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The Structure Of The Short Story

( Originally Published 1918 )

Only One Best Way to Construct a Short-Story—Problems of Short-Story Construction—The Initial Position—The Terminal Position—Poe's Analysis of "The Raven"—Analysis of "Ligeia" —Analysis of "The Prodigal Son"—Style Essential to the Short-Story.

Only One Best Way to Construct a Short-Story.--Since the aim of a short-story is to produce a single narrative effect with the greatest economy of means that is consistent with the utmost emphasis, it follows that, given any single narrative effect—any theme, in other words, for a short-story—there can be only one best way to construct the story based upon it. A novel may be built in any of a multitude of ways; and the selection of method depends more upon the temperament and taste of the author than upon inherent logical necessity. But in a short-story the problem of the author is primarily structural; and structure is a matter of intellect instead of a matter of temperament and taste. Now, the intellect differs from the taste in being an absolute and general, rather than an individual and personal, quality of mind. There is no disputing matters of taste, as the Latin proverb justly says; but matters of intellect may be disputed logically until a definite decision is arrived at. Hence, although the planning of a novel must be left to the individual author, the structure of a short-story may be considered as a matter impersonal and absolute, like the working out of a geometrical proposition.

Problems of Short-Story Construction.—The initial problem of the writer of short-stories is to find out by intellectual means the one best way of constructing the story that he has to tell; and, in order to solve this problem, there are many questions he must take up and decide. First of all, he must conserve the need for economy of means by considering how many, or rather, how few, characters are necessary to the narrative, how few distinct events he can get along with, and how narrow is the compass of time and place within which he may compact his material. He must next consider all the available points of view from which to tell the given story, and must decide which of them will best subserve his purpose. Next, in deciding on his means of delineating characters, of representing action, of employing setting, he must be guided always by the endeavor to strike a just balance between (on the one hand) the greatest economy of means and (on the other) the utmost emphasis. And finally, to conserve the latter need, he must, in planning the narrative step by step, be guided by the principle of emphasis in all its phases.

The Initial Position.—The natural emphasis of the initial and the terminal position is, in the short-story, a matter of prime importance. The opening of a perfectly constructed tale fulfills two purposes, one of which is intellectual and the other emotional. Intellectually, it indicates clearly to the reader whether, in the narrative that follows, the element of action, or of character, or of setting is to be predominant, in other words, which of the three sorts of narrative effect the story is intended to produce. Emotionally, it strikes the key-note and suggests the tone of the entire story. Edgar Allan Poe, in his greatest tales, planned his openings infallibly to fulfill these purposes. He began a story of setting with description; a story of character with a remark made by, or made about, the leading actor; and a story of action with a sentence pregnant with potential incident. Further more, he conveyed in his very first sentence a subtle sense of the emotional tone of the entire narrative.

In opening his short-stories, Hawthorne showed him-self far inferior to his great contemporary. Only unawares did he occasionally hit upon the inevitable first sentence. Often he wasted time at the beginning by writing an unnecessary introduction; and frequently he began upon the wrong track, by suggesting character at the outset of a story of action, or suggesting setting at the outset of a story of character. The tale of "The Gentle Boy," for instance, which was one of the first to attract attention to his genius, begins unnecessarily with an historical essay of three pages; and it is not until the narrative is well an its way that the reader is able to sense the one thing that it is all about.

Mr. Rudyard Kipling, in his earlier stories, employed a method of opening which is worthy of careful critical consideration. In "Plain Tales from the Hills" and the several volumes that followed it within the next few years, his habit was to begin with an expository essay, filling the space of a paragraph or two, in which he stated the theme of the story he was about to tell. "This is what the story is to deal with," he would say succinctly: "Now listen to the tale itself." This method is extremely advantageous on the score of economy. It gives the reader at the out-set an intellectual possession of the theme; and knowing from the very beginning the effect designed to be produced, he can follow with the greater economy of attention the narrative that produces it. But, on the other hand, the method is inartistic, in that it presents explicitly what might with greater subtlety be conveyed implicitly, and subverts the mood of narrative by obtruding exposition. In his later stories, Mr. Kipling has discarded for the most part this convenient but too obvious expedient, and has revealed his theme implicitly through the narrative tenor and emotional tone of his initial sentences. That the latter method of opening is the more artistic will be seen at once from a comparison of examples. This is the beginning of "ThrownAway," an early story:

"To rear a boy under what parents call the `sheltered life system' is, if the boy must go into the world and fend for himself, not wise. Unless he be one in a thousand he has certainly to pass through many unnecessary troubles; and may, possibly, come to extreme grief simply from ignorance of the proper proportions of things.

