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Title: How to Write a Novel - A Practical Guide to the Art of Fiction
Author: Richards, Grant
Language: English
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                         The "how to" Series

                         HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL

     |                     The "how to" Series                      |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                     I. HOW TO DEAL WITH                      |
     |                         YOUR BANKER                          |
     |                                                              |
     |                       BY HENRY WARREN                        |
     |                                                              |
     |            Author of "Banks and their Customers"             |
     |                                                              |
     |                       _Third Edition._                       |
     |                                                              |
     |                 _Crown 8vo, Cloth, 5s. 6d._                  |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                     II. WHERE AND HOW TO                     |
     |                        DINE IN PARIS                         |
     |                                                              |
     |                      BY ROWLAND STRONG                       |
     |                                                              |
     |         _Fcap. 8vo, Cloth, Cover Designed, 2s. 6d._          |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                    III. HOW TO WRITE FOR                     |
     |                        THE MAGAZINES                         |
     |                                                              |
     |                   BY "£600 A YEAR FROM IT"                   |
     |                                                              |
     |                 _Crown 8vo, Cloth, 2s. 6d._                  |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                    IV. HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR                    |
     |                            BANKER                            |
     |                                                              |
     |                       BY HENRY WARREN                        |
     |                                                              |
     |                 _Crown 8vo, Cloth, 3s. 6d._                  |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                   V. HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL:                   |
     |                                                              |
     |                 A Practical Guide to the Art                 |
     |                         of Fiction.                          |
     |                                                              |
     |                 _Crown 8vo, Cloth, 3s. 6d._                  |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                    VI. HOW TO INVEST AND                     |
     |                       HOW TO SPECULATE                       |
     |                                                              |
     |                       BY C. H. THORPE                        |
     |                                                              |
     |                   _Crown 8vo, Cloth, 5s._                    |
     |                                                              |
     |                                                              |
     |                    LONDON: GRANT RICHARDS                    |
     |                   9 HENRIETTA STREET, W.C.                   |

                         The "how to" Series

                            HOW TO WRITE A

                     A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO THE ART
                              OF FICTION

                            GRANT RICHARDS


This little book is one which so well explains itself that no
introductory word is needed; and I only venture to intrude a sentence or
two here with a view to explain the style in which I have conveyed my
ideas. I desired to be plain and practical, and therefore chose the
direct and epistolary form as being most suitable for the purpose in



  An Inevitable Comparison                                      3

  A Model Lesson in Novel-Writing                               5

  The Teachable and the Unteachable                             9



  Where do Novelists get their Stories from?                   12

  Is there a Deeper Question?                                  14

  What about the Newspapers?                                   17



  Formation of the Plot                                        25

  The Agonies and Joys of "Plot-Construction"                  28

  Care in the Use of Actual Events                             31

  The Natural History of a Plot                                35

  Sir Walter Besant on the Evolution of a Plot                 40

  Plot-Formation in Earnest                                    43

  Characters first: Plot afterwards                            45

  The Natural Background                                       47



  The Chief Character                                          50

  How to Portray Character                                     52

  Methods of Characterisation                                  55

  The Trick of "Idiosyncrasies"                                58



  Narrative Art                                                63

  Movement                                                     66

  Aids to Description: The Point of View                       67

  Selecting the Main Features                                  70

  Description by Suggestion                                    73

  Facts to Remember                                            75



  Colour: Local and Otherwise                                  79

  What about Dialect?                                          84

  On Dialogue                                                  86

  Points in Conversation                                       91

  "Atmosphere"                                                 94



  Items of General Knowledge                                   96

  Specific Subjects                                            98

  Topography and Geography                                    100

  Scientific Facts                                            101

  Grammar                                                     103



  Communicable Elements                                       105

  Incommunicable Elements                                     110



  Quick and Slow                                              116

  How many Words a Day?                                       119

  Charles Reade and Anthony Trollope                          122

  The Mission of Fancy                                        127

  Fancies of another Type                                     129

  Some of our Younger Writers: Mr Zangwill, Mr Coulson
      Kernahan, Mr Robert Barr, Mr H. G. Wells                132

  Curious Methods                                             134



  The Question Stated                                         138

  "Change" not "Exhaustion"                                   142

  Why we talk about Exhaustion                                145



  Practise the Short Story                                    154

  Short Story Writers on their Art                            159



  The Truth about Success                                     164

  Minor Conditions of Success                                 169


  THE PHILOSOPHY OF COMPOSITION. By Edgar Allan Poe           175


  BOOKS WORTH READING                                         201


  MAGAZINE ARTICLE ON WRITING FICTION                         205




I am setting myself a task which some people would call very ambitious;
others would call it by a name not quite so polite; and a considerable
number would say it was positively absurd, accompanying their criticism
with derisive laughter. Having discussed the possibility of teaching the
art of writing fiction with a good many different kinds of people, I
know quite intimately the opinions which are likely to be expressed
about this little book; and although I do not intend to burden the
reader with an account of their respective merits, I do intend to make
my own position as clear as possible. First of all, I will examine the
results of a recent symposium on the general question.[1:A] When asked
as to the practicability of a School of Fiction, Messrs Robert Barr, G.
Manville Fenn, M. Betham Edwards, Arthur Morrison, G. B. Burgin, C. J.
C. Hyne, and "Mr" John Oliver Hobbes declared against it; Miss Mary L.
Pendered and Miss Clementina Black--with certain reservations--spoke in
favour of such an institution. True, these names do not include all
representatives of the high places in Fiction, but they are quite
respectable enough for my purpose. It will be seen that the vote is
adverse to the object I have in view. Why? Well, here are a few reasons.
Mr Morrison affirms that writing as a trade is far too pleasant an idea;
John Oliver Hobbes is of opinion that it is impossible to teach anyone
how to produce a work of imagination; and Mr G. B. Burgin asserts that
genius is its own teacher--a remark characterised by unwitting modesty.
Now, with the spirit of these convictions I am not disposed to quarrel.
This is an age which imagines that everything can be crammed into the
limits of an academical curriculum; and there are actually some people
who would not hesitate to endow a chair of "Ideas and Imagination." We
need to be reminded occasionally that there are incommunicable elements
in all art.

An Inevitable Comparison

But the question arises: If there be an art of literature, why cannot
its principles be taught and practised as well as those of any other
art? We have schools of Painting, Sculpture, and Music--why not a school
of Fiction? Let it be supposed that a would-be artist has conceived a
brilliant idea which he is anxious to embody in literature or put on a
canvas. In order to do so, he must observe certain well-established
rules which we may call the grammar of art: for just as in literature a
man may express beautiful ideas in ungrammatical language, and without
any sense of relationship or development, so may the same ideas be put
in a picture, and yet the art be of the crudest. Now, in what way will
our would-be artist become acquainted with those rules? The answer is
simple. If his genius had been of the first order he would have known
them intuitively: the society of men and women, of great books and fine
pictures, would have provided sufficient stimuli to bring forth the best
productions of his mind. Thus Shakespeare was never taught the
principles of dramatic art; Bach had an instinctive appreciation of the
laws of harmony; and Turner had the same insight into laws of painting.
These were artists of the front rank: they simply looked--and

But if his powers belonged to the order which is called _talent_, he
would have to do one of two things: either stumble upon these rules one
by one and learn them by experience--or be taught them in their true
order by others, in which case an Institute of Literary Art would
already exist in an embryonic stage. Why should it not be developed into
a matured school? Is it that the dignity of genius forbids it, or that
pupilage is half a disgrace? True genius never shuns the marks of the
learner. Even Shakespeare grew in the understanding of art and in his
power of handling its elements. Professor Dowden says: "In the 'Two
Gentlemen of Verona,' Porteus, the fickle, is set over against
Valentine the faithful; Sylvia, the bright and intellectual, is set over
against Julia, the ardent and tender; Launce, the humorist, is set over
against Speed, the wit. This indicates a certain want of confidence on
the part of the poet; he fears the weight of too much liberty. He cannot
yet feel that his structure is secure without a mechanism to support the
structure. He endeavours to attain unity of effect less by the
inspiration of a common life than by the disposition of parts. In the
early plays structure determines function; in the later plays
organisation is preceded by life."[5:A]

A Model Lesson in Novel-Writing

When certain grumpy folk ask: "How do you propose to draw up your
lessons on 'The way to find Local Colour'; 'Plotting'; 'How to manage a
Love-Scene,' and so forth?" it is expected that a writer like myself
will be greatly disconcerted. Not at all. It so happens that a
distinguished critic, now deceased, once delivered himself on the
possibility of teaching literary art, and I propose to quote a paragraph
or two from his article. "The morning finds the master in his working
arm-chair; and seated about the room which is generally the study, but
is now the studio, are some half-dozen pupils. The subject for the hour
is narrative-construction, and the master holds in his hand a small MS.
which, as he slowly reads it aloud, proves to be a somewhat elaborate
synopsis of the story of one of his own published or projected novels.
The reading over, students are free to state objections, or to ask
questions. One remarks that the _dénouement_ is brought about by a mere
accident, and therefore seems to lack the inevitableness which, the
master has always taught, is essential to organic unity. The criticism
is recognised as intelligent, but the master shows that the accident has
not the purely fortuitous character which renders it obnoxious to the
general objection. While it is technically an accident, it is in reality
hardly accidental, but an occurrence which fits naturally into an
opening provided by a given set of circumstances, the circumstances
having been brought about by a course of action which is vitally
characteristic of the person whose fate is involved. Then the master
himself will ask a question. 'The students,' he says, 'will have noticed
that a character who takes no important part in the action until the
story is more than half told, makes an insignificant and unnoticeable
appearance in a very early chapter, where he seems a purposeless and
irrelevant intrusion.' They have paper before them, and he gives them
twenty minutes in which to state their opinion as to whether this
premature appearance is, or is not, justified by the canons of narrative
art, giving, of course, the reasons upon which that opinion has been
formed. The papers are handed in to be reported upon next morning, and
the lesson is at an end."[7:A]

This is James Ashcroft Noble's idea of handling a theme in fiction; one
of a large and varied number. To me it is a feasible plan emanating from
a man who was the sanest of literary advisers. If it be objected that Mr
Noble was only a critic and not a novelist, perhaps a word from Sir
Walter Besant may add the needful element of authority. "I can conceive
of a lecturer dissecting a work, or a series of works, showing how the
thing sprang first from a central figure in a central group; how there
arose about this group, scenery, the setting of the fable; how the
atmosphere became presently charged with the presence of mankind, other
characters attaching themselves to the group; how situations, scenes,
conversations, led up little by little to the full development of this
central idea. I can also conceive of a School of Fiction in which the
students should be made to practise observation, description, dialogue,
and dramatic effects. The student, in fact, would be taught how to use
his tools." A reading-class for the artistic study of great writers
could not be other than helpful. One lesson might be devoted to the way
in which the best authors foreshadowed crises and important turns in
events. An example may be found in "Julius Cæsar," where, in the second
scene, the soothsayer says:

     "Beware the Ides of March!"

--a solitary voice in strange contrast with those by whom he is
surrounded, and preparing us for the dark deed upon which the play is
based. Or the text-book might be a modern novel--Hardy's "Well-Beloved"
for instance--a work full of delicate literary craftsmanship. The storm
which overtook Pierston and Miss Bencomb is prepared for--first by the
conversation of two men who pass them on the road, and one of whom
casually remarks that the weather seems likely to change; then Pierston
himself observes "the evening--louring"; finally, and most suddenly, the
rain descends in perfect fury.

The Teachable and the Unteachable

I hope my position is now beginning to be tolerably clear to the reader.
I address myself to the man or woman of talent--those people who have
writing ability, but who need instruction in the manipulation of
characters, the formation of plots, and a host of other points with
which I shall deal hereafter. As to what is teachable, and not
teachable, in writing novels, perhaps I may be permitted to use a close
analogy. Style, _per se_, is absolutely unteachable simply because it is
the man himself; you cannot teach _personality_. Can Dickens, Thackeray,
and George Meredith be reduced to an academic schedule? Never. Every
soul of man is an individual entity and cannot be reproduced. But
although style is incommunicable, the writing of easy, graceful English
can be taught in any class-room--that is to say, the structure of
sentences and paragraphs, the logical sequence of thought, and the
secret of forceful expression are capable of exact scientific treatment.

In like manner, although no school could turn out novelists to order--a
supply of Stevensons annually, and a brace of Hardys every two
years--there is yet enough common material in all art-work to be mapped
out in a course of lessons. I shall show that the two great requisites
of novel-writing are (1) a good story to tell, and (2) ability to tell
it effectively. Briefly stated, my position is this: no teaching can
produce "good stories to tell," but it can increase the power of "the
telling," and change it from crude and ineffective methods to those
which reach the apex of developed art. Of course there are dangers to
be avoided, and the chief of them is that mechanical correctness, "so
praiseworthy and so intolerable," as Lowell says in his essay on
Lessing. But this need not be an insurmountable difficulty. A truly
educated man never labours to speak correctly; being educated,
grammatical language follows as a necessary consequence. The same is
true of the artist: when he has learned the secrets of literature, he
puts away all thoughts of rule and law--nay, in time, his very ideas
assume artistic form.


[1:A] _The New Century Review_, vol. i.

[5:A] "Shakespeare: His Mind and Art," p. 61.

[7:A] Article in _The New Age_.



Where do Novelists get their Stories from?

I said a moment ago that no teaching could impart a story. If you cannot
invent one for yourself, by observation of life and sympathetic insight
into human nature, you may depend upon it that you are not called to be
a writer of novels. Then where, it may be asked, do novelists get their
stories? Well, they hardly know themselves; they say the ideas "come."
For instance, here is the way Mr Baring Gould describes the advent of
"Mehalah." "One day in Essex, a friend, a captain in the coastguard,
invited me to accompany him on a cruise among the creeks in the estuary
of the Maldon river--the Blackwater. I went out, and we spent the day
running among mud flats and low holms, covered with coarse grass and
wild lavender, and startling wild-fowl. We stopped at a ruined farm
built on arches above this marsh to eat some lunch; no glass was in the
windows, and the raw wind howled in and swept around us. That night I
was laid up with a heavy cold. I tossed in bed and was in the marshes in
imagination, listening to the wind and the lap of the tide; and
'Mehalah' naturally rose out of it all, a tragic gloomy tale."[13:A]

Exactly. "Mehalah" _rose_; that is enough! If ideas, plots of stories,
and new groupings of character do not "rise" in _your_ mind, it is
simply because you lack the power to originate them spontaneously. Take
the somewhat fabulous story of Newton and the apple. Many a man before
Sir Isaac had seen an apple fall, but not one of them used that
observation as he did. In the same way there are scores of men who have
the same experiences and live the same kind of life, but it occurs to
only one among their number to gather up these experiences into an
interesting narrative. Why should it "occur" to one and not the others?
Because the one has literary gifts and literary impetus, and the

Is there a Deeper Question?

Having dealt with that side of the subject, I should like to say that
all novelists have their own methods of obtaining raw material for
stories. By raw material I mean those facts of life which give birth to
narrative ideas. It is said of Thomas Hardy that he never rides in an
omnibus or railway carriage without mentally inventing the history of
every traveller. One has to beware of fables in writing of such men, but
I have no reason to doubt the statement just made. I do not make it with
the intention of advocating anybody to go and do likewise, but as
illustrating one way of studying human nature and developing the
imaginative faculty.

