Constructive Technique Of Narration[c]

Importance--Plot and Situation--Spiritual Values of Story--

Order of Events--Introduction--Primary and Secondary Events--

Climax--Naturalness--The End--Preparation--Proportion--

General Considerations.

A story is the relation of what certain persons did in certain places

and under certain conditions of existence, and in its broadest aspect

the art of narration includes the description of persons and delineation

of character, the depiction of scenes, and the suggestion of atmosphere.

But these matters bulk so large in themselves as to call for separate

treatment. My purpose here is to discuss constructive technique, how the

bare story, a succession and progression of events, should be planned

and built up before writing. The problem is constructive, not executive,

and should be considered and settled, within limits, before setting pen

to paper.

In fact, much of the technique of fiction writing concerns matters of

conception and construction. Giving the story its verbal flesh after it

is thoroughly mapped out in mind in accord with the canons of the art is

in truth a more or less simple matter to the writer who has any command

of language and literary facility. The result may not be a

masterpiece--which is a significant idea, justly elaborated, and

perfectly told--but it will possess one of the elements of a story

worthy to live. The trouble is that so many writers set about the task

of expression when all they have in mind is the merest germ of an

undeveloped idea or story, and then are forced to wrestle with

construction and with language at one and the same time. Each task is

great enough for the undivided attention of the ablest artist. I believe

that in the end the constructive task is pretty well done, but that the

more strictly literary task to give the conception verbally perfect

expression is usually somewhat slighted. We have so many well conceived

and elaborated stories, and so very few so perfect in expression that

they deserve to live, a fact indicating that construction can be learned

by nearly all, though literary power seems to be incommunicable. The

proper attitude for the beginner, who has not the facile practice of his

art at his fingers' ends, is to treat the first draft of his story as

merely tentative and an aid to development.


The discussion of plot and situation in the preceding chapter was

pointed to emphasize the importance of the constructive phases of

technique. A plot is not merely a climactic sequence of events or

happenings; a plot is some human struggle, some conflict between opposed

forces, that finds concrete expression in a climactic sequence of

events; and an infinite number of persons and incidents may be devised

to give specific expression to a single fundamental plot idea. Having

fixed upon a plot, the writer of fiction should realize precisely what

is the human problem or struggle involved, and should consider just what

sort of characters and just what sort of incidents will give most

effective, most interesting expression to the particular story idea.

This he should be the more ready to do because a story usually comes to

mind ready formed as a series of events, and only infrequently is the

first combination the best, that is, the one which will present most

forcefully the underlying plot, struggle, problem, or essential story

idea. The writer of fiction has for material vast infinity of imaginable

characters and imaginable events; he should manipulate that material to

a narrowly specific end, the end of giving most effective expression to

his particular story idea or plot. In other words, he is an artist, and

must devise and re-devise, select and reject, arrange and re-arrange

that with which he deals.

Another condition of his art requires the fiction writer to master the

technique of construction and always to practice it before approaching

his strictly executive task of writing. A story is usually more that a

mere physical spectacle, more than a sequence of physical happenings.

Each event, each situation is fictionally significant or interesting by

virtue of its relation to the natures or spirits of the persons

involved. Through the physical tissue of what happens runs the psychical

thread of personality, relating part to part and rendering the whole

indeed one story. A story is a thing of spiritual values as well as a

physical spectacle, and it cannot be written adequately by visualizing

its events and following them with the pen. Some part of its spiritual

value rests in necessary implication from what happens, but not all. The

rest must be brought out deliberately by the writer, and he cannot hope

to do so to the full unless before writing he realizes the necessity and

shapes his work accordingly. The point is of very great importance. It

would be hard to overestimate the number of potentially fine stories

that have been ruined through failure to realize that the main

situations or happenings of each fiction could not have full effect on a

reader unless many subtle matters of personality and spirit were

deliberately brought out in advance.

The first concern of the writer who has found his bare story is to

determine the order in which to cast both its major and minor events.

