How to be a Writer » Narrative Forms
Writing Tips - Narrative Forms
Elements of the Story — This little volume is meant to be a discussion of but one of the various forms that literature takes, and it will be first in order to see what are the elements that go to the making of a narrative having literary quality. A story may be true or false, but we shall here be concerned primarily with fiction, and with fiction of no great length. In writing of this sort the first essential is that something shall happen; a story without a succession of incidents of some kind is inconceivable. We may then settle upon incident as a first element. As a mere matter of possibility a story may be written without any interest other than that of incident, but a story dealing with men will not have much interest for thoughtful readers unless it also includes some showing of character. Further, as the lives of all men and women are more or less conditioned by their surroundings and circumstance, any story will require more or less description. Incidents are of but little moment, character showing may have but slight interest, description is purposeless, unless the happenings of the story develop in the characters feelings toward which we assume some attitude of sympathy or opposition. Including this fourth element of the story, we shall then have incident, description, character, mood, as the first elements of the narrative form.
A Succession of Incidents Required — A series of unconnected happenings may be interesting merely from the unexpectedness—or the hurry and movement of the events, but ordinarily a story gains greatly in its appeal to the reader through having its separate incidents developed in some sort of organic unity. The handling of incidents for a definite effect gives what we call plot. A plot should work steadily forward to the end or dénouement, and should yet conceal that end in order that interest may be maintained to the close. Evidently a writer who from the first has in mind the outcome of his story will subordinate the separate incidents to that main purpose and so in that controlling motive give unity to the whole plot. Further, the interest in the plot will be put on a higher plane, if in the transition from incident to incident there is seen, not chance simply, but some relation of cause and effect. When the unfolding of the plot is thus orderly in its development, the reader feels his kindling interest going forward to the outcome with a keener relish because of the quickening of thought, as well as of emotion, in piecing together the details that arouse a glow of satisfaction.
The Character Interest — We can hardly have any vital interest in a story apart from an interest in the characters. It is because things happen to them, because we are glad of their good fortune or apprehensive of evil for them, that the incidents in their succession gain importance in our emotions. We are concerned with things that affect our lives, and secondarily with things that affect the lives of others, since what touches the fortunes of others is but a part of that complex web of destiny and environment in which our own lives are enmeshed. In the story it is not so true as in the drama that, for the going out of our sympathies toward the hero or the heroine, there should be other contrasting characters; but a story gains color and movement from having a variety of individualities. Especially if the story is one of action, definite sympathies are heightened when they are accompanied by emotional antagonisms. In "The Master of Ballantrae," we come to take sides with Henry Durrie almost wholly through having found his rival, the Master, so black a monster. Such establishment of a common bond of interest between us and the character with whom our sympathies are to be engaged is a most effective means of holding us to a personal involvement in the development of the plot. There must not be too many characters shown, the relations between them must not be too various or too complexly conflicting, but where the interplay of feeling and clashing motives is not too hard to grasp, a variety of characters gives life and warmth of human interest to a story.
Uses of Description — Inasmuch as there are other interests in our lives than those which are established by our relations with our fellows, interests connected with the material world about us, any narrative will probably have occasion to include some description. It may be necessary merely as an aid to our understanding of some of the details upon which the plot turns, it may help us to realize the personalities of the characters, and it is often useful in creating background and atmosphere, giving us some of the feelings of those with whom the story deals as they look upon the beauty, or the gray dullness, of the changing panorama of their lives. Stevenson's description of the "old sea-dog" in "Treasure Island" is an excellent illustration of the effectiveness of a few lines of description in making us know something very definite in the man.
"I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a handbarrow, a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the saber cut across one cheek, a lurid white."
Rossetti in "The Bride's Prelude," a story in verse, after merely glancing at the opening of the tale, devotes eight stanzas to description introduced for the purpose of background and atmosphere. Two of them are given here.
"Within the window's heaped recess
The light was counterchanged
In blent reflexes manifold
From perfume caskets of wrought gold
And gems the bride's hair could not hold
"All thrust together: and with these
A slim-curved lute, which now,
At Amelotte's sudden passing there,
Was swept in some wise unaware,
And shook to music the close air."
This helps us to enter into the life and spirit of the time and place, to conceive imaginatively the likings, the desires, the passions, the purposes, and the powers that shall be potent in the story.
Kinds of Description — Description is primarily of two kinds, that which is to give accurate information, and that which is to produce a definite impression not necessarily involving exactness of imagery. The first of these forms is useful simply in the way of explanation, serving the first purpose indicated in paragraph four. The second is useful for other purposes than that of exposition, often appealing incidentally to our sense of the beautiful, and requiring always nice literary skill in its management. It should be borne in mind always that literary description must not usurp the office of representations of the material in the plastic arts. It should not be employed as an end in itself, but only as subsidiary to other ends.
Various Moods as Incidents — The moods in the characters of a story and their changes are connected with the incidents of the story, since they are in part happenings, and with the characters, since they reveal character. Apart from direct statement of them, we understand the moods of the actors in the little drama which we are made to imagine is being played before us from the things they say, from the things they do, and from gestures, attitudes, movements, which the author visualizes for us. If these moods are not made clear to us or we cannot see that they are natural, definite reactions from previous happenings in accord with character, we do not have a sense of organic unity in the narrative. We become confused in trying to establish the dependence of incident and feeling upon something preceding, and our interest flags. Everything that happens in a well-told story gives us feelings which we look to find in those whom the happenings affect in the tale, feelings which should call forth some sort of responsive action for our satisfaction. Clearly, if the characters are cold, if we cannot find in them moods of the kind and intensity that to us seem warranted, the story will be a disappointment.