The plot is the nucleus of the story, the bare thought or incident upon which the narrative is to be builded. When a child says, "Grandma, tell me the story of how the whale swallowed Jonah," he gives the plot of the story that he desires; and the grandmother proceeds to elaborate that primal idea to suit the taste of her auditor. In like manner, before you put pen to paper, you must have in mind some interesting idea which you wish to express in narrative form; the absence of such an idea means that you have no plot, no story to tell, and therefore have no business to be writing. If you undertake to tell a short story, go about it in a workmanlike manner: don't begin scribbling pretty phrases, and trust to Providence to introduce the proper story, but yourself provide the basic facts. If you do not begin correctly, it is useless for you to begin at all.
A plot implies action—that is, something must happen; at the conclusion of the story the characters must be differently situated, and usually differently related one to another, from what they were at the beginning. The event need not be tragic, or even serious; but it must be of sufficient importance, novelty and interest to justify its relation in narrative form. In general the plot of a short story involves an incident or a minor crisis in a human life, rather than the supreme crisis which makes or mars a man for good. The chief reason for this is that the supreme crisis requires more elaborate preparation and treatment than is possible in the short story. There may be a strong tragic element which makes it seem that the denouement must be tragic, but that is usually to obtain the effect of contrast. Yet the short story may be a supreme crisis and a tragedy, as are Stevenson's "Markheim," Hawthorne's "The Ambitious Guest" and "The Birthmark," and many of Poe's tales; but these are stories of an exceptional type, in which the whole life of the chief actor comes to a focus in the crisis which makes the story.
The short story plot must be simple and complete. The popular idea of a plot, derived from the requirements of the novel and the drama, is that it should be a tangled skein of facts and fancies, which the author shall further complicate in order to exhibit his deftness in the final disentanglement. Such a plot is impossible for the short story, which admits of no side issues and no second or under plot. It must not be the synopsis of a novel, or the attempt to compress into the tiny compass of the short story a complicated plot sufficient for a novel, as are so many of the "Short Stories of the Day" now published by newspapers. As nearly as possible it must deal with a single person, in a single action, at a single place, in a single time. More than any other modern form of literature, the short story requires the observance of the old Greek unities of time, place and action: its brevity and compactness do not admit of the proper treatment of the changes wrought by the passage of time, the influences of different scenes, or the complications resulting from the interrelation of many characters of varied importance. If the plot chosen requires the passage of ten years' time, if it involves a shift of scene from New York to Timbuctoo, or if it introduces two or three sets of characters, it may by some miracle of ingenuity make a readable story, but it will never be a model one. In "The Ambitious Guest" the time is less than three hours, the place is a single room, and the action is the development of the guest's ambition.
Yet the plot is only relatively important. It must always be present or there is no story; but once there it takes second place. The short story is not written to exploit the plot, however clever that may be, but to give a glimpse of real life; and the plot is only a means to that end. This is well illustrated by the Character Study, in which the real interest centers in the analysis and exposition of a character, and the plot is incidental. In many classes of stories, as we have already observed, the plot is used only to hold the narrative together, and the interest depends on the attractiveness of the picture presented. The plot must not be allowed to force itself through the fabric of the story, like the protruding ribs of a half-starved horse; but must be made to give form and substantiality to the word-flesh which covers it.
In Detective Stories, however, the plot is all-important, for the interest depends entirely upon the unraveling of some tangle; but even here it must contain but a single idea, though that may be rather involved. Such stories are really much simpler than they appear, for their seeming complexity consists in telling the story backwards, and so reasoning from effect to cause, rather than vice versa as in the ordinary tale. The plot itself is simple enough, as may be proved by working backward through Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." This is, by the way, a method of plot-making which is often, and incorrectly, employed by novices in the construction of any story. It has been aptly called "building the pyramid from the apex downward." It results from an exaggerated conception of the importance of the plot. But it is not so much what the characters do that interests us, but how they do it.