The necessity that the more important happenings of the story be given

some climactic arrangement, to hold and stimulate the reader's initial

interest, has been touched upon before, but the general ordering of

events is a matter of such importance that it will be discussed at


The aim of any story is to interest, and the writer should endeavor to

touch his reader's interest as quickly as possible. Long, purposeless,

and therefore dull introductions--usually the result of the writer's

having set to work with no very definite idea of what he has to

do--should be avoided; the writer should consider precisely what his

story is, and then how he may best set it in motion without delay. The

technique is easy to state but hard to meet. Perhaps it may be possible

to set off with a happening sufficiently unique and striking in itself

to arouse a reader's interest; descriptive touches as to setting or as

to a character may be employed; or--after the fashion of some modern

writers--one may indulge in a little philosophical overture forecasting

the nature of the tale. A classification of the several ways to open a

story might be made, but it would not be useful. In the first place,

each good story is perfectly unique; in the second place, independent

reading of fiction will show the ways much more completely than mere

statement. One slight matter is perhaps worth noting. Often inherently

dull introductory matter can be given piquancy on the lips of a

narrating character.

The writer should not distort his story merely to begin it

interestingly. The aim of fiction is to interest, but the person to be

interested is the cultured reader, not the mere sensation-sop. If a

particular story is forbidden by its content to begin with a rush, it

should not be wrenched and distorted to that end. The writer who seeks

merely to cater to current tastes with each tale will do well to devise

fictions that will subserve his purpose naturally. Thereby he will

achieve his aim the more easily, and may spare the reading public much

inferior work. But it is always well to make quite sure that any story

cannot be begun swiftly before adopting the more leisurely approach.

Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy" might have been begun so much less

invitingly by one less skilled.

The more complicated the plot, the more difficult it will be to arrange

its elements justly. The events of the structurally simple story usually

can be related in chronological order; one gives place to the other

without effort or preparation. The story with a complicated plot is not

so simple to order justly. In the structurally simple story nearly all

events have a primary value; each is a definite step in the climactic

ascension of the whole. In the story of complicated plot, on the

contrary, there are a comparatively small number of events having this

primary value in that they are definite steps in the climactic

ascension, and there are also a comparatively large number of minor

events having only a secondary value in that they serve to give the

primary events naturalness, intelligibility, and effect. Thus, in the

story displaying the conflict of two characters, the chief events will

be those giving the struggle the most intense expression, and the minor

events, having only a secondary value, will be those which serve to

prepare the various conflicts and to build up and vitalize the two

opposed persons. Even if these minor events are only secondary in

intrinsic significance, they are essential to the story, and the task of

its writer--no easy one--is to order its primary events so that they

will form a climactic ascension in point of tensity and interest, and to

order its secondary events so that they will function naturally in

endowing the primary events with the fullest measure of significance to

the reader.

Each story is unique and characteristic, and of course very little

specific advice can be given as to the just ordering of events, primary

and secondary. There are two main necessities; the story must be told,

and it must be told plausibly. The first necessity, that the story be

told, requires that the writer take care, not only to set forth its

primary events with due elaboration, but also to develop its characters

into individualized human beings--an office chiefly performed by the

secondary events--and to make due preparation for each successive

primary event, that the reader may fully understand its import. The

second necessity, that the story be told plausibly, requires that the

events be ordered naturally as well as climactically, be told in

accordance with the canons of life as well as of art. The difficult task

of the writer is to picture his single phase of life so deftly and with

so little apparent forcing of his matter that the whole will be endowed

with the significant simplicity of art and yet have the naturalness of

life. Of course it is hard, and of course it takes long and patient

practice to conquer the secret. That is why the writer who has full

command of technique is so rare.

The story itself largely determines the order of its primary events, for

their succession is the story. But the secondary events are as largely

subject to the control of the writer, who may devise, adapt, and order

them almost at will, and in just and natural ordering of them lies much

of the secret of verisimilitude. They are the mortar that binds the

stones of the edifice, and by slighting them many a fine initial

conception has been rendered feeble in execution. They need not be

elaborately treated; in fact, the technique to be acquired is to relate

them in due subordination to events intrinsically more important, though

giving them an easy and natural flow and succession. But the minor

events must be ordered justly, that the story may march becomingly from

major event to major event, and therefore the writer must struggle with

their ordering. No rules capable of statement regulate the matter; the

writer can only be told its importance and urged not to consider his

story fully developed and ready for writing simply because he has

determined the order of its main events.

