Short Story Probability
The element of the probable in story-writing is a strong one. If a writer relates incidents that are improbable he must be a master-hand to get his work accepted by the average editor or publisher. It can be done, but it is a hard proposition.
Choosing the other and easier method there is still another pitfall into which the new and over conscientious writer is apt to be plunged. His fears for the lack of reasonableness will make him too reasonable; so reasonable, in fact, that he becomes commonplace, and relates incidents patent—for which no one cares.
To avoid this he must have some rules of action, the first of which may be given as follows:
1. Have a well-defined theme, and keep it in mind.
If the story embodies a strong passion in process of evolution, as the rise, progress, explosion and subsidence of great
feeling, then his theme will be either dramatic or tragic, or possibly both. If brought through simple happenings of the unavoidable conditions to a sad ending, as through accident, sickness, or death, the general outline of thought will be pathetic.
So also, in the humorous, there will be found its characteristic elements of care-free characters and comical turns of expression: the psychologic, the supernatural, and the satiric or didactic something brought to the mind or heart.
2. Have a motive in the mind of every character given.
There are, of course, stronger sentiments in the breast of the principal character than in those of the subordinates. While these assist in or retard the movement of the story those are the great forces of action. The motives of the ones upon whom the story hangs should be either unusual, and in this case they should be well portrayed and distinctly shown as such, or very strong. They must be the dominant note about which all others are to be played in the concerto of action. There are cases, indeed, where the minor characters through their intrigues and prejudices assist largely in the telling of the story, but in all such they form a sort of possibility for different ending, and produce what is called alternatives.
3. Give alternative prospects some importance.
These alternative prospects are a very important feature in the production of the superior article. They constitute all of the means by which the interest is kept up; they are the balance-wheel of action. The fear of detection, the plans of the enemy, in the case of criminals and adventurers, are examples. These cross-purposes of feeling are the strength of momentum. In love stories it is always the fear of failure that adds interest to the success, as it is in stories of business or ambition.
The alternatives need not be, it is true, the compelling or major motives; they do not constitute this occasion for the writing—although they have been known in some cases to become such—but they must be given some considerable prominence in order to raise the story above the commonplace. The reciting of an ordinary race with no great obstacles, no question of sympathy or test of superiority—nothing to venture, nothing to gain or lose—would be in substance, very tame.
These alternatives in becoming the major motive lose something for the balance of the story—detract in a moral way from the effect, as for example: When the spleen of two rivals is allowed to become the dominant note in a race or contest. If the thought of success simply for the sake of beating some one else is the strong point, and this is dwelt upon, then there is lost the pure and lofty content that comes from the contemplation of a success gained that rewards honest and strenuous endeavor. To enable one to know just how far to let these cross purposes of feeling go is a difficult matter. A great deal depends upon the kind of people that you are writing about. The alternative prospects that might present certain death to one, would be simply a means of exciting exhilaration in the plans for escape to the mind of another. It is necessary therefore to
4. Have the habits of mind of the principal characters well studied out.
These habits of mind should be strong enough to indicate how far the motions would be carried. They are an index of the strength of feeling required, and. will, whether of criminal characters or others, betray their owners.
They should be supported by the passions and feelings as brought out through contact with other people in the story. They draw their main strength and support from sentiment and unconsciously developed forms of emotion.
In conversation these show up most plainly, and that is why a sprightly form of dialogue adds luster to a composition and relieves it from the commonplace of narrative and description. When people speak what they are in the habit of thinking or feeling, and when this is done under unusual and exciting circumstances, the story is not liable to be commonplace, and it is, on the other hand, very apt to be probable. It will reveal, as all good literature should, the real life that is and the only thought or feeling that counts for anything at all.
5. Give dignity to passions by contrast.
The ambitions may be brought with good effect into stronger shades of probability in depiction by introducing characters that are light and trifling. The strong show up by contrast with the weak; the meek with the violent. Contrast in literary effect is like color in painting. Too much harmony is apt to degenerate into monotony.
It is not enough to have a startling introduction, a rapid-fire action, and an explosive conclusion. These will produce an effect, but possibly not the one you are after. There must be a balance of probability to make the story go, yet it must in all cases rise above the mediocre happenings of everyday in order to constitute it in any sense literature and to vindicate its existence at all.