The Craftsmanship of Writing/The Technique of Form

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The Craftsmanship of Writing by Frederic Taber Cooper
The Technique of Form

CHAPTER IV

THE TECHNIQUE OF FORM

There are few of us who have not, at one time or another, been drawn into the childish pastime of attempting to trace a pig with our eyes blindfolded. We usually began bravely enough by drawing two fairly symmetrical ears, and if the pencil was not quite as steady as it might have been, as it proceeded to delineate the snout, the general effect was rather creditable; at least, the bystanders had not yet found adequate cause for merriment. But when it came to the legs, our sense of proportion weakened, wavered, slipped utterly from us; those four legs straggled across the paper in riotous disorder like the distortions of a convex mirror, the pencil wobbled more and more hopelessly and the last mad dash for the finish landed, as likely as not, in the middle of the fore leg instead of at the starting point, the tail curled in a fantastic corkscrew from the middle of the back, and the eye, added as an afterthought, gazed at us in a detached sort of way some inches from the rest of the drawing. All this may seem irrelevant to the Craftsmanship of Writing, but unfortunately it is not. One of the commonest experiences in a critic's ordinary routine is to come across literary efforts of various form and magnitude which convey the impression that they too have been constructed with the eyes blindfolded.[1] The main difference is that the general effect is more saddening than ludicrous. And the reason for this, of course, is that there is nothing especially discreditable to the average man or woman to be unable to draw a pig with their eyes blindfolded, while for the literary craftsman to be careless and slovenly in his technique of form is not only discreditable but without excuse.

Now, having introduced this metaphor of the pig, let us go a step further and find out clearly to what extent it applies to the literary craftsman. There is no hard and fast rule regarding form, whether we are speaking of drawing a pig or writing a short story; in either process there is ample latitude for individual expression—there is no such absolute uniformity required as in minting a gold eagle or moulding a Rogers group. Your literary or artistic pig may be fat or lean, contented or disgruntled, small, round and pink, or razor-backed and black and bristling—but you have no right to take liberties with his recognised anatomical structure—draw any kind of a pig you choose, so long as it remains a pig. In other words, you have no right to profess to be working in a certain recognised literary form, and then so distort the leading characteristics of that form that it becomes something entirely different. "The confusion of kinds," says Henry James, "is the inelegance of letters and the stultification of values."

It does not by any means follow that an author is not free to invent new literary forms or varieties, if he has the inventive power. There is no rule in art forbidding the unusual, the new or even the grotesque. There is no reason why we should not have, from time to time, something undreamed of in the philosophy of literary form, any more than there is a reason why the sculptor should not carve a griffin out of stone, although he never saw a griffin in the flesh. Otherwise we should have been deprived of some of the most interesting experiments in English literature: Gulliver's Travels, and Pilgrim's Progress, the De Coverley Papers, Alice's Adventures, the Jungle Books, and Redcoat Captain—the list could be prolonged indefinitely. But any writer who wishes to discard the accepted forms and make new forms for himself would do well to remember what Ruskin said regarding the difference between the Lombard griffin and the classical griffin, in his chapter on the Grotesque:

"Well, but," the reader says, "what do you mean by calling either of them true? There never were such beasts in the world as either of these."

No, never; but the difference is, that the Lombard workman did really see a griffin in his imagination, and carved it from the life, meaning to declare to all ages that he had verily seen with his immortal eyes such a griffin as that; but the classical workman never saw a griffin at all, nor anything else; but put the whole thing together by line and rule.

In other words, if a writer is big enough, inspired enough—call it what you will—to see with his immortal eyes some new and better form, then let him use it fearlessly, provided that he is quite sure that it is a new form and not a distorted old one. For it is a much rarer and harder thing to produce a glorified griffin than a misshapen pig.