It will be necessary to speak of _observation_ a good many times in the
course of these remarks, and one might as well say what the word really
means. Does it mean "seeing things"? A great deal more than that. It is
very easy to "see things" and yet not observe at all. If you want ideas
for stories, or characters with which to form a longer narrative, you
must not only use your _eyes_ but your _mind_. What is wanted is
_observation_ with _inference_; or, to be more correct, with
_imagination_. Make sure that you know the traits of character that are
typically human; those which are the same in a Boer, a Hindu, or a
Chinaman. It is not difficult to mark the special points of each of
these as distinct from the Englishman; but your first duty is to know
human nature _per se_. How is that knowledge to be obtained? do you say!
Well, begin with yourself; there is ample scope in that direction. And
when you are tired of looking within--look without. Enter a tram-car and
listen to the people talking. Who talks the loudest? What kind of woman
is it who always gives the conductor most trouble? The man who sits at
the far end of the car in a shabby coat, and who is regarding his boots
with a fixed, anxious stare--what is he thinking about? and what is his
history? Then a baby begins to yell, and its mother cannot soothe it.
One old man smiles benignly on the struggling infant, but the old man
next to him looks "daggers." And why?

To see character in action there is no finer vantage-point than the top
of a London omnibus. Watch the way in which people walk; notice their
forms of salutation when they meet; and study the expressions on their
faces. Tragedy and comedy are everywhere, and you have not to go beneath
the surface of life in order to find them. It sounds prosaic enough to
speak of studying human nature at a railway station, but such places are
brimful of event. I know more than one novelist who has found his
"motif" by quietly watching the crowd on a platform from behind a
waiting-room window. Wherever humanity congregates there should the
student be. Not that he should restrict his observations to men and
women in groups or masses--he must cover all the ground by including
individuals who are to be specially considered. The logician's terms
come in handy at this point: _extensive_ and _intensive_--such must be
the methods of a beginner's analysis of his fellow-creatures.

What about the Newspapers?

The daily press is the great mirror of human events. When we open the
paper at our breakfast table we find a literal record of the previous
day's joy and sorrow--marriages and murders, failures and successes,
news from afar and news from the next street--they all find a place. The
would-be novel writer should be a diligent student of the newspaper. In
no other sphere will he discover such a plenitude of raw material. Some
of the cases tried at the Courts contain elements of dramatic quality
far beyond those he has ever imagined; and here and there may be found
in miniature the outlines of a splendid plot. Of course everything
depends on the reader's mind. If you cannot read between the lines--that
is the end of the matter, and your novel will remain unwritten; but if
you can--some day you may expect to succeed.

I once came across a practical illustration of the manner in which a
newspaper paragraph was treated imaginatively. The result is rather
crude and unfinished, but most likely it was never intended to stand as
a finished production, occurring as it does, in an American book on
American journalism.[18:A]

Here is the paragraph:

     "John Simpson and Michael Flannagan, two railroad labourers,
     quarrelled yesterday morning, and Flannagan killed Simpson
     with a coupling-pin. The murderer is in jail. He says Simpson
     provoked him and dared him to strike."

Now the question arises: What was the quarrel about? We don't know; so
an originating cause must be invented. The inventor whose illustration I
am about to give conceived the story thus:

     "'Taint none o' yer business how often I go to see the girl."

     "Ef Oi ketch yez around my Nora's house agin, Oi'll break a
     hole in yer shneakin' head, d'ye moind thot!"

     "You braggin' Irish coward, you haint got sand enough in you
     to come down off'n that car and say that to my face."

     It was John Simpson, a yard switchman who spoke this taunt to
     a section hand. A moment more and Michael Flannagan stood on
     the ground beside him. There was a murderous fire in the
     Irishman's eyes, and in his hand he held a heavy coupling-pin.

     "Tut! tut! Mike. Throw away the iron and play fair. You can
     wallup him!" cried the rest of the gang.

     "He's a coward; he dassn't hit me," came the wasp-like taunt
     of the switchman. "Let him alone, fellers; his girl's give him
     the shake, and----"

     Those were the last words Simpson spoke. The murderous
     coupling-pin had descended like a scimitar and crushed his

     An awed silence fell upon the little group as they raised the
     fallen man and saw that he was dead.

     "Ye'll be hangin' fur this, Mikey, me bye," whispered one of
     his horrified companions as the police dragged off the
     unresisting murderer.

     "Oi don't care," came the sullen reply, with a dry sob that
     belied it. Then, with a look of unutterable hatred, and a nod
     towards the white, upturned face of his enemy, he added under
     his breath, "He'll niver git her now."

This is enough to give the beginner an idea of the way in which stories
and plots sometimes "occur" to writers of fiction. It is, however, only
one of a thousand ways, and my advice to the novice is this: Keep your
eyes and ears open; observe and inquire, read and reflect; look at life
and the things of life from your own point of view; and just as a
financier manipulates events for the sake of money, so ought you to turn
all your experiences into the mould of fiction. If, after this, you
don't succeed, it is evident you have made a mistake. Be courageous
enough to acknowledge the fact, and leave the writing of novels to


[13:A] "The Art of Writing Fiction," p. 43.

[18:A] Shuman, "Steps into Journalism," p. 208.



You have now obtained your story--in its bare outlines, at least. The
next question is, How are you to make a start? Well, that is an
important question, and it cannot be evaded.

Clarence Rook, in a waggish moment, said two things were necessary in
order to write a novel:

     (1) _Writing Materials_,
     (2) _A Month_;

but he seems to have thought that the month should be a month's
imprisonment for attempting such an indiscretion. In these pages,
however, we are serious folk, and having thanked Mr Rook for his
pleasantry, we return to the point before us.

First of all, What kind of a novel is yours to be? Historical? If so,
have you read all the authorities? Do you feel the throb of the life of
that period about which you are going to write? Are its chief personages
living beings in your imagination? and have you learned all the details
respecting customs, manners, language, and dress? If not, you are very
far from being ready to make a start, even though the "story" itself is
quite clear to you.

Our great historical novelists devour libraries before they sit down to
write. One would like to know how many books Dr Conan Doyle digested
before he published "The Refugees," and Stanley Weyman before he brought
out his "A Gentleman of France." Do not be carried away with the
alluring idea that it is easy to take up historical subjects because the
characters are there to hand, and the "story" practically "made."
Directly you make the attempt, you will find out your mistake. Write
about the life you know best--the life of the present day. You will then
avoid the necessity of keeping everything in chronological
perspective--a necessity which an open-air preacher, whom I heard last
week, quite forgot when he said that the sailors shouted down the
hatchway to the sleeping Prophet of Nineveh: "Jonah! We're sinking! Come
and help us with the pumps!"

No; before you begin, have a clear idea of what you are going to do. The
type of your story will in many cases decide the kind of treatment
required; but it may be well, nevertheless, to say a few words about the
various kinds of novels that are written nowadays, and the differences
that separate them one from another.

There is the _Realistic_ novel, of which Mr Maugham's "Liza of Lambeth"
and Mr Morrison's "A Child of the Jago" may be taken as recent examples.
These authors attempt to picture life as it is; they sink their own
personalities, and endeavour to write a literal account of the
"personalities" of other people. Very often they succeed, but absolute
realism is impossible unless a man has no objection to appearing in a
Police Court. In this type of fiction, plot, action, and inter-play of
characters are not important: the main purpose is a sort of literary
biograph; life in action, without comment or underlying philosophy, and
minus the pre-eminent factor of art.

Then there is the novel of _Manners_. The customs of life, the social
peculiarities of certain groups of men and women, the humours and moral
qualities of life--these are the chief features in the novel of manners.
As a form of fiction it is earlier than the realistic novel, but both
are alike in having little or no concern with plot and character

Next comes the novel of _Incident_. Here the stress is placed upon
particular events--what led up to them and the consequences that
followed--hence the structure of the narrative, and the powers of
movement and suspense are important factors in achieving success.

A _Romance_ is in a very important sense a novel of incident, but the
"incident" is specialised in character, and usually deals with the
passionate and fundamental powers of man--hate, jealousy, revenge, and
scenes of violence. Or it may be "incident" which has to do with life in
other worlds as imagined by the writer, and occasionally takes on the
style of the supernatural.

Lastly, there is the _Dramatic_ novel, where the chief feature is the
influence of event on character, and of characters on each other.

Now, to which class is your projected novel to belong? In fiction you
must walk by sight and not by faith. Never sit down to write believing
that although you can't see the finish of your story, it will come out
all right "in the end." It won't. You should know at the outset to which
type of fiction you are to devote your energies; how, otherwise, can you
observe the laws of art which govern its ideal being?

Formation of the Plot

In one sense your plot is formed already--that is to say, the very idea
of your story involves a plot more or less distinct. As yet, however,
you do not see clearly how things are going to work out, and it is now
your business to settle the matter so far as it lies in your power to
do so. Now, a plot is not _made_; it is _a structural growth_. Suppose
you wish to present a domestic scene in which the folly of high temper
is to be proved. Is not the plot concealed in the idea? Certainly. Hence
you perhaps place a man and his wife at breakfast. They begin to talk
amiably, then become quarrelsome, and finally fall into loving
agreement. Or you light upon a more original plan of bringing out your
point; but in any case, the plot evolves itself step by step. Wilkie
Collins has left some interesting gossip behind him with reference to
"The Woman in White": "My first proceeding is to get my central
idea--the pivot on which the story turns. The central idea in 'The Woman
in White' is the idea of a conspiracy in private life, in which
circumstances are so handled as to rob a woman of her identity, by
confounding her with another woman sufficiently like her in personal
appearance to answer the wicked purpose. The destruction of her identity
represents a first division of her story; the recovery of her identity
marks a second division. My central idea next suggests some of my chief

"A clever devil must conduct the conspiracy. Male devil or female devil?
The sort of wickedness wanted seems to be a man's wickedness. Perhaps a
foreign man. Count Fosco faintly shows himself to me before I know his
name. I let him wait, and begin to think about the two women. They must
be both innocent, and both interesting. Lady Glyde dawns on me as one of
the innocent victims. I try to discover the other--and fail. I try what
a walk will do for me--and fail. I devote the evening to a new
effort--and fail. Experience tells me to take no more trouble about it,
and leave that other woman to come of her own accord. The next morning
before I have been awake in my bed for more than ten minutes, my
perverse brains set to work without consulting me. Poor Anne Catherick
comes into the room, and says 'Try me.'

"I have now got an idea, and three of my characters. What is there to do
now? My next proceeding is to begin building up the story. Here my
favourite three efforts must be encountered. First effort: To begin at
the beginning. Second effort: To keep the story always advancing,
without paying the smallest attention to the serial division in parts,
or to the book publications in volumes. Third effort: To decide on the
end. All this is done as my father used to paint his skies in his famous
sea-pictures--at one heat. As yet I do not enter into details; I merely
set up my landmarks. In doing this, the main situations of the story
present themselves in all sorts of new aspects. These discoveries lead
me nearer and nearer to finding the right end. The end being decided on,
I go back again to the beginning, and look at it with a new eye, and
fail to be satisfied with it."

The Agonies and Joys of "Plot-Construction"

"I have yielded to the worst temptation that besets a novelist--the
temptation to begin with a striking incident without counting the cost
in the shape of explanations that must and will follow. These pests of
fiction, to reader and writer alike, can only be eradicated in one way.
I have already mentioned the way--to begin at the beginning. In the case
of 'The Woman in White,' I get back, as I vainly believe, to the true
starting-point of the story. I am now at liberty to set the new novel
going, having, let me repeat, no more than an outline of story and
characters before me, and leaving the details in each case to the spur
of the moment. For a week, as well as I can remember, I work for the
best part of every day, but not as happily as usual. An unpleasant sense
of something wrong worries me. At the beginning of the second week a
disheartening discovery reveals itself. I have not found the right
beginning of 'The Woman in White' yet. The scene of my opening chapters
is in Cumberland. Miss Fairlie (afterwards Lady Glyde); Mr Fairlie, with
his irritable nerves and his art treasures; Miss Halcombe (discovered
suddenly, like Anne Catherick), are all waiting the arrival of the young
drawing-master, Walter Hartwright. No; this won't do. The person to be
first introduced is Anne Catherick. She must already be a familiar
figure to the reader when the reader accompanies me to Cumberland. This
is what must be done, but I don't see how to do it; no new idea comes to
me; I and my MS. have quarrelled, and don't speak to each other. One
evening I happen to read of a lunatic who has escaped from an asylum--a
paragraph of a few lines only in a newspaper. Instantly the idea comes
to me of Walter Hartwright's midnight meeting with Anne Catherick
escaped from the asylum. 'The Woman in White' begins again, and nobody
will ever be half as much interested in it now as I am. From that moment
I have done with my miseries. For the next six months the pen goes on.
It is work, hard work; but the harder the better, for this excellent
reason: the work is its own exceeding great reward. As an example of the
gradual manner in which I reached the development of character, I may
return for a moment to Fosco. The making him fat was an afterthought;
his canaries and his white mice were found next; and, the most valuable
discovery of all, his admiration of Miss Halcombe, took its rise in a
conviction that he would not be true to nature unless there was some
weak point somewhere in his character."

Care in the Use of Actual Events

I do not apologise for the lengthiness of this quotation--it is so much
to the point, and is replete with instructive ideas. The beginner must
beware of following actual events too closely. There is a danger of
accepting actuality instead of literary possibility as the measure of
value. _Picturesque_ means fit to be put in a picture, and
_literatesque_ means fit to be put in a book. In making your plot,
therefore, be quite sure you have a subject with these said
possibilities in it, and that in developing them by an ordered and
cumulative series of events, you are following the wise rule laid down
by Aristotle: "Prefer an impossibility which seems probable, to a
probability which seems impossible."

Remember always that truth is stranger than fiction. Let facts,
newspaper items, things seen and heard, suggest as much as you please,
but never follow literally the literal event.

Then your plot must be original. I was amused some time ago by reading
the editorial notice to correspondents in an American paper. That editor
meant to save the time of his contributors as well as his own, and he
gave a list of the plots he did not want. The paper was one which
catered for young people. Here is a selection from the list:

     1. A lost purse where the finder is tempted to keep it, but
     finally rises to the emergency and returns it.

     2. Heaping coals of fire(!)

     3. Saving one's enemy from drowning.

     4. Stories of cruel step-mothers.

     5. Children praying, and having their prayers answered through
     being overheard, etc., etc.

Mr Clarence Rook, to whom I have previously referred, says: "There are
several plots, four or five, at least. Here are some of the recipes for
them. You may rely on them to give thorough satisfaction. Thousands use
them daily, and having tried them once, use no other. Take a heroine.
The age of heroes is past, and this is the age of heroines. She must be
noble, high-souled. (Souls have been worn very high for the past few
seasons.) Her soul is too high for conventional morality. Mix her up
with some disgraceful situations, taking care to add the purest of
motives. Let her poison her mother and run away with a thoughtful
scavenger. When you are tired of her you can pitch her over Waterloo

Over against this style of criticism I should like to place another
which comes from an academical source. Speaking of the plots of Hall
Caine's novels, Professor Saintsbury says that, "with the exception of
'The Scapegoat,' there is an extraordinary and almost heroic monotony of
plot. One might almost throw Mr Caine's plots into the form which is
used by comparative students of folk-lore to tabulate the various
versions of the same legends. Two close relations (if not brothers, at
least cousins) the relationship being sometimes legal, sometimes only
natural, fall in love with the same girl ('Shadow,' 'Hagar,' 'Bondman,'
'Manxman'); in 'The Deemster' the situation is slightly but not really
very different, the brother being jealous of the cousin's affection. In
almost all cases there is renunciation by one; in all, including 'The
Deemster,' one has, if both have not, to pay more or less heavy
penalties for the intended or unintended rivalry. Sometimes, as in 'The
Shadow of a Crime,' 'A Son of Hagar,' and 'The Bondman,' filial
relations are brought in to augment the strife of sentiment in the
individual. Sometimes ('Shadow,' 'Bondman,' and to some extent
'Manxman') the worsted and renouncing party is self-sacrificing more or
less all through; sometimes ('Hagar,' 'Deemster,') he is violent for a
time, and only at last repents. In two cases ('Deemster,' 'Manxman,')
the injured one, or the one who thinks he is injured, has a rival at his
mercy in sleep or disease, is tempted to take his life and forbears.
This might be worked out still further."[35:A]

No; you must be original or nothing at all. Of course your originality
may not be striking, but, at any rate, make your own plot, and let
others judge it. It is far better to do that than to copy others weakly.
Originality and sincerity are pretty much the same thing, as Carlyle
observed; and if you want a stimulating essay on the subject, read
Lewes' "Principles of Success in Literature," a book, by the way, which
you ought to master thoroughly.

