personality, action, or surrounding conditions are

emphasized, we have the story of character, of incident, or of

atmosphere. As Stevenson has said, there are but three ways to create a

story, to conceive characters and select and devise incidents to develop

them, to take a plot--a climactic series of incidents--and devise

characters to enact it, or to take an atmosphere and precipitate it as

best the writer may.

There is, however, an obvious fact to remember. These several types of

story differ from one another only in point of emphasis; in each case an

element possessed by all is stressed; no type is entirely devoid of the

elements emphasized in the other two. An intended story lacking any one

of the three elements of character, of complication of incident, or of

setting is not a story, but something else. The most common example is

the composition portraying character without any plot or complication of

incident, which is not a character story, but a character sketch. It

cannot be too strongly insisted that a story is a story, consisting of a

climactic series of incidents, as distinguished from a tale, which is a

level series of incidents, unrelated save in that all happen to the same

group of characters. Plot is a matter not specifically under discussion

as yet, but half the difficulty and most of the inutility in writing on

fiction technique reside in the fact that one must treat in isolation

matters which are but elements of a unified artistic synthesis. A story

is a story; its people do not merely exist, they live and act. In the

case of the story of complication of incident, the complication supplies

the story-element of the fiction; in the case of character story, the

evolution or degeneration of character supplies the story-element; while

in the case of the story of atmosphere, the climactic progression of the

particular emotional impression to the point of highest intensity in

itself supplies much of the plot- or story-element of the conception.

Another qualification should be stated. The normal story, written for

its own sake, is emphatic in that it stresses some one of its three

elements. But there is also the thematic story, written to vivify an

abstract proposition or to point a moral. The type lays no special

emphasis on character, incident, or setting, and is written with an eye

to an ulterior purpose beyond the mere sake of the story. It is not a

natural type, and may be disregarded here. Incidentally, it is not a

very successful type, and of course any success it may achieve as a work

of art cannot derive from the truth or weight of the proposition or

moral behind it.

Starting from the proposition that there are three normal story types,

it may be profitable to examine them in detail. I am not yet concerned

with the technical devices whereby character may be drawn, a plot

devised and narrated, or atmosphere created; my sole purpose is to

suggest how the writer may recognize the true character of his idea,

that in developing it he may know exactly what he is trying to do.

The story of character is concerned with the infinitely diverse traits

of our common human nature as manifested by the people of a story. The

single trait or few traits, rather than the totality of each person's

nature, should be sought to be developed, for reasons that a moment's

thought will render apparent. Character can be truly realized only by

showing the person in characteristic actions and, unless the writer

desires to extend his work to a great length, he can formulate no course

of action which will illustrate a complete personality. In all its

aspects, fiction is a matter of selection, and the writer of a story of

character should concentrate his powers of description and exposition

upon the traits of personality involved in the acts of the persons. The

short story must present a relatively incomplete picture of each

character's soul; the novel may approach each person from a number of

angles; but even the novelist should consider whether he cannot give

maximum reality and vivacity to his people by not attempting a too

complete presentation of each.

If, then, the initial conception of a story involves or suggests true

traits of character, it may be advisable to develop the story so as to

throw into strong relief the quality or qualities involved. The

possibility of the wisdom of such development becomes a probability if

the traits are somewhat novel and not those possessed in common by all

men to some extent, such as the capacity to love, to hate, to sacrifice

self, ambition, the fear of death, and so forth.

It should be remembered that the hallmark of the true character story is

its progression; the persons of the story grow stronger or weaker in

their respective traits under the pressure of events. There is a

climactic moment of indecision and suspense when it is doubtful whether

the character will shape circumstances or circumstances the character.

This distinguishing attribute of the character story is its essential

quality as a story; the strict type is debarred from recourse to

complication of incident to save it from being a mere sketch; change or

progression in the characters is itself the story or plot element of the

fiction. Realization of the fact will give the writer a firmer grasp on

the truth that characters and events must be developed in strict

concert and harmony. Anticipating later statement a trifle, let me say

that portrayal of the actions of a character is portrayal of the

character himself, so that his actions must be characteristic, or two

elements of the story will be at cross purposes. In setting out to write

a character story, the author deliberately chooses to emphasize

character and to depend for interest on the spectacle of its evolution

or degeneration. Since he is after all writing a story--though of one

type--the author must devise some climactic series of incidents. But the

character element is the preponderant strain of the fiction, and each

successive incident should be chosen with an eye to that element, and

its climactic value should inhere in its being climactic and progressive

in relation to the trait of character sought to be developed.

This is all somewhat abstract, but the test is much easier to apply to a

concrete story idea than it is to formulate in terms. If the idea

consists of a tentative grouping of incidents which suggests an

interesting phase of character in an interesting phase of development,

the conception may be elaborated into the story which emphasizes

character. On the other hand, if the initial idea is simply of a phase

of character which can be adequately shown in progression by a series of

incidents devised to that end, the same treatment is advisable. In each

case it is possible that such treatment will give maximum effect to the


The story of complication of incident interests primarily because of its

plot, and not because of its people or the totality of its emotional

effect.[A] It is more than a type of story; in a way it is really the

archetype of all stories. An historical analysis will show the truth of

the statement. First came the tale, a chain of incidents having no

essential connection except that they all happened to the characters.

Then came the story, a chain of incidents which are not fortuitous and

accidental, but each essential to the whole design. And from the story

have sprung such variations as the character story, which emphasizes the

element of personality, and the story of atmosphere, which emphasizes

the setting, spiritual or material. But the story of plot, which

stresses the bare incident, is archetypal of all fiction in that

interest centers in the story rather than in the persons or their

environment. Perhaps the French conte, or brief dramatic narrative, is

the strictest story type of all.

