Writing - Unity Of Impression
( Originally Published 1922 )
The Distinctiveness of Your Story.— Unity of impression presupposes unity of conception, deep sympathy with the story and its characters, and the maintenance of a general tone throughout. A story may progress logically, swiftly, and clearly from the preliminary situation right through to the conclusion, without halt or hesitation; it may be a model of well-balanced short-story structure; it may be a delight for the contemplation of a critical analyzer, yet fall short of conviction.
In other words, there is a higher law in story writing than that of mere mathematics; there is a loftier aim than a strict adherence to certain rules regarding the order of events, plot construction, characters, title, and so on. That final test of the artist in short-story writing deals with unity of impression, of imparting a certain distinctive tone or spirit to the story, according to the purpose of the author and the emotion pre-dominant in the story. Unity of impression gives a story character, imparts to it a certain individuality that should cling to the memory of the reader long after he has absorbed the story's last word.
Some people have distinguishable talents or traits which particularly endear them to us. One man may be very engaging of manner, while another person may be the personification of hospitality. Those traits stand out above all others in those particular individuals.
The Story's Dominant Tone.—So it is with stories, based, as they may be, on a thousand different variations of emotions, characters, incidents, tones, colors, ideas, philosophies —illimitable. Each story, based upon some special emotion or idea, should be permeated with that emotion throughout; that emotion should stand out strongly through every major and even minor event of the plot. It implies unity of mood throughout the story, unity of mood at the start, in the middle, and right up to the final reckoning.
Author Must Have the Tone of His Story Constantly Before Him.—It is necessary above all else that, in securing unity of impression, the author have the dominant tone of his story ever before him, so that every event and every situation be touched with it, that every word set down be an indispensable link in the chain reaching from causation to effect. Of this effect of unity of impression to be brought out in the manuscript, Robert Louis Stevenson says :
"A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his initial sentence tend not to an out-bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written to which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one preestablished design."
The author should go over in his mind each incident of his story before setting it to paper in order to determine whether it is impregnated with the spirit of a certain mood. If not, then he must ruthlessly cast it aside; it certainly will not aid in securing unity of impression ; for, to bring about this desired effect, every event must be inevitable to the clear working out of the plot and must be in mood with the rest of the plot-fabric.
An Example of Harmony.—A master in the device of securing incomparable impressionistic qualities was Poe. In his story, "The Masque of the Red Death," all bits of the setting, and even seemingly insignificant fragments of the story have been considered for their harmony of mood. The mood is one of mystery and tragedy which comes to a band of thoughtless revellers. The tone of the story is brought more sharply in contrast by the gayety of the party. Poe strikes the tone of death and tragedy in the very first sentence of the story. I will give passages from the story to illustrate how well Poe has the mood in hand and what materials he utilizes to bring it to the reader impressively.
The "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.
But in the western or black chamber the effects of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes were ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound ; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation.
The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrunity much have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death.
And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flame of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.
In Poe's story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," the unity of impression is wrought out in like manner. Every element of setting is permeated with the inextinguishable and gripping breath of the supernatural; from beginning to end the whole story fairly reeks of it. The reader cannot leave the story without carrying with him a singleness of impression.
Why Enthusiasm is Essential.—A prime requisite for the obtaining of unity of impression is that the writer be enthused with his materials; that is, be overjoyed with the prospect of writing a story of a certain type. Thus, a per-son may experience a keen delight in reading and writing of a courageous, generous, resourceful man who is involved in very strenuous happenings, who plays the part of worshipper to beautiful woman; whose stirring efforts are crowned with success after very persistent fighting and continuous combat with forces of evil; who, in fact, is the very type of "hero" so dear to the hearts of those who are charmed by the story of action. If the author delights in writing stories of adventure, then he inevitably will approach his subject with a certain avidity to start his characters off on their perilous voyages. And, throughout the whole narrative, he will deal with his characters and their troubles, their loves and their triumphs, in a tender, enthusiastic manner; he will be one with them in spirit and body; he will give himself entirely unto them; and, dominated by the one supreme purpose of injecting inspiriting and dashing contention into his story, he will have no end but one in view—to make his hero a hero above all others, to make his heroine admired and loved and feared for as no other ever has been. And, in so doing, he will forget to disgress—he will have no desire to philosophize on some extraneous matter of small assistance to the ultimate achievement of the climax. Every incident, every bit of setting and of character, will be devised with the purpose of making the hero more heroic, of bringing out some trait, such as courage, so that when the story has been drawn to its conclusion the reader will know, without conscious thinking effort, that some particular emotion has been very pleasurably aroused.