"The true method for the making of a plot is the development of what may be called a plot-germ. Take two or three characters, strongly individualized morally and mentally, place them in a strong situation and let them develop.... There are hundreds of these plot-germs in our every-day life, conversation and newspaper reading, and the slightest change in the character at starting will give a wide difference in ending.... Change the country and the atmosphere is changed, the elements are subjected to new influences which develop new incidents and so a new plot.... Change any vital part in any character and the plot must be different. One might almost say two plots thus developed from the same plot-germ can have no greater resemblance than two shells cast up by the ocean." "In the evolution of a plot the main things to be considered are that it shall be reasonably interesting, that it shall not violate probability, and that it shall possess some originality either of subject or of treatment. Not the possible, but the probable, should be the novelist's guide."
The surest test of a usable plot is, "Is it natural?" Every plot is founded upon fact, which may be utilized in its original form, or so skillfully disguised or ingeniously distorted that it will seem like a product of the imagination. In the first case the resulting story would be termed realistic, in the second case romantic. A story built on a plot that is an unvarnished fact will be of course a True Story; and there are incidents and events in real life that need little more than isolation to make them good stories. There is, however, a danger that the novice may consider any matter usable which is true to life. Do not forget that the short story is a form of art.
The best plot is derived from the action of an artistic imagination on a commonplace fact; the simpler and better known the fact is, the better will it serve the purpose, for it must be accepted without question: then it must be built up and developed by imaginative touches, always with a view to plausibility, till it attains the dignity of a distinct and interesting plot. Recent discoveries and the attainments of modern science have introduced us to so many strange things that we have almost ceased to doubt any statement which we may see in print; and writers have become so ingenious in weaving together fact and fancy that their tales are sometimes more plausible than truth itself. This was done with peculiar skill by Poe. His story, now known as "The Balloon Hoax," originally appeared in the New York Sun as a correspondent's account of an actual occurrence. The tale gained credence through its remarkable accuracy of detail in regard to recognized scientific principles, and the fact that at that time the world was considerably agitated by similar genuine feats of aerostation. As Poe makes one of his characters to say, "the feat is only so feasible that the sole wonder is why men have scrupled to attempt it before"—at least on paper.
Yet in spite of the many curious and interesting things that happen daily, and in spite of the inventive faculty of the mind, it is impossible to find a new plot. "History repeats itself" in small affairs as well as in great, and the human mind has not changed materially since the first days of story telling. Indeed, some one has said that all the stories ever told can be traced to less than a dozen original plots, whose origin is lost in obscurity. But if we can neither find nor invent a new story we can at least ring the changes on the old ones, and in this lies our hope to-day. Each one of these old plots is capable of an infinite variety of phases, and what we are constantly hailing as an original story is merely one of our old friends looked at from a different point of view. How many good, fresh stories have you read that were based on the ancient elemental plot of two men in love with one woman, or on that equally hoary one of fond lovers severed by disapproving parents? Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is derived from the first, yet few readers would so recognize it on first perusal; for unless you stop and analyze it, it seems distinct and new.
For further illustration of this reworking of old ideas, I have carefully searched the leading American magazines for March, 1900, for short stories based upon the old, old elemental plot of two men in love with one woman, and append herewith rough synopses of such stories. Note that this one number of The Munsey contains no less than three stories with this basic plot.
"The Folly of It," by Ina Brevoort.
Fred Leighton and John Marchmont are in love with Angela. She loves Leighton, but they have agreed that he is too poor to make their married life happy. Marchmont, who is rich, proposes to her. She and Leighton calmly discuss the situation at their last dinner together and confirm their former decision; but when the matter is logically settled they decide to defy poverty and marry.
"With a Second to Spare," by Tom Hall.
Labarre and I both love Nellie, but Nellie marries me. Labarre leads a big strike on the railroad by which we are both employed as engineers; I refuse to join. One noon Labarre overpowers me, binds me on the rails between the wheels of my engine, and starts it moving slowly so that it will crush me by twelve, when Nellie always brings my dinner. After my death he expects to marry her. Nellie arrives and releases me just in the nick of time. (This story is really a scene from an amateur melodrama.)
"Mulligan's Treachery," by David H. Talmadge.
Mulligan and Garvey love Ellen Kelly. They agree not to take advantage of each other in wooing her, and go to the Philippines together as soldiers. There Garvey, leading a charge, is shot through the head, but Mulligan goes on and receives a medal for his bravery. Garvey recovers, but is blind for life. On their return to America Mulligan finds Ellen's face terribly mutilated by an accident. He would still gladly marry her; but he makes Garvey believe he won the medal, tells him nothing of Ellen's disfigurement, and brings about their marriage. Then he is conscience stricken at the manner in which he has taken advantage of his friend's disability.
