WE have discussed, in detail, the essentials of a dramatic plot for a conventional short story (Problem, Crisis, Climax—the whole based on a Theme, and sometimes strengthened with a Motif.) That constitutes, really, a kind of formula.
Beyond that rough formula there can be no adequate recipe for a conventional short story. We may add Complications—relevant, please, always—we may include sub-crises and a love interest, perhaps, but whatever we do we will never arrive at a formula that will cover all printed stones of approximately the same length. Certain formulae there are, and they will hold good each for its own type of story only—and we will touch on them in good time. But at present remember that the plot-embryo Formula I have now several times given, is as far as we can go along the way towards producing a rude formula that will hold good for most conventional stories.
There are no new plots—except from geniuses. (Noel Coward’s Design For Living is a startling example of a new idea—as new as those behind Bitter Sweet and Cavalcade were old. In the two last plays he ran the whole gamut of the emotions by using almost every “ trick " known in Drama.)
But it must be understood from the outset that when I recommend the reading of other stories with a view to finding out how plots are evolved and developed, I am not attempting to encourage plagiarism. That would be fatal to the author's chances of success. Those authors—and there have been some—who have resorted to deliberate cribbing, or imitation, have never lasted long. And this refers not only to the “ lifting " of plots, but also to the cribbing of another author's characters or his style. A story that is a crib in any way is not worth the writing.
Following on from that fact we arrive at our second finding: That a story which is a deliberate “ twist round " of some printed story, while it will escape plagiarism charges, must always be flat in comparison with one that is based on one’s own thought and helped on by one’s own creative enthusiasm.
But the big point to remember is that one would have no thought at all—or at best very primitive thought—if the mind were not replenished and invigorated with the thoughts of others. Stimulate your minds, therefore! Read all the stories you can lay hands on; go to cinemas and see only the plots of the films; listen to wireless discussions, go to lectures— and so on.
Do not do what a friend of mine did to me—a better known writer than I am. He said: “ I’ve been reading your stories. Terrific interest. No end of stimulation!” Then, a month later, I found two pages in a story of his that were, almost word for word, a part of his "stimulation ”! All quite innocent, I may say.
Of another writer’s story a critic once wrote, searingly: " This author should take a ' course ' in Sax Rohmer—who did this kind of thing long ago, and so very much better. ”
As old R.S., my agent, now passed beyond, once told me: “ You want to know just how far this ‘ stimulation ’ business can go? Well, why worry me, boy? Look into your own conscience. I've always found that the best way of deciding!” He was right. See to it that your consciences are easy.
But keep your minds keen and active and in a “ plotting mood ” by much fiction-reading. The more you read the less likely you are to plagiarize accidentally. It is the chap who reads just the one story, or novel, who cribs—without deliberate design. In much reading and analysing you will find your own " fresh ” plots evolving.
The very best way in which to find a good plot—that is to say, a plot of the kind that will produce a conventional (or saleable) short story—is to look for Drama in some incident taken from life; to embellish that dramatic incident until sufficient complication, conflict and suspense are conjured up, and then to write the story while the creative enthusiasm is still there. " To write it hot!”—as they say. (This applies only when there is already some familiarity with the craft of writing. The best stories are found and written that way.)
It is for the above reason that a “ bought " plot will seldom make a good story—and that is the fact, whatever the plot-selling merchants in our blessed plot may say. As I have explained, one cannot buy enthusiasm for someone else's child—a child ״ created ” by someone else. Moreover, it is seldom that such a story will be “ sincere ”—and editors of all types of publications have long noses for insincerity.
For the same reason a plot should never be " forced ”—a forced plot will be artificial. Once the central idea comes to the author he should think of it only at odd moments; let it simmer, let it hatch. After such a simmering or hatching period is over, the complete plot will present itself—usually after one's mind has had a rest (or a change). Thereby hangs another tale.
A man writes me, only this week, deploring his own inability to go to his study at nine a.m., like any clerk going to an office, and there do an honest day’s work at fiction-writing, until six p.m. He is not yet established as a writer and wishes to know whether all authors sit, as he does, sometimes all day through, just staring at the keys of his typewriter, without so much as a solitary idea suggesting itself and without his writing a single word. Do I experience the same trouble? he asks me.
Well, no. Not to-day. But there was a time when I did experience just that difficulty, and fought against it to such misguided purpose as to give myself a thoroughly unpleasant nervous breakdown. To-day ideas come too fast, and I do not find the time to write them all down in story form. ״ Making notes ” of them, I have found in my own case to be useless. I have never hit on any device by which the creative enthusiasm of the moment may be noted down also, by the side of the idea. That enthusiasm dwindles.