The Natural History of a Plot

I have quoted already from Wilkie Collins as to the growth of plot from
its embryo stages, but that need not deter us from taking an imaginary
example. Let us suppose that you have been possessed for some time with
the idea of treating the great facts of race and religion as a theme for
a novel. After casting about for a suitable illustration, you finally
decide that a Jewish girl, with strictly orthodox parentage, shall fall
in love with a youth of Gentile blood, and Roman Catholic in religion.
That is the bare idea. You can see at once how many dramatic
possibilities it presents; for the passion of love in each case is
pitted against the forces of religious prejudice; and all the powers of
racial exclusiveness are brought into full play. Now, what is the first
thing to do? Well, for you as a beginner, it is to decide _how the story
shall end_. Why? Because everything depends on that. If you intend them
to have a short flirtation, your course of procedure will be very
different to that which must inevitably follow if you intend to make
them marry. In the first case, you will have to provide for the stern
and unalterable facts of race and religion; in the second, for the
possibility of their being overcome. To illustrate further, let me
suppose that the Jewess and the Gentile youth are ultimately to marry.
How will this affect your choice of characters? It will compel you to
choose a Jewess who, although brought up in the orthodox fashion, has
enough ability and education to appreciate life and thought outside her
own immediate circle, and you must invent facts to account for these
things, even though she still worships at the synagogue. On the other
hand, the Gentile Catholic must be a man of liberal tendencies, or he
would never think twice about the Jewess with the possibility of
marrying her. He may persuade himself that he is a good Catholic, but
you are bound to prepare your readers for actions which, to say the
least, are not normal in men of such religious profession.

The choice of your secondary characters is also determined by the end in
view. Because your story has to do with Jews and Catholics, that is no
reason why your pages should be full of Jews and priests. You want just
as many other people, in addition to your hero and heroine, as are
necessary to bring about the _dénouement_: not one more, not one less.
Now, the end in view is to make these young people triumph over their
race and their religion; and over and above the difficulties they have
between themselves, there are difficulties placed by other people. By
whom? Here is a chance for your inventiveness. I would suggest as a
beginning that you create parents for the girl and for the man--orthodox
in each case, and unyielding to the last degree. Give them a name, and
put them down on your list. Money is likely to figure in a narrative of
this kind, and you might arrange for the opportune entrance of an uncle
on the girl's side, who threatens to alter his will (at present made in
her interest) if she encourages the advances of her Gentile lover. On
the man's side, the priest, of course, will have something to say, and
you will be compelled to make a place for him.

In this way your characters will grow to their complete number, and I
should advise you to draw up a list of them, and opposite each one write
a few notes describing the part they will have to play. One word on
nomenclature. There is a mystic suitability--at any rate in
novels--between a name and a character. To call your marvellous heroine
"Annie" is to hoist a signal of distress, unless you have a unique power
of characterisation; and to speak of your hero as "William" is to
handicap his movements from the start. I am not pleading for fancy
names, but just for that distinctiveness in choice which the artistic
sense decides is fitting.

To return. The end in view will also shape the course of _events_.
Instead of arranging that these are to be a series of psychological
skirmishes between two people the poles asunder (as would be the case if
their relations were superficial), you have to arrange for events where
the characters are in dead earnest. Then, too, in order to relieve the
tense nature of the narrative, it will be necessary to provide for
happenings which, though not exactly humorous, are still light enough to
distract the attention from the severer aspects of the story. Further,
the natural background should be selected with an eye to the main issue,
and each event should have that cumulative effect which ultimately leads
the reader on to the climax.

Of course, it is possible to take a quite different _dénouement_ to the
one here considered. You might make the pair desperately in love, but
foiled by some disaster near the end. In this case, as in the other,
the narrative will, or ought to, change its perspective accordingly.

Sir Walter Besant on the Evolution of a Plot

In order to illustrate the subject still further, I quote the

"Consider--say, a diamond robbery. Very well: then, first of all, it
must be a robbery committed under exceptional and mysterious conditions,
otherwise there would be no interest in it. Also, you will perceive that
the robbery must be a big and important thing--no little shoplifting
business. Next, the person robbed must not be a mere diamond merchant,
but a person whose loss will interest the reader, say, one to whom the
robbery is all-important. She shall be, say, a vulgar woman with an
overweening pride in her jewels, and, of course, without the money to
replace them if they are lost. They must be so valuable as to be worn
only on extraordinary occasions, and too valuable to be kept at home.
They must be consigned to the care of a jeweller who has strong rooms.
You observe that the story is now growing. You have got the preliminary
germ. How can the strong room be entered and robbed? Well, it cannot.
That expedient will not do. Can the diamonds be taken from the lady
while she is wearing them? That would have done in the days of the
gallant Claude Duval, but it will not do now. Might the house be broken
into by a burglar on a night when a lady had worn them and returned? But
she would not rest with such a great property in the house unprotected.
They must be taken back to their guardian the same night. Thus the only
vulnerable point in the care of the diamonds seems their carriage to and
from their guardian. They must be stolen between the jeweller's and the
owner's house. Then by whom? The robbery must somehow be connected with
the hero of the love story--that is indispensable; he must be innocent
of all complicity in it--that is equally indispensable; he must
preserve our respect; he will have to be somehow a victim: how is that
to be managed?

"The story is getting on in earnest. . . . The only way--or the best
way--seems, on consideration, to make the lover be the person who is
entrusted with the carriage of this precious package of jewels to and
from their owner's house. This, however, is not a very distinguished
_rôle_ to play; it wants a very skilled hand to interest us in a
jeweller's assistant. . . . We must therefore give this young man an
exceptional position. Force of circumstances, perhaps, has compelled him
to accept the situation which he holds. He need not, again, be a
shopman; he may be a confidential _employé_, holding a position of great
trust; and he may be a young man with ambitions outside the narrow
circle of his work.

"The girl to whom he is engaged must be lovable to begin with; she must
be of the same station in life as her lover--that is to say, of the
middle class, and preferably of the professional class. As to her home
circle, that must be distinctive and interesting."[43:A]

I need not quote any further for my present purpose, which is to show
mental procedure in plot-formation; but the whole article is full of
sound teaching on this and other points.

Plot-Formation in Earnest

You have now obtained your characters, and a general outline of the
events their actions will compass. What comes next? A carefully
written-out statement of the story from the beginning to the end; that
is the next step. This story should contain just as much as you would
give in outlining the plot to a friend in the course of conversation. It
would briefly detail the characters and circumstances of the hero and
heroine, and the events which led to their first meeting each other. You
would then describe the ripening of their friendship, and the gradual
growth of social hostility to the idea of a projected union. The
psychological transformations, the domestic infelicities, the racial
animosities--these will find suitable expression in word and action. At
last the season of cruel suspense is over, and the pair have arrived at
their great decision. Elaborate preventive plans are arranged to
frustrate their purpose, and there is much excitement lest they should
succeed; but when all have done their best, the two are happily wedded
and the story is ended.

The exercise of writing out a plain, unvarnished statement of what you
are going to do is one that will enable you to see whether your story
has balance or not, and it will most certainly test its power to
interest; for if in its bald form there is real _story_ in it, you may
well believe that when properly written it will possess the true
fascination of fiction.

Now, a plot is much like a drama, and should have a beginning, a middle,
and an end; answering roughly to premiss, argument, and conclusion.
There is no better training in plot-study than the reading of such a
book as Professor Moulton's "Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist," in
which the author, with rare critical skill, exhibits the construction of
plots that are an object of never-ceasing wonder. I will dare to
reiterate what I have said before. Take your stand at the end of the
story, and work it out backwards. For an excellent illustration see
Edgar Allan Poe's account of how he came to write "The Raven" (Appendix
I.). Perhaps you object to this kind of literary dissection? You think
it spoils the effect of a work of art to be too familiar with its
physiology? I do not grant these points; but even if they are true, that
is no reason why you yourself should be offended by the sight of ropes
and pulleys behind the scenes. No; work out the details from the end,
and not from the beginning. No character and no action should find a
place if it contributes nothing towards the _dénouement_.

Characters first: Plot afterwards

It must not be supposed that a plot _always_ comes first in the
constructing of a novel. Very often the characters suggest themselves
long before the story is even vaguely outlined. Nor is there any reason
why such a story should be any worse because it did not originate in the
usual way. In fact, the probabilities are that it will be all the
better, on account of its stress upon character, and the reaction of
various characters on each other. I imagine "Jude the Obscure" grew in
this fashion. There is no very striking plot in the book; at any rate
not the plot we have in mind when we think of "The Moonstone." But if
plot means the inevitable evolution of certain men and women in given
circumstances, then there is plot of a high order. In the usual
acceptation of the term, however, "Jude the Obscure" is a novel of
character; and most probably Jude existed as a creature of imagination
months before it was ever thought he would go to Oxford, or have an
adventure with Sue. To many men, doubtless, there is far more
fascination in conceiving a group of characters in which there are two
or three supreme figures, and then setting to work to discover a
narrative which will give them the freest action, than in toiling over
the bare idea, the subsequent plot, followed by a series of actors and
actresses who work out the _dénouement_. Should you belong to this
number, do not hesitate to act accordingly. Nothing wooden in style or
method finds a place in these pages, and since some of the finest
creations have arisen in the order indicated at the head of this
section, perhaps you are to be congratulated that the work before you
will be a living growth rather than a mechanical contrivance.

The Natural Background

Since your story will presumably be located somewhere on this planet,
the next thing to do is to obtain a thorough knowledge of the places
where your characters will display themselves. If the scenes are laid in
a district which you know by heart, you are not likely to go astray; but
more often than not, the scenes are largely imaginative, especially in
reference to smaller items such as roads, rivers, trees, and woods. The
best plan is to follow the example of Thomas Hardy, and draw a map--both
geographical and topographical--of the country and the towns in which
your hero and heroine, and subordinate characters, will appear for the
interest of the reader. That individual does not care to be puzzled with
semi-miraculous transmittances through space. I read a novel some time
ago, where on one page the heroine was busy shopping in London, and on
the next page was--an hour afterwards--quietly having tea with her
beloved somewhere in the Midlands. But the drawing of a map, and using
it closely, will not merely render such negative assistance as to avoid
mistakes of this kind, it will act positively as a stimulus to creative
suggestion. You can follow the lover's jealous rival along the road that
leads to the meeting-place with increased imaginative power. That
measure of realism which makes the ideal both possible and interesting
will come all the more easily, because the map aids you in following the
movements of your characters; in fact, if you take this second step
with serious resolution, it will go far to add that piquant something
which renders your story a series of life-like happenings. The result
will be equally beneficial to the reader. It may be a moot question as
to how far the map in Stevenson's "Treasure Island" deepens the interest
of those who read this exciting story, but in my humble opinion it adds
an actuality to the events which is most convincing. Mr Maurice Hewlett
has followed suit in his "Forest Lovers." I do not say _publish_ your
map, but _draw_ one and use it. A poor story accompanied by a good map
would be too ridiculous; so you had better give all your attention to
the narrative, and leave the publication of maps until later days.


[33:A] "Hints to Novelists," in _To-Day_, May 8, 1897.

[35:A] _Fortnightly Review_, vol. lvii. N.S. p. 187.

[43:A] Besant, "On the Writing of Novels," _Atalanta_, vol i. p. 372.



The Chief Character

In the plot previously outlined, which figure is supreme? It depends. In
some senses the supremacy is not a matter of choice, but is decided by
the nature of the story. If the man is making the greater sacrifice, it
means that, whether you like it or not, his is the struggle that calls
for a larger measure of sympathy; and you must assign him the chief
place. Still, there are circumstances which would justify a departure
from this law--something after the fashion of respecting the rights of a
minority. But in our projected narrative, the woman is undoubtedly the
supreme character; for the man's battle is mainly one of religious
scruple, and only secondarily a question of race; whereas, the Jewess
has a vigorous conflict with both race and religion.

Well, what do you know about women? Anything? Do you know how their
minds work? how they talk? what they wear? and the thousand and one
trivialities that go to make up character portrayal? If you do not know
these things, it is a poor look-out for the success of your novel, and
you might as well start another story at once. It may be a disputed
question as to whether women understand women better than men: the point
is, do _you_ understand them? Perhaps you know enough for the purposes
of a secondary character, but this Jewess is to be supreme; you must
know enough to meet the highest demands.

Where to obtain this knowledge? Ah! Where! Only by studying human lives,
human manners, human weaknesses--everything human. The life of the world
must become your text-book; as for temperaments, you should know them by
heart; social influences in their effect on action and outlook, ought to
be within easy comprehension; and even then, you will still cry

How to Portray Character

The first thing is to _realise_ your characters--_i.e._ make them real
persons to yourself, and then you will be more likely to persuade the
reader that they are real people. Unless this is done, your hero and
heroine will be described as "puppets" or "abstractions." I am not
saying the task is easy--in fact, it is one of the most difficult that
the novelist has to face. But there is no profit in shirking it, and the
sooner it is dealt with the better. The history of character
representation in drama is full of luminous teaching, and a study of it
cannot be other than highly instructive. In the early _Mystery_ and
_Morality_ plays, virtues and vices were each apportioned their
respective actors--that is to say, one man set forth Good Counsel,
another Repentance, another Gluttony, and another Pride. Even so late as
Philip Massinger's "A New Way to Pay Old Debts," we have Wellborn,
Justice, Greedy, Tapwell, Froth, and Furnace. Now this seems very
elementary to us, but it has one great merit: the audience knew
what each character stood for, and could form an intelligent idea
of his place in the piece. In these days we have become more
subtle--necessarily so. Following the lead of the Shakespearean
dramatists, we have not described our characters by giving them
names--virtuous or otherwise--we let them describe themselves by their
speech and action. The essential thing is that we should know our
characters intimately, so intimately that, although they exist in
imagination alone, they are as real to us as the members of our own
family. Falstaff never had flesh and blood, but as Shakespeare portrayed
him, you feel that you have only to prick him and he will bleed. The
historical Hamlet is a mist; the Hamlet of the play is a reality.

This power of realisation depends on two things: _Observation with
insight, and Sympathy with imagination_. Observation is a most valuable
gift, but without insight it is likely to work mischief by creating a
tendency to write down just what you see and hear. Zola's novels too
often suggest the note-book. Avoid photographing life as you would
avoid a dangerous foe. The newspaper reporter can "beat you hollow," for
that is his special subject: life as it is. Observe what goes on around
you, but get behind the scenes; study selfishness and "otherness," and
the inter-play of motives, the conflict of interests which causes this
tangle of human affairs--in other words, obtain an insight into them by
asking the "why" and "wherefore."

Above all, learn to see with other people's eyes, and to feel with other
people's hearts. For instance, you may find it needful to attend
synagogue-worship in order to obtain a first-hand knowledge of the
religion of your Jewish heroine. When you see the men in silk hats, and
praying-shawls over their shoulders, you may be tempted to despise
Judaism; the result being that you determine not to cumber your novel
with a description of such "nonsense." Well, you will lose one of the
most picturesque features of your story; you will fail to see the part
which the synagogue plays in your heroine's mental struggle, and the
portrayal of her character will be sadly defective in consequence. No;
a novelist, as such, should have no religion, no politics, no social
creed; whatever he believes as a private individual should not interfere
with the outgoing of sympathy in constructing the characters he intends
to set forth. Human nature is a compound of the virtuous and the
vicious, or, to change the figure, a perpetual oscillation between flesh
and spirit. Life is half tragedy and half comedy: men and women are
sometimes wise and often foolish. From this maze of mystery you are to
develop new creations, and actual people are your _starting-point_,
never your _models_.