Yet the necessity of studying the technique of form in all its minutest details is so little understood and so slowly grasped by the average beginner in writing that it is a temptation to insist upon its paramount importance even to the point of tediousness. So many young writers have their answer all pat: What, they ask, is the use of putting so much stress on form? The great writers of the past were notoriously loose and careless in construction; look at the rambling, episodic character of Homer and Cervantes and Rabelais; and were Fielding and Thackeray and Dickens much better in their technique of plot? Of course, all this is perfectly true; and the chief reason why so many young writers—and older ones, too, for that matter—are slow to appreciate the importance of good technique, is the conservative force of tradition the great masters of the past, who wrote before the more elaborate technique of to-day had been developed, did thus and so; and if good enough for them, why not, is the argument, good enough for us? No less a person than the Spanish novelist, Señor Valdès, betrays in this regard a curious lack of critical acumen: The Latin races, he grants, are accustomed to give greater attention to unity of structure; the Anglo-Saxons and the Slavs, on the contrary, prefer a greater variety of interest, a more prodigal abundance of life:

One of the best contemporary Russian novels, War and Peace, might with very little effort be divided in two, because it contains two perfectly defined actions, which are carried on side by side throughout the whole course of the book. Which of these conceptions of the composition of a novel is the true one? In my opinion, both of them. To decide in favour of one of them would be to assert the inferiority of the novels written according to the other and that seems to me unjust. Dickens, Thackeray, Gogol, Tolstoy are as excellent novelists as Balzac, George Sand, Flaubert and Manzoni.[2]

The fallacy of Señor Valdès argument, of course, is his failure to recognise that while the English and Russian novelists whom he names are as great, if not greater, than the French and Italian, their greatness is not due to their looser method of construction, but in spite of it. There is progress in the art of writing, as well as in other arts, and the wise modern writer profits by the improved methods. The tales of Boccaccio are inimitable specimens of their kind; but now that we have the modern conception of what a short story should be, as formulated by Poe and Maupassant and Kipling, it would seem scarcely worth while for any writer of to-day deliberately to revert to the cruder form of the early Italian novella. Balzac's Contes Drolatiques are likely to remain the last attempt of the sort to gain literary recognition. Don Quixote is one of the three or four indisputably greatest books in the world but that is no reason why any twentieth-century tyro in novel writing should take Cervantes for his model and imitate successfully all his faults of construction, while the magic that makes the book unique forever eludes it imitators.

It seems inevitable that in discussing the technique of form the argument should tend constantly to revert to prose rather than poetry, and to the novel in preference to all other prose forms. And it is quite natural that this should be so. The necessity of structure in verse is in a way axiomatic; it enters into the very definition. In short, in all verse, from the greatest to the least, there is something which may not unjustly be called architectural in the way it is built. Indeed, the more formal types, like the rondeau, the ballade, the rondel, the sonnet, offer to the eye, as they lie upon the printed page, as definite a suggestion of a ground plan as any blue print of the modern draughtsman. The regularity of recurring rhymes, the marshalled lines of numbered syllables and stresses inevitably suggest the methodical courses of brick and masonry, the stately rows of Doric columns or Gothic pinnacles. Every great epic is a temple in words, every nursery rhyme a structure of toy blocks, playthings of uncomprehending merriment. Carlyle was not the first writer to liken the Divine Comedy to a cathedral; but no one has ever worded it so well:

A true inward symmetry, what we call an architectural harmony, reigns in it, proportionates it all; … the three kingdoms, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, look out on one another like compartments of a great edifice; a great supernatural world-cathedral piled up there, stern, solemn, awful; Dante's World of Souls!

Now in prose, and especially in fiction, which enjoys the advantage of being the most elastic of all literary forms, the architectural element is far less in evidence, because the best technique in fiction demands the most careful framework, most carefully disguised. But, supposing that a young writer says quite frankly, "I recognise the truth of all you say; I believe in the importance of the Technique of Form, and I want to learn and obey the rules of the best construction. If I try to write a novel, I want it to be a novel in the best sense, and not a string of short stories. If I write a short story, I want to feel sure that it is truly a short story in spirit and inherent purpose, as well as in outward form. But how am I to decide what particular artistic form is best adapted to be my medium of expression? What I want to write is (let us say) a novel; but are my ideas big enough? Are they inherently long-story ideas, or are they foredoomed never to be anything more than short stories?" This point was touched upon briefly in the preceding chapter; but it is so extremely important to the individual writer, and a miscomprehension of it has led so many beginners astray, that a certain amount of repetition seems justifiable, especially as it paves the way to another thought of some importance.