Perhaps the whole philosophy of the ordering of events, major and minor,

can be stated broadly to be that in ordering the more important events

of a story the writer must regard chiefly the necessities of climax,

that is, of art, while in ordering the secondary events he must regard

chiefly the necessity to be natural, that is, to achieve verisimilitude.

Art is life raised to a higher power, and the struggle of the artist is

to present his phase of life as simply and pungently as can be done

without entirely severing the relation between his conception and life


One function of the secondary events of a story is to prepare the

elements of the main events. In the love story, John meets Joan that he

may subsequently make love to her. Another function of the secondary

events is to develop character. In London's "The Sea Wolf" most of the

earlier episodes and many of the later are narrated to build up the

impression of Wolf Larsen's ruthlessness.[D] It follows that any minor

event will serve a double purpose when devised and placed so that it

will forward the mechanical progress of the story and also illustrate

character. Tarkington, in "Monsieur Beaucaire," begins the story with a

scene over the card table which not only gives the barber-prince his

necessary introduction to society but also shows the stuff of which he

is made. In constructing his story before writing, the author should

select and place each incident with an eye to its serving as many

purposes as possible. The story will gain thereby in compactness and

uniformity of interest. It is golden advice to urge the writer not to

accept the secondary events of a story as they first come to mind, but

to re-arrange and re-devise until each happening performs as many

functions as the necessities of the story permit.

There is nothing particularly new and striking about the main events and

situations of many stories that not only are getting published to-day,

but are truly interesting and worth while. Their interest--and therefore

their worth--derives from their writers' management of secondary events.

By varying the nature and succession of minor events, any fundamental

plot theme, such as the "eternal triangle" of two men and a woman, may

be utilized a thousand times without essential loss of interest. As has

been stated, the naturalness and plausibility of a story depend largely

upon just selection and ordering of its secondary events, and, curiously

enough, in a very real sense the reader's interest depends on the minor

happenings. The plot must be a real plot and an interesting one, but, at

the last of it, the plot is only the skeleton. The minor events of the

story are the comely flesh that gives the conception the attraction and

interest of life. The figure may be grewsome, but it is accurate. A

thousand skulls look much alike, but no face is precisely the same as

another, even to the casual eye. The flesh makes the difference, and the

minor events of a story are its flesh.

The chief necessity in beginning a story is to begin it interestingly,

if its nature permits; the chief necessity in ending a story is to end

it--and there is no proviso as to its nature. A story is a fiction with

a plot, and a plot is a chain of events with a definite and significant

ending. The writer who has discovered or devised a true plot upon which

to hang his fiction will not struggle on aimlessly after narrating the

climax, for there will be nothing more to relate. I believe that absence

of true plot is most often responsible for the story that stumbles to a

lame and inconclusive halt--not an end--rather than executive inaptitude

on the writer's part, for the climax of a true plot is a hard thing not

to feel and realize. At any rate, when the climax is reached and the

story told it must be ended, justly but finally. There is nothing more

for the reader, unless the characters are caught in another chain of

significant events. "But that is another story."

To recapitulate, a story is a progression of events, major and minor.

The story largely determines the character and order of its main

events, for they are the story itself; nevertheless the writer should

give them climactic arrangement, as far as possible. The minor events

are more subject to his control, and he should devise and order them

chiefly with an eye to verisimilitude and plausibility, not forgetting

that each should serve some definite purpose and will be the more useful

if it can be made to serve more than one.


Two sorts of preparation must engage the attention of the writer of a

story. The first is purely mechanical, and is the result of the writer's

realization of the physical necessities of his story. If at some

definite point the hero is to be found in some definite place by other

characters, the writer must prepare to place him there. The necessity is

obvious, and this sort of preparation requires little discussion, except

the warning that in the complicated story it will demand close

attention. But the second sort of preparation is a much more delicate

matter, and in a sense is a great part of the art of fiction. I have

reference to the necessity that the writer individualize and vitalize

the people of his story so that the significant situations of the

fiction may have maximum effect on a reader. The problem is not so much

how to delineate character, which will be taken up later, as to plan the

whole story so that it will have body and not be a mere report.