Another writer, however, will not wish to write adventure stories. He is not in spirit with a Stevenson, a Dumas, a Scott. If he should write an adventure story, no particular emotion would be aroused in the reader, for the writer himself would not be sufficiently possessed of any adventurous complication to impart anything of distinction to a story of this type; it would be merely a stilted performance of puppets with no surging battles to fight, no great ideals to contest wholeheartedly for.
But this same writer might have a preference for the character story. If so, in such a story would his desires best be displayed in unity of impression. He might have in view the reaction of some character to temptation as brought against a certain strong sense of duty—the temptation, or its indulgence, and the duty running toward exactly dif-. ferent ends. The dominant tone of such a story would be the portrayal of the hero's struggle with self.
And so on. From which it is seen that before unity of impression may successfully be attained, the writer must b' informed unmistakably of just what tone he wishes to render, and this may be determined by the kind of story to be written, together with the effect to be rendered.
The Reader's Acceptance of the Author's Dominant Tone.—Some people's dreams are as real as their every-day life. Even their imaginings and fancies possess an air of reality, which, when viewed in retrospect, may seem to be recollections of actual experiences. Such people will write admirable stories drawn entirely from the imagination. They will believe in their stories ; they will give themselves up without reserve to their elaboration; the story will possess, then, a tone of sincerity and a unity of impression.
Consistency of Tone.—Take, for example, the ghost story. The beginner is advised against writing of the super-natural or the mysterious if he is too out-and-out a disbeliever in anything which smacks of the unreal—if he cannot be tolerant of the supernatural even for amusement's sake. For such a person to write a ghost story would bear an analogy to the mathematician touching his figures with an element of romance. I speak of this with regard especially to the ghost story, for the reason that exactly the same error has been made. Anne Radcliff in her novel, "The Castle of Otronto," attempts to explain the mysterious sights and sounds which impart such a delightful atmosphere of mystery and expectancy to most of her books, by resorting to the discovery of some mechanical devise that caused the noises and the strange sights. The effect is not to be mistaken. Very evidently the author did not think that the reader would care to accept the strange events of her story without the proverbial grain of salt; yet, in administering the salt she has spoiled the effect of the story. A writer anxious to give his story unity of impression would have left the cause of the mystery unexplained in such prosaic fashion.
How to Satisfy Your Reader's Expectations.—The average reader dislikes exceedingly to be disappointed when he has taken it for granted he is to be pleased. And, if a certain personage of a story is especially pleasing to the reader, then the reader is going to be a discomfited and enraged individual indeed if affairs turn out badly for the beloved. Hence arises this rule: If the expectations are aroused in a certain direction, that direction must be maintained undeviatingly throughout. If the story is to be one of light and airy romance, it must not end in tragedy; while, on the other hand, if the story is to be one of melancholy, it must not possess too prominent and disquieting strains of joyous humor, for then the contrast will be too strongly sketched and the reader will not know what effect was to be rendered.
The author, then, from the first sentence, if necessary, must strike the dominant tone and emotion of his story, just as Shakespeare did in Hamlet and in all the rest of his plays. Throughout some run the deep, presistent tones of tragedy, offset only here and there with swift, expert, running touches of peace, quiet philosophy, and humor, by bits of appropriate contrast, yet not sufficient to throw the reader from the pervading tone. Another sketches the humorous character of an alehouse, say the laughable Falstaff; and, in such a one, Shakespeare does not make the mistake of startling the reader by introducing tragic tones.
How to Make Your Story Distinctive.—It will be well to recall to the prospective writer at just this point a certain state of mind peculiar to the average reader. The reader, as a rule, is a very generous sort of person; if he votes to read an impossible tale of romance, of fantasy, or of adventure, he is ready heart and soul for the very worst the author is able to do, provided, of course, that the characters remain true to the type set for them. In the act of starting a particular story, the reader tentatively agrees to accompany the author upon any cruise of fate, to whatsoever climes the story may carry him ; he is eagerly prepared for the highest flights of fancy, provided the writer strikes that tone from the outset and gives the reader assurance that the story is one of fancy and will not, without warning, change into a domestic tragedy.