If our friend, above, were a writer of some years' successful practice, I would feel obliged to draw his attention to the fact that there is a curious phenomenon, common in the lives of many writers, which occurs always after a few years at writing, suddenly sickens the author of writing altogether, and so makes him "stick". Some "stick” in this strange trough for years.
This phenomenon, whatever its true nature, occurs less among hack-writers than among those who try, every year, to raise the quality of their work. In my own case, though the heavens will witness that no one takes himself less seriously than I do, I think it marked that transitional period when I turned from conventional short stories to novels—and in this interim, incidentally, for something to do, built up my " school ". During that horrible period I found, whenever I tried to write, that my " machinery " groaned and creaked, and I would soon give up the attempt.
It began by its occurring to me one day, as I sat down to write my umpteen-hundredth short story about a boy and a girl who, I knew, must fall into each other’s arms at the end of it all—it occurred to me to wonder: " Oh, why the devil this delay? Why don't they cut the cackle and get down to it?" A fatal reasoning! My " stories " began to end on page 3, or page 4. Then they ended on page 1! Then, at last, in spite of my most determined efforts, they would not even begin!
That “ revolt ” of the author can be extended. He may also sicken of novel-writing in just the same way. But when that second rebellion occurs he is more experienced, his forces are better marshalled—he knows how to fight it, to quash the riot.
It is no special peculiarity of my own. Many authors of experience have been through such stages. It is comparable, I think, to the exhausting of one's " first wind ". Those who survive and find their “ second wind "—those, I think, and hope, are the authors who stay the course and ultimately find real success, or at least go on until the end.
Perseverance is an enormous success-factor in fiction-writing—such perseverance as is unknown to the average man or woman, who would pale and sicken at the mention of it. Take hope. It may never be necessary You may sell the first story (or novel) you write. In that day, pity other authors. Arnold Bennett himself wrote about a dozen novels before his first was published. My own much more modest shelves are stacked with " discards ", representing years of steady effort and honest sweat—no whit of which was wasted, I believed.
But our friend, above, is a beginner—and we must answer him rather differently. Why has he this difficulty of not being able to get down to work from nine to six, regularly?
I think that " Practice ” is the word we would use if we had to explain in just one word. But as I look back on my own sorry circumstances, as a beginner I see also that my notions of how to set about findings plots were vague in the extreme. There I may be able to help our friend, as I hope I shall help you.
There is, however, another reason. Plots spring largely from that reservoir of ideas in " the subconscious ”. The larger one’s store of plots in those archives, the more readily will plots be found to-day. Nothing is lost; no single idea, no " twist ”, no theme, no motif. All goes down into the subconscious mind, to bubble up again, perhaps years later—in a " new ” plot. It follows that the longer one has been evolving plots, adopting this idea, discarding that other, the bigger the store of ideas in the dormant mind. And more than that. Ideas, like rabbits, breed and multiply. This slender notion, discarded, with that chance-met thought, also discarded, combine and together emerge as a single strong idea. I have detected two aged “ discards ” in many a " new " and enthusiasm-making plot that has seemed to come to me, apparently, from nowhere.
So, while plots drip off me to-day like mulberries off that huge old tree in the garden below the Buffaloes Valley homestead, when we scampered like monkeys in its branches, our friend need not be envious. It is all in the apprenticeship.
I would have to inform our friend, also, since he asks, that in any case I do not work from nine to six— in winter time. I am a great believer in “ working through ”, without a break. Had the average author the physical energy he would, once he had really “ got going " on his work, write a complete novel at a sitting. Instead, because of meals and bedtime and other calls upon his physiological person, he has frequent " breaks " —and as often as not the devil's own tussle with himself to “ get going ” again after a break.
I take a cue from the lower animals, and in this English winter I hibernate. That is to say, I lie in bed in the morning and sleep until I have had enough sleep. (No matter what time it is; I don't look at the clock.) Then I get up, have a fairly solid meal, sit down and work on for six, seven, or eight hours without a break. (My pipe sustains me.) There is only the one “getting going”, thus. Then another meal; then amusement, exercise, bed.
In this way I get through twice as much work as I should if I suffered the usual interruptions. I have proved that to my satisfaction.
When I am engaged on some work that I have set aside the evening before, " to be continued ", my mind works all night, and I am very unlucky indeed when I find I cannot “ get going ” at once next day.
When my work is completed, it is, I find, in the early morning before one is properly awake that ideas from the subconscious begin to stir. The base of the plot emerges from a rested mind.
I might also tell our friend that one may occasionally sit down and begin a story without having any notion of what is to follow the opening. I have often done that. In the pre-breakdown era, at a loss for ideas, one day I began a story about two men shooting at each other from behind two ant-hills a few hundred yards apart. That beginning, with hardly a “ break ", gave me the whole of the Lager Charlie series—twelve humorous stories, printed in the New and in U.S.A., and here illustrated by Will Owen.