The greatest mistake that a young writer can make is that of thinking of ideas as being in any sense a lot of square pegs that must not be placed in round holes, or vice versa. An idea is not foreordained to any exclusive appropriation by any one artistic form; it is not inevitably the beginning of a sonnet or of a four-act drama, any more than a ball of yarn is necessarily destined, as it comes from the spinning-wheel, either for an afghan or a pair of stockings. Ideas are the raw material of literature; what they are to be worked into, depends not upon the ideas themselves, but upon the individual author's bent of mind, the way in which his thoughts naturally take shape. We are too apt to think of a thought, a really big and important thought, as we think of a precious stone, something crystallised and unyielding, something which can be cut and polished, to be sure, but only in accordance with its natural angles and lines of cleavage. We would come nearer the truth if we likened ideas to pure gold in the ingot, that may be worked into any shape, applied to any purpose, forming the standard of value in the world of letters, yet capable of being spread out to infinitesimal thinness, in order to give cheapness the glitter of a spurious worth. What is wrought from the ingot depends upon the skill and genius of the goldsmith; it is not the fault of the elemental gold, if, instead of delicate miracles of the jeweller's art, it finds itself debased to an electro bath for Ten-Cent Store cuff-buttons!

It follows that we can do no poorer service to a young writer than to persuade him that an idea which he has already seen clearly in one form, must not be used in that form, but for something quite different. We sometimes hear a young poet receive advice, somewhat after this fashion: "Yes, the idea that you have in mind for a sonnet is a good idea in itself, but the trouble with it is that it is not a sonnet idea; it never could make a good sonnet; give it up!" It always seemed to me that it must take an uncommon amount of boldness to assume such a responsibility as that! The utmost that anyone has a right to say is, "That is an idea from which I, myself, could not make a good sonnet; I, individually, cannot see it in the sonnet form," or, perhaps, if the intimacy between the adviser and would-be poet justifies this attitude: "From what I know of your previous work, I cannot believe that you could give this particular idea the adequate treatment and development for a sonnet; give it up, not on account of the idea's limitations, but because of your own." But the usual and safe rule is that every writer must find out for himself what shape he may best give his ideas—and that is why it is generally wiser, if a writer has critical friends whose advice he values, to get his start by himself, have his first draught finished, or at least well advanced, before asking for a critical opinion. It often happens that an idea which, when presented in the rough, seems to the critic quite hopeless, becomes with even a slight degree of working-up, not only promising, but triumphantly vindicated. Think how absurd it would sound to say to a goldsmith: "Don't try to make a ring out of that piece of gold wire; there isn't a ring in that wire, there is nothing but a scarf-pin!" Yet that is precisely the sort of misleading advice that is not infrequently given to story writers. Many an author has wasted months on a bad novel, when he could have used the same idea in a good short story; many a short story has spoiled an idea that might have served for a ballad or an elegy, or a musical comedy—not because there was any incongruity in the ideas themselves, but because the author failed to follow his natural bent.