There are three fundamental types of story, it is true, in that a story

may emphasize any one of its elements of character, of complication of

incident, or of atmosphere. But the story which depends for its appeal

on the novelty or intrinsic significance of the bare succession of its

events is somewhat rare; at least it is true that fiction concerns man

primarily, and in the normal story, or, better, in the story which the

necessities of plot-structure most frequently produce,[E] the man is as

important as the event. Since the person is as important as the event,

the persons involved in any significant situation of a story must be

developed as well as the situation itself. The aim is to give the

situation maximum effect, and the concern of the writer is not so much

to develop character, strictly, as to give the body of reality to the

whole story. It is about human beings, and, however novel and

interesting the plot, unless they are given some of the vivacity and

concreteness of real men and women the fiction will be devoid of the

breath of life. The first sort of preparation builds up the physical

situations of a story; the preparation now under discussion builds up

its people.

Nothing is more common than for the beginning writer to devise or

discover an eminently worthy plot idea, and nothing is more uncommon

than for him to utilize it to the full and develop it adequately. The

reason for the failure is simple. The better the plot, the more humanly

significant its situations. They are so very significant, in the case of

the fine plot, that the beginning writer is led to think that his only

task is to outline them. But merely to outline a significant situation

or event will not give it the emotional force that fiction must possess,

otherwise the newspaper would be read in tears. The event must involve

real people, if the emotion of a reader is to be aroused. A newspaper

item may state that Mary Smith has committed suicide because deserted by

her lover, but though the casual reader will realize intellectually and

abstractly the pathos of the situation, his emotion will not be stirred

unless he is a more sensitive human precipitate than most readers. To

move his heart, rather than his mind, some particular Mary Smith, like

no one else in the world, must walk a living presence through the story

built about such a theme. The difference is between merely reporting

events and picturing life.

Like most other matters of technique, this of giving individuality and

life to the people of a story is based on the necessity to achieve

verisimilitude and interest. Human life is a great complex of millions

of men and women doing certain things, and in a story, which is a

picture of a phase of life, the people must be drawn with as much

definition and detail as the events, or the reader will not accept the

fiction as fictional truth.

In great part, the matter of developing the human elements of a story is

a problem of construction, as is the matter of preparing a natural

succession of events. The writer first must order his main events as

interestingly and plausibly as possible. He then must devise and order

his secondary events as to give the requisite spacing and naturalness to

the whole, and he also must take care to provide for such action on the

part of the characters that when they come to the main events they will

be something more than named abstractions. Of course, the writer has

means at command to vitalize his people other than to draw them in

actions illustrating their peculiarities, but it is difficult enough at

best to vivify a character, and the writer who depends solely on his

powers of direct description will achieve very meager results. I have

already referred to the part the secondary events of a story play in

developing character, and have cited London's "The Sea Wolf" as an

instance. A great part of the book is devoted to a succession of

episodes which develop Larsen's striking personality. It is very

skillfully done in this respect, and the result is as memorable a figure

as exists in recent fiction. The beginning writer and even the more

practiced hand will do well to note the great part that just

construction must have played in producing the impression of the Wolf's

virility and ruthlessness.

It all may be termed a matter of drawing character, but the necessity is

to realize that in constructing his story before writing an author must

prepare for the development of its people as well as for the development

of its events. The work will have to be done sometime, if the story is

to be more than a report, and it should be done before writing, so far

as it is a matter of construction. The writer who has conceived a plot

of real merit has done much, but he has not done all. The striking

events of a plot are significant only in relation to the people of the

story, and a reader must be made to feel the reality of the characters

as well as the reality of the events. The single concern of the writer

of fiction is to lay on his page a picture of a phase of life that is

effective because it is plausible, and he must give equal attention to

the persons of the story and to what they do, both in construction and



In planning his story with an eye to giving it the greatest semblance

of reality, the writer has one means ready to his hand which is the more

useful because somewhat mechanical. I have reference to the preservation

of proportion.