As I wrote and created my central character, I began to know the man like my own brother, and to love him. New complications and incidents suggested themselves as the typewriter clicked. But I submit that this is a method that comes only after a good deal of preliminary practice at plotting and writing.
It is inevitable that, after years at it, a kind of " plotting mind ” is evolved. The practised writer, having used his imagination and his emotion freely, unconsciously acquires the habit of seeing dramatically. That phrase about using the imagination and the emotions freely merits explanation, in passing.
There is a phenomenon among young writers: They do not like “ wasting " this bit of an idea, or that little scrap. This other will be set aside to use for a novel, as being " too good " for a short story; a fourth will be preserved against the writing of a future story, &c.
The curious aspect of this plotting is that the more one gives out the more comes in to take its place. To niggle about with ideas, parsimoniously, is to condemn oneself to keep the wheels of the writing machine groaning and grumbling round at a rate so slow as to weary the heart of the stoutest writer! The plotting mind is like a large and prosperous wool warehouse at the London docks; the more wool-bales that go out the front door, sold, the more come in at the back, from the steamers.
To be miserly with one’s plot-ideas is about as ridiculous as hoarding water in our houses—because we fear that the cistern in the attic will not fill again!
Unless the beginner gives out his imaginings with the utmost generosity—gives the best in him to the job on hand, even if it be the most piffling little yam for the twopennies—he will sell nothing at all. That curious attitude of mind is on a par with that of the author who quibbles with a literary agent about his commission rate, before he has sold a story. Oh, yes, that happens—frequently.
To continue with “ seeing dramatically ".
There is a simple analogy in the knack of rowing a boat. The man who tries to row a boat for the first time in his life, is called upon for the first time in his life to think in two different directions at once. He can provide quite a little entertainment in the process.
There is nothing difficult about rowing a skiff, once you have had a little practice. A few hours at it, and you will be plying the oars without consciously thinking of them at all. Rowing will have become what the scientists call a “ conditioned reflex ”.
Plotting is, in effect, the knack of thinking in several directions at once. Of plotting and rowing a boat, I should say that plotting is greatly the more difficult of successful achievement.
It is, in essence, not only to see the incident that takes place in the street, but to see also its dramatic possibilities. The layman, seeing the same incident, would probably forget about it almost at once. But the author, besides seeing the incident, finds his mind asking itself sundry relevant questions: Just what is there in that incident that makes me feel sad, or makes me want to laugh? What could I add to it to emphasize that particular ingredient? What moving preamble— unseen—could have led up to that incident? What will the—unknown—outcome of it be? And so on.
Whether those questions are answered there and then, or only later, or perhaps not at all, will depend altogether on that particular author’s imagination and on his practice at plotting. Half a dozen plots have suggested themselves to me as the result of, one morning as I took my dog for a run on Hampstead Heath, seeing a beautiful red setter pup frolicking about the grass—but quite blind. Blinded by distemper. His clumsiness and his obvious enjoyment and those white, sightless eyes were, together, a sight moving enough to be productive of a hundred stories.
A plot came to me last night, when my wife remarked that she had sent a Christmas card to someone we now learn had just died---
Plot germs are in the air—thousands of them. The busy author, momentarily “ stumped ”, will go out and catch a plot germ, an idea from real life, observed in the streets, on the commons, in the bus, on the tube.
He will not wait for the germ to bite him, first.
Once the germ is netted, the mind, as it were, is given something to chew on. The author will cull from his subconscious mind certain relevant incidents, and will so help the germ to grow with sustenance from that store-chamber of the accumulated experiences of his life, his reading, his past thought and his fancies.
Most young writers fail in advance by forcing the mind to work when the mind itself is empty. To do that is to ask not only for failure, but sometimes for actual disaster. There must first be that something “ to chew on ".
As an example of just one plot that we might evolve from my Red Setter incident—I have forgotten now those I then thought of:
An engineer is building a huge dam across a valley in the Lake District. He is angry with his wife for her sentimental persistence in keeping the litter's one blind pup, as well as the others. The blind pup follows the hero, every day, down the hill and into the “ works " in the valley. Crisis: a great storm, during a night-shift, plunging the whole valley into darkness; water gathering above the half-finished dam; its breaking. The hero cannot find his way out of the chaos as the water swirls down. The other two pups are drowned, for they have only their sight to guide them. The blind dog, having cultivated an extra sense through his disability and not relying on sight, guides his master to the high ground and safety.
Another instance was when, walking down some suburban side-street, I saw some workmen moving a statue off its pedestal in front of one of the villas. This incident gave me so good and complete a plot that I came back there and then and wrote the story. It sold shortly, and is included in this work in Appendix B.
The author who hopes to write really good short stories should read deeper works than fiction. Schopenhauer, Gray, Halliburton, Lodge, Jeans—all have given me plots.