But, whatever form a young writer uses, it is his first duty to master the technique of that form, to familiarise himself with its entire history, to learn not only how the best authors have used that form in the past, but also how the modern generation is modifying it to-day. I am continually amazed at being asked by beginners, "Isn't it better for me to read as little as possible of contemporary books? Am I not in danger of losing my originality if I fill my mind with the ideas of others? Is it not bad for my style to read any books except the recognised classics?" Personally, I have little patience with such an attitude of mind. The man or woman who has so little originality or inventive power as to be bewildered, stunted, overwhelmed by contact with the thoughts of others, offers a rather hopeless case anyhow; the great majority of normal human beings find something stimulating rather than deadening in wide reading; and to the craftsman who is really interested in his art it must be a very hopeless book indeed that does not give him something upon which to whet his inventive faculty. The very imperfections of a plot in any current penny-dreadful may suggest, by the glaring way in which an opportunity is missed, a new twist that might be given—and so you have the starting point of a new and perhaps a big story. And in any case a writer cannot afford to be ignorant of what is being done to-day in his own field. Such neglect is only a few degrees worse than for a lawyer to refuse to recognise the authority of a case decided later than 1850, or for a physician to ignore modern methods of treating disease, lest he should lose the originality of his own methods. The comparison is not quite so far-fetched as perhaps at first sight it may seem. The fact that there were some brilliant surgeons half a century ago in no way minimises the importance of the antiseptic methods of to-day; and the inclusion of Tom Jones and Roderick Random and Tristram Shandy among the English classics does not alter the fact that there exists to-day a technique of fiction such as was not remotely dreamed of by Sterne or Smollett or Fielding. One of the first things for a beginner to learn, if he would master the technique of form, is to distinguish between the writers who have already mastered it and those who have become great in spite of poor technique. It is the difference between a rough diamond and a polished rhinestone—the value may lie wholly in the stone or wholly in the cutting. But best of all is the author who combines a flawless technique with the greatness of genius—a perfect cutting and a perfect stone.

For the sake of being specific, let us take one or two examples: for instance, the case of a young writer who wishes to learn the best way in which to write sonnets. Here, as everywhere else, there is a certain measure of the art which cannot be taught. If he has not the inborn instinct that will tell him what thoughts are beautiful and what are not; if he has not a natural sense of harmony that will distinguish between a pleasing sequence of sounds and a discord, it is rather futile to try to help him. But, granted that he possesses these elemental and indispensable qualities, the first thing to do, of course, is to put him in the way of knowing what a sonnet is. Now, the shortest and simplest—I was on the point of saying, the laziest—way to do this would be to pick out some one or two of the great English sonnets, Milton's sonnet on his blindness, or Wordsworth's sonnet to Milton, and say to him: "Here is your model; study the verse scheme and try to do something like it." And of course the student in question would be no more fitted for writing a sonnet than a child is prepared to read when it has mastered only the letter a. What he ought to do is to learn the history of the sonnet, to study the development of its form with all permissible variations of rhyme, in Italian as well as in English; to know in what respect the Shakespearean sonnets differ from those of Milton, and his again from Keats or Rossetti. He should know what constitutes a perfectly regular sonnet and what are its pardonable irregularities. Then, and not till then, he is qualified to pass judgment upon a sonnet, either his own or those of others—and, it may be, is capable of producing a sonnet good enough to be given to the world at large.

Or let us take another and far commoner case, that of the would-be writer whose interest lies mainly in fiction. It does not matter whether he prefers the short-story form or that of the novel; his training in either case will be practically the same. What he needs most is a patient study of the authors who have paid strict attention to the technique of form: in English, Henry James and Mr. Howells, Kipling and Hewlett, Gissing and George Moore are only a few whose methods when properly understood are full of illuminating suggestion. And the French are in this respect especially helpful, far more so than the Russians: Turgéneff himself is reported by Henry James to have confessed frankly in conversation that one fault of his own work was "que cela manque d'architecture. But," he added, "I would rather, I think, have too little architecture than too much,—when there is danger of its interfering with my measure of the truth. The French of course like more of it than I give,—having by their own genius such a hand for it; and indeed one must give all one can." There are probably no two novelists to whom the architecture, the underlying and hidden framework of the plot, means precisely the same thing, or who have anything like the same method of developing it. Each writer must learn by experience what method brings him individually the best results. One man may prefer to carry the rough outline of the plot in his head; another can do nothing without an elaborate scenario; a third prefers a diagram, with lines crossing and intercrossing, to show the points at which the lives of the different characters intersect. Nothing would be more helpful than a collection of confessions from our leading novelists as to just how their plots were built up, step by step. Here, for instance, is a curious sidelight from Henry James's preface to The Awkward Age, that has already given several suggestive illustrations to these articles:

I remember that in sketching my project (The Awkward Age) I drew on a sheet of paper … the neat figure of a circle consisting of a number of small rounds disposed at equal distances about a central object. The central object was my situation, to which the thing would owe its title, and the small rounds represented so many distinct lamps, as I liked to call them, the function of each of which would be to light with all due intensity one of its aspects.… Each of my "lamps" would be the light of a "single social occasion" in the history and intercourse of the characters concerned, and would bring out to the full the latent colour of the scene in question, and cause it to illustrate, to the last drop, its bearing on my theme.

