How to Write a Short Story/Chapter 2

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Now that you have your plot well in mind, you must decide how your story is to be told. You must not go about writing it in a haphazard, hit-and-miss fashion, just because you have an idea.

First of all, as I say, you must decide on the method of narration. And right here let me set down a few “don'ts.”

Don't write in the first person till the conceit of being a mainstay of a story is a thing of the past. If you persist in being one of the characters, just study yourself. You will find that in the story you are either a conceited ass or a person of impossible intelligence. Telling a story in the first person is open to serious objections. Either you must keep in the background and only guess at what is going on around you, or else you must put yourself in the middle of the stage, where you can see the full action and where you will be certain to indulge in bits of moralizing and criticising. In a short story, absolutely every paragraph, and even every sentence, should be an unfolding and a development of the plot. You must not preach nor teach in your story; not even hint at such things.

Secondly, don't tell your story by the use of letters or diaries. It is just as impossible to narrate a good story in this manner as it is for an old soldier who fought at Gettysburg to describe the charge up San Juan Hill. To be natural, you must bring in details foreign to your plot, and the story that is not sharply condensed is hopeless.

Thirdly, don't allow an animal or inanimate object to relate the story. The one argument against this course is that no magazine in the country will accept such a story.

Fourthly, don't attempt dialect stories. Although they were in vogue a few years ago, there is now no market at all for them.

Fifthly, don't have a story within a story. All of us have read tales of a railroad wreck, where in the course of a thousand words an injured man is carried to a farm house. Just when you get interested, the man rises up in bed and says: “I will now tell you of my past.” And then you find that the real story is about to begin, and that the wreck, and the girl who bandaged his head, and the quaint old farmer really had nothing to do with the story proper. Common sense should teach that this style is to be avoided.

Successful stories have been written along the above lines, it is true, but the beginner has no right to handicap himself by using these methods.

The best short stories have been written in the third person. These are far more apt to be simple and direct, free from irritating deviations from the central theme, and withal stronger and more interesting. You stand just behind the curtain, with your hand on your puppets. You observe from a distance, and there is no obtruding of your personality. You tell your story in a perfectly natural, straightforward manner, that is bound to be a pleasant contrast to the affected, slinking way of the first person, of the diaries or letters, or of the narration within narration.

But even in this method there are pitfalls for the unwary. You are apt to believe yourself a regular magician because you can create people out of nothingness, and to imagine you have a perfect right to put down the innermost thoughts of all your characters. This is a wrong view-point. In reality you are the mind of some one of your characters. You can write of his actions, of his likes and dislikes, of his thoughts. But there your power ends. You must not err by putting down the thoughts of all your characters. With the single exception of the one whom you push to the foreground, you must make the minds of your people closed books. You don't know what they feel. You are breathing, thinking, living with just one person. You observe the others as he might.

These rules hold true, of course, only in the ideal short story; the presenting of a bit of real life, the relating of an incident covering only a brief period of time.

No matter what method of narration you may choose, you must make up your mind at the outset to be simple and direct in telling your story. If you try to put style in your work, it will fall flat. After all, style is more or less of a humbug. If your writing is correct, and straight from the heart, and you put your individuality into it, critics will label your way of telling things “style.”

Not long ago Mr. Frank A. Munsey said some good things in regard to this quality to the students of Yale University.

“The style that means most,” he averred, “is that which comes from a man's own soul. Every one who cuts any figure in life has his own individuality, and it is this very individuality that gives character to style and lifts it out of the rut of machine-made stuff. No man ever gets very far with the public who squares his work to the slant of other writers.

“The best way to tell your story is to plunge right into it, and let the atmosphere take care of itself, which it is sure to do in good time. The closer you can write to the way you talk, the closer you will come to interesting the reader and attaining a good literary style.”

Charles Darwin once said to a young writer:

“Do not despair about your style. I never study style; all that I do is to try to get the subject as clear as I can in my own head, and express it in the commonest language which occurs to me. But I generally have to think a good deal before the simplest arrangement of words occurs to me. It is a golden rule always to use, if possible, a short old Saxon word. Such a sentence as ‘so purely dependent is the incipient plant on the specific morphological tendency’ does not sound to my ears like good mother English—it wants translating.”

I think there is nothing to add to the foregoing, except that style is largely a quality that comes only after much practice in writing. A beginner apes those who have gone before, and as soon as he learns that in his own individuality lies the only style he can hope to acquire, he is on the high road to success in literature. He must learn to be himself; to make his writing, not affected, but natural. When he fully comprehends this fact, and begins to profit by it, he sets about cultivating style.