Methods of Characterisation

By characterisation is meant the power to make your ideal persons appear
real. It is one thing to make them real to yourself, and quite another
thing to make them real to other people. Characterisation needs a union
of imaginative and artistic gifts. In this respect, as in all others,
Shakespeare is pre-eminent. His characters are alike clear in
conception and expression, and their human quality is just as wonderful
as the large scale on which they move, covering, as they do, the entire
field of human nature.

There are certain well-known methods of characterisation, and to these I
propose to devote the remainder of this chapter. The first and most
obvious is for the author to describe the character. This is generally
recognised as bad art. To say "She was a very wicked woman," is like the
boy who drew a four-legged animal and wrote underneath, "This is a cow."
If that boy had succeeded in drawing a cow there would have been no need
to label it; and, in the same way, if you succeed in realising and
drawing your characters there will be no need to talk about them. The
best characterisation never _says_ what a person is; it shows what he or
she is by what they do and say. I do not mean that you must say nothing
at all about your creations; the novels of Hardy and Meredith contain a
good deal of indirect comment of this kind; but it is a notable fact
that Hardy's weakest work, "A Laodicean," contains more comment than
any of the others he has written. Stevenson aptly said, "Readers cannot
fail to have remarked that what an author tells us of the beauty or the
charm of his creatures goes for nought; that we know instantly better;
that the heroine cannot open her mouth but what, all in a moment, the
fine phrases of preparation fall from her like the robes of Cinderella,
and she stands before us as a poor, ugly, sickly wench, or perhaps a
strapping market-woman."

There is another point to be remembered. If you label a character at the
outset as a very humorous person, the reader prepares himself for a good
laugh now and then, and if you disappoint him--well, you have lost a
reader and gained an adverse critic. To announce beforehand what you are
going to do, and then fail, is to put a weapon into the hands of those
who honour you with a reading. "Often a single significant detail will
throw more light on a character than pages of comment. An example in
perfection is the phrase in which Thackeray tells how Becky Crawley,
amid all her guilt and terror, when her husband had Lord Steyne by the
throat, felt a sudden thrill of admiration for Rawdon's splendid
strength. It is like a flash of lightning which shows the deeps of the
selfish, sensual woman's nature. It is no wonder that Thackeray threw
down his pen, as he confessed that he did, and cried, 'That is a stroke
of genius.'"

The lesson is plain. Don't say what your hero and heroine _are_: make
them tell their own characters by words and deeds.

The Trick of "Idiosyncrasies"

Young writers, who fail to mark off the individuality of one character
from another, by the strong lines of difference which are found in real
life, endeavour to atone for their incompetency by emphasising physical
and mental oddities. This is a mere literary "trick." To invest your
hero with a squint, or an irritating habit of blowing his nose
continually; or to make your heroine guilty of using a few funny phrases
every time she speaks, is certainly to distinguish them from the other
characters in the book who cannot boast of such excellences, but it must
not be called characterisation. It is a bastard attempt to economise the
labour that is necessary to discover individuality of soul and to bring
it out in skilful dialogues and carefully chosen situations.

Another form of the trick of idiosyncrasy is the bald realism of the
sensationalist. He persuades himself that he is character-drawing. He is
doing nothing of the kind. He takes snap-shots with a literary camera
and reproduces direct from the negative. The art of re-touching nature
so that it becomes ideal, is not in his line at all: the commercial
instinct in him is stronger than the artistic, and he sees more business
in realism than in idealism. And what is more, there is less
labour--characters exist ready for use. It is easy to listen to a lively
altercation between cabbies in a London street, when language passes
that makes one hesitate to strike a match, and then go home and draw a
city driver. You have no need to search for contrasts, for colour, for
sound, for passion: you saw and heard everything at once. But the truth
still remains--the seeing of things, and the hearing of things, are but
the raw material: where are your new creations?

The trick of selecting oddities as a method of characterisation is
superficial, simply because oddities lie upon the surface. You can,
without much difficulty, construct a dialogue between a blacksmith and a
student, showing how the unlettered man exhibits his ignorance and the
scholar his taste. But such a distinction is quite external; at heart
the men may be very much alike. It is one thing to paint the type, and
another to paint the individual. Take Sir Willoughby Patterne. He is a
man who belongs to the type "selfish"; but he is much more than a
typically selfish man; he is an _individual_. There is a turn in his
remarks, a way of speaking in dialogue, and a style of doing things
which show him to be self-centred, not in a general way, but in the
particular way of Sir Willoughby Patterne.

There is one fact in characterisation for which a due margin should
always be made. Wilkie Collins, you will remember, says of his Fosco:
"The making him fat was an afterthought; his canaries and his white
mice were found next; and the most valuable discovery of all, his
admiration of Miss Halcombe, took its rise in a conviction that he would
not be true to nature unless there was some weak point somewhere in his
character." You must provide for these "afterthoughts" by not being too
ready to cast your characters in the final mould. Let every personality
be in a state of _becoming_ until he has actually _come_--in all the
completeness of appearance, manner, speech, and action. Your first
conception of the Jewess may be that of one who possesses the usual
physique of her class--short and stout; but afterwards it may suit your
purpose better to make her fairer, taller, and slighter, than the rest
of her race. If so, do not hesitate to undo the work of laborious hours
by effecting such an improvement. It will go against the grain, no
doubt; but novel-writing is a serious business, and much depends on
trifles in accomplishing success; so do not begrudge the extra toil

       *       *       *       *       *

Characterisation is the finest feature of the novelist's art. Here you
will have your greatest difficulties, but, if you overcome them, you
will have your greatest triumphs. Here, too, the crying need is a
knowledge of human nature. Acquire a mastership of this subtle quantity,
and then you may hope for genuine results. Of course, knowledge is not
_all_; it is in artistic appreciation that true character-drawing



Narrative Art

David Pryde has summed up the whole matter in a few well-chosen
sentences: "Keeping the beginning and the end in view, we set out from
the right starting-place, and go straight towards the destination; we
introduce no event that does not spring from the first cause and tend to
the great effect; we make each detail a link joined to the one going
before and the one coming after; we make, in fact, all the details into
one entire chain, which we can take up as a whole, carry about with us,
and retain as long as we please."[63:A] How many elements are here
referred to? There are plot, movement, unity, proportion, purpose, and
climax. I have already dealt with some of these, and now propose to
devote a few paragraphs to the rest.

Unity means unity of effect, and is first a matter of literary
architecture--afterwards a matter of impression. It has been said of
Macbeth that "the play moves forward with an absolute regularity; it is
almost architectural in its rise and fall, in the balance of its parts.
The plot is a complex one; it has an ebb and flow, a complication and a
resolution, to use technical terms. That is to say, the fortunes of
Macbeth swoop up to a crisis or turning-point, and thence down again to
a catastrophe. The catastrophe, of course, closes the play; the crisis,
as so often with Shakespeare, comes in its exact centre, in the middle
of the middle act, with the Escape of Fleance. Hitherto Macbeth's path
has been gilded with success; now the epoch of failure begins. And the
parallelisms and correspondences throughout are remarkable. Each act has
a definite subject: The Temptation; The First, Second, and Third Crimes;
The Retribution. Three accidents, if we may so call them, help Macbeth
in the first part of the play: the visit of Duncan to Inverness, his own
impulsive murder of the grooms, the flight of Malcolm and Donalbain. And
in the second half three accidents help to bring about his ruin: the
escape of Fleance, the false prophecy of the witches, the escape of
Macduff. Malcolm and Macduff at the end answer to Duncan and Banquo at
the beginning. A meeting with the witches heralds both rise and fall.
Finally, each of the crimes is represented in the Retribution. Malcolm,
the son of Duncan, and Macduff, whose wife and child he slew, conquer
Macbeth; Fleance begets a race that shall reign in his stead."[65:A]

From a construction point of view, a novel and a play have many points
in common; and although the parallelism of events and characters is not
necessary for either, the account of Macbeth just given is a good
illustration of unity of effect and impression. Stevenson's "Kidnapped"
and "David Balfour" are good examples of unity of structure.


How many times have you put a novel away with the remark: "It _drags_
awfully!" The narrative that drags is not worthy of the name. There are
a few writers who can go into byways and take the reader with them--Mr
Le Gallienne, for instance--but, as a rule, the digressive novelist is
the one whose book is thrown on to the table with the remark just
quoted. A story should be _progressive_, not _digressive_ and
episodical. Hence the importance of movement and suspense. Keep your
narrative in motion, and do not let it sleep for a while unless it is of
deliberate intention. There is a definite law to be observed--namely,
that as feeling rises higher, sentences become crisp and shorter;
witness Acts i. and ii. in _Macbeth_. Suspense, too, is an agent in
accelerating the forward march of a story. There is no music in a pause,
but it renders great service in giving proper emphasis to music that
goes before and comes after it. Notice how Stevenson employs suspense
and contrast in "Kidnapped." "The sea had gone down, and the wind was
steady and kept the sails quiet, so that there was a great stillness in
the ship, in which I made sure I heard the sound of muttering voices. A
little after, and there came a clash of steel upon the deck, by which I
knew they were dealing out the cutlasses, and one had been let fall; and
after that silence again." These little touches are capable of affecting
the entire interest of the whole story, and should receive careful

Aids to Description


So much has been said in praise of descriptive power, that it will not
be amiss if I repeat one or two opinions which, seemingly, point the
other way. Gray, in a letter to West, speaks of describing as "an ill
habit that will wear off"; and Disraeli said description was "always a
bore both to the describer and the describee." To some, these
authorities may not be of sufficient weight. Will they listen to Robert
Louis Stevenson? He says that "no human being ever spoke of scenery for
above two minutes at a time, which makes one suspect we hear too much of
it in literature." These remarks will save us from that
description-worship which is a sort of literary influenza.

The first thing to be determined in descriptive art is _the point of
view_. Suppose you are standing on an eminence commanding a wide stretch
of plain with a river winding through it. What does the river look like?
A silver thread; and so you would describe it. But if you stood close to
the brink and looked back to the eminence on which you stood previously,
you would no longer speak of a silver thread, simply because now your
point of view is changed. The principle is elementary enough, and there
is no need to dwell upon it further, except to quote an illustration
from Blackmore:

"For she stood at the head of a deep green valley, carved from out the
mountains in a perfect oval, with a fence of sheer rock standing round
it, eighty feet or a hundred high, from whose brink black wooded hills
swept up to the skyline. By her side a little river glided out from
underground with a soft, dark babble, unawares of daylight; then growing
brighter, lapsed away, and fell into the valley. Then, as it ran down
the meadow, alders stood on either marge, and grass was blading out of
it, and yellow tufts of rushes gathered, looking at the hurry. But
further down, on either bank, were covered houses built of stone,
square, and roughly covered, set as if the brook were meant to be the
street between them. Only one room high they were, and not placed
opposite each other, but in and out as skittles are; only that the first
of all, which proved to be the captain's was a sort of double house, or
rather two houses joined together by a plank-bridge over the


The fundamental principle of all art is selection, and nowhere is it
seen to better advantage than in description. A battle, a landscape, or
a mental agony, can only be described artistically, in so far as the
writer chooses the most characteristic features for presentation. In the
following passage George Eliot states the law and keeps it. "She had
time to remark that he was a peculiar-looking person, but not
insignificant, which was the quality that most hopelessly consigned a
man to perdition. He was massively built. The striking points in his
face were large, clear, grey eyes, and full lips." Suppose for a moment
that the reader were told about the pattern and "hang" of the hero's
trousers, his waistcoat and his coat, and that information was given
respecting the number of links in his watch-chain, and the exact depth
of his double chin--what would have been the effect from an artistic
point of view? Failure--for instead of getting a description alive with
interest, we should get a catalogue wearisome in its multiplicity of
detail. A certain author once thought Homer was niggardly in describing
Helen's charms, so he endeavoured to atone for the great poet's
shortcomings in the following manner:--"She was a woman right beautiful,
with fine eyebrows, of clearest complexion, beautiful cheeks; comely,
with large, full eyes, with snow-white skin, quick glancing, graceful; a
grove filled with graces, fair-armed, voluptuous, breathing beauty
undisguised. The complexion fair, the cheek rosy, the countenance
pleasing, the eye blooming, a beauty unartificial, untinted, of its
natural colour, adding brightness to the brightest cherry, as if one
should dye ivory with resplendent purple. Her neck long, of dazzling
whiteness, whence she was called the swan-born, beautiful Helen."

After reading this can you form a distinct idea of Helen's beauty? We
think not. The details are too many, the language too exuberant, and the
whole too much in the form of a catalogue. It would have been better to
select a few of what George Eliot calls the "striking points," and
present them with taste and skill. As it is, the attempt to improve on
Homer has resulted in a description which, for detail and minuteness, is
like the enumeration of the parts of a new motor-car--indeed, that is
the true sphere of description by detail, where, as in all matters
mechanical, fulness and accuracy are demanded. In "Mariana," Tennyson
refers to no more facts than are necessary to emphasise her great

     "With blackest moss the flower-pots
     Were thickly crusted, one and all;
     The rusted nails fell from the knots
     That held the pear to the gable wall.
     The broken sheds looked sad and strange:
     Unlifted was the clinking latch;
     Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
     Upon the lonely moated grange."

In ordering such details as may be chosen to represent an event, idea,
or person, it is the rule to proceed from "the near to the remote, and
from the obvious to the obscure." Homer thus describes a shield as
smooth, beautiful, brazen, and well-hammered--that is, he gives the
particulars in the order in which they would naturally be observed.
Homer's method is also one of epithet: "the far-darting Apollo,"
"swift-footed Achilles," "wide-ruling Agamemnon," "white-armed Hera,"
and "bright-eyed Athene." Now it is but a step from this giving of
epithets to what is called


When Hawthorne speaks of the "black, moody brow of Septimus Felton," it
is really suggestion by the use of epithet. Dickens took the trouble to
enumerate the characteristics of Mrs Gamp one by one; but he succeeded
in presenting Mrs Fezziwig by simply saying, "In came Mrs Fezziwig, one
vast substantial smile." This latter method differs from the former in
almost every possible way. The enumeration of details becomes wearisome
unless very cleverly handled, whereas the suggestive method unifies the
writer's impressions, thereby saving the reader's mental exertions and
heightening his pleasures. He tells us how things and persons impress
him, and prefers to _indicate_ rather than describe. Thus Dickens
refers to "a full-sized, sleek, well-conditioned gentleman in a blue
coat with bright buttons, and a white cravat. This gentleman had a very
red face, as if an undue proportion of the blood in his body had been
squeezed into his head; which perhaps accounted for his having also the
appearance of being rather cold about the heart." Lowell says of
Chaucer, "Sometimes he describes amply by the merest hint, as where the
Friar, before sitting himself down, drives away the cat. We know without
need of more words that he has chosen the snuggest corner."

Notice how succinctly Blackmore delineates a natural fact, "And so in a
sorry plight I came to an opening in the bushes where a great black pool
lay in front of me, whitened with snow (as I thought) at the sides, till
I saw it was only foam-froth, . . . and the look of this black pit was
enough to stop one from diving into it, even on a hot summer's day, with
sunshine on the water; I mean if the sun ever shone there. As it was, I
shuddered and drew back; not alone at the pool itself, and the black air
there was about it, but also at the whirling manner, and wisping of
white threads upon it in stripy circles round and round; and the centre
still as jet."[75:A]

Hardy's description of Egdon Heath is too well known to need remark; it
is a classic of its kind.