"The Pilot of the 'Sadie Simmons,'" by Joseph Mills Hanson.
Tommy Duncan, a Mississippi River pilot, is engaged to Tillie Vail. Her affections are alienated by Jack Cragg, a disreputable steamboat engineer, whom Duncan, believing he is deceiving the girl, threatens to kill on sight. Cragg kills a man in a drunken brawl on shore, and Duncan assists the sheriff to save him from would-be lynchers, and swears to protect him, before he knows who the prisoner is. When he learns he refuses to be bound by his oath, but as he is about to carry out his threat he is led to believe that Cragg honestly loves the girl. Cragg is attacked by a mob, and, though he cannot swim, jumps into the river to escape. Duncan rescues him and loses his own life. Cragg reforms and marries Tilly.
"Mr. Sixty's Mistake," by Chauncey C. Hotchkiss.
William Lewis loves Lillian Blythe. His brother Tom comes between them and William shoots him and flees west to Pleasant Valley, where he goes by the name of "Cockey Smith". One night he tells his story to his companions. Harry Blythe, brother to Lillian, Lewis' old friend, and now sheriff of his home county, who arrived that night, overhears him. Blythe reveals his identity to "Sixty", the butt of the camp, and tells him that Tom did not die and that Lewis can go back home, where Lillian is still waiting for him. Sixty breaks the news to Lewis while the latter is mad with drink, and Lewis, thinking the sheriff has come for him, kills him. Later he shoots himself.
"A Kentucky Welcome," by Ewan Macpherson.
Edmund Pierce, a New Yorker, is in love with Lucy Cabell, a Kentucky belle; and hearing that her cousin, "Brook" Cabell, is endangering his chances, he sets out to pay Miss Cabell a visit. He gets off at the wrong station and in his confusion is arrested by the local marshal as a Russian diamond robber. He telegraphs to the Cabells, and Brook rescues him at the point of the revolver, though he knows that the Northerner is Miss Cabell's favorite.
These stories, even in this crude, condensed form, robbed of all the beauties of imagery and expression, reveal the virtues which won for them editorial approval and which contribute to the enjoyment of their readers. Their apparent freshness is due to the treatment of a thread-bare plot in a new phase, and the phase, in turn, depends upon the introduction of some new element, unimportant in itself, perhaps, which presents the old story in the new light. "The Folly of It" is the best illustration, for though its plot is old and apparently hopeless, the brightness and naturalness of the conversation which constitutes almost the entire story makes it most readable. In "Mulligan's Treachery" the personality of Mulligan gives the necessary freshness. "The Pilot of the 'Sadie Simmons'" depends on local color and the interest in Duncan's struggle to distinguish right from wrong. And so some little freshness of treatment makes each of the others a good story.
These vivifying elements are by no means extraordinary, or difficult to find. They are new ideas concerning old subjects, such as you are continually meeting in your everyday life and reading. A new character, a new scene, a new invention or discovery, or merely a new mental bias on the part of the writer, will work wonders in the revivifying of an old plot. Think how many new phases of old plots have been produced recently by the incorporation of the "X" ray, or by the influence of the war with Spain. Try, then, to get a new light on the plot that you purpose to use, to view it from an unexpected side, to handle it in an unusual manner—in short, try to be original. If you have not the energy or the ability to do this, you would better cease your literary efforts at once, for you will only waste your time.
"But ... there are some themes so hackneyed—such as the lost will, the glorified governess, or the persecuted maiden who turns out to be an earl's daughter—that they would not now be tolerated outside the pages of a 'penny dreadful,' where, along with haughty duchesses, elfin-locked gypsies and murderous abductors, they have become part of the regular stock-in-trade of the purveyors of back-stairs literature. The only theme that never grows trite or commonplace is love." "Another offense ... is the light theme that, being analyzed, amounts to nothing. It may be so cleverly handled that we read with pleasure—and then at the end are disgusted with ourselves for being pleased, and enraged at the writer for deluding us; for we thought there would be something beneath his graceful manners and airy persiflage, and lo, there is not."
