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Writing Tips - Special Study of the Story

Symbols for Visualization — On analyzing a story for the purpose of discovering the elements of which it is composed, and the kind and degree of appeal which they have for us, we shall find it convenient to employ a few symbols for the purpose of labeling our findings for discussion in the class room. Some of the directions which we make will be based upon differences in the way in which the things presented are effective in our minds, others upon differences in the things presented, themselves. First we shall work with symbols of description and visualization, of which for convenience we may distinguish four sorts shading one into the other, not clearly defined, and yet worth discussing, that we may cultivate a sharper sense of qualities of effectiveness in visualization. For these four sorts of visualization we may employ the symbols, V1, V2, V3, VB3. For the first of these the symbol V1 is not very satisfactory, since we will employ it for simple description which presents rather the idea of the thing than a mental picture, but it will perhaps be simpler to use it than to use a symbol for the word description. Having in mind the idea of a thing, we may by mental effort, if the idea is defined with sufficient clearness, call up the image of the object. V2 is the symbol for a visualization through a suggestion which the mind, by reason of the interest kindled, fills out to something more than the mere idea, more or less definite imagery resulting. In the V3 form, we are, as it were, compelled to see the image without mental effort, so swiftly and surely do the verbal memory images reëstablish old sensations or combine with old sensations to the formation of new. In the fourth form, we will add the B (Beauty) when the image which we see is such as to appeal pleasurably to the æsthetic sense. That there should be perfect agreement in the use of any one of these symbols in any particular case is, of course, not to be expected. Our individual experiences have been so different and the associations of sensation are so varied that the character and intensity of any visualization must differ in each individual. This, of course, is one of the things that complicate the problem of literary composition and make study of these things of particular importance.

Audition and Other Sensations — As the problem of audition is of less moment than that of visualization, we will make but the one distinction between such presentation of sound as calls up the idea of the sound only, a1 and such as produces in us the sense of the sound itself, a2, premising that any one who chooses may make the three divisions preceding.

Appeals to the other senses as occurring less often, we may group together under the symbol S, using 1 with this, as with a, when it comes to us in the conceptual way, and 2 when it comes as an excitant of sensation.

Instances of Visualization — Before we go farther, it will be well to examine briefly an example or two of literary description.

"The rim of the sun was burning the hilltops, and already the vanguard of his strength stemming the morning mists, when I and my companion first trod the dust of a small town which stood in our path. It still lay very hard and white, however, and sharply edged to its girdle of olive and mulberry trees drenched in dew, a compactly folded town well fortified by strong walls and many towers, with the mist upon it and softly over it like a veil. For it lay well under the shade of the hills awaiting the sun's coming. In the streets, though they were by no means asleep, but, contrariwise, busy with the traffic of men and pack mules, there was a shrewd bite as of night air; looking up we could perceive how faint the blue of the sky was, and the cloud-flaw how rosy yet with the flush of Aurora's beauty-sleep. Therefore we were glad to get into the market place, filled with people and set around with goodly brick buildings, and to feel the light and warmth steal about our limbs."
— Maurice Hewlett, "Earthwork out of Tuscany."

Here we shall first use the symbol V2, because the image presented is one that appeals at once to experience, experience too that has not been dimmed by frequence. The instant when the rim of the sun comes up bright and red is the instant when our expectation is most kindled toward the glory of the dawn and of the day which it foretokens. "The vanguard of his strength" in the next clause suggests the purely fanciful. This mixture of the concrete and the abstract does not go back to sensation, a thing worth noting and so the visualization is destroyed. The dependent clause brings up a new visualization, a V2, in the "dust of a small town." The second sentence is V1, until the close when it becomes V2 through the quickening of memories that have been emotional. The vagueness of a village hidden in the mist has appealed to our imagination in the assurance of a something unknown. The next sentence is V1, and so also is the next until in "the shrewd bite as of night air" we get an S2. The V2 of the faint blue of the sky is destroyed, as in the first sentence, by the merely intellectual playing of fancy in "Aurora's beauty-sleep." The next sentence gives us an S2 in the closing clause, for which the two preceding have been a preparation.