Robert Louis Stevenson possessed the power of suggestion to a high
degree. "An ivory-faced and silver-haired old woman opened the door. She
had an evil face, smoothed with hypocrisy, but her manners were
excellent." To advise a young writer to imitate Stevenson would be
absurd, but perhaps I may be permitted to say: study Stevenson's method,
from the blind man in "Treasure Island," to Kirstie in "The Weir of


"It is a peculiarity of Walter Scott," says Goethe, "that his great
talent in representing details often leads him into faults. Thus in
'Ivanhoe' there is a scene where they are seated at a table in a
castle-hall, at night, and a stranger enters. Now he is quite right in
describing the stranger's appearance and dress, but it is a fault that
he goes to the length of describing his feet, shoes and stockings. When
we sit down in the evening and someone comes in, we notice only the
upper part of his body. If I describe the feet, daylight enters at once
and the scene loses its nocturnal character." And yet Scott in some
respects was a master of description--witness his picture of Norham
Castle and of the ravine of Greeta between Rokeby and Mortham. But
Goethe's criticism is justified notwithstanding. Never write more than
can be said of a man or a scene when regarded from the surrounding
circumstances of light and being. Ruskin is never tired of saying, "Draw
what you see." In the "Fighting Téméraire," Turner paints the old
warship as if it had no rigging. It was there in its proper place, but
the artist could not see it, and he refused to put it in his picture if,
at the distance, it was not visible. "When you see birds fly, you do
not see any _feathers_," says Mr W. M. Hunt. "You are not to draw
_reality_, but reality as it _appears_ to you."

Avoid the _pathetic fallacy_. Kingsley, in "Alton Locke," says:

     "They rowed her in across the rolling foam--
      The cruel crawling foam,"

on which Ruskin remarks, "The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl.
The state of mind which attributes to it these characteristics of a
living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All
violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in
all our impressions of external things."

       *       *       *       *       *

Perhaps the secret of all accurate description is a trained eye. Do you
know how a cab-driver mounts on to the box, or the shape of a
coal-heaver's mouth when he cries "Coal!"? Do you know how a wood looks
in early spring as distinct from its precise appearance in summer, or
how a man uses his eyes when concealing feelings of jealousy? or a
woman when hiding feelings of love? Observation with insight, and
Imagination with sympathy; these are the great necessities in every
department of novel-writing.


[63:A] "Studies in Composition," p. 26.

[65:A] E. K. Chambers' _Macbeth_, pp. 25, 26. "The Warwick Shakespeare."

[69:A] "Lorna Doone."

[75:A] "Lorna Doone."



Colour: Local and Otherwise

One morning you opened your paper and found that Mr Simon St Clair had
gone into Wales in search of local colour. What does local colour mean?
The appearance of the country, the dress and language of the people, all
that distinguishes the particular locality from others near and
remote--is local colour. Take Kipling's "Mandalay" as an illustration.
He speaks of the ringing temple bell, of the garlic smells, and the dawn
that comes up like thunder; there are elephants piling teak, and all the
special details of the particular locality find a characteristic
expression. For what reason? Well, local colour renders two services to
literature; it makes very often a pleasing or a striking picture in
itself; and it is used by the author to bring out special features in
his story. Kipling's underlying idea comes to the surface when he says
that a man who has lived in the East always hears the East "a-callin'"
him back again. There is deep pathos in the idea alone; but when it is
set in the external characteristics of Eastern life, one locality chosen
to set forth the rest, and stated in language that few can equal, the
entire effect is very striking.

Whenever local colour is of picturesque quality there is a temptation to
substitute "word-painting" for the story. The desire for novelty is at
the bottom of a good deal of modern extravagance in this direction, but
the truth still remains that local colour has an important function to
discharge--namely, to increase the artistic value of good narrative by
suggesting the environment of the _dramatis personæ_. You must have
noticed the opening chapters of "The Scarlet Letter." Why all this
careful detailing of the Customs House, the manners and the talk of the
people? For no other reason than that just given.

But there is another use of colour in literary composition. Perhaps I
can best illustrate my purpose by quoting from an interview with James
Lane Allen, who certainly ought to know what he is talking about. The
author of "The Choir Invisible," and "Summer in Arcady," occupies a
position in Fiction which makes his words worth considering.

Said Mr Allen to the interviewer:[81:A] "A friend of mine--a
painter--had just finished reading some little thing that I had
succeeded in having published in the _Century_. 'What do you think of
it?' I asked him. 'Tell me frankly what you like and what you don't

"'It's interestingly told, dramatic, polished, and all that, Allen,' was
his reply, 'but why in the world did you neglect such an opportunity to
drop in some colour here, and at this point, and there?'

"It came over me like that," said the Kentuckian, snapping his fingers,
"that words indicating colours can be manipulated by the writer just as
pigments are by the painter. I never forgot the lesson. And now when I
describe a landscape, or a house, or a costume, I try to put it into
such words that an artist can paint the scene from my words."

Evidently Mr Allen learned his lesson long ago, but it is one every
writer should study carefully. Mr Baring Gould also gives his
experience. "In one of my stories I sketched a girl in a white frock
leaning against a sunny garden wall, tossing guelder-roses. I had some
burnished gold-green flies on the old wall, preening in the sun; so, to
complete the scene, I put her on gold-green leather shoes, and made the
girl's eyes of much the same hue. Thus we had a picture where the colour
was carried through, and, if painted, would have been artistic and
satisfying. A red sash would have spoiled all, so I gave her one that
was green. So we had the white dress, the guelder-rose-balls
greeny-white, and through the ranges of green-gold were led up to her
hair, which was red-gold. I lay some stress on this formation of picture
in tones of colour, because it pleases myself when writing--it satisfies
my artistic sense. A thousand readers may not observe it; but those who
have any art in them will at once receive therefrom a pleasing

These two testimonies make the matter very plain. If anything is needed
it is a more practical illustration taken direct from a book. For this
purpose I have chosen a choice piece from George Du Maurier's "Peter
Ibbetson," a book that was half-killed by the Trilby boom.

"Before us lies a sea of fern, gone a russet-brown from decay, in which
are isles of dark green gorse, and little trees with scarlet and orange
and lemon-coloured leaflets fluttering down, and running after each
other on the bright grass, under the brisk west wind which makes the
willows rustle, and turn up the whites of their leaves in pious
resignation to the coming change.

"Harrow-on-the-Hill, with its pointed spire, rises blue in the distance;
and distant ridges, like the receding waves, rise into blueness, one
after the other, out of the low-lying mist; the last ridge bluely
melting into space. In the midst of it all, gleams the Welsh Harp Lake,
like a piece of sky that has become unstuck and tumbled into the
landscape with its shiny side up."

What About Dialect?

Dialect is local colour individualised. Ian Maclaren, in "The Bonnie
Brier Bush," following in the wake of Crockett and Barrie, has given us
the dialect of Scotland: Baring Gould and a host of others have provided
us with dialect stories of English counties; Jane Barlow and several
Irish writers deal with the sister island; Wales has not been forgotten;
and the American novelists have their big territory mapped out into
convenient sections. Soon the acreage of locality literature will have
been completely "written up"; I do not say its yielding powers will have
been exhausted, for, as with other species of local colour, dialect has
had to suffer at the hands of the imitator who dragged dialect into his
paltry narrative for its own sake, and to give him the opportunity of
providing the reader with a glossary.

The reason why dialect-stories were so popular some time ago is twofold.
First, dialect imparts a flavour to a narrative, especially when it is
in contrast to educated utterances on the part of other characters. But
the chief reason is that dialect people have more character than other
people--as a rule. They afford greater scope for literary artistry than
can be found in life a stage or two higher, with its correctness and
artificiality. St Beuve said, "All peasants have style." Yes; that is
the truth exactly. There is an individuality about the peasant that is
absent from the town-dweller, and this fact explains the piquancy of
many novels that owe their popularity to the representations of the
rustic population. The dialect story, or novel, cannot hope for
permanency unless it contains elements of universal interest. The
emphasis laid on a certain type of speech stamps such a literary
production with the brand of narrowness. I understand that Ian Maclaren
has been translated into French. Can you imagine Drumsheugh in Gallic?
or Jamie Soutar? Never. Only that which is literature in the highest
sense can be translated into another language; hence the life of
corners in Scotland, or elsewhere, has no special interest for the world
in general.

The rule as to dealing with dialect is quite simple. Never use the
letters of the alphabet to reproduce the sound of such language in a
literal manner. _Suggest dialect_; that is all. Have nothing to do with
glossaries. People hate dictionaries, however brief, when they read
fiction. George Eliot and Thomas Hardy are good models of the wise use
of county speech.

On Dialogue

In making your characters talk, it should be your aim not to _reproduce_
their conversation, but to _indicate_ it. Here, as elsewhere, the first
principle of all art is selection, and from the many words which you
have heard your characters use, you must choose those that are typical
in view of the purpose you have in hand. I once had a letter from a
youthful novelist, in which he said: "It's splendid to write a story. I
make my characters say what I like--swear, if necessary--and all that."
Now you can't make your characters say what you like; you are obliged to
make them say what is in keeping with their known dispositions, and with
the circumstances in which they are placed at the time of speaking. If
you know your characters intimately, you will not put wise words into
the mouth of a clown, unless you have suitably provided for such a
surprise; neither will you write long speeches for the sullen villain
who is to be the human devil of the narrative. Remember, therefore, that
the key to propriety and effectiveness in writing is the knowledge of
those ideal people whom you are going to use in your pages.

"Windiness" and irrelevancy are the twin evils of conversations in
fiction. Trollope says, "It is so easy to make two persons talk on any
casual subject with which the writer presumes himself to be conversant!
Literature, philosophy, politics, or sport may be handled in a loosely
discursive style; and the writer, while indulging himself, is apt to
think he is pleasing the reader. I think he can make no greater mistake.
The dialogue is generally the most agreeable part of a novel; but it is
only so as long as it tends in some way to the telling of the main
story. It need not be confined to this, but it should always have a
tendency in that direction. The unconscious critical acumen of a reader
is both just and severe. When a long dialogue on extraneous matter
reaches his mind, he at once feels that he is being cheated into taking
something that he did not bargain to accept when he took up the novel.
He does not at that moment require politics or philosophy, but he wants
a story. He will not, perhaps, be able to say in so many words that at
some point the dialogue has deviated from the story; but when it does,
he will feel it."[88:A]

A word or two as to what kind of dialogue assists in telling the main
story may not be amiss. Return to the suggested plot of the Jewess and
the Roman Catholic. What are they to talk about? Anything that will
assist their growing intimacy, that will bring out the peculiar
personalities of both, and contribute to the development of the
narrative. In a previous section I said that the _dénouement_ decided
the selection of your characters; in some respects it will also decide
the topics of their conversation. Certain events have to be provided
for, in order that they may be both natural and inevitable, and it
becomes your duty to create incidents and introduce dialogue which will
lead up to these events.

With reference to models for study, advice is difficult to give. Quite a
gallery of masters would be needed for the purpose, as there are so many
points in one which are lacking in another. Besides, a great novelist
may have eccentricities in dialogue, and be quite normal in other
respects. George Meredith is as artificial in dialogue as he is in the
use of phrases pure and simple, and yet he succeeds, _in spite of_
defects, not _by_ them. Here is a sample from "The Egoist":

     "Have you walked far to-day?"

     "Nine and a half hours. My Flibbertigibbet is too much for me
     at times, and I had to walk off my temper."

     "All those hours were required?"

     "Not quite so long."

     "You are training for your Alpine tour?"

     "It's doubtful whether I shall get to the Alps this year. I
     leave the Hall, and shall probably be in London with a pen to

     "Willoughby knows that you leave him?"

     "As much as Mont Blanc knows that he is going to be climbed by
     a party below. He sees a speck or two in the valley."

     "He has spoken of it."

     "He would attribute it to changes."

I need not discuss how far this advances the novelist's narrative, but
it is plain that it is not a model for the beginner. For smartness and
"point" nothing could be better than Anthony Hope's "Dolly Dialogues,"
although the style is not necessarily that of a novel.

Points in Conversation

Never allow the reader to be in doubt as to who is speaking. When he has
to turn back to discover the speaker's identity, you may be sure there
is something wrong with your construction. You need not quote the
speaker's name in order to make it plain that he is speaking: all that
is needed is a little attention to the "said James" and "replied Susan"
of your dialogues. When once these two have commenced to talk, they can
go on in catechism form for a considerable period. But if a third party
chimes in, a more careful disposition of names is called for.

Beginners very often have a good deal of trouble with their "saids,"
"replieds," and "answereds."

Here, again, a little skilful manoevring will obviate the difficulty.
This is a specimen of third-class style.

     "I'm off on Monday," _said_ he.

     "Not really," _said_ she.

     "Yes, I have only come to say goodbye," _said_ he.

     "Shall you be gone long?" _asked_ she.

     "That depends," _said_ he.

     "I should like to know what takes you away," _said_ she.

     "I daresay," _said_ he, smiling.

     "I shouldn't wonder if I know," _said_ she.

     "I daresay you might guess," _said_ he.

Could anything be more wooden than this perpetual "said he, said she,"
which I have accentuated by putting into italics? Now, observe the
difference when you read the following:--

     _Observed_ Silver.

     _Cried_ the Cook.

     _Returned_ Morgan.

     _Said_ Another.

     _Agreed_ Silver.

     _Said_ the fellow with the bandage.

There is no lack of suitable verbs for dialogue purposes--remarked,
retorted, inquired, demanded, murmured, grumbled, growled,
sneered, explained, and a host more. Without a ready command
of such a vocabulary you cannot hope to give variety to your
character-conversations, and, what is of graver importance, you will not
be able to bring out the essential qualities of such remarks as you
introduce. For instance, to put a sarcastic utterance into a man's
mouth, and then to write down that he "replied" with those words is not
half so effective as to say he "sneered" them.[93:A]

Probably you will be tempted to comment on your dialogue as you write by
insinuating remarks as to actions, looks, gestures, and the like. This
is a good temptation, so far, but it has its dangers. The ancient Hebrew
writer, in telling the story of Hezekiah, said that Isaiah went to the
king with these words:

     "Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die and not live."

     _And Hezekiah turned his face to the wall--and prayed._

If you can make a comment as dramatic and forceful as that, _make it_.
But avoid useless and uncalled-for remarks, and remember that you
really want nothing, not even a fine epigram, which fails to contribute
to the main purpose.


It will not be inappropriate to close this chapter with a few words on
what is called "atmosphere." The word is often met with in the
vocabulary of the reviewer; he is marvellously keen in scenting
atmospheres. Perhaps an illustration may be the best means of
exposition. The reviewer is speaking of Maeterlinck's "Alladine and
Palomides," "Interior," and "The Death of Tintagiles." He says, "We find
in them the same strange atmosphere to which we had grown accustomed in
'Pelleas' and 'L'Intruse.' We are in a region of no fixed plane--a
region that this world never saw. It is a region such as Arnold Böcklin,
perhaps, might paint, and many a child describe. A castle stands upon a
cliff. Endless galleries and corridors and winding stairs run through
it. Beneath lie vast grottoes where subterranean waters throw up
unearthly light from depths where seaweed grows." This is very true, and
put into bald language it means that Maeterlinck has succeeded in
creating an artistic environment for his weird characters; it is the
_setting_ in which he has placed them. In the first scene of _Hamlet_,
Shakespeare creates the necessary atmosphere to introduce the events
that are to follow. The soldiers on guard are concerned and afraid; the
reader is thereby prepared, step by step, for the reception of the whole
situation; everything that will strengthen the impression of a coming
fatality is seized by a master hand, and made to do service in creating
an atmosphere of such expectant quality. An artist by nature will select
intuitively the persons and facts he needs; but there is no reason why a
study of these necessities, a slow and careful pondering, should not at
last succeed in alighting upon the precise and inevitable details which
delicately and subtly produce the desired result. In this sense the
matter can hardly be called a minor detail, but the expression has been
sufficiently guarded.


[81:A] Shuman, "Steps into Journalism," p. 201.

