REQUIREMENTS OF THE SHORT STORY
Critics have agreed that the short story must conform to certain conditions. First of all, the writer must strive to make one and only one impression. His time is too limited, his space is too confined, his risk of dividing the attention of the reader is too great, to admit of more than this one impression. He therefore selects some moment of action or some phase of character or some particular scene, and focuses attention upon that. Life not infrequently gives such brief, clear-cut impressions. At the railway station we see two young people hurry to a train as if fearful of being detained, and we get the impression of romantic adventure. We pass on the street corner two men talking, and from a chance sentence or two we form a strong impression of the character of one or both. Sometimes we travel through a scene so desolate and depressing or so lovely and uplifting that the effect is never forgotten. Such glimpses of life and scene are as vivid as the vignettes revealed by the searchlight, when its arm slowly explores a mountain-side or the shore of a lake and brings objects for a brief moment into high light. To secure this single strong impression, the writer must decide which of the three essentials—plot character, or setting—is to have first place.
As action appeals strongly to most people, and very adequately reveals character, the short-story writer may decide to make plot preeminent. He accordingly chooses his incidents carefully. Any that do not really aid in developing the story must be cast aside, no matter how interesting or attractive they may be in themselves. This does not mean that an incident which is detached from the train of events may not be used. But such an incident must have proper relations provided for it. Thus the writer may wish to use incidents that belong to two separate stories, because he knows that by relating them he can produce a single effect. Shakespeare does this in Macbeth. Finding in the lives of the historic Macbeth and the historic King Duff incidents that he wished to use, he combined them. But he saw to it that they had the right relation, that they fitted into the chain of cause and effect. The reader will insist, as the writer knows, that the story be logical, that incident 1 shall be the cause of incident 2, incident 2 of incident 3, and so on to the end. The triangle used by Freytag to illustrate the plot of a play may make this clear.
AC is the line of rising action along which the story climbs, incident by incident, to the point C; C is the turning point, the crisis, or the climax; CB is the line of falling action along which the story descends incident by incident to its logical resolution. Nothing may be left to luck or chance. In life the element of chance does sometimes seem to figure, but in the story it has no place. If the ending is not the logical outcome of events, the reader feels cheated. He does not want the situation to be too obvious, for he likes the thrill of suspense. But he wants the hints and foreshadowings to be sincere, so that he may safely draw his conclusions from them. This does not condemn, however, the “surprise” ending, so admirably used by O. Henry. The reader, in this case, admits that the writer has “played fair” throughout, and that the ending which has so surprised and tickled his fancy is as logical as that he had forecast.
To aid in securing the element of suspense, the author often makes use of what Carl H. Grabo, in his The Art of the Short Story, calls the “negative” or “hostile” incident. Incidents, as he points out, are of two kinds—positive and negative. The first openly help to untangle the situation; the second seem to delay the straightening out of the threads or even to make the tangle worse. He illustrates this by the story of Cinderella. The appearance of the fairy and her use of the magic wand are positive, or openly helpful incidents, in rescuing Cinderella from her lonely and neglected state. But her forgetfulness of the hour and her loss of the glass slipper are negative or hostile incidents. Nevertheless, we see how these are really blessings in disguise, since they cause the prince to seek and woo her.
The novelist may introduce many characters, because he has time and space to care for them. Not so the short-story writer: he must employ only one main character and a few supporting characters. However, when the plot is the main thing, the characters need not be remarkable in any way. Indeed, as Brander Matthews has said, the heroine may be “a woman,” the hero “a man,” not any woman or any man in particular. Thus, in The Lady or the Tiger? the author leaves the princess without definite traits of character, because his problem is not “what this particular woman would do, but what a woman would do.” Sometimes, after reading a story of thrilling plot, we find that we do not readily recall the appearance or the names of the characters; we recall only what happened to them. This is true of the women of James Fenimore Cooper’s stories. They have no substantiality, but move like veiled figures through the most exciting adventures.
