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Writing Short Stories - Qualities Of Mind You Should Encourage

( Originally Published 1922 )



The Part Played by Your Imagination.—As I already have mentioned in preceding chapters, sympathetic observation is an essential from which salable stories will have their inspiration. By your observation of life, will your stories be known. Knowledge cannot be manufactured, cannot be simulated—it must be actually yours.

Your observation, however, will be assisted to a great extent by your imagination, your ability to create air-castles, to arrange and re-arrange true incidents and human characteristics in various combinations and patterns. The wealth of your imagination will naturally grow from the extent of your experience of life, your observations thereof, from things you see, hear, and think of. Your imagination cannot dwell on some-thing you do not know of or have not experienced. It is an absolute impossibility for you or anyone else to imagine any-thing that you actually have not heard of, seen, or know of. It is true that there is nothing new under the sun, although the arrangement of old things may be entirely new. It is this shifting of old events, characteristics, and the like, into new forms and complications, that imagination has most to do with. Because imagination must be founded upon fact is the best reason in the world why your imagination should be allowed to run at random only over the actual history of your own experiences, philosophies, and emotions. And why, as much as possible, a person's endeavor in writing should be restricted to his own niche in life. Your imaginings then are not so apt to misfire, to be unreal, and unconvincing.

Contrivance.—Next in line comes ingenuity or creativeness, both symbolical with originality. Inasmuch as there is nothing new under the sun, it follows that it would be almost impossible to devise an entirely new character type or chance upon an unused theme. The originality of your stories will be gauged in proportion to the degree of creativeness with which you arrange the events to bring out your theme. Many beginners disregard entirely the fact that all successful stories have some claim to originality, usually in the manner of working out the theme. Countless numbers of stories that reach my attention have no pretense whatsoever to any fresh new tone or outlook. The usual, every-day themes are arranged in fashions that carry no marks of distinction. When you come to think of it, it is not such a task to devise new situations or to revivify old themes. In a story, "The Dummy-Chuckers," which appeared in Cosmopolitan Magazine, Arthur Somers Roche renders an excellent variation of the old theme and situation based on mistaken identity. According to the tale, the dummychucker, who is also the hero, seems to be a vagrant who simulates illness and starvation in order to draw from the pockets of sympathetic on-lookers enough silver to secure a coveted drink. The dummy-chucker, interrupted in his faked play by the police, attempts to escape. He is picked up by a wealthy young man who takes the dummy-chucker to a sumptuous apartment. A bargain is struck between the two. The dummy-ehucker, greatly resembling a rival of the wealthy young man who has so suddenly befriended the dummychucker, is to impersonate this rival. The dummy-chucker, dressed as the supposed rival, is to appear at a certain cafe where the heroine and her scheming escort are to be, and is to create a disturbance—is to seem to be very greatly intoxicated. According to the wealthy young man's hopes, there-after, the girl will lose faith in the preferred rival, who, it seems, has been bravely attempting to break himself of the drinking habit.

The dummy-chucker, as he draws upon himself the garb of a cultured gentleman, seems to imbibe at the same time something of the atmosphere of a gentleman of honor. He motors luxuriously to the cafe where the affair is to be staged. He 'bears himself proudly and confidently. He feels to be a very gentleman, as his clothes designate, and the glances of the people at the place seem to accept him as such. As he is escorted to his table, he notices the wealthy young man and the girl at the table. We will let Mr. Roche tell the crucial point of the story.

As he stood there, the girl raised her head. She did not look toward the dummy-chucker, could not see him. But he could see the proud line of her throat, the glory of her golden hair. And opposite her he could see the features of his host, could note how illy that shrewd nose and slit of a mouth consorted with the gentle face of the girl. And then, as the maitre d'hotel beckoned, he remembered that he had left the flask, the monogrammed flask, in his over-coat pocket.

"Just a moment," he said.

He turned and walked back toward the corner where was his coat. In the distance, he saw some one approaching him, noted the free stride, the carriage of the head, the set of the shoulders. And then, suddenly, he saw that the "someone" was himself. The mirror was guilty of the illusion.

Once again he stood before it, admiring himself. He summoned the face of the girl who was sitting in the dining-room before his mental vision. And then he turned abruptly to the check-girl.

"I've changed my mind," he said. "My coat, please."

The dummy-chucker then returns to the apartment of the unscrupulous schemer and awaits his return. As the latter comes in, it is easy to note his rage. He orders one of his serants to strip the clothes from the vagrant—to eject him immediately. And, with the resumption of his old, tattered, nondescript clothing and because of the attitude of scorn that surrounds him on all sides, the dummy-chucker seems gradually to resume his old shuffling and unambitious way. He then returns to Broadway, where at an opportune moment, he again fakes illness to gain the few pennies that will bring him his drink.

How would you have developed this situation? Would you have done it in the old hackneyed fashion? Or would you have developed it in an entirely new manner as has Mr. Roche? It is in such matters that your powers of inventiveness will evince themselves.

"Shifting Situations to Bring About Original Stories. —An excellent method to increase your powers of inventiveness is to think over the various stories you read and photoplays you see—to quiz yourself as to how the climax could have been brought about in a different manner. Ask yourself how some particular situation leading up to the climax, if viewed from a little different angle, would have made an entirely new story and brought about a new climax. Think about the various incidents making up any stories you read. In shifting them about, be careful that you make events move logically and plausibly. You will be astonished at the vast panorama of new plots that will present themselves to you by such exercises.

