Plan in Short Story Writing
There is a certain and definite arrangement of material to which every well-written short-story conforms. There is place in this outline where appear circumstances, incidents, occurrences, theme, motive and event. There is, also, a logical sequence of these details of writing, a sequence that is found to be almost identical with that of the dramatic compositions of similar character. This definite arrangement of working material has been called plan, skeleton, or outline, and has been the subject of much discussion in rhetorics and books of writing almost since these were first introduced to the public.
In a brief mention there is the Introduction, that deals with the circumstances of the story and locates one or two occurrences that are to appear later on in the story; the Index that gives more circumstances of a closer detail and one or two striking incidents that reveal the theme, reveal it positively and unmistakably ; this is followed by the activity of the Apex, the point of highest interest in the story, where the leading character or characters, influenced by the circumstances, occurrences, incidents and theme preceding are forced into strong activity; this activity being followed, as in a true course of nature, by reaction or repose in the Reflex, where there is a cessation of activity and a lapsing of the certainty of success, a possibility of a different ending, a fear that the theme will not be vindicated; and all ending, of course, in the climax, where there is a dramatic blending of Introduction, Index and Apex, as victorious over the Reflex.
In the short-stories of F. Hopkinson Smith are found the most accurate arrangements of plan as well as the most perfect adaptation of material to sequence and theme. He is a great master of short fiction. His work will bear close study and complete analysis. In the Saturday Evening Post of Aug. 25, 1906, he has a story entitled "Miss Jennings' Companion," that is about as clear a model as can be found anywhere for the exemplification of a proper plan. It is a story of how a professional nurse shielded a man who was disguised as a nun, and occupied the same stateroom for a while with herself, from the detectives who were after the man. He had killed another man, partly by accident and positively in defense of his daughter.
The outline runs thus: Introduction, the loading and departure of the steamer (Circumstance) with the survey of the passengers by detective (Occurrence that is to appear as relevant in the later development of the story). The same stateroom was given to both nun and nurse, notwithstanding the pro-tests 6f the nun who was pacified by the nurse (Occurrence). The account of the life history of both nun and nurse brief (Circumstance). The request for the private use of the stateroom for the Hour of Silence by nun, nurse agrees readily (Occurrence).
The Index—The conversation between the nun and nurse about the detective, Hobson, who was a friend of Miss Jennings (Circumstance). The Incident related by the nurse of having to give up one of her patients to the detective, a thief that had stolen to help his aged mother, and her regrets at having to do so. The Incident related by the nun of a man who had committed a murder to save his only daughter from a ruffian's assault. These Incidents are the clear enunciators of the theme which is expressed by both nun and nurse. The law is cruel, brutal, in making no allowances for extenuating circumstances and hunting down criminals of this class as if they were wild and ferocious beasts, and has caused the world at large to sympathize with and protect the escaping criminal. The nurse is then asked by the nun if she would assist such an one to escape and she replies in the affirmative.
The Apex of the story is reached when the nun tells the nurse that she is that man disguised as a nun. The nurse revolts; thinks it not honest to have deceived her for so many days ; they argue; the man pleads in the name of his daughter, and all this furnishes the dramatic action for the Apex. The question is left open for the nurse to decide by having a call sent in for her to attend one of the steerage passengers that had been injured. She remains away for the balance of the voyage.
In the Reflex the man goes over all the possibilities of the nurse giving him up, lives in fear of death, and suffers greatly, without one word of hope or encouragement from Miss Jennings.
Climax comes when the steamer lands and a detective greets the nurse, who stands by the side of the nun, asking for information of the criminal from her. In a few short lines there is crowded the suspense of a lifetime, the nun is almost paralyzed, but the nurse does not betray the criminal, she stands out boldly in asserting that she has no such knowledge, having been engaged most of the way in attending a passenger in the steerage. This last scene brings to a focus all the relevant materials furnished in Introduction, Index and Apex, and puts them in contrast with the dark possibilities of the Reflex and vindicates the theme completely.