Setting may or may not be an important factor in the story of incident. What is meant by setting? It is an inclusive term. Time, place, local conditions, and sometimes descriptions of nature and of people are parts of it. When these are well cared for, we get an effect called “atmosphere.” We know the effect the atmosphere has upon objects. Any one who has observed distant mountains knows that, while they remain practically unchanged, they never look the same on two successive days. Sometimes they stand out hard and clear, sometimes they are soft and alluring, sometimes they look unreal and almost melt into the sky behind them. So the atmosphere of a story may envelop people and events and produce a subtle effect upon the reader. Sometimes the plot material is such as to require little setting. The incidents might have happened anywhere. We hardly notice the absence of setting in our hurry to see what happens. This is true of many of the stories we enjoyed when we were children. For instance, in The Three Bears the incidents took place, of course, in the woods, but our imagination really supplied the setting. Most stories, however, whatever their character, use setting as carefully and as effectively as possible. Time and place are often given with exactness. Thus Bret Harte says: “As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twentythird of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night.” This definite mention of time and place gives an air of reality to the story. As to descriptions, the writer sifts them in, for he knows that few will bother to read whole paragraphs of description. He often uses local color, by which we mean the employment of epithets, phrases, and other expressions that impart a “feeling” for the place. This use of local color must not be confused with that intended to produce what is called an “impressionistic” effect. In the latter case the writer subordinates everything to this effect of scene. This use of local color is discussed elsewhere.
Perhaps the writer wishes to make character the dominant element. Then he subordinates plot and setting to this purpose and makes them contribute to it. In selecting the character he wishes to reveal he has wide choice. “Human nature is the same, wherever you find it,” we are fond of saying. So he may choose a character that is quite common, some one he knows; and, having made much of some one trait and ignored or subordinated others, bring him before us at some moment of decision or in some strange, perhaps hostile, environment. Or the author may take some character quite out of the ordinary: the village miser, the recluse, or a person with a peculiar mental or moral twist. But, whatever his choice, it is not enough that the character be actually drawn from real life. Indeed, such fidelity to what literally exists may be a hinderance to the writer. The original character may have done strange things and suffered strange things that cannot be accounted for. But, in the story, inconsistencies must be removed, and the conduct of the characters must be logical. Life seems inconsistent to all of us at times, but it is probably less so than it seems. People puzzle us by their apparent inconsistencies, when to themselves their actions seem perfectly logical. But, as Mr. Grabo points out, “In life we expect inconsistencies; in a story we depend upon their elimination.” The law of cause and effect, which we found so indispensable in the story of plot, we find of equal importance in the story of character. There must be no sudden and unaccountable changes in the behavior or sentiments of the people in the story. On the contrary, there must be reason in all they say and do.
Another demand of the character story is that the characters be lifelike. In the plot story, or in the impressionistic story, we may accept the flat figures on the canvas; our interest is elsewhere. But in the character story we must have real people whose motives and conduct we discuss pro and con with as much interest as if we knew them in the flesh. A character of this convincing type is Hamlet. About him controversy has always raged. It is impossible to think of him as other than a real man. Whenever the writer finds that the characters in his story have caused the reader to wax eloquent over their conduct, he may rest easy: he has made his people lifelike.
Setting in the character story is important, for it is in this that the chief actor moves and has his being. His environment is continually causing him to speak and act. The incidents selected, even though some of them may seem trivial in themselves, must reveal depth after depth in his soul. Whatever the means by which the author reveals the character—whether by setting, conduct, analysis, dialogue, or soliloquy—his task is a hard one. In Markheim we have practically all of these used, with the result that the character is unmistakable and convincing.
Stories of scenes are neither so numerous nor so easy to produce successfully as those of plot and character. But sometimes a place so profoundly impresses a writer that its demands may not be disregarded. Robert Louis Stevenson strongly felt the influence of certain places. “Certain dank gardens cry aloud for murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck. Other spots seem to abide their destiny, suggestive and impenetrable.” Perhaps all of us have seen some place of which we have exclaimed: “It is like a story!” When, then, scene is to furnish the dominant interest, plot and character become relatively insignificant and shadowy. “The pressure of the atmosphere,” says Brander Matthews, holds our attention. The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe, is a story of this kind. It is the scene that affects us with dread and horror; we have no peace until we see the house swallowed up by the tarn, and have fled out of sight of the tarn itself. The plot is extremely slight, and the Lady Madeline and her unhappy brother hardly more than shadows.
It must not be supposed from the foregoing explanation that the three essentials of the short story are ever really divorced. They are happily blended in many of our finest stories. Nevertheless, analysis of any one of these will show that in the mind of the writer one purpose was preeminent. On this point Robert Louis Stevenson thus speaks: “There are, so far as I know, three ways and three only of writing a story. You may take a plot and fit characters to it, or you may take a character and choose incidents and situations to develop it, or, lastly, you may take a certain atmosphere and get actions and persons to express and realize it.” When to this clear conception of his limitations and privileges the author adds an imagination that clearly visualizes events and the “verbal magic” by which good style is secured, he produces the short story that is a masterpiece.
Extracted from Short Stories for High Schools by Rosa M. R. Mikels