Read Like A Writer

There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.

John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction


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Friday, December 11, 2015

Conceptive Technique, Plot and Situation by Robert Saunders Dowst (1918)

Conception and Execution - Utility to Know Types - Novel and Romance - Short Story - The Three Types - Emphasis Three Elements of Any Story - Story of Character - Character and Action - Story of Incident - Archetypal Character Short Story and Fallacy of Compression - Story of Atmosphere - Other Types.

The labors of the fiction writer are of two sorts, conceptive and executive. In actual practice, of course, the writer may have only the faintest glimmering of his story when he begins to write, and may simultaneously conceive, elaborate, and express as he goes along; but that is not the method of the conscious literary artist. An understanding adaptation of means to ends is impossible unless the writer has a definite purpose fixed in mind from the first moment of execution. And in writing on technique it is necessary to assume the natural order of the total artistic or creative process, whether the actual practice of any writer coincides with it or not. Therefore the body of conceptive technique first calls for treatment. Strict executive technique and also the technique of construction--which is both conceptive and executive--will be taken up after dealing with the matter of story types and the matter of plot.

I need not state that there is no technique of conception, mastery of which will yield the writer the golden secret of how to create or find a good story. That depends strictly on personal ability, and not on any objective knowledge of the mechanics of the art of fiction. But a knowledge of the several fundamental types of story, and of the how and why of the differences between them, cannot fail to aid the writer in estimating and realizing the potentialities and deficiencies of a particular idea. The writer who knows precisely where his story idea will classify under analysis has a standard that will prove most useful in the work of development. If it classifies as a story of atmosphere, rather than of plot or of character, the writer will be led to concentrate upon his proper task of creating the atmospheric illusion, and will not dissipate his energies and spoil the effect of the finished work by interpolating unnecessary touches of emphasis upon character or incident.

Another preliminary word may not be out of place. A story is a story, whether long or short; but the novel or lengthy romance is so much more inclusive in matter and complicated in structure than the short story--viewing the latter as a distinct literary type--that it is less essential for the writer of fiction of book length to know with exact definition the effect he wishes to produce than it is for the writer of the short story of a few thousand words. The potential and usual effects of the novel are many; it may and usually does contain chapters or passages emphasizing all three story elements of character, complication of incident, and atmosphere; but the short story is limited by its brevity to the creation of a single effect, and any touch of emphasis looking elsewhere usually will detract from the power of the whole. Therefore it is in short story writing that a firm preliminary grasp upon all the implications and connotations of the basic idea is most essential, also most attainable, and therefore a discussion of fundamental story types concerns itself largely with the short story. But much the same principles of constructive analysis utilized by the writer of the short story may be profitably employed in developing the various but more or less unified episodes of the novel.

The three fundamental types of story have a perfectly natural origin. A story is the relation of what (1) certain persons (2) did (3) in a certain place and under certain conditions of existence. Accordingly, as the elements of personality, action, or surrounding conditions are emphasized, we have the story of character, of incident, or of atmosphere. As Stevenson has said, there are but three ways to create a story, to conceive characters and select and devise incidents to develop them, to take a plot--a climactic series of incidents--and devise characters to enact it, or to take an atmosphere and precipitate it as best the writer may.

There is, however, an obvious fact to remember. These several types of story differ from one another only in point of emphasis; in each case an element possessed by all is stressed; no type is entirely devoid of the elements emphasized in the other two. An intended story lacking any one of the three elements of character, of complication of incident, or of setting is not a story, but something else. The most common example is the composition portraying character without any plot or complication of incident, which is not a character story, but a character sketch. It cannot be too strongly insisted that a story is a story, consisting of a climactic series of incidents, as distinguished from a tale, which is a level series of incidents, unrelated save in that all happen to the same group of characters. Plot is a matter not specifically under discussion as yet, but half the difficulty and most of the inutility in writing on fiction technique reside in the fact that one must treat in isolation matters which are but elements of a unified artistic synthesis. A story is a story; its people do not merely exist, they live and act. In the case of the story of complication of incident, the complication supplies the story-element of the fiction; in the case of character story, the evolution or degeneration of character supplies the story-element; while in the case of the story of atmosphere, the climactic progression of the particular emotional impression to the point of highest intensity in itself supplies much of the plot- or story-element of the conception.

Another qualification should be stated. The normal story, written for its own sake, is emphatic in that it stresses some one of its three elements. But there is also the thematic story, written to vivify an abstract proposition or to point a moral. The type lays no special emphasis on character, incident, or setting, and is written with an eye to an ulterior purpose beyond the mere sake of the story. It is not a natural type, and may be disregarded here. Incidentally, it is not a very successful type, and of course any success it may achieve as a work of art cannot derive from the truth or weight of the proposition or moral behind it.