"Solemn and vast at all times, in spite of pettiness in the near details, the impression becomes more solemn and vast towards evening. The sun goes down, a swollen orange, as it were, into the sea. A blue-clad peasant rides home, with a harrow smoking behind him among the dry clods."

In this from Robert Louis Stevenson the last sentence brings the description to a V3; the smoking harrow is suggestive of so much more than the cloud of dust that has not yet settled to the earth in the stillness of the approaching twilight when the work of the day is done.

Motor Effects of Visualization — There is another way in which things seen touch sensation. Look at a picture of the Laocoön for a moment. Fix your eyes upon the contortions of the limbs, see the agony of the face, note the fangs of the serpent ready to embed themselves in the flesh. While fastening these fearful details in your mind have you not felt some of the horror of it, and has not that feeling shown a tendency to innervate some of the muscles, has not your face shown some of the suffering which you have been studying, and have you not felt a tendency toward the muscular movements of one writhing in agony? Certainly, such motor impulses do result from certain kinds of visualization, and it need hardly be said that they are peculiarly effective in making us really alive with the emotion which inheres in the movement or the attitude which we see. If the gestures of a speaker are to be effective, they must seem natural to us; that is, they must be such as we would make if we were in that fashion attempting to express a similar emotion. Otherwise the motor suggestions of the words and the motor suggestion of the gestures may inhibit or neutralize each other, or at least produce a feeling of confusion. Halleck, in his "Education of the Central Nervous System," says, "All states of consciousness contain a motor element." When a visualization or an audition, as that of a sharp command, seems to have motor effects, we may add to the symbols of kind and degree of sensation the symbol x.

Inference in Literature — It was apparent in the visualization quoted from Stevenson that some of the impressions which we get from literature we get as inferences. Dust does not arise from a harrow so as to have the appearance of smoke on a windy day, and therefore we know that it is quiet. In the opening of a story some things must be explained directly, and for such explanatory matter, matter from which we infer nothing beyond the statement, we will employ the symbol Exp.; but for other presentation of matters of fact we will employ the symbol F1. From facts as presented—and we will use the term in a comprehensive sense—we may or may not draw inferences, and we will distinguish facts from which no inference is drawn by the symbol F1, and those from which inference is drawn by the symbol F2. An inference may be preponderatingly intellectual or emotional; we may, when desirable, add the symbol a for one and b for the other. An inference we may call an "effect," and a fact as effect, whether the effect be emotional or conceptual, is clearly more potent in a literary way than a mere fact.

Effects of Incident and Mood — Allied to the fact as effect is the incident which makes us know something more than the happening itself. All incidents we may distinguish under the symbols In1, In2a, In2b, the secondary symbols having the significance as with F above. Mood effects are, in general, more important, and it will be worth while to distinguish three sorts, m1, an inference which we draw regarding the mood of the writer, m2, a like inference which becomes infectious, creating in us in some degree a like feeling, and m3, an "effect" enabling us to draw an inference regarding the mood of a character in the story. In addition to this we shall find direct statement of mood, but that we shall mark with some of the preceding symbols, generally F1, perhaps. We may understand further that the mood effects are of both kind and degree. When the showing of mood is such as to make us realize in it the intensity of strong emotion or passion, we may indicate the heightening of the feeling by the addition of the symbol d, using k alone, or with d to indicate that the character of the mood is shown.