"Let a puppy eat the soap in the bath-room or chew a newly blacked boot. He chews and chuckles until, by and by, he finds out that blacking and Old Brown Windsor made him very sick; so he argues that soap and boots are not wholesome. Any old dog about the house will soon show him the unwisdom of biting big dogs' ears. Being young, he remembers and goes abroad, at six months, a well-mannered little beast with a chastened appetite. If he had been kept away from boots, and soap, and big dogs till he came to the trinity full-grown and with developed teeth, consider how fearfully sick and thrashed he would be! Apply that notion to the `sheltered life,' and see how it works. It does not sound pretty, but it is the better of two evils.

"There was a Boy once who had been brought up under the `sheltered life' theory; and the theory killed him dead. . . ."

And so on. At this point, after the expository introduction, the narrative proper begins. Consider now the opening of a later story, "Without Benefit of Clergy." This is the first sentence:—`But if it be a girl?" Notice how much has already been said and suggested in this little question of six words. Surely the beginning of this story is conducted with the better art.

The expository opening was copied from Mr. Kipling by O. Henry and established by this writer as a fashion which is still continued by contributors to American magazines. But a popular expedient is not necessarily to be regarded as a permanent contribution to the methods of fiction; and Mr. Kipling, in his later stories, is a finer artist than Miss Edna Ferber or any other of the many imitators of O. Henry.

The Terminal Position.-But, in the structure of the short-story, the emphasis of the terminal position is an even more important matter. In this regard again Poe shows his artistry, in stopping at the very moment when he has attained completely his preestablished de-sign. His conclusions remain to this day unsurpassed in the sense they give of absolute finality. Hawthorne was far less firm in mastering the endings of his stories. His personal predilection for pointing a moral to adorn his tale led him frequently to append a passage of homiletic comment which was not bone of the bone and blood of the blood of the narrative itself. In the chapter on emphasis, we have already called attention to Guy de Maupassant's device of periodic structure, by means of which the solution of the story is withheld till the concluding sentences. This exceedingly effective expedient, however, is applicable only in the sort of story wherein the element of surprise is inherent in the nature of the theme. In no other single feature of construction may the work of the inexperienced author be so readily detected as in the final passage of his story. Mr. Kipling's " Lispeth" (the first of "Plain Tales from the Hills"), which was written at a very early age, began perfectly [the first word is "She" and proceeded well; but when he approached his conclusion, the young author did not know where to stop. His story really ended at the words, "And she never came back"; for at that point his pre-established design had been entirely effected. But in-stead of closing there, he appended four unnecessary paragraphs, dealing with the subsequent life of his heroine—all of which was, to use his own familiar phrase, "another story." Poe and de Maupassant would not have made this mistake; and neither would Mr. Kipling after he had grown into mastery of artistic method. In one of the most celebrated stories of O. Henry, entitled "The Gift of the Magi", the author made the technical mistake of appending a superfluous paragraph after his logical pattern had been completed.

Poe's Analysis of "The Raven."—In his very interesting paper on "The Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe outlined step by step the intellectual processes by which he developed the structure of "The Raven" and fashioned a finished poem from a preconceived effect. It is greatly to be regretted that he did not write a similar essay outlining in detail the successive stages in the construction of one of his short-stories. With his extraordinarily clear and analytic intellect, he fashioned his plots with mathematical precision. So rigorously did he work that in his best stories we feel that the removal of a sentence would be an amputation. He succeeded absolutely in giving his narrative the utmost emphasis with the greatest economy of means.

Analysis of "Ligeia."—If we learn through and through how a single perfect story is constructed, we shall have gone far toward understanding the technic of story-building as a whole. Let us therefore analyze one of Poe's short-stories—following in the main the method which he himself pursued in his analysis of "The Raven" —in order to learn the successive steps by which any excellent short-story may be developed from its theme. Let us choose "Ligeia" for the subject of this study, because it is very widely known, and because Poe himself considered it the greatest of his tales. Let us see how, starting with the theme of the story, Poe developed step by step the structure of his finished fabric; and how, granted his preëstablished design, the progress of his plan was in every step inevitable.'

The theme of "Ligeia" was evidently suggested by those lines from Joseph Glanvill which, quoted as a motto for the story, are thrice repeated during the course of the narrative:

"And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will, pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."

Poe recognized, with the English moralist, that the human will is strong and can conquer many of the ills that flesh is heir to. If it were still stronger, it could do more mighty things; and if it were very much stronger, it is even conceivable that it might vanquish death, its last and sternest foe. Now it was legitimate for the purposes of fiction to imagine a character endowed with a will strong enough to conquer death; and a striking narrative effect could certainly be produced by setting forth this moral conquest. This, then, became the purpose of the story: to exhibit a character with a superhuman will, and to show how, by sheer force of volition, this person conquered death.

