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Writing Tips - The Story in Particular
The Art of the Story — However abstract the thinking of civilized man may become, "all our intelligence," to quote Ladd's "Outlines of Physiological Psychology," "is intelligence about something or other, ... resting on a basis of sensations and volitions." Difficult as it is and difficult as are the problems involved in its construction, the story is from some points of view the most elementary of literary forms. It is concerned directly with matters of sensation and volition. If it is to play upon our emotions, it must revive sensations and volitions, make us in some degree part of the action. Experience is at once its warp and woof, but while it gives us new experiences, it must, in connection with them, revive old ones and so become tangible and real for us.
Of the memories that have come to us through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, those that are visual are probably the most clearly defined and persistent for most people. The sensation of hearing doubtless comes next, and then those of touch, smell, and taste. A name will suffice to make us see the face of an absent friend; a few words, or the sight of a music roll, is enough to make us hear a favorite melody; a line or two on a printed page brings back to us the scent of the hayfield or the heavy odor of hyacinths in a conservatory. We must remember, too, that this may be in each case, not simply a bringing back of the idea of the things, but a reviving of the sensations themselves. The seat of sensation is after all the brain. Originally we experience sensation through some excitation of the end organs of sense, the ear, the nerves of touch, the retina; but these sensations become associated with verbal images in the mind, and finally the excitation of the verbal images results also in the revival of the original sensation. There is perhaps no one of us who has not seen wholly imaginary moving shadows or flashing lights in the dark. Such cases are not good illustrations of the point, possibly, but most of us can at will hear a connected succession of notes with which we have familiarized ourselves. In my own recent experience there occurred a very clear and wholly unexpected subjective sense of smell when reading of an experiment with frogs which recalled the distinctive odor of slimy water. Mr. James Sully, in "Illusions," says, "Stories are told of portrait painters who could summon visual images of their sitters with a vividness equal to that of reality, and serving all the purposes of their art." The same writer says again, and this is peculiarly significant, that "the physiologist Gruithuisen had a dream in which the principal feature was a violet flame, and which left behind it, after waking for an appreciable duration, a complementary image of a yellow spot." Here a purely subjective impression had been reproduced in the nerves of sense.
The Place of Sensation in Writing — The thing that it seems important to dwell upon here is that subjective sensations do go out from the brain and stimulate in a very real fashion the sensations that are naturally excited by external stimuli localizing themselves in the end organs of sense. As these sensations, while not the all of emotion, are largely involved in emotion as its more poignant element, and as emotion is a first requisite in the appeal of a story, it is evident that the writer of stories will do well to acquire the art of reviving sensations. Further, as in the quickening of sensations our ideas become more tangible and real, writers who employ other literary forms will find that their style gains clarity and distinction by a like appeal to sensation when possible. Just how successful story-writers make appeal to sensation, revive experience, give new experience, and touch the sense of the beautiful is to be taken up more definitely in the following pages. We can understand, of course, that subjective sensations are not as strong as those which we experience directly, but on the other hand they may be more varied, they may crowd in upon us more rapidly, they may be more congruously chosen for a definite effect than in our actual life. The total effect may then be no less pronounced. In discovering how this is brought about we shall find the art of the short story.