I have chosen to touch upon the character story first, rather than the

more fundamental and inclusive story of plot, simply because the

potential story of plot is easily recognizable, and my sole aim here is

to state some of the tests which the writer may apply to his idea after

conception to discover its true character, that he may know how to

handle it. The germ of a plot can be distinguished at a glance, while

the question of what a plot really is requires separate treatment.

If the writer would produce a strict short story, he cannot rest content

with the apparent fact that his initial conception is the germ of a

story plot, that being the case. The story of plot may be easy to

recognize as a genre, but not all stories of plot are potential short

stories. All plot germs are not susceptible of adequate development

within the narrow limits of the short story. Ten thousand words is

probably the extreme limit of the type as a commercial possibility, and,

in a space so brief, if the chain of events is at all complicated or

lengthy, it is impossible to bring out all its nuances and implications.

Too many critics and writers seem to entertain the idea that the short

story is the result of compression, but emphatically that is not true.

The synopsis of previous chapters before an instalment of a serial novel

is an example of compression, and a most repellent one. A short story is

the result of its own inherent brevity. A naturally long story, it is

true, may be shortened materially by mere rhetorical compression, but it

cannot be rendered a short story thereby, for the short story develops

its fewer incidents with as much rhetorical elaboration as the novel or

romance develops its many happenings. The short story that is a short

story--such as Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy," Stevenson's

"Markheim," or Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher"--gives off no

impression of verbal bareness. The short story is a literary form, with

all the elaboration of expression that the term implies. Its brevity

results from careful selection of the incidents to be set forth, and not

from concise expression of an indiscriminate welter of incidents.

Undoubtedly the matter requires emphasis. Too much has been written and

said as to the necessity of compression in short story writing. If what

is meant is rhetorical compression, bare statement without verbal

elaboration, no such necessity exists. What is necessary is care in

making certain that the story is a short story, and care to relate

nothing not essential to its development.

The French type of short story in general, and Maupassant's work in

particular, are often cited to illustrate the need for compression. In

the first place, the essential genius of the French language is such

that in translations, to English or American apprehension, fully

elaborated statement often seems somewhat bare. Moreover, I cannot

admit that Maupassant's best work is equal in rounded artistry and

appeal to that of others who have chosen to write less barely and

mathematically. If compression means anything, it means squeezing

something into less space than it would normally occupy, which is not

artistry, but an attempt to do in execution the proper work of

conception and construction, to devise a story which can be given

adequate literary expression in a limited number of words.

A critical reading of almost any successful short story will disclose

that the manner of its telling is as truly the source of its interest

and appeal as is the novelty or human importance of the naked story

idea. The difference between a recital of facts and a work of fiction is

the difference between mere reporting and true literature. The writer

who strives to compress in expression, instead of carefully selecting

the matter for expression, deliberately rejects his only means to

produce a sufficiently full and rounded presentment of the particular

phase of life he seeks to depict. That means is to write with due

elaboration, lest the phrasing seem stark and flat in comparison with

the softly moulded contours of life itself. There are two elements in

literature, the fact and the form; they are equally important and should

be equally complete. When considering the fitness of a plot to serve as

the skeleton for a short story, remember that in execution the thing

must be written with due verbal elaboration, else it will be angular and

unattractive, and that the idea of many incidents, people, or places

cannot be so written in the space available. In execution, write

adequately, and in conception and construction, select.

The story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the setting in which its

people move, and seeks to bring out the emotional value of the physical

or spiritual environment, is not difficult to recognize, being like the

story of plot in this respect. But it is most difficult to do well. The

story of character deals with concrete people, and the story of plot

deals with concrete events; the story of atmosphere deals with these and

something more, an intangible sensual or emotional impression, as of

beauty or horror, correspondingly more difficult to create. It demands

imaginative powers of the highest order, and perfect technical powers.

Within limits, the unimaginative author may write effectively of

characters and events, for he can see and study them objectively in

daily life, and, again within limits, they may also be presented

effectively by matter of fact phrasing. But atmosphere cannot be

seen--even physical atmosphere must be felt, or there is no emotional

effect--and all the resources of language at times become pitifully

inadequate to precipitate an emotion. It is all a matter of clear

conception and careful design, and the secret cannot be stated, but must

be learned, each for himself. However, I am not concerned in this place

with executive technique, or even with constructive technique, and

whatever hints can be given as to the creation of atmosphere would be

out of place. My object is merely to state the fundamental types of

story and the necessity that the writer recognize the true character of

his conception, that he may develop it with emphasis properly laid.

Other types of story exist, but the lines between them are not drawn by

the inherent character of the art of fiction. The love story, for

instance, may be told with emphasis on character, on incident, or on

atmosphere, and the placing of emphasis determines its artistic

character. The technique of conception is concerned only with

fundamental types, and the sole object of its mastery is to give the

writer knowledge of the essential artistic character of each of his

conceptions, that he may work with a definite aim in development. My

object is not to discuss or analyze pedantically, for the sake of the

analysis itself, but simply to state the importance of discovering the

basic fictional character of the idea, that it may be properly expanded.

Strict constructive and executive technique of course require separate



[A] One might expand here on the distinction that in the story stressing

character it is the particular persons who interest the reader, while in

the story of plot his interest centers in the events, and the people of

the story are followed less as individuals than as the human focal

points whereon the events take effect. Such fine analysis is tempting,

but of little use, for any story is a compact unity of the three


Conceptive Technique: Plot And Situation Constructive Technique Of Narration[c] facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail