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Writing Short Stories - Excercise In Plot Building

( Originally Published 1922 )



Perhaps the best manner in which the young writer can become most intimately acquainted with the processes of plot-building is to have stories built up and taken down right before his eyes. I cannot urge you too strongly to study all the stories you read, after you have first read them for the pleasure derived. Find the theme or the underlined situation, then consider the various steps the author has taken to bring out the full force of that idea or theme with the least possible waste of time and effort. Because of the value that both the synthetic and analytic method have in studying the possibilities of plot development, I will take up various themes and situations with a view of showing you just how stories may be developed, with proper prominence given to the lesser and greater elements.

A Story of Married Life.—The life of newlyweds is a prolific field for stories. Perhaps, if you are a woman, you yourself have been advised by friends and relatives regarding how you should treat your husband, things you should do to make yourself attractive in his eyes, together with a vast array of hints, suggestions and caution regarding your conduct with him. Undoubtedly, some of the advice has been good, but the chances are that the greater bulk of it has been pure bunk. No person can advise another regarding his or her conduct, for a person's conduct under any situation or circumstance is based upon the circumstances themselves and the difference in that person's character. But, providing that you are the average person with a sense of humor, some of the advice you got may have been very amusing to you. It might well have set you thinking. You say to yourself, "Suppose I had followed some of this advice that was so profusely offered me. What would have happened to me? Suppose I had been gullible enough to do as I was told"

You will see that right here we have the situation for a story. A young girl, we will suppose, is on the point of marriage. She has tea with an old friend of hers, a woman long married--sophisticated—of much experience—given to the proffering of much advice. Perhaps the advisor's married life has not been very successful. Some mistakes of her own have made her bitter or skeptical towards men in general. She would' like to see her young girl friend base her conduct toward her husband on the older woman's own opinions. At least, she 'would like to see the experiment carried out. Perhaps this woman talked to the young girl something like this : "We have to take them as we find them. Now, if you start out as the snuggling and exacting and clinging bridelet, Barry will adore you—but for the best part of a month. After that, you will be as cloying to him as a gallon of grenadine syrup. He'll tire of you. And he'll seek pleasure elsewhere. It's at such a crisis that the average marital bark first hits the rocks. And it never gets wholly clear of them. It will mean endless suffering to you and endless boredom to him.

"Begin your married life as you mean to go on with it. Be chary of caresses. Keep him guessing; and let his guesses be pessimistic. Don't be cold to him. Just be cool—coolly and sweetly indifferent. Don't weaken an inch on that attitude. Be interested in other men."

And the young girl very readily absorbs it all and resolves to carry out the supposedly well-meant advice of her friend.

Development of the Suggested Situation. Here is a situation. The young girl marries her hero. Then, in pursuance of her friend's suggestions, she is cooly and sweetly indifferent. To the men with whom she comes into contact she shows more cordiality than she does to her own husband. Herein enters conflict—suspense—opposition. Naturally, the husband loves his wife and if there is any manhood to him, his wife's actions are going to hurt. He may become insanely jealous and: the story might end tragically. But we must have no unhappy endings, and, whatever else happens, the climax must come about in an original, though plausible, fashion. Are we going to have the young bride getting herself in trouble and awakening to the horror of the philosophy upon which', she has embarked? Or are we going to have the husband doing something that will bring forceably to the bride's attention the error of her ways. This situation admits of a multitude of developments.

Now let's see. If we were not going to be careful about making our story original, then perhaps we would introduce some varation of the eternal triangle in which the wife, through the cordiality of her manners towards another man other than her husband, becomes involved in scandal which incenses her jealous husband, presuming he is jealous. But such a method is too ordinary, too trite. Let us get away from the old way. Let us impress the lesson that must be impressed far more delightfully.

Introducing Suspense.—Now how can we heighten the suspense of the story? How can we pique the curiosity of the reader, then maintain it at a feverish height right up to the very last word? Ali, why cannot the husband, the hero, follow out the same strategy of the wife? If he gives her tit for tat, he will have her guessing at a terrific rate, as she will have him. The reader, in turn, will be absolutely unawares as to how this dilemma can solve itself. We have it! The husband himself also calls upon the friendly advisor already spoken of as having advised the young bride and who, knowing the young man fully as well as she does the young girl, advises him along similar lines. It will be interesting to see who weakens first in this little game of hearts.. that is being played.

Leading Up to the Climax.—Now, in order to have our two principals slip deeper and deeper into their mistaken attitudes, we must have them going about quite a bit, the young woman to be admired and surrounded by men, the husband to pay particular attention to other women. And, inasmuch as a storm usually is preceded by anonymous quiet, the bride's and groom's relations to each other should not be suggestive of any crisis. The storm, when it breaks, will thereby be in greater contrast.