The Many New Ways to Develop an Old Theme.—Consider the vast number of stories based upon the eternal triangle, two men and one woman, two women and one man, and so forth, that are always appearing in the magazines. And all of them are different to some extent else they would not be able to wedge themselves into the pages of discriminating publications. The possibilities of change are endless. It only rests with you to make these changes consonant with your character types and with the aim and end of your theme. Thus, various complications might grow from any theme, but be sure that the complication you choose is possible and believable.

Consider carefully all the experiences of life with which you come in contact. Juggle them about, imagine what might have happened had the circumstances been a little different than they actually were. It is surprising what effect a little incident, seemingly insignificant, will have on the even tenor of life.

Sympathy.—Another important quality of the writer's mind is sympathy. The writer should be able to put himself in another's place. Suppose he is writing of a jealous hero—the writer straightway should consider himself a jealous lover. What are the emotions that bruise and tear the heart of him who is jealous? You must be able to understand that question before you can hope to write sincerely and success-fully of a jealous hero. In placing yourself in the positions of those of whom you write, ask yourself what you would do under given circumstances—how you would react to injustice—how you would meet an emergency, and, while you might not have your character react exactly as you yourself would, sympathetic treatment of your character enables you to delve more deeply into the motives that move people.

Restraint.—This brings us to restraint and broadmindedness. I have said before that the writer should write of and deal in only those events in which he is intensely interested. On the other hand, that a true picture of what he is writing may be obtained, he should approach his subject calmly, deliberately, and unbiased. Otherwise, his writings may bear the finger-marks of prejudice. You may be so greatly absorbed in one particular character that you fairly itch to set this character down on paper, but after you have done so you should ask yourself in calm truthfulness whether or not you have depicted the character truthfully. Too great an enthusiasm is very apt to spoil the effects intended, for your readers may not feel as strongly regarding this character as you yourself do. It is a wise procedure when inspiration seizes you too strongly, to view your subject dispassionately for two or three days be-fore attempting to go ahead with it. By that time your ardor may have cooled somewhat. Certain aspects of your story that you may have stressed too strongly at first will have drifted into their real importance. You might have been tempted to make your hero too manly, too strong, too great. You might draw such handsome and gorgeous characters as to make your reader scoff or even to lay your story aside in disgust, with the exclamation of "impossible." And you may be too concerned over the deception and shams of life; you may attack them too severely as these shams are brought out in your character. If you do, you may be sure that your people will not be accepted as typical individuals. Do not, under any circumstances, allow your pet philosophies and theories of life, your prejudices, and the like, to creep too strongly and obviously into your writings. It is your purpose to amuse and entertain the reader. You cannot hope to do this if your work smacks too strongly of your own strong feelings. Enthusiasm is fine but it should be tempered by a cool hand, sensibility, and restraint.

The Value of a Sense of Humor.—In writing, a sense of humor is as refreshing as a cool shower on a hot, sultry day. You have often heard of the saying, "the saving sense of humor." That is true. A sense of humor has saved many a tragical or what promised to be a tragical outcome to a critical situation. A sense of humor enables the happy possessor thereof to laugh away many of the minor difficulties of this life. Without a sense of humor, most of us would move around as sour individuals, gloomy and downhearted, unable to see the bright side of life—even not caring to see it. Of decisive value in fiction is a sense of humor. It enables the writer to sense the tone of his situations. He may be drawing his characters too strongly, the situations in which they engage may be growing too melodramatic, even mawkishly so. He may be so straining after effect that the result be ridiculous—even preposterous. Herein rests the value of a sense of humor. Many stories have been founded on the "saving sense of humor," of how the quarrels of lovers, of husband and wife, and the like, have been averted from magnifying into separation and divorce by a sense of humor on either or both sides. A sense of humor may change a failure into a success—a too pronounced sense of humor may do the opposite. This should not be construed as relating to the writing of humorous stories, but only to caution the writer against committing absurd indiscretions, so that he does not make his characters too funny, his climax too tragical, his conclusion too absurd.

The Sensible Way to Write.—In a foregoing paragraph of this chapter I have spoken of a deliberate approach to your theme. The question arises, how should you write, by inspiration or by measured rote. Should you wait for inspiration, should you madly dash off a story at the approach of some divine inspiration, or should you make writing a task to be performed regularly? A seasoned writer has forgotten this problem. He knows that he could not hope to deal with all the inspirations that have seized him. You, yourself, if you have done any writing at all, will recall the wonderful thing that has happened when you bring yourself to actual writing. The manipulation of your characters and the progress of events bring forward a great number of possible variations to your plot. You may even have become confused as to which of these possible variations to give way to. Every story you write suggests countless other stories of a different nature. It would be a prolific writer indeed who was able to give form to all his inspirations.

Of course, I do not intimate that you should forget all your inspirations at the cost of writing out some particular plot you are engaged with. Set all your ideas and themes down as they occur to you. Let your note-book be the repository for all inspiration that might interrupt anything you have at hand. Stories that are written by sudden inspiration are not always successful, because the writer is unable to get a true perspective of the events and characters constituting the story. He has not had time enough to map out an artistically perfect plot. The more fervently he begins a story so inspired, the more lamely it might be likely to conclude. On the other hand, the best things I have ever written have come as sudden inspirations. The short story which I pro-pose to insert presently, so that it can serve as a kind of object lesson for some instruction I want to give beginners, was written in three or four hours at one sitting and never even corrected. It just flowed from me because the inspiration was strong and clear.

But for general advice the best way is to set aside a certain time each day, or every other day, in which you can write. Take up your plots one by one, completing the first plot or theme before you proceed to the next. Let your interest be measured. It will be more lasting.

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