Having thus decided on his theme, the writer of the story was first forced to consider how many, or rather how few, characters were necessary to the narrative. One, at least, was obviously essential, the person with the superhuman will. For esthetic reasons Poe made this character a woman, and called her Ligeia; but it is evident that structurally the story would have been the same if he had made the character a man. The resultant narrative would have been different in mood and tone; but it would not have been different in structure. Given this central character, it was not perhaps evident at first that another person was needed for the tale. But in all stories which set forth an extraordinary being, it is necessary to introduce an ordinary character to serve as a standard by which the unusual capabilities of the central figure may be measured. Furthermore, in stories which treat of the miraculous, it is necessary to have at least one eye-witness to the extraordinary circumstances beside the person primarily concerned in them. Hence another character was absolutely needed in the tale. This second person, moreover, had to be intimately associated with the heroine, for the two reasons already considered. The most intimate relation imaginable was that of husband and wife; he must therefore be the husband of Ligeia. Beside these two people, —a woman of superhuman will, and her husband, a man of ordinary powers, no other character was necessary; and therefore Poe did not (and could not, according to the laws of the short-story) intro-duce another. The Lady of Tremaine, as we shall see later on, is not, technically considered, a character.

The main outline of the story could now be plotted. Ligeia and her husband must be exhibited to the reader; and then, in her husband's presence, Ligeia must conquer death by the vigor of her will. But in order to do this, she must first die. If she merely exerted her will to ward off the attacks of death, the reader would not be convinced that her recovery had been accomplished by other than ordinary means. She must die, therefore, and must afterwards resurrect herself by a powerful exertion of volition. The reader must be fully convinced that she did really die; and therefore, before her resurrection, she must be laid for some time in the grave. The story, then, divided itself into two parts: the first, in which Ligeia was alive, terminated with her death; and the second, in which she was dead, ended with her resurrection.

Having thus arrived at the main outline of his plot, Poe was next forced to decide on the point of view from which the story should be told. Under the existing conditions, any one of three distinct points of view may have seemed, at the first glance, available: that of the chief character, that of the secondary character, and that of an external omniscient personality. But only a little consideration was necessary to show that only one of these three could successfully be employed. Obviously, the story could not be narrated by Ligeia: for it would be awkward to let an extraordinary woman discourse about her own unusual qualities; and furthermore, she could hardly narrate a story involving as one of its chief features her stay among the dead without being expected to tell the secrets of her prison-house. It was likewise impossible to tell the tale from the point of view of an external omniscient personality. In order that the final and miraculous incident might seem convincing, it had to be narrated not impersonally but personally, not externally but by an eye-witness. Therefore, the story must, of course, be told by the husband of Ligeia.

At this point the main outline was completed. It then became necessary for Poe to plan the two divisions of the story in detail. In the first part, no action was necessary, and very little attention had to be paid to setting. It was essential that all of the writer's stress should be laid on the element of character; for the sole purpose of this initial division of the story must be to produce upon the reader an extremely emphatic impression of the extraordinary personality of Ligeia. As soon as the reader could be sufficiently impressed with the force of her character, she must be made to die; and the first part of the story would be finished. But at this point Poe was obliged to choose between the direct and the indirect means of delineating character. Should Ligeia be depicted directly by her husband, or indirectly, through her own speech? In other words, should this first half of the story be a description or a conversation? The matter was easy to decide. The method of conversation was unavailable; because a dialogue between Ligeia and her husband would keep the attention of the reader hovering from one to the other, whereas it was necessary for the purpose of the tale to focus all of the attention on Ligeia. She must, therefore, be depicted directly by her husband. Having concluded that he must devote the entire first half of his story to this description, Poe employed all his powers to make it adequate and emphatic. The description must, of course, be largely subjective and suggestive, and must be pervaded with a sense of something unfathomable about the person described. In order that (reverting to the language of Poe's own critical dictum) "his very initial sentence" might "tend to the outbringing of this effect," the author wrote, "I cannot for my soul remember how, when, or even precisely where I first became acquainted with the Lady Ligeia"; and the story was begun.