The Main Crisis.—Now, obviously, this matter of leading up to the climax has gone about far enough. The reader will have been fully acquainted with the situations and the initial complications that put the woman and the man in their strange attitude. Let us now, without further delay, involve one or the other of them in the main crisis. Perhaps it had better be the girl, with her innocence and unsophistication, that should be involved with some other man. The husband, with his lesser control of temper, may then break forth in true masculine form. So we shall have the young girl involved with the man. The type of man that will break the husband's endurance in the farcial game we are playing, will be a man of very questionable character---a rounder—a roue—a man of conquest, with great fascination for women. The wife must meet him innocently, openly and without guile, for it must be remembered that she is playing the game to keep the love of her husband and for no special liking of, it. To make the meeting of the young bride and the villain conventional, it should occur at some social function, perhaps at a ball. The villain, carried away by the great innocence and charm of the bride suggests that they dash down-town to one of the cafes for a bite. The man should be extremely attentive to the bride, while she should receive his attentions with considerable pleasure, simulated if not real'. Now, in order to bring about the climax, the husband' himself must see the two depart. Knowing the character of the man, he seems to feel that the wife is be-coming hover-intimate by leaving the ball with the villain. He perhaps finds it difficult to contain himself.

Storm Is Imminent.—The young girl and her companion find a table at the cafe where they enjoy themselves with considerable hilarity. Here again the huuband should be introduced. He himself, in maintaining his assumed role, has been attentive to other women at the ball, to one in particular, so that ',perhaps this very attentiveness to another women on his part' has been the factor in the bride going to dine with the questionable companion. We will say that the husband enters the cafe with a lady friend where he notes the intimate conversation occurring between his wife and her companion. Perhaps he finds it still more difficult to contain himself, though outwardly he maintains a calm demeanor.

The Climax.—The girl leaves the cafe for home. Half an hour later her husband returns. The wife's maid is in attendance upon her. The husband goes up to his room—for a moment it seems as if the climax is to be averted. But, upon the departure of the wife's maid for her room, he traverses the hallway, flings open the door of his wife's suite and stamps into the room. His wife is sitting in a deep chair, her eyes fixed cryptically on a tiny fire that twinkles on the hearth. At the sound of her husband's approach, she looks quickly around. Then a little cry of dismay breaks from her, startled lips.

Her husband's face is black with wrath. The temple veins stand out like a tangle of baby snakes. His eyes are smoldering; his lips twitching. Straight up to his astonished wife he strides and clutches her roughly by the shoulder.

"Look here!" he rages, his voice thick and incoherent. "Here is where it stops!"

The husband then furiously declares that he will not play the dirty game any longer. He feels like killing her, that she would associate so intimately with such a swine as accompanied her that night. And he swears he will kill her if she ever does it again. He announces that if their mode of life is married life, then he'd rather go to the "chair" for ending it in a he-man way. He does not and will not go on as they have been.

Then, in a woman's way, she will cry. In response to her husband's statement that he is through, that he has done his best to keep her, love, she responds :

"Your best? Your worst, you mean!"

"My best!" he reiterates "I have followed Mrs. Verplanck's wise advice."

The Conclusion.—The secret is out, the man blurts out his story. The two compare notes and both feel that they have been persuaded into following a false idea. The man informs his wife that the well-meaning Mrs. Verplanck had advised him to keep his wife guessing, to let her flirt and encourage it, as well as do a bit of flirting himself. Explanations follow and they find that they are two poor dupes.

The husband then decrees that, "Tomorrow night we're going to have steak and onions and apple pie for dinner. Then, in the evening, you're going to knit by this fire. And I'm going to read David Copperfield aloud to you. And we're going to turn my room into a guest room. And fire my man and that wooden-faced French maid of yours."

Interpretation of This Story.—There you are. Now what meaning is to be gotten from this story? A number of them. First, that a man and woman, truly in love with one another, cannot live aloof from the affections that are theirs by all the rights of love and law. We see that true love is not shown merely in little courtesies and in ordinary conventionalities. That a man who truly loves his wife cannot see her too attentive to another man, and vice versa. The story means also that there are many well-meaning people in this world willing to give advice on all subjects. It would be just as well to avoid this advice and to follow the dictates of one's own heart. We see that true love is not always a thing that can be lead, but that must be followed.