The plot of a short story should allow of expression in a single short, fairly simple sentence; if it cannot be so compressed there is something radically wrong with it. This may be called the "elemental" or "true" plot. It will be in general, perhaps vague, terms, and will permit differing treatment by different writers; yet its trend and its outcome will be definitely fixed. This true plot, in turn, can be expressed in yet more general terms, often as the primal truth which the story illustrates; this may be called the "theme" of the story. Thus in "The Ambitious Guest," the theme is "The futility of abstracted ambition;" or, in its most general terms, "The irony of fate." The true plot is:
An unknown but ambitious youth stops at a mountain tavern and perishes with its inmates.
In the development of a plot from this germ into the completed story, it is often of advantage to make what may be called a "skeleton" or "working plot." This skeleton is produced by thinking through the story as it has been conceived, and setting down on paper in logical order a line for every important idea. These lines will roughly correspond to the paragraphs of the finished story, but in a descriptive paragraph one line will not suffice, while a line may represent a dozen paragraphs of dialogue; then, too, paragraphing is partly logical and partly mechanical, and varies considerably with the person.
Working Plot of "The Ambitious Guest."
The scene is a tavern located at the Notch in the White Hills.
The time, a September night.
The place is in danger from landslides and falling stones.
The family—father, mother, grandmother, daughter and children—are gathered happily about the hearth.
¶ 2, 3.
The tavern is on a well-frequented road.
A young stranger enters, looking rather travel-worn, but quickly brightens up at his warm reception.
¶ 8, 9.
A stone rolls down the mountain side.
The guest, though naturally reticent, soon becomes familiar with the family.
The secret of the young man's character is high and abstracted ambition.
He is as yet unknown.
¶ 13, 14.
He is sensible of the ludicrous side of his ambition.
The daughter is not ambitious.
The father's ambition is to own a good farm, to be sent to General Court, and to die peacefully.
The children wish for the most ridiculous things.
A wagon stops before the inn, but drives on when the landlord does not immediately appear.
The daughter is not really content.
The family picture.
The grandmother tells of having prepared her grave-clothes.
Fears if they are not put on smoothly she will not rest easily.
¶ 38, 39.
She wishes to see herself in her coffin.
¶ 40, 41.
They hear the landslide coming.
All rush from the house and are instantly destroyed.
The house is unharmed.
The bodies are never found.
¶ 43, 44.
Even the death of the ambitious guest is in doubt.
You will notice that this working plot omits many little details which are too trivial to set down, or which probably would not occur to one until the actual writing; and all the artistic touches that make the story literature are ruthlessly shorn away, for they are part of the treatment, not of the plot.
This method of permitting you to study your crude material in the concrete will prove of value to you. It enables you to crystalize into ideas what were mere phantasms of the brain, to arrange your thoughts in their proper order, and to condense or expand details with a ready comprehension of the effect of such alterations upon the general proportions of the story. It makes your purposed work objective enough so that you can consider it with a coolness and impartiality which were impossible while it was still in embryo in your brain; and it often reveals the absurdity or impossibility of a plan which had seemed to you most happy. I believe that the novice can do no better than to put his every story to this practical test.
The use of this skeleton in the further development of the story depends upon the methods of the writer, or the matter in hand. Many short story writers waste no time in preparations, but at once set down the story complete; and to my mind that is the ideal method, for it is more apt to make the tale spontaneous and technically correct. But if the story is not well defined in your mind, or if it requires some complexity of plot, like the Detective Story, this plan can be followed to advantage in the completion of the work. It may be used as a regular skeleton, upon which the narrative is built by a process of elaboration and expansion of the lines into paragraphs; or it may be used merely as a reference to keep in mind the logical order of events. Usually you will forget the scheme in the absorption of composition; but the fact of having properly arranged your ideas will assist you materially, if unconsciously, in the elaboration.
 "The Ambitious Guest," because of its technical perfection and its apt illustration of the principles discussed, will be used throughout as a paradigm. It can be found in full in the Appendix.—The Author.
 "Have the Plots Been Exhausted?" Editorial Comment. Current Literature. June, '96.
 "Have the Plots Been Exhausted?" Editorial Comment. Current Literature. June, '96.
 "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.
 "Rudimentary Suggestions for Beginners in Story Writing," by E. F. Andrews. Cosmopolitan. Feb., '97.
 "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.