[83:A] "The Art of Writing Fiction," p. 40.

[88:A] "Autobiography," vol. ii. p. 58.

[93:A] See Bates' "Talks on Writing English." An excellent manual, to
which I am indebted for ideas and suggestions.



Items of General Knowledge

I propose to show in this chapter that a literary artist can never
afford to despise details. He may have genius enough to write a
first-rate novel, and sell it rapidly in spite of real blemishes, but if
a work of art is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. No writer
is any the better for slovenly inaccuracy. Take the details of everyday
life. Do you suppose you are infallible in these commonplace things? If
so, be undeceived at once. It is simply marvellous with what ease a
mistake will creep into your narrative. Even Mr Zangwill once made a
hansom cab door to open with a handle from the inside, and the mistake
appeared in six editions, escaping the reviewers, and was quietly
altered by the author in the seventh. There is nothing particularly
serious about an error of this kind; but at the same time, where truth
to fact is so simple a matter, why not give the fact as it is?
Trivialities may not interfere with the power of the story, but they
often attach an ugliness, or a smack of the ridiculous, which cannot but
hinder, to some extent, the beauty of otherwise good work. Mistakes such
as that just referred to, arise, in most instances, out of the passion
and feeling in which the novelist advances his narrative. The detail
connected with the opening of the hansom door (doors) was nothing to Mr
Zangwill, compared to the person who opened it. I should advise you,
therefore, to master all the necessary _minutiae_ of travelling, if your
hero and heroine are going abroad; of city life if you take them to
the theatre for amusement--in fact, of every environment in which
imagination may place them. Then, when all your work is done, read what
has been written with the microscopic eyes of a Flaubert.

Specific Subjects

For instance, the plot suggested in the previous chapters deals with
Judaism. Now, if you don't know Jewish life through and through, it is
the height of foolishness to attempt to write a novel about it. (The
same remark applies to Roman Catholicism.) You will find it necessary to
study the Bible and Hebrew history; and when you have mastered the
literature of the subject and caught its spirit, you will turn your
attention to the sacred people as they exist to-day--their isolation,
their wealth, their synagogues, and their psychological peculiarities.
Does this seem to be too big a programme? Well, if you are to present a
living and truthful picture of the Jewess and her surroundings, you can
only succeed by going through such a programme; whereas, if you skip the
hard preparatory work you will bungle in the use of Hebrew terms, and
when you make the Rabbi drop the scroll through absent-mindedness, you
will very likely say that "the congregation looked on half-amused and
half-wondering." Just visit a synagogue when the Rabbi happens to drop
the scroll. The congregation would be "horribly shocked." The same law
applies whatever be your subject. If you intend to follow a prevailing
fashion and depict slum life, you will have to spend a good deal of time
in those unpleasant regions, not only to know them in their outward
aspects, but to know them in their inward and human features. Even then
something important may escape you, with the result that you fall into
error, and the expert enjoys a quiet giggle at your expense; but you
will have some consolation in the thought that you spared no pains in
the diligent work of preparation.

Perhaps your novel will take the reader into aristocratic circles. Pray
do not make the attempt if you are not thoroughly acquainted with the
manners and customs of such circles. Ignorance will surely betray you,
and in describing a dinner, or an "At Home," you will raise derisive
laughter by suggesting the details of a most impossible meal, or spoil
your heroine by making her guilty of atrocious etiquette. The remedy is
close at hand: _know your subject_.

Topography and Geography

Watch your topography and geography. Have you never read novels where
the characters are made to walk miles of country in as many minutes? In
fairy tales we rather like these extraordinary creatures--their
startling performances have a charm we should be sorry to part with. But
in the higher world of fiction, where ideal things should appear as real
as possible, we decidedly object to miraculous journeys, especially, as
in most instances, it is plainly a mistake in calculation on the part of
the writer. Of course the writer is occasionally placed in an awkward
position. A dramatic episode is about to take place, or, more correctly,
the author wishes it to take place, but the characters have been
dispersed about the map, and time and distance conspire against the
author's purpose. It is madness to "blur" the positions and "risk" the
reader's acuteness, but it is almost equally unfortunate to fail in
observing the difficulty, and write on in blissful ignorance of the fact
that nature's laws have been set at defiance. The drawing of a map, as
before suggested, will obviate all these troubles.

Should you depict a lover's scene in India, take care not to describe it
as occurring in "beautiful twilight." It is quite possible to know that
darkness follows sunset, and yet to forget it in the moment of writing;
but a good writer is never caught "napping" in these matters. If you
don't know India, choose Cairo, about which, after half-a-dozen
lengthened visits, you can speak with certainty.

Scientific Facts

What a nuisance the weather is to many novelists. Some triumph over
their difficulties; a few contribute to our amusement. The meteorology
of fiction would be a fascinating study. In second-rate productions, it
is astonishing to witness the ease with which the weather is ordered
about. The writer makes it rain when he thinks the incidents of a
downpour will enliven the narrative, forgetting that the movement of the
story, as previously stated, requires a blue sky and a shining sun; or
he contrives to have the wind blowing in two or three directions at
once. The sun and the moon require careful manipulation. At the
beginning of a novel, the room of an invalid is said to have a window
looking directly towards the east; but at the end of the book when the
invalid dies, the author, wishing to make him depart this life in a
flood of glory, suffuses this eastern-windowed room with "the red glare
of the setting sun." The detail may appear unimportant, but it is not
so, and a few hours devoted to notes on these minor points would save
all the unpleasantness and ridicule which such mistakes too frequently
bring. The reviewer loves to descant on the "peculiar cosmology and
physical science of the volume before us."

The moon is most unfortunate. Mrs Humphry Ward confesses that she never
knows when to make the moon rise, and obtains Miss Ward's assistance in
all astronomical references. This is, of course, a pleasant
exaggeration, but it shows that no venture should be made in science
without being perfectly sure of your ground.


Grammar is the most dangerous of all pitfalls. Suppose you read your
novel through, and check each sentence. After weary toil you are ready
to offer a prize of one guinea to the man who can show you a mistake.
When the full list of errors is drawn up by an expert grammarian, you
are glad that offer was not made, for your guineas would have been going
too quickly. In everyday conversation you speak as other people
do--having a special hatred of painful accuracy, otherwise called
pedantry; and as you frequently hear the phrase: "Those sort of people
are never nice," it does not strike you as being incorrect when you
read it in your proof-sheets. Or somebody refers to a theatrical
performance, and regretting his inability to be present, says, "I should
like to have gone, but could not." So often is the phrase used in daily
speech, that its sound (when you read your book aloud) does not suggest
anything erroneous. And yet if you wish your reader to know that you are
a good grammarian, you will not be ashamed to revise your grammar and
say, "I should have liked to go, but could not." These are simple
instances: there are hundreds more.

Reviewing all that has been said in this chapter, the one conclusion is
that the novelist must be a man of knowledge; he must know the English
language from base to summit; and whatever references he makes to
science, art, history, theology, or any other subject, he should have
what is expected of writers in these specific departments--accuracy.



Communicable Elements

One can readily sympathise with the melancholy of a man who, after
reading De Quincey, Macaulay, Addison, Lamb, Pater, and Stevenson, found
that literary style was still a mystery to him. He was obliged to
confess that the secret of style is with them that have it. His main
difficulty, however, was to reconcile this conviction with the advice of
a learned friend who urged him to study the best models if he would
attain a good style. Was style communicable? or was it not? Now of all
questions relating to this subject, this is the most pertinent, and, if
I may say so, the only real question. It is the easiest thing in the
world to tell a student about Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, about
Tolstoi and Turgenieff, but no quantity of advice as to reading is of
much avail unless the preliminary question just referred to is
intelligently answered. The so-called stylists of all ages may be
carefully read from beginning to end, and yet style will not disclose
its secret. Such a course of reading could not but be beneficial; to
live among the lovely things of literature would develop the taste and
educate appreciation; the reader would be quick to discern beauty when
he saw it, but the art of producing it other than by deliberate
imitation of known models would be still a mystery.

_Is_ style communicable? The answer is _Yes_ and _No_; in some senses it
is, in others it is not. Let us deal with the affirmative side first.
This concerns all points of grammar and composition without which the
story would not be clear and forcible. No writer can make a "corner" in
the facts of grammar and composition; it is impossible to appropriate
them individually to the exclusion of everybody else; and since style
depends to some extent on a knowledge of those rules which govern the
use of language, it follows that there are certain elements which are
open to all who are willing to learn them. For instance, there is the
study of words. How often do we hear it said of a certain novelist that
he uses the right word with unerring accuracy. And this is regarded as
an important feature in his style; therefore words and their uses should
have a prominent place in your programme. In "The Silverado Squatters,"
Stevenson represents himself as carrying a pail of water up a hill: "the
water _lipping_ over the side, and a _quivering_ sunbeam in the midst."
The words in italics are the exact words wanted; no others could
possibly set forth the facts with greater accuracy. Stevenson was a
diligent word-student, and had a certain knowledge of their dynamic and
suggestive qualities.

The right word! How shall we find it? Sometimes it will come with the
thought; more often we must seek it. Landor says: "I hate false words,
and seek with care, difficulty, and moroseness those that fit the
thing." What could be stronger than the language of Guy de Maupassant?
"Whatever the thing we wish to say there is but one word to express it,
but one verb to give it movement, but one adjective to qualify it. We
must seek till we find this noun, this verb, this adjective, and never
allow ourselves to play tricks, even happy ones, or have recourse to
sleights of language to avoid a difficulty. The subtlest things may be
rendered and suggested by applying the hint conveyed in Boileau's line,
'He taught the power of a word in the right place.'" In similar vein,
Professor Raleigh remarks, "Let the truth be said outright: there are no
synonyms, and the same statement can never be repeated in a changed form
of words."

The number of words used is another consideration. When Phil May has
drawn a picture he proceeds to make erasures here and there with a view
to retaining wholeness of effect by the least possible number of lines.
There is a similar excellence in literature, the literature where "there
is not a superfluous word." Oh, the "gasiness" of many a modern
novel--pages and pages of so-called "style," "word-painting," and

The conclusion of the matter is this: the right number of words, and
each word in its place. Frederic Schlegel used to say that in good
prose every word should be underlined; as if he had said that the
interpretation of a sentence should not depend on the manner in which it
is read.

It is also highly necessary that the would-be stylist should be a
student of sentences and paragraphs. Surprising as it may seem, it is
nevertheless true that many aspirants after literary success never give
these matters a thought; they expect that proficiency will "come."
Proficiency is not an angel who visits us unsolicited; it is a power
that must be paid for with a price, and the price is laborious study of
such practical technique as the following:--"In a series of sentences
the stress should be varied continually so as to come in the beginning
of some sentences, and at the end of others, regard being had for the
two considerations, variation of rhythm, and grouping of similar ideas
together." And this, "Every paragraph is subject to the general laws of
unity, selection, proportion, sequence, and variety which govern all
good composition." The observance of these rules (and they are specimens
of hundreds more) and the discovery of apt illustrations in literature
are matters of time and labour. But the time and labour are well
spent--nay, they are absolutely necessary if the literary man would know
his craft thoroughly. For the ordinary man, something equivalent to a
text-book course in rhetoric is indispensable. True, many writers have
learned insensibly from other writers, but too severe a devotion to the
masterpieces of literature may beget the master's weaknesses without
imparting his strength.

Incommunicable Elements

The incommunicable element in style is that personal impress which a
writer sets upon his work. What is a personal impress? I am asked. Can
it be defined? Scarcely. Personality itself is a mysterious thing. We
know what it means when it is used to distinguish a remarkable man from
those who are not remarkable. "He has a unique personality," we say. Now
that personality--if the man be a writer--will show itself in his
literary offspring. It will be in evidence over and above rule,
regulation, canons of art, and the like. If there be such a thing as a
mystic presence, then style is that mystic presence of the writer's
personality which permeates the ideas and language in such a way as to
give them a distinction and individuality all their own. I will employ
comparison as a means of illustration by supposing that the three
following passages appeared in the same book in separate paragraphs and
without the authors' names:--

     "Each material thing has its celestial side, has its
     translation into the spiritual and necessary sphere, where it
     plays a part as indestructible as any other, and to these ends
     all things continually ascend. The gases gather to the solid
     firmament; the chemic lump arrives at the plant and grows;
     arrives at the quadruped and walks; arrives at the man and

            *       *       *       *       *

     "He [Daniel Webster] is a magnificent specimen; you might say
     to all the world, 'This is your Yankee Englishman; such limbs
     we make in Yankeeland! The tanned complexion; the amorphous
     crag-like face; the dull black eyes under their precipice of
     brows, like dull anthracite furnaces, needing only to be
     blown; the mastiff mouth, accurately closed:--I have not
     traced so much silent Bersekir rage that I remember of in any

            *       *       *       *       *

     "In the edifices of Man there should be found reverent worship
     and following, not only of the Spirit which rounds the form of
     the forest, and arches the vault of the avenue,--which gives
     veining to the leaf and polish to the shell, and grace to
     every pulse that agitates animal organisation--but of that
     also which reproves the pillars of the earth and builds up her
     barren precipices into the coldness of the clouds, and lifts
     her shadowy cones of mountain purple into the pale arch of the

Now, an experienced writer, or reader, would identify these quotations
at once; in some measure from a knowledge of the books from which they
are taken, but mostly from a recognition of style pure and simple. The
merest tyro can see that the passages are not the work of one author;
there is, apart from subject-matter, a subtle something that lies
hidden beneath the language, informing each paragraph with a style
peculiar to itself. What is it? Ah! _The style is the man._ It is
composition charged with personality. Emerson, Carlyle, and Ruskin used
the English language with due regard for the rules of grammar, and such
principles of literary art as they felt to be necessary. And yet when
Emerson philosophises he does it in a way quite different to everybody
else; when Carlyle analyses a character, you know without the Sage's
signature that the work is his; and when Ruskin describes natural
beauties by speaking of "shadowy cones of mountain purple" being lifted
"into the pale arch of the sky"--well, that is Ruskin--it could be no
other. In each case language is made the bearer of the writer's
personality. Style in literature is the breathing forth of soul and
spirit; as is the soul, and as is the spirit in depth, sympathy, and
power, so will the style be rich, distinctive, and memorable. Professor
Raleigh says that "All style is gesture--the gesture of the mind and of
the soul. Mind we have in common, inasmuch as the laws of right reason
are not different for different minds. Therefore clearness and
arrangement can be taught, sheer incompetence in the art of expression
can be partly remedied. But who shall impose laws on the soul? . . .
Write, and after you have attained to some control over the instrument,
you write yourself down whether you will or no. There is no vice,
however unconscious, no virtue, however shy, no touch of meanness or of
generosity in your character that will not pass on to paper." Hence the
oft-repeated call for sincerity on the part of writers. If you try to
imitate Hardy it is a literary hypocrisy, and your sin will find you
out. If you are Meredith-minded, and play the sedulous ape to him, you
must expect a similar catastrophe.

     _If the style is the man, how can you hope to equal that
     style if you can never come near the man?_

Be true to all you know, and see, and feel; live with the masters, and
catch their spirit. You will then get your own style--it may not be as
good as those you have so long admired, but it will be _yours_; and,
truth to tell, that is all you can hope for.



Quick and Slow

The public has shown a deep interest in all details respecting the way
in which writers produce their books; the food they eat, the clothes
they wear, their weaknesses and their hobbies, what pens they use, and
whether they prefer the typewriter or not--all these are items which a
greedy public expects to know. So much is this the case to-day that an
acrid critic recently offered the tart suggestion that a novelist was a
man who wrote a great book, and spent the rest of his time--very
profitably--in telling the world how he came to write it. I do not
intend to pander to the literary news-monger in these pages, but to
reproduce as much as I know of the way in which novelists work, in order
to throw out hints as to how a beginner may perchance better his own
methods. A word of warning, however, is necessary. Do not, for Heaven's
sake, _ape_ anybody. Because Zola darkens his rooms when he writes, that
is no reason why you should go and do likewise; and if John Fiske likes
to sit in a draught, pray save yourself the expense of a doctor's bill
by imitating him. An author's methods are only of service to a novice
when they enable him to improve his own; and it is with this object in
view that I reproduce the following personal notes.