It was more difficult to handle the second division of the tale, which was to deal with the period between Ligeia's death and her resurrection. The main stress of the story now ceased to be laid on the element of character. The element of action, furthermore, was subsidiary in the second part of the tale, as it had been already in the first. All that had to happen was the resurrection of Ligeia; and this the reader had been forced by the very theme of the story to foresee. The chief interest in the second part must therefore lie in determining where and when and how this resurrection was accomplished. A worthy setting must be found for the culminating event. Poe could lose no time in preparing a place for his climax; and therefore he was obliged, as soon as he had laid Ligeia in the grave, to begin an elaborate description of the stage settings of his final scene. The place must be wild and weird and arabesque. It must be worthy to receive a resurrected mortal revisiting the glimpses of the moon. The place was found, the time—midnight-decided upon: but the question remained, how should Ligeia be resurrected?

And here arose almost an insuperable difficulty. Ligeia had been buried (must have been buried, as we have seen), and het body had been given to the worms. Yet now she must be revived. And it would not be sufficient to let her merely walk bodily into the fantastic apartment where her husband, dream-haunted, was waiting to receive her; for the point to be emphasized was not so much the mere fact of her being once more alive, as the fact that she had won her way back to life by the exertion of her own extraordinary will. The reader must be shown not only the result of her triumph over death, but the very process of the struggle through which by sheer volition she forced her soul back into the bodily life. If only her body were present, so that the reader could be shown its gradual obsession by her soul, all would be easily accomplished; but, by the conditions of the story, her body could not be present: and the difficulty of the problem was extreme.

But here Poe hit upon a solution of the difficulty. Would not another dead body do as well? Surely Ligeia could breathe her life into any discarded female form. Therefore, of course, her husband must marry again, solely in order that his second wife should die. The Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine is, therefore, as I have already hinted, not really a character, but only a necessary adjunct to the final scene, an indispensable piece of stage property. In order to indicate this fact, Poe was obliged to abstain carefully from describing her in detail, and to seek in every possible way to prevent the reader's attention from dwelling long upon her. Hence, although, in writing the first part of the story, he devoted several pages to the description of the heroine, he dismissed the Lady Rowena, in the second part, with only two descriptive epithets,—"fair-haired and blue-eyed," to distinguish her briefly from the dark-eyed and raven-haired Ligeia.

With the help of this convenient body, it was easy for Poe to develop his final scene. The intense struggle of Ligeia's soul to win its way back to the world could be worked up with enthralling suspense: and when at last the climax was reached and the husband realized that his lost love stood living before him, the purpose of the story would be accomplished, Ligeia's will would have done its work, and there would be nothing more to tell. Poe wrote, "These are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes—of my lost love of the Lady—of the Lady Ligeia" : and the story was ended.

For it must be absolutely understood that with what-ever may have happened after that moment of entire recognition this particular story does not, and cannot, concern itself. Whether in the next moment Ligeia dies again irrevocably, or whether she lives an ordinary life-time and then ultimately dies forever, or whether she remains alive eternally as a result of the triumph of her will, are questions entirely beyond the scope of the story and have nothing to do with the single narrative effect which Poe, from the very outset, was planning to produce.

At no other point does he more clearly display his mastery than in his choice of the perfect moment at which to end his story.

It would, of course, be idle to assert that Poe disposed of all the narrative problems which confronted him while constructing this story precisely in the order I have indicated. Unfortunately, he never explained in print the genesis of any of his stories, and we can only imagine the process of his plans with the aid of his careful analysis of the development of "The Raven." But I think it has been clearly shown that the structure of "Ligeia" is at all points inevitably conditioned by its theme, and that no detail of the structure could be altered without injuring the effect of the story; and I am confident that some intellectual process similar to that which has been outlined must be followed by every author who seeks to construct stories as perfect in form as Poe's.

Analysis of "The Prodigal Son."—The student of short-story structure is therefore advised to submit several other masterpieces of the form to a process of intellectual analysis similar to that which we have just pursued. By so doing he will become impressed with the inevitability of every structural expedient that is employed in the best examples of the type. For a further illustration of this inevitability of structure, let us look for a moment at the parable of "The Prodigal Son" (Luke xv., beginning with the eleventh verse), which, although it was written down many centuries ago, fulfills the modern critical concept of the short-story, in that it produces a single narrative effect with the greatest economy of means that is consistent with the utmost emphasis. For the purposes of this study, let us set aside the religious implications of the parable, and consider it as an ordinary work of fiction. The story should more properly be called "The Forgiving Father," rather than "The Prodigal Son"; because the single narrative effect to be wrought out is the extent of a father's forgiveness toward his erring children. Two characters are obviously needed for the tale,—first, a father to exercise forgiveness, and second, a child to be forgiven. Whether this child were a son or a daughter would, of course, have no effect on the mere structure of the story. In the narrative as we know it, the erring child is a son. In pursuance of the greatest economy of means, the story might be told with these two characters only, because the effect to be wrought out is based on the personal relation between them,—a relation involving no one else. But fatherly forbearance exercised toward an only child might seem a trait of human weakness instead of patriarchal strength; and the father's forgiveness will be greatly accentuated if, beside the prodigal, he has other children less liable to error. Therefore, in pursuance of the utmost emphasis, it is necessary to add a third character, another son who is not allured into the way of the transgressor. The story must necessarily be narrated by an external omniscient personality: it must be seen and told from a point of view aloof and godlike, The father could not tell it, because the theme of the tale is the beauty of his own character; and neither of the two sons is in a position to see the story whole and to narrate it without prejudice. The story opens perfectly, with the very simple sentence, "A certain man had two sons." Already the reader knows that he is to be told a story of character (rather than of action or of setting) concerning three people, the most important of whom is the certain man who has been mentioned first. Consider, in passing, how faulty would have been such another opening as this, for instance,—"Not long ago, in a city of Judea" . .

