Writing Short Stories - Building The Plot
( Originally Published 1922 )
What Plot Is-Plot consists of the series of incidents which present a picture of life—logical—clear—interesting. In a previous chapter I treated of the types of stories—the places, people, and circumstances from which plot-germs might be obtained. Now that the author possesses an idea, a character, a setting or an emotion to bring out, it is necessary that he devise some system whereby the theme may be developed to the climax and from thence unwound to its natural conclusion. Having his theme ready at hand, the author must establish a framework upon which to exhibit it effectively.
A Bare Working Plot.—Suppose the author takes as his theme the truth that man receives in genuine soul-enjoyment from the world just what he puts into it; that he cannot be so self-centered, so narrow, as to love only himself or one closely related to himself and still hope to grasp life's real meaning. The author, in elaborating this theme, must construct some such working scheme as this: A father, very wealthy, loves his only son deeply and blindly. Though he is wealthy, he thinks not of his neighbor nor of the misery of others; ever-vital to him is his son's welfare. So to punish him, God, through some natural agency, takes his son away from him. The father then comes to realize that there is a loftier view of life than he hitherto had been able to vision. And the broken-hearted father accepts this truth in a Spartan-spirit of humiliation. Such is the theme and the working plan of a famous story which we will have occasion to mention again.
Plot a Perfect Whole Made Up of Related Parts.—Plot is not a mere change in place or time; it is not a mere succession of incidents of only casual relation to each other. Of such a mere succession of incidents would consist the daily life of most people. A business man goes to his office, transacts the regular routine of work, comes home to luncheon, returns to his work, meets a few acquaintances, has several interviews, performs more work, goes out to dinner, takes in a show, or remains at home and reads a book, goes to bed—that's all. Things progress, but nothing of importance happens. If the man, however, were to go home and find his wife had eloped with another man, then discovered that the destroyer of his home had also been instrumental in ruining his business, we would have the beginning of a plot. In ordinary life, however, the business man more likely would settle the matter in court. What promised to be the frame-work of an interesting tale would end up in mere, boresome matter-of-factness. Plot, then, is not merely a succession of incidents; but is rather a growth, a chain, in which each incident is vitally related to every other one, with the incidents which follow and precede each other most intimately connected.
The Natural Growth of Situations Composing a Plot.. Thus, a young shipping clerk writes his name and address on the package of a box of commodities which are being sent to a distant' state. The same package comes to the attention of a certain young girl who, in a spirit of fun, writes to the young man. The letter she writes falls into the hands of the young shipping clerk's working companion. The latter reads the letter to several acquaintances. They plan to write a proposal to the girl, giving the shipping clerk's name and ad-dress. Here we have incidents and situations each growing out of the preceding. The jokers of the story could not have gotten the chance to write the young girl had she not been involved in the plot by the shipping clerk's fancy. And, upon the receipt of the letter, the girl might act in a manner still further to involve the plot. She might be an adventuress hunting for game, or a young author looking for interesting types and so on. At any rate, she might determine to look up the shipping clerk, all unsuspecting of the circumstances shaping themselves to snare him.
From this, the author will see that as the action goes on, the relations of the characters to each other become more intimate, personal, and complicated. The story rises in interest, because each situation is the logical outcome of its predecessor. Matters become more precarious for the shipping clerk, and the reader is unable to see how he is going to avoid a very disagree-able time of it explaining certain things.
Divisions of the Plot `Perhaps this matter of plot-building can be made still more obvious to the author if the plot is divided into its main technical parts. Thus, the plot 1,- a story consists of the Preliminary Situation, the Culmination or Climax, and the Conclusion or Denouement:
Preliminary Situation.—The Preliminary Situation consists of the conditions of the story at its inception. In the Preliminary Situation we are informed of the time, the setting, characters on the scene, and the incidents leading up to the story. As soon as the characters meet and move, we have the first incident. Thus, as soon as the shipping clerk had written down his name, the story was off. Everything before that, including description of the clerk, giving of time, place and condition, and so on, made up the Preliminary Situation.
Climax and Conclusion.—The plot then progresses step by step, incident by incident, until the height of suspense—the Climax—has been reached. Between the Preliminary Situation and the Climax, inclusive, come all the most important elements that go to make up the strong plot—the crises and suspense. Each stepping-up place on the stair of the plot that leads to the Climax ordinarily marks a minor crisis, each crisis growing in interest and suspense until the Climax has been reached. As the story progresses, the combined crises blend their accumulated force into one grand complication—the Culmination. Each minor crisis marks the point at which the action of the plot becomes more deeply involved for one or more of the characters and during which some one emotion is brought to the fore. It may be pained surprise, as when a man finds out that his best friend has betrayed him, or the discovery by Government officials that very important state papers have been stolen.