To bring out this point more strongly, let us compare two stories, both romantic in a general sort of way and both containing the element of love. We will consider "Aladdin's Lamp," from the Arabian Nights, and "The House Opposite," a tale in dialogue by Anthony Hope.
In the former production, the reader accepts the wonderful adventures of Aladdin as a matter of course. It is no matter of surprise to the reader, after he has been informed of the tone of the story, to be told that at the mere rubbing of the wonderful lamp genii appear to carry out the most extravagant demands of their master. We are prepared for all that comes and take delight in anticipating even more marvelous happenings. Nothing the hero could do or could have done to him would surprise us in the least, for we are momentarily expecting some genii to appear and perform still greater feats. Nor do we lay the story aside with any feeling of disgust or shame. Of course, we do not imagine for an instant that any such miracles could or ever did take place. Yet we admitted, during the actual reading, that they might, and in that silent agreement with the author did we read his production.
In the other production, "The House Opposite," is brought out a little characteristic peculiar to most people—that of forgetting the romance of their earlier days after they have settled down to the staid humdrum of house and home. This story deals very delightfully, very humanly, with just this trait of character.
The action is unusually trivial. A young lady slips out of her boarding-school and meets by chance a young man who resides in "The House Opposite," a young man she has seen before and often silently admired. The two go to a soda fountain where the heroine spends a shilling given her to attend a certain lecture. Everything is very commonplace, very plausible, very like happenings that might and doubtless do occur many times to every individual. The tone through-out is quiet, humorous, and romantic.
Now consider in what a stupefied condition the reader would be hurled if, during the stroll of the two young people down the street in the direction of the soda fountain, there should have appeared three horrible, distorted genii who should have demanded that they be asked to perform some incredible feat. Would the reader accept it; would he be likely to go on with the story? If he did, it would be with the intention of seeing just what was the matter with the author and of ascertaining further marks of insanity.
The Importance of Setting in Unity of Impression. —Of inestimable importance in imparting unity of impression and emphasizing the key tone of the story is setting. For stories of action or incident, there is no better setting than the dark forest—the raging flood—the sea—the city's street in the dead of night—the battlefield, and so on.
For stories of romance the appropriate background is the dance, perfumes, flowers, moonlit evenings, gardens, the female in distress—preferably in some suggestive and striking position—the lake steamer, the canoe, and so on in unlimited variation. All such devices of setting tend to give the impression of love, of the tender heart, of susceptible emotions, for it is through our senses that we are most visibly affected. We all have been told of, doubtless many of us have felt, the subtle influence of the moon on a summer's balmy evening.
It is for these reasons that the harmonized elements of setting are so invaluable. The reader can be made to accept the tone of a story far more readily when there exists no incongruous elements of setting. Just consider for a moment how the story of mystery, of dark and unfathomable doings, can be strengthened in suspense and emotional height by the introduction of the moaning wind, the dashing waves, the swishing rain, and the sighing trees.
But it is largely the story of adventure and the story of setting that will require the greatest selection of details for bringing out unity of impression most effectively. A story of character will not require great attention to setting, only as character is affected by environment. And a story of idea will demand still less adherence to strict selection of striking and harmonious setting effects for the purpose of bringing out the author's supreme purpose.
It will be seen from the foregoing that unity of impression occupies a very important niche in the realm of story writing. Unity of impression very often is the thing that decides for or against a story's acceptance. One story may be a splendid model of deverly devised and constructed plot complication, yet an editor on reading it may not be particularly impressed ; it will not remain fixed in his mind ; rather, he will promptly forget it and the writer will wonder why his story did not get by. Another story, simple in plot and dealing with commonplace incidents, may be so permeated and suffused with the author's theme, be so impregnated with the author's enthusiastic treatment of his main, underlying purpose and idea that the editor instantly will accept it.
How to Make the Right Impression.—The patient author, therefore, will determine well beforehand just what impression he desires to create in the reader's mind. The reader gets just what the writer gives, so much and no more. As much art and as much feeling as a story contains; just that proportion of delight does the reader experience. Story writing is an excellent mirror for the reader to look into the author's heart and read there the power of the latter's emotions and the sincerity of his convictions. The writer will do well to bear this truth firmly in mind. If he has assimilated all the rules of this system, yet his work persists in returning, then he has only himself to blame. It is only because the charm of his subject has not seized him with sufficient power for him to impart strong emotion, dynamic play of forces, delicacy of touch, and sincerity of tone to his work.