The relative speeds of the writing fraternity are little short of
amazing. Hawthorne was slow in composing. Sometimes he wrote only what
amounted to half-a-dozen pages a week, often only a few lines in the
same space of time, and, alas! he frequently went to his chamber and
took up his pen only to find himself wholly unable to perform any
literary work. Bret Harte has been known to pass days and weeks on a
short story or poem before he was ready to deliver it into the hands of
the printer. Thomas Hardy is said to have spent seven years in writing
"Jude the Obscure." On the other hand, Victor Hugo wrote his "Cromwell"
in three months, and his "Notre Dame de Paris" in four months and a
half. Wilkie Collins, prince among the plotters, was accustomed to
compose at white heat. Speaking of "Heart and Science," he says: "Rest
was impossible. I made a desperate effort, rushed to the sea, went
sailing and fishing, and was writing my book all the time 'in my head,'
as the children say. The one wise course to take was to go back to my
desk and empty my head, and then rest. My nerves are too much shaken for
travelling. An arm-chair and a cigar, and a hundred and fiftieth reading
of the glorious Walter Scott--King, Emperor, and President of
Novelists--there is the regimen that is doing me good." An enterprising
editor, not very long ago, sent out circulars to prominent authors
asking them how much they can do in a day. The reply in most cases was
that the rate of production varied; sometimes the pen or the typewriter
could not keep pace with thought; at other times it was just the

It is very necessary at this point to draw a distinction between the
execution of a work, and its development in the mind from birth to full
perfection. When we read that Mr Crockett, or somebody else, produced so
many books in so many years, it does not always mean--if ever--that the
idea and its expression have been a matter of weeks or months. To
_write_ a novel in six weeks is not an impossibility--even a passable
novel; but to sit down and think out a plot, with all its details of
character and event, and to write it out so that in six weeks, or two or
three months, the MS. is on the publisher's desk--well, don't believe
it. No novel worthy of the name was ever produced at that rate.

How many Words a Day?

In nothing do authors differ so much as on the eternal problem of
whether it is right to produce a certain quantity of matter every
day--inspiration or no inspiration. Thomas Hardy has no definite hours
for working, and, although he often uses the night-time for this
purpose, he has a preference for the day-time. Charlotte Brontë had to
choose favourable seasons for literary work--"weeks, sometimes months,
elapsed before she felt that she had anything to add to that portion of
her story which was already written; then some morning she would wake up
and the progress of her tale lay clear and bright before her in distinct
vision, and she set to work to write out what was more present to her
mind at such times than actual life was."[120:A] When writing "Jane
Eyre," and little Jane had been brought to Thornfield, the author's
enthusiasm had grown so great that she could not stop. She went on
incessantly for weeks.

Miss Jane Barlow confesses that she is "a very slow worker; indeed, when
I consider the amount of work which the majority of writers turn out in
a year, I feel that I must be dreadfully lazy. Even in my quiet life
here I find it difficult to get a long, clear space of time for my work,
and the slightest interruption will upset me for hours. It is difficult
to make people understand that it is not so much the time they take up,
as causing me to break the line of thought. It may be that somebody only
comes into the study to speak to me for a minute, but it is quite
enough. I suppose it is very silly to be so sensitive to interruptions,
but I cannot help it. I sometimes say it is as though a box of beads had
been upset, and I had to gather them together again; that is just the
effect of anyone speaking to me when I am at work. I write everything by
hand, and it takes a long time. I am sure I could not use a typewriter,
or dictate; indeed, I never let anybody see what I have written until it
is in print. Sometimes I write a passage over a dozen times before it
comes right, and I always make a second copy of everything, but the
corrections are not very numerous."

Mr William Black was also a slow producer: "I am building up a book
months before I write the first chapter; before I can put pen to paper I
have to realise all the chief incidents and characters. I have to live
with my characters, so to speak; otherwise, I am afraid they would
never appear living people to my readers. This is my work during the
summer; the only time I am free from the novel that-is-to-be is when I
am grouse-shooting or salmon-fishing. At other times I am haunted by the
characters and the scenes in which they take part, so that, for the sake
of his peace of mind, my method is not to be recommended to the young
novelist. When I come to the writing, I have to immure myself in perfect
quietude; my study is at the top of the house, and on the two or three
days a week I am writing, Mrs Black guards me from interruption. . . .
Of course, now and again, I have had to read a good deal preparatory to
writing. Before beginning 'Sunrise,' for instance, I went through the
history of secret societies in Europe."

Charles Reade and Anthony Trollope

"Charles Reade's habit of working was unique. When he had decided on a
new work, he plotted out the scheme, situations, facts, and characters
on three large sheets of pasteboard. Then he set to work, using very
large foolscap to write on, working rapidly, but with frequent
references to his storehouse of facts in the scrap-books which were
ready at his hand. The genial novelist was a great reader of newspapers.
Anything that struck him as interesting, or any fact which tended to
support one of his humanitarian theories, was cut out, pasted in a large
folio scrap-book, and carefully indexed. Facts of any sort were his
hobby. From the scrap-books thus collected with great care, he used to
'elaborate' the questions treated of in his novels."

Anthony Trollope is one of the few men who have taken their readers into
their full confidence about book production. The quotation I am about to
make is rather long, but it is too detailed to be shortened:

"When I have commenced a new book I have always prepared a diary,
divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have
allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered
day by day the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I
have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness
has been there staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased
labour, so that the deficiency might be supplied. According to the
circumstances of the time, whether any other business might be then
heavy or light, or whether the book which I was writing was, or was not,
wanted with speed, I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The
average number has been about forty. It has been placed as low as
twenty, and has risen to one hundred and twelve. And as a page is an
ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain two hundred and fifty
words, and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I
have had every word counted as I went."[124:A]

Under the title of "A Walk in the Wood," Trollope thus describes his
method of plot-making, and the difficulty the novelist experiences in
making the "tricksy Ariel" of the imagination do his bidding. "I have
to confess that my incidents are fabricated to fit my story as it goes
on, and not my story to fit my incidents. I wrote a novel once in which
a lady forged a will, but I had not myself decided that she had forged
it till the chapter before that in which she confesses her guilt. In
another, a lady is made to steal her own diamonds, a grand _tour de
force_, as I thought, but the brilliant idea struck me only when I was
writing the page in which the theft is described. I once heard an
unknown critic abuse my workmanship because a certain lady had been made
to appear too frequently in my pages. I went home and killed her
immediately. I say this to show that the process of thinking to which I
am alluding has not generally been applied to any great effort of
construction. It has expended itself on the minute ramifications of
tale-telling: how this young lady should be made to behave herself with
that young gentleman; how this mother or that father would be affected
by the ill conduct or the good of a son or a daughter; how these words
or those other would be most appropriate or true to nature if used on
some special occasion. Such plottings as these with a fabricator of
fiction are infinite in number, but not one of them can be done fitly
without thinking. My little effort will miss its wished-for result
unless I be true to nature; and to be true to nature, I must think what
nature would produce. Where shall I go to find my thoughts with the
greatest ease and most perfect freedom?

"I have found that I can best command my thoughts on foot, and can do so
with the most perfect mastery when wandering through a wood. To be alone
is, of course, essential. Companionship requires conversation, for
which, indeed, the spot is most fit; but conversation is not now the
object in view. I have found it best even to reject the society of a
dog, who, if he be a dog of manners, will make some attempt at talking;
and, though he should be silent, the sight of him provokes words and
caresses and sport. It is best to be away from cottages, away from
children, away as far as may be from chance wanderers. So much easier
is it to speak than to think, that any slightest temptation suffices to
carry away the idler from the harder to the lighter work. An old woman
with a bundle of sticks becomes an agreeable companion, or a little girl
picking wild fruit. Even when quite alone, when all the surroundings
seem to be fitted for thought, the thinker will still find a difficulty
in thinking. It is easy to lose an hour in maundering over the past, and
to waste the good things which have been provided, in remembering
instead of creating!"

The Mission of Fancy

"It is not for rules of construction that the writer is seeking, as he
roams listlessly or walks rapidly through the trees. These have come to
him from much observation, from the writings of others, from that which
we call study, in which imagination has but little immediate concern. It
is the fitting of the rules to the characters which he has created, the
filling in with living touches and true colours those daubs and blotches
on his canvas which have been easily scribbled with a rough hand, that
the true work consists. It is here that he requires that his fancy
should be undisturbed, that the trees should overshadow him, that the
birds should comfort him, that the green and yellow mosses should be in
unison with him, that the very air should be good to him. The rules are
there fixed--fixed as far as his judgment can fix them--and are no
longer a difficulty to him. The first coarse outlines of his story he
has found to be a matter almost indifferent to him. It is with these
little plottings that he has to contend. It is for them that he must
catch his Ariel and bind him fast, and yet so bind him that not a thread
shall touch the easy action of his wings. Every little scene must be
arranged so that--if it may be possible--the proper words may be spoken,
and the fitting effect produced."

Fancies of another Type

Most authors indulge in little eccentricities when working, and, if the
time should ever come that your name is brought before the public
notice, it would be advisable to develop some whimsical habit so as to
be prepared for the interviewer, who is sure to ask whether you have
one. To push your pen through your hair during creative moments would be
a good plan; it would reveal a line of baldness where you had furrowed
the hair off, and afford ocular proof to all and sundry that you
possessed a genuine eccentricity. Or if you prefer a habit still more
_bizarre_, you might put a hammock in a tree, and always write your most
exciting scenes during a rain-storm, and under the shelter of a dripping

The fact is, every penman has his little peculiarities when at work, but
they should be kept as private property. Of course, there are authors
who revel in publicity, and others again have intimate details wormed
out of them. The fact remains, however, that these details are
interesting, because they are personal; and they are occasionally
helpful, because they enable one writer to compare notes with others. We
have all heard of the methodical habits of Kant. When thinking out his
deep thoughts, he always placed himself so that his eyes might fall on a
certain old tower. This old tower became so necessary to his thoughts,
that when some poplar trees grew up and hid it from his sight, he found
himself unable to think at all, until, at his earnest request, the trees
were cropped and the tower was brought into sight again.

George Eliot was very susceptible as to her surroundings. When about to
write, she dressed herself with great care, and arranged her
harmoniously-furnished room in perfect order.[130:A] Hawthorne had a
habit of cutting some article while composing. He is said to have taken
a garment from his wife's sewing-basket, and cut it into pieces without
being conscious of the act. Thus an entire table and the arms of a
rocking-chair were whittled away in this manner.

Upon Ibsen's writing-table is a small tray containing a number of
grotesque figures--a wooden bear, a tiny devil, two or three cats (one
of them playing a fiddle), and some rabbits. Ibsen has said: "I never
write a single line of any of my dramas without having that tray and its
occupants before me on my table. I could not write without them. But why
I use them is my own secret."

Ouida writes in the early morning. She gets up at five o'clock, and
before she begins, works herself up into a sort of literary trance.
Maurice Jokai always uses violet ink, to which he is so accustomed that
he becomes perplexed when compelled, outside of his own house, to resort
to ink of another colour. He claims that thoughts are not forthcoming
when he writes with any other ink. One of the corners of his
writing-desk holds a miniature library, consisting of neatly-bound
note-books which contain the outline of his novels as they originated in
his mind. When he has once begun a romance, he keeps right on until it
is completed.

Some of our Younger Writers

Mr Zangwill has no particular method of working; he works in spasms.
Regular hours, he says, may be possible to a writer of pure romance, but
if you are writing of the life about you, such regularity is
impossible.[132:A] Coulson Kernahan works in the morning and in the
evening, but never in the afternoon. He always reserves the afternoon
for walking, cycling, and exercise generally. He is unable to work
regularly; some days indeed pass without doing a stroke.[132:B] Anthony
Hope is found at his desk every morning, but if the inspiration does not
come, he never forces himself to write. Sometimes it will come after
waiting several hours, and sometimes it will seem to have come when it
hasn't, which means that next morning he has to tear up what was
written the day before and start afresh.[133:A] Before Robert Barr
publishes a novel he spends years in thinking the thing out. In this way
ten years were spent over "The Mutable Many," and two more years in
writing it.[133:B] When Max Pemberton has a book in the making he just
sits down and writes away at it when in the mood. "I find," he says,
"that I can always work best in the morning. One's brain is fresher and
one's ideas come more readily. If I work at night I find that I have to
undo a great deal of it in the morning. In working late at night I have
done so under the impression that I have accomplished some really fine
work, only to rise in the morning and, after looking at it, feel that
one ought to shed tears over such stuff."[133:C] H. G. Wells, as might
be expected, has a way of his own. "In the morning I merely revise
proofs and type-written copy, and write letters, and, in fact, any work
that does not require the exercise of much imagination. If it is fine, I
either have a walk or a ride on the cycle. We also have a tandem, and
sometimes my wife and I take the double machine out; and then after
lunch we have tea about half-past three in the afternoon. It is after
this cup of tea that I do my work. The afternoon is the best time of the
day for me, and I nearly always work on until eight o'clock, when we
have dinner. If I am working at something in which I feel keenly
interested, I work on from nine o'clock until after midnight, but it is
on the afternoon work that my output mainly depends."[134:A]

Curious Methods

In another interview Mr Wells said, "I write and re-write. If you want
to get an effect, it seems to me that the first thing you have to do is
to write the thing down as it comes into your mind" ("slush," Mr Wells
calls it), "and so get some idea of the shape of it. In this preliminary
process, no doubt, one can write a good many thousand words a day,
perhaps seven or eight thousand. But when all that is finished, it will
take you seven or eight solid days to pick it to pieces again, and knock
it straight.

"The 'slush' effort of 'The Invisible Man' came to more than 100,000
words; the final outcome of it amounts to 55,000. My first tendency was
to make it much shorter still.

"I used to feel a great deal ashamed of this method. I thought it simply
showed incapacity, and inability to hit the right nail on the head. The
process is like this:

     "(1) Worry and confusion.

     "(2) Testing the idea, and trying to settle the question. Is
     the idea any good?

     "(3) Throwing the idea away; getting another; finally
     returning, perhaps, to the first.

     "(4) The next thing is possibly a bad start.

     "(5) Grappling with the idea with the feeling that it has to
     be done.

     "(6) Then the slush work, which I've already described.

     "(7) Reading this over, and taking out what you think is
     essential, and re-writing the essential part of it.

     "(8) After it has been type-written, you cut it about, so that
     it has to be re-typed.

     "(9) The result of your labour finds its way into print, and
     you take hold of the first opportunity to go over the whole
     thing again."[136:A]

Contrasted with the pleasant humour of the above is the gravity of Ian
Maclaren. "Although the stories I have written may seem very simple,
they are very laboriously done. This kind of short story cannot be done
quickly. There is no plot, no incident, and one has to depend entirely
upon character and slight touches, curiously arranged and bound
together, to produce the effect. . . . Each of the 'Bonnie Brier Bush'
stories went through these processes:--(1) Slowly drafted arrangement;
(2) draft revised before writing; (3) written; (4) manuscript revised;
(5) first proof corrected; (6) revise corrected; (7) having been
published in a periodical, revised for book; (8) first proof corrected;
(9) second proof corrected."[137:A]

       *       *       *       *       *

Enough. These personal notes will teach the novice that every man must
make and follow his own plan of work. Experience is the best guide and
the wisest teacher.


[120:A] Erichsen: "Methods of Authors."

[124:A] "Autobiography," vol. ii.

[130:A] Erichsen: "Methods of Authors."