Starting from the proposition that there are three normal story types, it may be profitable to examine them in detail. I am not yet concerned with the technical devices whereby character may be drawn, a plot devised and narrated, or atmosphere created; my sole purpose is to suggest how the writer may recognize the true character of his idea, that in developing it he may know exactly what he is trying to do.

The story of character is concerned with the infinitely diverse traits of our common human nature as manifested by the people of a story. The single trait or few traits, rather than the totality of each person's nature, should be sought to be developed, for reasons that a moment's thought will render apparent. Character can be truly realized only by showing the person in characteristic actions and, unless the writer desires to extend his work to a great length, he can formulate no course of action which will illustrate a complete personality. In all its aspects, fiction is a matter of selection, and the writer of a story of character should concentrate his powers of description and exposition upon the traits of personality involved in the acts of the persons. The short story must present a relatively incomplete picture of each character's soul; the novel may approach each person from a number of angles; but even the novelist should consider whether he cannot give maximum reality and vivacity to his people by not attempting a too complete presentation of each.

If, then, the initial conception of a story involves or suggests true traits of character, it may be advisable to develop the story so as to throw into strong relief the quality or qualities involved. The possibility of the wisdom of such development becomes a probability if the traits are somewhat novel and not those possessed in common by all men to some extent, such as the capacity to love, to hate, to sacrifice self, ambition, the fear of death, and so forth.

It should be remembered that the hallmark of the true character story is its progression; the persons of the story grow stronger or weaker in their respective traits under the pressure of events. There is a climactic moment of indecision and suspense when it is doubtful whether the character will shape circumstances or circumstances the character. This distinguishing attribute of the character story is its essential quality as a story; the strict type is debarred from recourse to complication of incident to save it from being a mere sketch; change or progression in the characters is itself the story or plot element of the fiction. Realization of the fact will give the writer a firmer grasp on the truth that characters and events must be developed in strict concert and harmony. Anticipating later statement a trifle, let me say that portrayal of the actions of a character is portrayal of the character himself, so that his actions must be characteristic, or two elements of the story will be at cross purposes. In setting out to write a character story, the author deliberately chooses to emphasize character and to depend for interest on the spectacle of its evolution or degeneration. Since he is after all writing a story--though of one type--the author must devise some climactic series of incidents. But the character element is the preponderant strain of the fiction, and each successive incident should be chosen with an eye to that element, and its climactic value should inhere in its being climactic and progressive in relation to the trait of character sought to be developed.

This is all somewhat abstract, but the test is much easier to apply to a concrete story idea than it is to formulate in terms. If the idea consists of a tentative grouping of incidents which suggests an interesting phase of character in an interesting phase of development, the conception may be elaborated into the story which emphasizes character. On the other hand, if the initial idea is simply of a phase of character which can be adequately shown in progression by a series of incidents devised to that end, the same treatment is advisable. In each case it is possible that such treatment will give maximum effect to the conception.

The story of complication of incident interests primarily because of its plot, and not because of its people or the totality of its emotional effect.[A] It is more than a type of story; in a way it is really the archetype of all stories. An historical analysis will show the truth of the statement. First came the tale, a chain of incidents having no essential connection except that they all happened to the characters. Then came the story, a chain of incidents which are not fortuitous and accidental, but each essential to the whole design. And from the story have sprung such variations as the character story, which emphasizes the element of personality, and the story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the setting, spiritual or material. But the story of plot, which stresses the bare incident, is archetypal of all fiction in that interest centers in the story rather than in the persons or their environment. Perhaps the French conte, or brief dramatic narrative, is the strictest story type of all.

I have chosen to touch upon the character story first, rather than the more fundamental and inclusive story of plot, simply because the potential story of plot is easily recognizable, and my sole aim here is to state some of the tests which the writer may apply to his idea after conception to discover its true character, that he may know how to handle it. The germ of a plot can be distinguished at a glance, while the question of what a plot really is requires separate treatment.

If the writer would produce a strict short story, he cannot rest content with the apparent fact that his initial conception is the germ of a story plot, that being the case. The story of plot may be easy to recognize as a genre, but not all stories of plot are potential short stories. All plot germs are not susceptible of adequate development within the narrow limits of the short story. Ten thousand words is probably the extreme limit of the type as a commercial possibility, and, in a space so brief, if the chain of events is at all complicated or lengthy, it is impossible to bring out all its nuances and implications. Too many critics and writers seem to entertain the idea that the short story is the result of compression, but emphatically that is not true. The synopsis of previous chapters before an instalment of a serial novel is an example of compression, and a most repellent one. A short story is the result of its own inherent brevity. A naturally long story, it is true, may be shortened materially by mere rhetorical compression, but it cannot be rendered a short story thereby, for the short story develops its fewer incidents with as much rhetorical elaboration as the novel or romance develops its many happenings. The short story that is a short story--such as Kipling's "Without Benefit of Clergy," Stevenson's "Markheim," or Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher"--gives off no impression of verbal bareness. The short story is a literary form, with all the elaboration of expression that the term implies. Its brevity results from careful selection of the incidents to be set forth, and not from concise expression of an indiscriminate welter of incidents.