Fundamentally, proportion is a mere matter of space or length. In real

life events vary in point of the time they take to happen, and in the

story proportion may be preserved by dividing the available space justly

between the several events. Normally a love scene will take longer to

happen than a murder, which is an affair of one high-pitched moment, and

in planning and writing a story which contains both a love scene and a

murder a proper amount of space should be assigned to each. In the story

the reader passes through days in an hour and through hours in a minute;

he must not be made to pass through minutes in an hour, and through

hours of events as important to the story in a minute. A murder may be

more important in the story than a love scene, and so require emphasis,

but it cannot be stressed by great expansion without violating

proportion. Emphasis must be laid by narrating vividly, a matter to be

taken up in its proper place when discussing executive technique.

The mere fact that the writer must narrate the main events of his story

in some detail usually will lead him unconsciously to preserve

proportion so far as they are concerned. The space necessary to develop

a murder will have roughly the same relation to the space necessary to

develop a love scene as the duration of a real murder has to the

duration of a real love scene. But the minor events of a story function

on a different plane from its major happenings, and so cannot be

proportioned similarly. If a murderer must sail from London to New York

to reach his victim--either on account of the place necessities of the

story, or to fasten an impression of his animosity on the reader--the

minutes of the days of the voyage cannot be related with as much detail

as the minutes of the actual killing. In planning a story, the writer

should make provision for the secondary events and the strict matter of

transition, as well as for the main events, but he should not plan to

narrate in detail until a main event is reached. The beginning writer

seems very often to be afraid to narrate in general terms, even where

the story demands no detail, and the fault probably arises from a vague

feeling that the reader will not accept the author's say-so, but must be

"shown." To an extent, that is true. However, where the matter is of

transition, merely to forward the mechanical progress of the story,

detailed narration is distortion. It will inevitably cause loss of

suspense and interest.

Realization of the relative importance to the story of each of its parts

will give the writer the standard whereby to distribute its space. In

writing the short story the preservation of proportion is most

essential; there is so little space at hand that two words cannot be

wasted in detailed narration where more general narration will suffice,

and it all comes under the reader's eye so nearly at one moment that any

disproportion in the treatment of events of equal importance will be

detected. In the novel, lack of proportion may be a more secret fault,

but it will have its effect.


In casting about for a story the writer should regard chiefly the

intrinsic merits of each idea that comes to him. But when he has pitched

upon his theme or plot, and approaches the task of construction and

elaboration, he should change his viewpoint and strive to view his

conception with the cold eye of a reader. A reader has nothing to go

upon except what the writer sets down, and realization of the fact will

lead the writer in construction to provide for every matter essential to

give the story full appeal. Unless it is developed completely, it will

fail to impress one who has no knowledge of the conception except that

imparted by the writer's words. Nothing essential can be omitted or

slighted without risking failure. On the other hand, nothing unessential

can be brought out without obscuring the real story. Careful

construction and elaboration of the initial idea is necessary before

writing, that the author may have his hands free for the difficult task

of execution, and in construction the writer should occupy the detached

position of a reader when estimating what should be developed and what



[C] In discussing the principles of construction it is obviously

impossible to illustrate the text by quotation, for just construction

could be shown only by reprinting an entire story. The reader must

supplement what is said here by independent analytical reading. The only

fortunate thing about the situation is that the matters which can be

adequately illustrated by brief quotations--such as vividness in

narrating--are chiefly matters of execution and least subject to

profitable objective study.

[D] This story is a particularly instructive instance of how much the

secondary events are within the writer's control, and also of how much

depends on their just selection and ordering. The twin plot themes of

the book are the struggle of man with man and the struggle of man with

nature; they are developed almost entirely without aid from the

superficially main events of the story, Maud's coming aboard the

schooner and what follows. That is precisely the artistic defect of the


[E] The three fundamental plot themes are man's struggle with nature,

man's struggle with man, and man's struggle with himself. The human

element is inherently a part of any plot.

[F] It would be difficult to overstate how much of its appeal such a

story as Fannie Hurst's "T. B.," reprinted in "The Best Short Stories of

1915," owes to its author's careful development of the personality of

Sara Juke. Yet the story is not strictly a character story. In less

competent hands the bare story would have been nothing; as it is, it is

a fiction of real worth and significance.

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