Creating Suspense,—Suspense is introduced into the plot by means of opposition to the natural course of events. Thus, let us consider again the hypothetical case of the business man who finds his wife gone away with another man. Suppose that the wife, after going a short distance on her journey of elopement, decides that she is committing a crime both against society and a faithful husband. At the first stop, she manages to send a telegram informing her husband that she will be at such and such a place at a certain hour and praying him to come get her, to save her from the consequences of the fearful act she has committed. Now the matter of suspense may here be introduced at either or both ends of the strand of complication. Thus, the wife may be prevented from sending the telegram to her husband; the man with whom she is eloping may intercept it through some clever method ; or the husband, while coming home from work, may be interrupted in such a fashion that he gets home too late to meet his wife at the time and place specified in the telegram. The greater the issues to be brought to a happy close, the more suspense-arousing will be the opposition which temporarily delays this happy conclusion.
Undivided Attention.—Of prime importance in constructing a finely-balanced and artistic plot are the elements of continuity and undivided attention. The meaning of these terms is self-explanatory. We later on will speak of the value of unity of impression and caution the author against the use of a single unnecessary character, piece of setting, sub-plot or any one act which would even slightly detract from the most economical, while at the same time the most emphatic, elaboration of the theme. Anything which is not pertinent clogs and confuses'. Every single moment the characters are not moving rapidly forward, desperately endeavoring to solve their difficulties the reader is driven to distraction, and silently implores the author to get his thinking machine back on the right course again.
Concerning an uninterrupted forward procession of events, Poe has said : "A mere succession of incidents, even the most spirited, will no more constitute a plot than a multiplication of zeroes, even the most infinite, will result in the production of a unit. This we all admit,—but few trouble themselves to think further. The common notion seems to be in favor of mere complexity; but a plot, properly understood, is perfect only inasmuch as we shall find ourselves unable to detach from it or disarrange any single incident involved, without destruction to the mass. Practically, we may consider a plot as of high excellence when no one of its component parts shall be susceptible of removal without detriment to the whole."
Originality.—Originality in the plot involves the author's method of developing his plot-germ. The latter, usually in the form of a theme, or a queer, singular situation, may be hackneyed; however, all great and elemental emotions upon which so very many stories are founded, are hackneyed and commonplace. Hence, it matters little what theme the author chooses to exhibit in his story. The great matter of importance is the way in which the theme is elaborated. If the author merely follows in the rut worn by the writers who have preceded him, then already he is doomed to failure. He should choose those situations that have possibilities of greatest development; that is, that might be solved in a number of ways.
Making an Old Situation Seem New.—Often, how-ever, the author will wish to choose for his story a certain situation which already has served as the starting point of a good many stories. Take, for example, the incipient incident of so many stories in which a helpless babe is left on the door-steps of a house to the mercy of the persons within. One author decided to give this threadbare situation a new twist by making the house upon whose steps the babe is placed an apartment for bachelors. He then had the child discovered by three young bachelors, who, unitedly, declared themselves the rightful guardians of the bit of humanity at their feet. Any writer now will realize that wonderful possibilities had been opened up for the development of the initial situation. The future destiny of, the child would be determined according to the influence, not merely one, but three, people exerted upon him. The characters and the future course in life of the three bachelors likewise would be vitally changed by the entrance of the child into their orbit of existence.
Any ordinary, commonplace situation, the constituents of which are reversed, enlarged, or warped out of their natural order, will serve excellently as a jumping-off place for the plot. Thus, all of us are acquainted with the news item which informs us that a mad dog bit so-and-so in the leg, but I hardly can imagine that anyone has ever read, heard, or seen aught of the madman who bit a dog. The circumstances are exaggerated, but they serve as an example of the possible course of procedure.
The Point from Which to Start Your Plot.—The young author may start to build his plot from any point he desires. There will be a certain situation, idea or intention in his mind that shines out with particular light. He will then naturally develop his plot from that attractive situation or idea, whether or not the situation be of minor or major importance in the completed plot. Thus, that fascinating story, "Robinson Crusoe," might very well have been suggested by the author seeing somewhere the imprint of the human foot. Defoe might have asked himself as to the nature of the conditions under which a man would be most fright-fully astonished by the sight of the imprint of the human foot. Most obviously the answer suggests itself : in a clime far removed from his own, or on an island where no one else resided, at a time when a visitor was least expected.