Methods of Characterization — In our everyday life we are continually drawing inferences in regard to the characters of those about us, and we do the same thing in a story. Some writers tell us as clearly as they can the natures of the men and women they are revealing to us, while others leave that almost wholly for us to conjecture. We shall employ, then, two sets of symbols for character, one for direct statement of character, and one for character effects. The realization of character through direct statement may include presentation of motives, ideas, passions, will, special phases of development. It may come through report of the talk of others, or through statement of opinion generally entertained. c1 we will use for direct statement of character,—"John was a hard old miser,"—and we will add to this symbol the symbol a to indicate that this is only so far potent with us as to make us know the writer's understanding of the character merely, b to indicate that we recognize the writer's feeling for the character but do not share it, and c to indicate that the writer's feeling for his character affects us sympathetically to a like feeling. Another group of symbols, c2, c3, and c4, we will use for character "effects," for such knowledge of character as we gain by inference. c2 is a symbol for a general inference regarding a group of people or a community; c3 and c4 are symbols for inferences regarding the individual, c3 indicating the recognition of type or class qualities, c4, the recognition of more individual traits of character. The distinction here is merely one of matter of fact, a distinction not always to be made with sureness, since it is one of degree rather than altogether one of kind. When the way in which a man is good or cheerful or avaricious is differentiated for us from the way in which another man is good or cheerful or avaricious, he is so far individualized. Class characterization, c3, may be found along with individualization. The extreme accentuation of one or a few characteristics to the disregard of others gives the effect of individualization, but we shall understand this as in fact type characterization, since our natures are so complex that in almost no case can the conduct of any one be understood through knowledge of a few dominant traits of character. Individualization gives us intimacy of acquaintance; type or class characterization makes us see merely the striking, peculiar, or controlling expressions of personality. Guy Mannering in Scott's "Guy Mannering" is but a type of the conventional soldier. Tito Milema in George Eliot's "Romola" presents so many sides of a complex nature that we easily distinguish him from all other characters in fiction whatever.

The Subjective and Objective — Writers, in their methods of presentation, may be broadly divided into two classes, those who write subjectively and those who write objectively. A subjective writer is one whose own personality, point of view, feeling, is insistent in what he writes. An objective writer, on the other hand, is one who leaves the things of which he makes record to produce their own impression, the writer himself remaining an almost impassive spectator, telling the story with little or no comment. Chaucer, in the prologue to the "Canterbury Tales," betrays his personal feeling for his characters continually, and so is subjective. Shakespeare in his plays is objective, presenting all sorts of men and women without show of his own attitude toward them.

Interest of the Plot and its Purpose — We have seen that interest in incident is a first interest in the story. This interest, we must understand further, is not to be maintained by having things happen in a matter regulated only by chance or the exigencies of the author's invention at the moment. The unification of a story that results from the subordination of minor incidents to a final outcome is an essential necessity of the plot. The plot, indeed, is the arrangement of incidents with reference to the dénouement. The development of the plot should be such as to indicate an end toward which the succession of incidents is tending, and yet such as to keep the reader in suspense with regard to the nature of that end. There must be novelty in the happenings, and yet the novelty must not be so great as to keep the reader confused or strain belief. The permanent hold upon us of a piece of fiction is enhanced if it embodies some central truth, illustrating the working out of some law of life, or involved in the personal attitude of the writer toward some problem of existence. Only dilettanteism and superficiality forget that an artist, giving the form of beauty to his conceptions, is trying to make them as significant to others as they are to him, and that æsthetic and ethical, or spiritual, significance are inextricably interwoven. It will, of course, be the care of the artist to see that any didactic purpose is not obtrusive.

F2b 1. A tray of glasses was placed on the table with great solemnity by the "wricht," who made no sign and invited none.

2. You might have supposed that the circumstance had F2b escaped the notice of the company, so abstracted and unconscious was their manner, had it not been that two graven images a minute later are standing by the table.

m3k 3. "Ye 'ill taste, Tammas," with settled melancholy.

m3k 4. "Na, na; I've nae incleenation the day; it's an awful dispensation, this, Jeems.

5. She wuld be barely saxty."F2a

m3k 6. "Ay, ay, but we maun keep up the body sae lang as we're here, Tammas."

c2/c4 7. "Weel, puttin' it that way, a'm not sayin' but yir richt," yielding unwillingly to the force of circumstance.m2

c4/m3 8. "We're here the day and there the morn, Tammas.