Points of Interest.—Now you may plainly see that one of these themes very easily serves as a basis for the story outlined. And the story outlined is an actual story, "The Woman of Experience," by title; the author, Albert Payson Terhune. The writer of this tale evidently is an astute observer of married ,life, for he has woven, through the medium of dialogue, some very pungent statements regarding married life. Thus, the following: "We were. The only trouble was that he tired of it before I knew anyone. could tire. He was very discreet and thoughtful about it all. But `business' began to call him away from home. And, by sheer luck—ill luck, at that—I happened to find out what that `business' was. Their name was legion. He was an inspired polygamist, Ashur was. No, it wasn't a `she.' It was a `they.' To the end of his days, he never could be made to understand that polygamy is an effort to get more out of life than life contains. At first I wanted to die. Then I wanted him to die. Then I grew sane. I picked up what was left of the sorry game and went on playing it. And I grew to understand where my big mistake had been. I could have kept Ashur Verplanck slavishly devoted to me, if I hadn't let him see I was slavishly devoted to him. And I want to save you from what I lived through. It can be done. And I'm going to tell you how."

The above quotation applies to Aunt Hilda's experiences of marriage and does not necessarily chronicle the experience of the majority of married folks.

Now I won't venture to state upon what particular one of the themes mentioned Mr. Terhune based his story. Inasmuch, however, as the title of the story is "The Woman of Experience," I am inclined to believe that this script has as its initial theme the idea of a woman who has been unsuccessful in her married life advising a young married couple to conduct themselves in such a manner that the flame of love would be kept eternally burning. Perhaps she did not realize the complications her suggestions would lead the main characters into, but she was gambler enough to want to see the suggestion carried out. At any rate, the same plot could have been constructed from any one of the themes suggested.

Mechanics of the Story.—This story is told in about 3500 words. I am inclined to believe that the ordinary writer, in developing this identical plot, would have consumed at least six thousand words in doing so. To show such characters as the bride and groom assuming a wrong attitude toward married life, bringing the story to a point of climax, and impressing interestingly the foolishness of an attempt to live as they were, together with explanations, would have to be treated with consummate skill to keep it within 3500 words. There could be little philosophizing, or description, or long narrative. The story would have to consist almost entirely of revealing and significant dialogue, direct action, and a quick approach to the climax, as Mr. Terhune does very cleverly.

The story starts off very admirably with the friendly advisor, Mrs. Verplanck, giving advice to the heroine, Audrey. About 1200 words or so of the story is consumed in her advising the young girl how she is to conduct herself with her husband. Naturally, in doing so, she must prove to the satisfaction of the young girl that the advise given is invaluable. This space must be taken up in a conversation between the two, the girl remonstrating, the woman urging, in order that the woman's arguments be shattered with one stroke at the point of climax and in the peaceful reconciliation at the end of the story. No hint is given that Mrs. Verplanck ad-vises the husband the same as she does the wife. This is to come as a surprise. It is to be the twist or the unexpected that startles the reader, that imparts the delightful snap at the ending of the story.

After about 1700 words, the author places the bride and groom in a social world, in which the two proceed to carry on. He then proceeds rapidly with a brief narrative of the principals' treatment of each other and of other men and women. The following two paragraphs touch briefly upon their ad-ventures leading up to the main crisis :

From the outset of that New York winter, the young Laidlaws were a puzzle to their friends. Instead of be-ginning their married career by avoiding all intruders and seeking to be alone together all the time, and then gradually becoming normal and drifting a bit apart—they were like a middle-aged married couple. They welcomed any form of diversion. The big-eyed little wife treated her good-looking husband as though he were some not-too interesting acquaintance. And she accepted the wholesale attentions from the men of his set. The two plunged into the gayest of gay winters.

At cabarets, when women with bobbed or doubtful hair gazed languorously at Barry, his wife did not honor the would-be vampires with a second glance. At dances, when Audrey "sat out," six times in succession, with some Lothario in secluded corners, Barry did not so much as frown. They were an ideal couple; as up-to-the-minute couples go. They seemed to have a pleasantly friendly modus vivendi and were content to give each other full rein.

The author then plunges directly into the main crisis, which he begins thusly :

It was along toward twelve o'clock when Roy Mayhew dared Audrey to slip away from the dance with him for a half-hour at the Cafe Suzette; the newest and most audacious of the various supper clubs that had sprung, mushroom-like, into life in the Forties, off Fifth Avenue. And Audrey—albeit with a little catch of her breath—accepted the dare. She cast a glance over her shoulder toward Barry. He was in an alcove, bending very closely over Blanch Durham, a divorcee of husband-snatching tastes. He caught Audrey's eye and nodded smilingly to her; then bent once more above the half-recumbent woman on the alcove couch.

The story runs on for three or four more paragraphs narrating the rather shady character of the cafe to which they have come, describing the way in which various individuals, recognizing the girl and her unscrupulous escort, glance suggestively and puzzlingly at them. At this point in the story, the author introduces the husband, who enters. Nest-ling confidingly and loving beside him is another woman. In the next paragraph:

Instantly, everyone in the room who knew the Laidlaws by sight turned to gaze in breathless interest at the chance meeting between husband and wife. And, alas, everybody was grievously disappointed! For, though the Cafe Suzette is scarce the kind of place where a man and his bride would care to be seen by each other, in company with illicit companions, yet both Barry and Audrey carried off the situation perfectly.