Undoubtedly the matter requires emphasis. Too much has been written and said as to the necessity of compression in short story writing. If what is meant is rhetorical compression, bare statement without verbal elaboration, no such necessity exists. What is necessary is care in making certain that the story is a short story, and care to relate nothing not essential to its development.

The French type of short story in general, and Maupassant's work in particular, are often cited to illustrate the need for compression. In the first place, the essential genius of the French language is such that in translations, to English or American apprehension, fully elaborated statement often seems somewhat bare. Moreover, I cannot admit that Maupassant's best work is equal in rounded artistry and appeal to that of others who have chosen to write less barely and mathematically. If compression means anything, it means squeezing something into less space than it would normally occupy, which is not artistry, but an attempt to do in execution the proper work of conception and construction, to devise a story which can be given adequate literary expression in a limited number of words.

A critical reading of almost any successful short story will disclose that the manner of its telling is as truly the source of its interest and appeal as is the novelty or human importance of the naked story idea. The difference between a recital of facts and a work of fiction is the difference between mere reporting and true literature. The writer who strives to compress in expression, instead of carefully selecting the matter for expression, deliberately rejects his only means to produce a sufficiently full and rounded presentment of the particular phase of life he seeks to depict. That means is to write with due elaboration, lest the phrasing seem stark and flat in comparison with the softly moulded contours of life itself. There are two elements in literature, the fact and the form; they are equally important and should be equally complete. When considering the fitness of a plot to serve as the skeleton for a short story, remember that in execution the thing must be written with due verbal elaboration, else it will be angular and unattractive, and that the idea of many incidents, people, or places cannot be so written in the space available. In execution, write adequately, and in conception and construction, select.

The story of atmosphere, which emphasizes the setting in which its people move, and seeks to bring out the emotional value of the physical or spiritual environment, is not difficult to recognize, being like the story of plot in this respect. But it is most difficult to do well. The story of character deals with concrete people, and the story of plot deals with concrete events; the story of atmosphere deals with these and something more, an intangible sensual or emotional impression, as of beauty or horror, correspondingly more difficult to create. It demands imaginative powers of the highest order, and perfect technical powers. Within limits, the unimaginative author may write effectively of characters and events, for he can see and study them objectively in daily life, and, again within limits, they may also be presented effectively by matter of fact phrasing. But atmosphere cannot be seen--even physical atmosphere must be felt, or there is no emotional effect--and all the resources of language at times become pitifully inadequate to precipitate an emotion. It is all a matter of clear conception and careful design, and the secret cannot be stated, but must be learned, each for himself. However, I am not concerned in this place with executive technique, or even with constructive technique, and whatever hints can be given as to the creation of atmosphere would be out of place. My object is merely to state the fundamental types of story and the necessity that the writer recognize the true character of his conception, that he may develop it with emphasis properly laid.

Other types of story exist, but the lines between them are not drawn by the inherent character of the art of fiction. The love story, for instance, may be told with emphasis on character, on incident, or on atmosphere, and the placing of emphasis determines its artistic character. The technique of conception is concerned only with fundamental types, and the sole object of its mastery is to give the writer knowledge of the essential artistic character of each of his conceptions, that he may work with a definite aim in development. My object is not to discuss or analyze pedantically, for the sake of the analysis itself, but simply to state the importance of discovering the basic fictional character of the idea, that it may be properly expanded. Strict constructive and executive technique of course require separate treatment.


[A] One might expand here on the distinction that in the story stressing character it is the particular persons who interest the reader, while in the story of plot his interest centers in the events, and the people of the story are followed less as individuals than as the human focal points whereon the events take effect. Such fine analysis is tempting, but of little use, for any story is a compact unity of the three elements.

About the Author

Robert Saunders Dowst, 1890-1959, author of TheTechnique of Fiction Writing. Whether you're a new writer struggling to find your way into the story you want to tell or an experienced scribe looking to shake things up with a few novel tips and techniques, Robert Saunders Dowst's TheTechnique of Fiction Writing can help. Packed with practical guidelines and instructions that are sure to break you out of your rut and breathe new life into your work, this classic guide is a must-read for aspiring novelists and short-story writers.

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