The whole world knows Emile Zola's elaborate system of "documentation," the long and toilsome preparation that he went through before writing even the first paragraph of his opening chapter. If, for instance, he was going to write a novel on the life of the theatre, so he once told that indefatigable Italian traveller and story teller, Edmondo de Amicis, he would begin by jotting down all that he could remember of his own personal experience in regard to plays and playwrights, theatrical managers and actors; he would then secure all the books he could find that bore upon the subject, would consult friends regarding their experiences, carefully noting down all the details and anecdotes they could give him. Then he would secure letters of introduction to leading members of the theatrical world, spending long hours in the Green Room and at rehearsals, saturating himself with the spirit and the atmosphere of the stage. And out of all this, the plot would little by little take form, almost unconsciously.

According to Zola, this method was by no means peculiar to himself, but was very much the method of Alphonse Daudet as well; and Daudet himself has told frankly of a certain little green notebook from whose pages came Numa Roumestan and certain other stories besides. But unlike Zola, Daudet admitted that he could not always control the details of his plots and that there were times when the story took the matter into its own hands, in spite of him. Speaking, for instance, of the criticism against the commonplace death from consumption of one of the characters in Numa Roumestan, he gives the following explanation:

But why consumptive? Why that sentimental and romantic death, that commonplace contrivance to arouse the reader's emotion? Why, because one has no control over his work; because, during its gestation, when the idea is tempting us and haunting us, a thousand things become involved in it, dragged to the surface and gathered en route, at the pleasure of the hazards of life, as sea-weed becomes entangled in the meshes of a net. When I was carrying Numa in my brain I was sent to take the waters at Allevard; and there, in the public rooms, I saw youthful faces, drawn, wrinkled, as if carved with a knife; I heard poor, expressionless, husky voices, hoarse coughs, followed by the same furtive movement with the handkerchief or the glove, looking for the red spot at the corner of the lips. Of those pallid, impersonal ghosts, one took shape in my book, as if in spite of me, with the melancholy curriculum of the watering place and its lovely pastoral surroundings, and it has all remained there.

It is somewhat difficult to give general advice regarding the best way to study the technique of form in fiction. The method of diagramming is certainly full of suggestive surprises. I have myself gained some rather happy results in the way of discovering, where one of my lines trailed off into space like a lost comet, that the particular character which that line represented had little or no structural importance in the story. But to a good many writers the diagram method would be of infinitely more trouble than help. To them I would give the more general advice, to try and think of their art in terms of painting; to think of the story they have to tell as being a picture that they are to put upon canvas; and that, like any other picture, it must be subject to the ordinary laws of perspective,—all of which has been quite admirably expressed in the following paragraph by Trollope:

"But," the young novelist will say, "with so many pages to be filled, how shall I succeed if I thus confine myself? How am I to know beforehand what space this story of mine will require? … If I may not be discursive should the occasion require, how shall I complete my task? The painter suits the size of his canvas to his subject, and must I in my art stretch my subject to my canvas?" This must undoubtedly be done by the novelist; and if he will learn his business, may be done without injury to his effect. He may not paint different pictures on the same canvas, which he will do if he allows himself to wander away to matters outside his own story; but by studying proportion in his work, he may teach himself so to tell his story that it shall naturally fall into the required length. Though his story should be all one, yet it may have many parts. Though the plot itself may require but few characters, it may be so enlarged as to find its full development in many. There may be subsidiary plots, which shall all tend to the elucidation of the main story, and which will take their places as part of one and the same work—as there may be many figures on a canvas which shall not to the spectator seem to form themselves into separate pictures.

