The Short Story Form
The short-story is a specific literary form, the rules of which are as exigent as those that govern sonnet construction in verse. It was evolved by Edgar Allan Poe and has been brought to its greatest perfection by the modern school of French short-story writers, who have added to it notably in one instance. Its most striking feature is unity. It adheres to the three of classic Greece with rigidity and has added a fourth. Now for its recipe.
The object of all art is life. The short-story will exhibit a cross-section of it. Because of the unities of time, place and action, and the superadded one of effect, it will deal mainly with one character or one incident. Let us look at its parts in the order of their importance. These are the climax, conclusion and introduction. Pill in the interstices so that one leads naturally to the other, without gap for the imagination to bridge or illogical sequence, and you have your story.
The climax is the story in embryo. It is the gist of the whole thing. It is the kernel of the nut, the germ of the oak. It is really the story itself, and if you have a climax you can answer in the affirmative the first question which every literary worker should put to himself when he sits down at his deck: "Have I a story to tell?" The other question, "How shall I tell it?" may then be profitably answered in a few words. You are to weave a spell over the reader's mind so as to prepare him for it, making the improbable seem probable, if need be; the absurd, reasonable. Then you are to awaken him gently from the slumber you have induced, leaving a pleasant recollection of the dream it has evoked.
Write your climax first; it will aid you to gauge properly the view-point of your story. The climax is the plot in brief: here is a hint as to plot finding. Take a situation: it may be humorous, pathetic, full of mystery, or dramatic; but it must be striking. Life abounds in many such, and he who goes about with his eyes open can not fail to set aside an ample store.
The conclusion should follow closely on the heels of the climax. Its office is to ring down effectively the curtain on the scene. Often it dovetails in the climax so that we can not tell where one begins and the other ends. Its special virtue is to leave the specific taste of the story in the reader's mouth, that he may be able to recall whereof he was regaled. It is the distant echo of the introduction, after it has been buffeted back from the face of many a hill. It is the summing up of the effect produced by the story, and should be brief, vivid, and leave a lasting impression.
The introduction should cleverly awaken the curiosity of the reader. It is your bow to the public, and on your ingratiating manner and readiness of address will depend the attention with which you will be heard throughout.
When you conceived your climax, doubtless some one thing stood out in bolder relief than all the rest. It may have been humor, it may have been pathos, it may have been grim tragedy. Whatever it was, it is the point of the tale, the centre of gravity of your story. You wisely gave it a setting in keeping, and in the conclusion let it dwell like a lingering note to be a haunting memory for many a day. It is the essence of your conception, and in the introduction you held it up before your reader's eyes as the game to be pursued. This we will call the theme of the composition.
The writing of the story proper is the development of this theme. It is dangled before the reader in the opening paragraph, reaches its fullest development in the climax, and is resonant like an echo in the farewell sentence. It establishes the story in its relation to things, gives it its proper place in the scheme of the universe, where nothing is meaningless and even the most trivial and unimportant seemingly has its allotted sphere of action.
The hall-mark of the short-story as invented by Poe is unity of impression. The author has detected the hidden mean-ing of his talc; he wishes to convey its message to the world. In order to receive the story sympathetically, the reader must be in corresponding mood. It is the author's business to bring this about. He does so by wisely selecting such details, to the careful exclusion of all others, as will best subserve the desired end. The short-story is not meant to be kaleidoscopic. The relation in which you stand to your reader, remember, is that of the hypnotist and his subject. Relax the tension and you invite failure.
All the arts are allied. There is not a truth about one which may not be applied with equal benefit to all. Caricature, these days, has been raised to the dignity of a fine art. What is its fundamental rule? Seek for the most prominent feature in the face you wish to portray, heighten that and subordinate all other details until they dwindle into insignificance. How to detect this feature? Close your eyes and note what lingers longest in the memory as the impression fades away. Apply this to the short-story, and what have we? It is the leitmotif of Wagner in music.
The subtle power of the French school lies in the art of innuendo. It is what is left unsaid rather than what is said that causes the greatest thrill. But the inference must be plain: the reader's imagination should not be left to construct the tale which you set out to tell. Often a story will be saved from boredom to fascination by the power of suggestion alone. This is particularly true of love scenes, deaths, and the like, such as only a master's hand at description can hope to handle effectively.
Now is left but to name the production. Advice on this head is reducible to a don't. Don't let the title grow out of the theme, but merely suggest and arouse curiosity in regard to it.
A short-story built along these lines, that captures the interest with the first sentence, holds it, augments it, whets the appetite, as it were, with each fresh accretion of detail, so that it can not be laid aside until finished—finally, that pays off the suspense in a telling climax and leaves a savor of something good in the mouth, will experience little difficulty in being placed to advantage.