They smiled pleasantly, even warmly, understandingly. Then the cordial smile of each included the other's partner. And Audrey and Mayhew continued on the way to their table, while the head waiter piloted Blanch and her escort to another end of the room. Twice, later, during dances, the two couples were within smiling distance. And, both times, the jolly salutations were repeated.

"H'm !" grunted old Colonel Manning, to the super-costly chorus damsel who was enlivening his evening. "Those youngsters are either on the verge of a mutually arranged divorce or else they are starting their married life in a' way that I'd give a million dollars to have started mine!"

The girl then returns home, after which does the husband, when the story concludes in the manner formally related.

Approximately two-thirds of this story is told in dialogue, the remainder is narrative, exposition, and description. The narrative,' where it occurs, is direct and vivid, the description brief andgraphic but very interesting and revealing, though cynical. A keen, humorous eye for seeking out certain truths is revealed in the following paragraph of narration and description: Six weeks later Audrey and Barrington Laidlaw were united in the holy bonds of wedlock at St. Thomas's Church in the presence of something like a thousand invited on-lookers; while several thousand more New Yorkers peered owlishly at the awning between church door and curb—an awning erected to protect guests from the baleful effects of a flawlessly beautiful afternoon. A white-surpliced rector received a fat fee for performing the brief and terrific ceremony. A surpliced, full choir received a fatter fee for chanting the Lohengrin bridal chorus. An obese Metropolitan Opera star received the fattest fee for squalling "The Voice That Breathed O'er Eden," fortissimo, from behind a screen of orchids. Above the couple and careen into the church's stones stood forth the dollar mark and other cynical emblems which the joke loving architect had woven into the tracery of his friezes, and which the worshipers had not yet bothered to discern. And, thus auspicesed, the two lovers became man and wife.

This Story a Simple Structure.—You will note that the plot of this story is very simple indeed. There are no melodramatic, hysterical complications to send the reader into a fever. No, indeed, such great demonstrations are not at all indispensable in story telling, and I venture to state that the ordinary reader would get far more out of this story than from any garishly painted tale of a shipwreck on a deserted island, where the hero and heroine are seized by savages of cannibalistic tendencies.

Sustaining the Reader's Curiosity..—The interest of this tale is sustained by the curiosity of the reader to learn how such a foolish game finally will end. And this interest in the outcome of the story is greatly assisted by the bizarre and humorous observations of married life by the author, as revealed through the dialogue of the characters themselves.

The Quiet Before the Climax.—Like a bolt from the blue comes the climax. Everything seems to be progressing easily and calmly. The course upon which the two have embarked seems to give forth all promises of success. Then, of a sudden, the deluge. As before related, Barry, the groom, returns home from the affair half an hour after his wife. The writer plunges into the climax as follows:

When Barry came home, half an hour later, he glanced in at Audrey's dressing room as he passed down the hall on the way to his own. Through the partly opened door, he saw her lounging in a deep chair, her maid busy with the shining masses of her hair. And he repeated his friendly "Good night!" Merrily, from the depths of the big chair, she answered him, adding:.

"Have a good time?"

"I' did, indeed!" he called back from half down the hall-way. "Didn't you?"

Her laughing response followed him along the hall and to the entrance of his own suite. Barry went into his room, hesitated an instant, then dismissed his drowsy man for the night. After which he stood where he was, head bent, fists clenched, until he heard his wife's maid patter up the service stairs ten minutes later.

Then, in four strides he traversed the hallway, flung open the door of Audrey's suite, without knocking, and stamped into the room.

Then, threats, incriminations, revelations, and explanations, then a great and sweet relief from this world of make-believe.

The Manner of Ending.—The story begins and ends with dialogue. The ending is reminiscent of the beginning and sounds the tone of the beginning. Thus:

"Oh!" she sighed in utter rapture as she gazed maternally down on him from her throne on his knee. "Won't it be gloriously heavenly? Only—only we must both promise solemnly never—never to tell Aunt Hilda. It would break her poor heart!"

Making the Complication.—Aunt Hilda, of course, is the too solicitous advisor—the Mrs. Verplanck. The author, in creating two characters who are playing the same game all unbeknown to one another, brings in a slight touch of coincidence, in that both bride and groom are advised by Mrs. Verplanck in the same manner. Now, though this is slightly coincidental, it is entirely possible and plausible, in that both principals are well acquainted with Mrs. Verplanck. Obviously, however, inasmuch as the two main characters must act along certain lines to bring out the story in the same manner related, some such a mutual acquaintance or relative as Mrs. Verplanck is required in order to advise identically in both cases.

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