Such an initial sentence would have suggested setting, instead of suggesting character, as the leading element in the story. Very properly, the first of the two sons to be singled out specifically is the more important of the two, the prodigal: "And the younger of them said to his father, `Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.' " Thus, in only two sentences, the reader is given the entire basis of the story. The swift and simple narrative that follows is masterly in absolute conciseness. The younger son takes his journey into a far country, wastes his substance in riotous living, begins to be in want, suffers and repents, and returns to seek the forgiveness of his father. Wonderfully, beautifully, his lather loves and pities and forgives him: "For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." At this point the story would end, if it were told with only two characters instead of three. But emphasis demands that the elder son should now make an entirely reasonable objection to the reception of the prodigal; because the great love which is the essence of the father's character will shine forth much more brightly when he overrules the objection. He does so in the same words he had used in the first moment of emotion: "For this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found." These beautiful words, which now receive the emphasis of iteration as well as the emphasis of terminal position, sum up and complete the entire preestablished design.

This story, which contains only five hundred words, is a little masterpiece of structure. It embodies a narrative theme of profound human import; it exhibits three characters so clearly and completely drawn that the reader knows them better than he knows many a hero of a lengthy novel; and it displays an absolute adjustment between economy and emphasis in its succinct yet touching train of incidents. Furthermore, it is also, in the English version of the King James translators, a little masterpiece of style. The words are simple, homely, and direct. Most of them are of Saxon origin, and the majority are monosyllabic. Less than half a dozen words in the entire narrative contain more than two syllables. And yet they are set so delicately together that they fall into rhythms potent with emotional effect. How much the story gains from this mastery of prose may be felt at once by comparing with the King James version parallel passages from the standard French Bible. The English monosyllabic refrain, with its touching balance of rhythm, loses nearly all of its esthetic effect in the French translation: "Car mon fils, que voici, était mort, mais it est ressuscité; it était perdu, mais it est retrouvé." And that very moving sentence about the elder son, "And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out and entreated him," becomes in the French Bible, "Mais it semit en colère, et ne voulut point entrer; et son père était sorti, le priait d'entrer." No especial nicety of ear is necessary to notice that the first is greatly written, and the second is not.

Style Essential to the Short-Story.—And this leads us to the general consideration that even a perfectly constructed story will fail of the uttermost effect unless it be at all points adequately written. After Poe had, with his intellect, outlined step by step the structure of "Ligeia," he was obliged to confront a further problem, —the problem of writing the story with the thrilling and enthralling harmony of that low, musical language which haunts us like the echo of a dream. It is one thing to build a story; it is quite another thing to write it: and in Poe's case it is evident that an appreciable interval of time must have elapsed between his accomplishment of the first, and his undertaking of the second, effort. He built his stories intellectually, in cold blood; he wrote them emotionally, in esthetic exaltation: and the two Moods are so distinct and mutually exclusive that they must have been successive instead of coexistent. Some authors build better than they write; others write better than they build. Seldom, very seldom, is a man equipped, as Poe was, with an equal mastery of structure and of style. Yet though unity of form may be attained through structure alone, unity of mood is dependent mainly upon style. The language should be pitched throughout in tune with the emotional significance of the narrative effect to be produced. Any sentence which is tuned out of harmony will jangle and disrupt the unity of mood, which is as necessary to a great short-story as it is to a great lyric poem. Hawthorne, though his structure was frequently at fault, proved the greatness of his art by maintaining, through sheer mastery of style, an absolute unity of mood in every story that he undertook. Mr. Kipling has not always done so, because he has frequently used language more with manner than with style; but in his best stories, like "The Brushwood Boy" and "They," there is a unity of tone throughout the writing that sets them on the plane of highest art.


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