9. She was a fine wumman—Mistress Stirton—a weel-livin'm3 wumman: this will be a blend, a'm thinkin'."

c4/m3 10. "She slippit aff sudden in the end; a'm judgin' it's frae the Muirtown grocer; m3but a body canna discreeminate on a day like this."

11. It was George Howe's funeral that broke the custom and closed the "service."

F2b 12. When I came into the garden where the neighbors were gathered, the "wricht" was removing his tray and not a glass had been touched. Exp.+m2

13. Then I guessed that Drumtochty had a sense of the fitness of things and was stirred to its depths.

14. "Ye saw the wricht carry in his tray," said Drumsheigh as he went home from the kirkyard.

m3d 15. "Weel, yon's the last sicht o't ye' ill get or a'm no Drumsheigh.

16. I've nae objection masel' to a neighborm3k tastin' at a funeral, a' the more if he's come from the upper end o' the pairish, and ye ken I dinna hold wi' thae teetotal m3d fouk.

17. A'm ower auld in the horn to change noo. m3/F2b

18. But there's times and seasons, as the Gude Buik says, and it wud hae been an awfu' like business tae luik at a gless in Marget's Garden, and puir Domsie standing in ahent the brier bush as if he cud never lift his heid again."

Interpretative Application of the Symbols.—A little discussion of the foregoing from a "A Scholar's Funeral" in the "Bonnie Brier Bush" may serve to make some of these things clearer. The fact that the "wricht" is silent here in the first sentence makes us know that this is the usual custom and that these people have an underlying sense of decorum. Sentence two has the same effect in their abstraction, and this is emphasized again in the "two graven images." The third sentence is a mood "effect" of kind, since we recognize the conventionally sobered feeling without the "settled melancholy." This is true again in sentence four, and in five we have a "fact as effect," drawing the inference that they are a long-lived race in Drumtochty. From the yielding to an invitation so framed as to put aside the semblance of yielding to inclination, we get a knowledge of character which seems to us individual, but which is used by the author to indicate a local community characteristic. The author's mood of amused observation is evident here, too, in his unbelieving acquiescence in Tammas's point of view. In sentences eight and nine we come to know Jeems in a more individual way, through the mingling in him of moods of conventional solemnity and everyday discussion. This is repeated in sentence ten. In sentence twelve we draw an emotional inference concerning the degree of their feeling from the fact that "not a glass had been touched." This is told in the explanatory way in thirteen with the addition of a suggestion of the author's sympathetic understanding and appreciation. Knowing Drumsheigh's reserve, from things that have gone before this in the story, we feel that only strong emotion could have called out sentence fifteen; and the apologetic tone of sixteen and seventeen indicates rather mood than such heightened feeling. Sentence eighteen returns to the mood of fifteen and sixteen, and through the fact of Domsie's standing "ahent the brier bush" reveals both Domsie's mood and Drumsheigh's own in our knowledge of its emotional appeal to him.

Different Forms of the Story.—It is to be understood that certain types of the short story are not included in this study as not being available for detailed work. Stories in which the interest is almost wholly dependent upon the succession of incidents can profitably be studied only with relation to the plot. Generally in such cases the things that make the story effective will be readily apparent, and they can be brought out by a few questions. To give variety and interest to the work the teacher will occasionally find it desirable to call attention to stories in current periodicals, requiring the class to bring in analyses of them showing structure of the plot, methods of managing the reader's sympathies, fundamental motive of the story, the treatment of character and methods of presenting it, and such other things as seem most of moment in the story in question. When library facilities permit, it will be found worth while to make some comparison of the short story as it is now written in America with the short stories of fifty years ago and of the present day in England and France. No classification of stories is attempted here, since such classification is of no particular moment to the writer of stories.

Narrative Forms

Literary Divisions and General Principles

The Story in Particular

Special Study of the Story

A Few Cautions

International Short Story Writing Contest for School Children

Little Champs Video Contest for Preschoolers