Elements of the Short Story
An editor once said, pertinently enough, in discussing the short-story, "There must be three elements in the good short-story: a strong situation, a plot; a strong, true emotion; and real characters." The best short-story springs, Minerva-like, full-grown and fully panoplied from the brain of its author. There is no time for the development of plot, growth of character, slow-ripening of emotion. The story is already made; the end is predetermined from the beginning; and both are so interdependent that one is impossible without the other.
These three elements, plot, motion, and character, may be called the intrinsic elements of the short story; but every story does not possess these elements in equal degree. The characters are often lay figures upon which to hang events, or about which to group bits of scenery that are visions of perennial delight; or the characters may be so intense, the action so dramatic, that the most trivial incident takes on the dignity of a plot. But it is rare that situation, motion and character make equal draft upon one's sympathies, and live in one's memory with equal insistence.
Turning to a consideration of the extrinsic elements of the short-story, we find that they have been aptly classified by Mr. Brander Matthews as originality, ingenuity, and compression.
First, as to originality; since the number of possible plots seems to be as fixed as were the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a writer must expend his originality upon methods of handling his plot, upon new and startling combinations of incident. Nature has given to the human race a certain and very limited number of features. Yet look at the infinite variety of faces. Seldom, and only for very obvious, reasons, does she duplicate her effects. The short-story writer must take his cue from nature, and from the limited number of possible happenings, constructs a story that shall have for the reader the effect of an original suggestion.
There is little to choose between originality and ingenuity. The lack of either quality is the damnatum est that accompanies every rejection-slip.
No student of recent literature can have failed to notice that the constant tendency has been toward compression. To say the most in the least space, to leave out all unnecessary detail, to hurry events toward their climax, and to leave the climax to spend its full force and fury upon the mind of the reader—these are the qualities urgently demanded of the, short-story. Whether, or not, the tendency has reached its limit it is impossible to say. Possibly it has, for one editor, in sending a very liberal check to a contributor, added, "I should have made the check larger, had your story been longer." Certainly it will be a long time before there is any decided reaction toward stories that are not all story. By this it is not meant that every story must be intense, dramatic, hurrying forward with the rush of a tornado. But the movement, whether gentle or rapid, must be of the kind demanded for the final consummation; nor must there be any zig-zag journeyings. Perhaps this demand for compression is characteristic of the age. We have not time to saunter along, as did our ancestors in stage-coach days. The world's happenings are laid at our doors every morning; and if the world of fiction is to be "in it" at all, it must take no more than its fair allotment of our precious time.
Of what may be termed the accidental elements of a good short-story, none is more important than style—that indefinable, intangible something that is to the story what good breeding is to man or woman. It does not matter what the style is, whether grave or gay, pathetic or humorous, majestic or lively, so long as it is not commonplace. It must have a distinction of its own that stamps it at once as Stevenson's, or Kipling's, or Wilkins', or yours or another's. The people may be the commonplace people one meets every day. But the writer must seize upon the one unusual happening that comes into every life, and by some alchemy, whose secret is known only to himself) he must transmute the commonplace into the distinguished) the heroic.
Another element of importance is the point of view. If one is to convey to another an adequate idea of a given landscape from a definite point of view, he can not change his viewpoint. Should he do so, he brings into the picture elements that do not belong to it, and so endows it with false and impossible values. So the author, having the story to paint upon the canvas of the reader's imagination, must decide upon the point from which to see and to sketch the action ; and having once chosen, he must not lightly skip from knoll to knoll lest he mingle improbable or inharmonious effects. On the principle that a cat may look at a king, the picture may be painted from the view-point of the humblest observer. It matters not at all. It is a rather clumsy device, however, to tell a story by means of letters written by different persons. In such cases, there is a distinct loss in final effect.
While it is advisable in most cases to omit the personal element from the short-story, there can be no question that this element has been most effectively used in some notable short-stories. In "A Man Without a Country" by Dr. Hale, the introduction of the personal element is a stroke of genius, and gives to the story such an air of entire probability that the first readers of the story did not think of doubting its historical accuracy. Except for some such specific purpose the writer's personality should not be obtruded upon the reader's attention. It requires an artist to handle I in a manner at once modest and convincing. The personality of Self is usually either obtrusive, or fails to justify itself. The latter is notably the case in Owen Wister's "The Virginian," the writer assuming many times an impossible omniscience.
Another element to be considered in any story is the background, or setting. In the short-story this setting is an atmosphere to be felt, rather than a carefully elaborated color scheme to be applied while the reader waits. The effect is secured, sometimes by a brief introduction, sometimes by a hint, a word, a suggestion thrown in by the author, or dropped at random by the characters themselves. In whatever way introduced, it must not hinder the movement of the story. It must, on the contrary, so strengthen the general effect that without it the story would be incomplete.