In this story the theme is expressed literally and openly, though in most stories it has to be drawn from a consideration of that part which precedes the Apex as being the cause of the action, the reason or justification for things being done as they were. It will be seen, also, that the Introduction contains only circumstances and occurrences, namely, surrounding details and happenings that run along with the general trend of the story, but that the Index contains foreign matter brought in by incidental relations in order to show what the theme is going to be. The incident does just what its root origin indicates, cuts in, and does not run altogether in the same line with the general narration of the story, as do both circumstance and occurrence.
In this case the two stories related by the nurse and the nun came into the action only as relations of similar conditions, as forerunners of the theme. They were not actual happenings at the time of the telling, they were not then occurrences, and they were not associated by way of description or narration with the trip or with the characters, they were, accordingly, not circumstances, but they cut in as anecdotes related for entertainment or edification of those relating them. They are, nevertheless, very strong factors in the story, so strong, indeed, as to be almost the vital points, for they prepare the mind for the theme, without which there could be no action, no story, in fact, at all.
In the construction of the drama, and especially of the tragedy, the Apex is considered the most important point and far outweighs in its importance the gravity of the Climax. Ordinarily this has been considered the great point, and every energy was lent to make it of great force, but with further consideration it will be shown that it is but a Conclusion that must come with all its effect relatively considered and dependent upon the Apex. In the play of Macbeth the scenes laid at the banquet where Banquo's ghost appears to the tortured gaze of Macbeth and calls out all the slumbering manhood in him and bids him fight like a man for the position that he has usurped, or tremble and be trod upon like a worm, the great Apex of feeling has been reached.
This is considered by dramatists the greatest point of the tragedy; for of the Climax, the punishment and death of the murderer, there can be no question, no grounds for conjecture or surmise; but of those great forces that lay slumbering in the bosom of the mighty warrior, psychologized into an acquiescent fear by the powers of hypnotic spell that his wife had thrown over him, of the arousing of his real manhood, and the superhuman effort that his great nature made in its efforts not to throw off the yoke of her power, not to try to undo the great harm that he had done as far as possible, but to make that which he and she had done seem to be right by justification in the strength of his prowess and fighting. It is this that constitutes the main interest of the tragedy and it is for this reason that the greatest amount of attention should be placed on the Apex.
By comparison of tragedy and melodrama, or short-story fiction, it will be observed that theme and motive occupy a relatively different position in each. In the case of the tragedy, as in Macbeth, we have the motive apparent at the outset. There is every curtain raised to show us the ungodly ambition of the man and woman in Macbeth at the very opening of the play. The theme, which may be stated thus: "Ungodly ambition that strikes down every noble impulse of the soul is bound to bring ruin," is found in the Climax or Conclusion. In the short-story, or melodrama, the theme is not withheld until the end, but furnishes the ground for action, and the motive appears at or near the end. This is what constitutes the essential difference between the two forms of composition. One depends for its interest upon the demonstration of a theme that has been gathered by induction and is applied in action for the one specialized occasion, and the other depends for its interest upon what a certain strong character does in his efforts to escape the consequences of the violation of a pure and simple axiom of moral and spiritual life.
Great care should be observed by the writer to keep these fundamental principles of position of theme and motive in mind; he should be sure that he has them properly located in the plan, lest he confuse the two forms of composition, and produce neither he, she, nor it. It is not a difficult matter to distinguish the difference in general character between the theme of the tragedy and that of the melodrama, the one being a well-ascertained moral precept, the other being a summing up of world experience, but the main difficulty lies in getting them placed properly in the plan.
Although it is true that plan is not everything in. short-story writing, that there is a vast deal of other fine work to be done before the story will be acceptable, yet it is none the less important, because it lies at the very root and foundation of all things and must, accordingly, receive the initial attention. If, then, we get no further on the road to success than to have a properly arranged and authentic plan, we have, at least, made a good beginning.