Now, if you cultivate the habit of thinking of fiction in the terms of painting, the first question that you are likely to ask of each book that you read is: At what point did the artist set up his easel; from what angle did he see his story? Did he look down upon his little world from some high eminence with the all-seeing eye of Omniscience; or did he deliberately limit the range of vision to a definite angle, a single street or room, or only so much of life as falls beneath the eyes of one of his own characters? When the technique of fiction was in its infancy, these various methods were indiscriminately used; but now we demand of an author first of all that he shall be consistent. If he professes to tell us, as Mr. James did, What Maisie Knew, we would have a perfect right to resent being told anything that Maisie did not know; if we are to see a story solely from the outside point of view,and Verga's Cavalleria Rusticana is probably as perfectly consistent a piece of work of that sort as was ever produced, being so wholly objective that it has the effect of a moving-picture,—then we might resent with equal right any attempt to get inside of a character's brain and to tell us what he is thinking of. Secondly, having found out the author's point of view, we want to ask ourselves what the size of his canvas is: how big a story he has to tell and what are his dimensions in point of time as well as space. There are a hundred ways of telling any story. Don't make the mistake of assuming that the author has necessarily chosen the best way. You are entitled to your own opinion; try to find out for yourself just why he began his story where he did, why he spread it over a certain range of days and of miles, why he had nine characters instead of eleven, or fifty-seven instead of forty-three,—in other words, when dealing with a modern novel by an author whose technique is supposedly good, cultivate the habit of assuming that the novel contains nothing, not even of the most trivial character, that was not the result of some deliberate purpose, carefully calculated to play its part in the design of the book as a whole. Unfortunately, you will run across many things in the novels of even the best craftsmen that are not the result of any such careful planning; and you will even more frequently find carefully planned effects which have failed of their purpose. And whenever you do run across a clear case of miscalculation, congratulate yourself upon your discovery; for you can generally learn a more valuable and lasting lesson from the blunder of a better craftsman than yourself than you can from a dozen of the same writer's successes.

Yet all this advice is quite futile if the student of craftsmanship cannot bring to his task a certain degree of intelligence and plodding patience. A sort of half understanding of the authors you study becomes that dangerous thing which we are told is the penalty attached at all times to a little knowledge. Unintelligent imitation will often render grotesque what would otherwise have been a really good piece of work. A short time ago a manuscript came into my hands of a story carefully written, full of a glow of verbal colour and up to a certain point not without interest. It was plain that the writer had saturated himself with the imaginative stores of the French school such as Prosper Mérimée's Vénus D'Ille and Gautier's Pied de Momie. He had caught the trick of telling a story which apparently was due to supernatural causes, yet could, if the reader preferred, be explained on simple and rational grounds. The story was somewhat after this sort: there was a fantastic piece of jewelry from which a single gem was missing; the jewelry was undoubtedly of great antiquity and it possessed mysterious properties calculated to inspire both curiosity and awe. The missing gem is recovered under curious circumstances, and no sooner is it replaced than the professor forthwith goes into a trance and witnesses very vividly a painful tragedy re-enacted from the vanished centuries. All this would have been very well indeed but for one trifling mistake; the historical scene that is re-enacted in the vision was (let us say) the death of Julius Cæsar, following without variation the traditional account. Of course, as a mystery story, the purpose was defeated. The moment the name Cæsar was mentioned the reader knew what to expect and there was no surprise held in reserve. By way of contrast and to show how a story based upon a perfectly familiar historical incident may be handled in order not only to justify itself but to give the keenest possible shock of surprise at the end, one has only to recall that amazing bit of irony by Anatole France, La Procurateur de Judée, in which Pontius Pilate is talking in his old age with another Roman, indulging in reminiscences of his long-ago governorship in Palestine. Gradually, the friend brings up one memory after another, drawing closer and closer to the crowning event that has stamped itself upon his brain, the Crucifixion. Then comes the ironic surprise that gives the story its peculiar twist. Pontius Pilate shakes his head. "I don't remember," he says slowly. "But then, there were so many cases brought before me in those years!"

  1. Writers should remember Carlyle's advice: "To the poet, as to every other, we say, first of all, See. If you cannot do that, it is of no use to keep stringing rhymes together, jingling sensibilities against each other, and name yourself a poet; there is no hope for you."
  2. From preface to La Hermana San Sulpicio.