[132:A] Interview in _The Young Man_, by Percy L. Parker.

[132:B] Interview in _The Young Man_, by A. H. Lawrence.

[133:A] Interview in _The Young Man_, by Sarah A. Tooley.

[133:B] _Ibid._

[133:C] Interview in _The Young Man_, by A. H. Lawrence.

[134:A] Interview in _The Young Man_, by A. H. Lawrence.

[136:A] Interview in _To-Day_, for September 11th, 1897, by A. H.

[137:A] Interview in _The Christian Commonwealth_ for September 24th,



The Question Stated

This is the way in which the question is most often stated, but the real
question is more intelligently expressed by asking: Has the novel, as a
form of literature, become obsolete? or is it likely to be obsolete in
the near future? To many people the matter is dismissed with a
contemptuous _Pshaw!_; others think it worthy of serious inquiry, and a
few with practical minds say they don't care whether it is or not. Seven
years ago Mr Frederic Harrison delivered himself of very pessimistic
views as to the present position and prospects of the novelist, and not
long ago Mr A. J. Balfour asserted that in his opinion the art of
fiction had reached its zenith, and was now in its decline. These
critics may be prejudiced in their views, but it is worth while
considering the remarks of the one who has the greater claim to respect
for literary judgment. After exclaiming that we have now no novelist of
the first rank, and substantiating this statement to the best of his
ability, Mr Harrison goes on to inquire into the causes of this decay.
In the first place, we have too high a standard of taste and criticism.
"A highly organised code of culture may give us good manners, but it is
the death of genius." We have lost the true sense of the romantic, and
if "Jane Eyre" were produced to-day it "would not rise above a common
shocker." Secondly, we are too disturbed in political affairs to allow
for the rest that is necessary for literary productiveness. Thirdly,
life is not so dramatic as it was--character is being driven inwards,
and we have lost the picturesque qualities of earlier days.

I am not at present concerned with the truth or error of these
arguments; my object just now is to state the case, and before
proceeding to an examination of its merits I wish to take the testimony
of another writer and thinker, one who is a philosopher quite as much
as the author of "The Foundations of Belief" or the author of "The
Meaning of History," and who has a claim upon our attention as an
investigator of moving causes.

Mr C. H. Pearson, in his notable book, "National Life and Character,"
has made some confident statements on the subject of the exhaustion of
literary products. He is of opinion that "a change in social relations
has made the drama impossible by dwarfing the immediate agency of the
individual," and that "a change in manners has robbed the drama of a
great deal of effect." He goes on to say that "Human nature, various as
it is, is only capable after all of a certain number of emotions and
acts, and these as the topics of an incessant literature are bound after
a time to be exhausted. We may say with absolute certainty that certain
subjects are never to be taken again. The tale of Troy, the wanderings
of Odysseus, the vision of Heaven and Hell as Dante saw it, the theme of
'Paradise Lost,' and the story of Faust are familiar instances. . . .
Effective adaptations of an old subject may still be possible; but it
is not writers of the highest capacity who will attempt them, and the
reading world, which remembers what has been done before, will never
accord more than a secondary recognition to the adaptation" (p. 299).

There is a curious atmosphere of logical conclusiveness about these
arguments. They carry with them, apparently, an air of certainty which
it is useless to question. We know that the novelist has already
exploited Politics, Socialism, History, Theology, Marriage, Education,
and a host of other subjects; indeed, a perusal of Dixon's "Index to
Fiction" is calculated to provoke the inquiry: "Is there anything left
to write about?" We know that everywhere is springing up the "literature
of locality," and it would seem as if the resources of this world's
experience had been exhausted when writers like Mr H. G. Wells and the
late George Du Maurier invade the planet Mars for fresh material. The
heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth have
all been "written up." Is there anything new?

"Change" not "Exhaustion"

There can be no doubt that fiction has undergone great changes during
recent years. These changes are the result of deeper changes in our
common life. Consider for a moment the position of the drama. What is
the significance of the problem play on the one hand, and the cry for a
"Static Theatre" on the other hand? It means that life has changed, and
is still changing; that the national character is not so emphatically
external or spontaneous as in those days when Ben Jonson killed two men,
and Marlowe himself was killed in a brawl. We have lost the passion, the
force, and the brutality of those times, and have become more
contemplative and analytical. The simple law is this: that literature
and the drama are a reflex of life; hence, when character has a tendency
to be driven inwards, as is the case to-day, Maeterlinck pleads on
behalf of a drama without action; and Paul Bourget in France and Henry
James in England embody the spirit of the age in the fiction of
psychological minutiæ. Now there may be symptoms of decay in these
manifestations of literary impulse, but the impulse is part of that new
experience which the facts of an increasingly complex civilisation foist
upon us. And, further, _change_ is not necessarily _exhaustion_; in
fact, it is more than surprising that anyone can believe all the stories
possible have been told already, or have been told in the most
interesting way. It is a very ancient cry--this cry about exhaustion.
The old Hebrew writer wailed something about wanting to meet with a man
who could show him a new thing. A new thing? "There is no new thing
under the Sun." But we have found a few since those days, and the future
will give birth to as many more.

Men and women have written about love from time immemorial, but have we
finished with the theme? Is it exhausted? Did Homer satisfy our love of
recorded adventure once and for all? There is only one answer--namely,
that human experience is infinite in its possibilities and its capacity
for renewal. If human experience--these vague and subtle emotions,
these violently real but inscrutable feelings, these tremulous
questionings of existence encompassed with mystery--if human experience
were no more than a hard and dry scientific fact, well, our novelists
would have a poor time of it. But life knows no finality; its stream
flows on in perennial flood. Human nature is said to be much the same
the world over, and yet every personality is absolutely a new thing.
Goethe might attempt a rough classification by saying we are either
Platonists or Aristotelians, but actually a great many of us are neither
one nor the other, and there are infinities of degrees amongst us even
then. New character is a necessary outcome of the advancing centuries,
and new personalities are being born every day.

No; the world still loves a story, and there are stories which have
never been told. It is, perhaps, true, that the story-tellers have not
found them yet. Why?

Why we talk about Exhaustion

The answer is: We are becoming too artificial; we are losing
spontaneity, and are getting too far away from the soil. Have we not
noticed over and over again that the first book of a novelist is his
best? Those which followed are called "good," but they sell because the
author is the author of the first book which created a sensation.

Speaking of the first work of a young writer, Anthony Trollope says: "He
sits down and tells his story because he has a story to tell; as you, my
friend, when you have heard something which has at once tickled your
fancy or moved your pathos, will hurry to tell it to the first person
you meet. But when that first novel has been received graciously by the
public, and has made for itself a success, then the writer, naturally
feeling that the writing of novels is within his grasp, looks about for
something to tell in another. He cudgels his brains, not always
successfully, and sits down to write, not because he has something
which he burns to tell, but because he feels it to be incumbent on him
to be telling something. . . . So it has been with many novelists, who,
after some good work, perhaps after much good work, have distressed
their audience because they have gone on with their work till their work
has become simply a trade with them."[146:A] There is often a good
reason for such a change. The first book was written in a place near to
Nature's heart; the writer was free from the obligations of society as
found in city life; he was thrown back on his own resources, and
fortunately could not spoil his individual view of things by
multitudinous references to books and authorities. Do we not selfishly
wish that Miss Olive Schreiner had never left the veldt, in the
loneliness of which she produced "The Story of an African Farm"? Nearer
contact with civilisation has failed to induce an impulse the result of
which is at all comparable with this genuine story. It may or may not
be of significance that Mr Wells, the creator of a distinct type of
romance, dislikes what is called "Society," but I fancy that a few of
those who lament too frequently that "everything has been said" spend
more time in "Society" and clubs than is possible for good work. Mr C.
H. Pearson, in a notable chapter on "Dangers of Political Development,"
says: "The world at large is just as reverent of greatness, as observant
of a Browning, a Newman, or a Mill, as it ever was; but the world of
Society prefers the small change of available and ephemeral talent to
the wealth of great thoughts, which must always be kept more or less in
reserve. The result seems to be that men, anxious to do great work, find
city life less congenial than they did, and either live away from the
Metropolis, as Darwin and Newman did, or restrict their intercourse, as
Carlyle and George Eliot practically did, to a circle of chosen

In further confirmation of the position I have taken up, let me quote
the testimony of Thomas Hardy as given in an interview. Said the
interviewer--"In reading 'A Group of Noble Dames,' I was struck with
the waste of good material."

"Yes," replied Mr Hardy, "I suppose I was wasteful. But, there! it
doesn't matter, for I have far more material now than I shall ever be
able to use."

"In your note-books?"

"Yes, and in my head. I don't believe in that idea of man's imaginative
powers becoming naturally exhausted; I believe that, if he liked, a man
could go on writing till his physical strength gave out. Most men
exhaust themselves prematurely by something artificial--their manner of
living--Scott and Dickens for example. Victor Hugo, on the other hand,
who was so long in exile, and who necessarily lived a very simple life
during much of his time, was writing as well as ever when he died at a
good old age. So, too, was Carlyle, if we except his philosophy, the
least interesting part of him. The great secret is perhaps for the
writer to be content with the life he was living when he made his first
success. I can do more work here [in Dorsetshire] in six months than in
twelve months in London."[148:A]

These are the convictions of a strong man, one who stands at the head of
English writers of fiction, and therefore one to whom the beginner
especially should listen with respect. A reader of MSS. told me quite
recently that there was a pitiable narrowness of experience in the
productions which were handed to him for valuation; nearly all were cast
in the "city" mould, and showed signs of having been written to say
something rather than because the writers had something to say. Mr Hardy
has put his finger on the weak spot: more stories "come" in the country
stillness than in the city's bustle. Of course, a man can be as much of
a hermit in the heart of London as in the heart of a forest, but how few
can resist the attractions of Society and the temptation to multiply
literary friendships! Besides, it is always a risk to make a permanent
change in that environment which assisted in producing the first
success. Follow Mr Hardy's advice and stay where you are. Stories will
then not be slow to "come" and ideas to "occur"; and the pessimists will
be less ready to utter their laments over the decadence of fiction and
philosophers to argue that the novel will soon become extinct. I cannot
do better than close with the following tempered statement from Mr
Edmund Gosse: "A question which constantly recurs to my mind is this:
Having secured the practical monopoly of literature, what do the
novelists propose to do next? To what use will they put the
unprecedented opportunity thrown in their way? It is quite plain that to
a certain extent the material out of which the English novel has been
constructed is in danger of becoming exhausted. Why do the American
novelists inveigh against plots? Not, we may be sure, through any
inherent tenderness of conscience, as they would have us believe; but
because their eminently sane and somewhat timid natures revolt against
the effort of inventing what is extravagant. But all the obvious plots,
all the stories that are not in some degree extravagant, seem to have
been told already, and for a writer of the temperament of Mr Howells,
there is nothing left but the portraiture of a small portion of the
limitless field of ordinary humdrum existence. So long as this is fresh,
this also may amuse and please; to the practitioners of this kind of
work it seems as though the infinite prairie of life might be surveyed
thus for centuries acre by acre. But that is not possible. A very little
while suffices to show that in this direction also the material is
promptly exhausted. Novelty, freshness, and excitement are to be sought
for at all hazards, and where can they be found? The novelists hope many
things from that happy system of nature which supplies them year by year
with fresh generations of the ingenuous young." In this, however, Mr
Gosse is very doubtful of good results: the fact is, he is too
pessimistic. But in making suggestions as to what kind of novels might
be written he almost gives the lie to his previous opinions. He asks for
novels addressed especially to middle-aged persons, and not to the
ingenuous young, ever interested in love. "It is supposed that to
describe one of the positive employments of life--a business or a
profession for example--would alienate the tender reader, and check that
circulation about which novelists talk as if they were delicate
invalids. But what evidence is there to show that an attention to real
things does frighten away the novel reader. The experiments which have
been made in this country to widen the field of fiction in one
direction, that of religious and moral speculation, have not proved
unfortunate. What was the source of the great popular success of 'John
Inglesant,' and then of 'Robert Elsmere,' if not the intense delight of
readers in being admitted, in a story, to a wider analysis of the
interior workings of the mind than is compatible with the mere record of
billing and cooing of the callow young? . . . All I ask for is a larger
study of life. Have the stress and turmoil of a political career no
charm? Why, if novels of the shop and counting-house be considered
sordid, can our novels not describe the life of a sailor, of a
game-keeper, of a railway porter, of a civil engineer? What capital
central figures for a story would be the whip of a leading hunt, the
foreman of a colliery, the master of a fishing-smack, or a speculator on
the Stock Exchange?"[152:A]

Since these words were written, the novel of politics, for example, has
come to the fore; but does that mean that the subject is exhausted? It
has only been touched upon as yet. There were plenty of dramas before
Shakespeare but there were no Shakespeares; and to-day there are
thousands of novels but how many real novelists? Once again let it be
said that "exhausted subject-matter" is a misnomer; what we wait for is
creative genius.


[146:A] "Autobiography," vol. ii. pp. 45-6. There is no harm in telling
stories as a trade provided the stories are good.

[148:A] Interview in _The Young Man_.

[152:A] "Questions at Issue," _The Tyranny of the Novel_.



Practise the Short Story

The beginner in fiction often asks: Is it not best to prepare for
novel-writing by writing short stories? The question is much to the
point, and merits a careful answer.

First of all, what is the difference between a novel and a short story?
The difference lies in the point of view. The short story generally
deals with one event in one particular life; the novel deals with many
events in several lives, where both characters and action are dominated
by one progressive purpose. To put it another way: the short story is
like a miniature in painting, whilst the novel demands a much larger
canvas. A suggestive paragraph from a review sets forth clearly the
difference referred to: "The smaller your object of artistry, the nicer
should be your touch, the more careful your attention to minutiæ. That,
surely, would seem an axiom. You don't paint a miniature in the broad
strokes that answer for a drop curtain, nor does the weaver of a
pocket-handkerchief give to that fabric the texture of a carpet. But the
usual writer of fiction, when it occurs to him to utilise one of his
second best ideas in the manufacture of a short story, will commonly
bring to his undertaking exactly the same slap-dash methods which he has
found to serve in the construction of his novels. . . . Where he should
have brought a finer method, he has brought a coarser; where he should
have worked goldsmithwise, with tiny chisel, finishing exquisitely, he
has worked blacksmithwise, with sledge hammer and anvil; where, because
the thing is little, every detail counts, he has been slovenly in

It has been said that the novel deals with life from the inside, and
short stories with life from the outside; but this is not so. Guy de
Maupassant's "The Necklace" opens out to us a state of soul just as much
as "Tess" does, even though it may be but a glimpse as compared with the
prolonged exhibition of Mr Hardy's "pure woman."

Returning to the question previously referred to, one may well hesitate
to advise a novice to commence writing short stories which demand such
infinite care in conception and execution. The tendency of young writers
is to verbosity--longwindedness in dialogues, in descriptions, and in
delineations of character,--whereas the chief excellence of the story is
the extent and depth of its suggestions as compared with its brevity in
words. Should not a man perfect himself in the less minute and less
delicate methods of the novel before he attempts the finer art of the
short story?

There is a sound of good logic about all this, but it is not conclusive.
Some men have a natural predilection for the larger canvas and some for
the smaller, so that the final decision cannot be forced upon anyone on
purely abstract grounds; we must first know a writer's native capacity
before advising him what to do. If you feel that literary art on a
minute scale is your _forte_, then follow it enthusiastically, and work
hard; if otherwise, act accordingly.

But, after all, there are certain abstract considerations which lead me
to say that the short story should be practised before the novel. Take
the very material fact of _size_. Have those who object to this
recommendation ever thought of what practising novel-writing means? How
long does it take to make a couple of experiments of 80,000 words each?
A good deal, no doubt, depends on the man himself, but a quick writer
would not do much to satisfy others at the rate of 160,000 words in
twelve months. No, time is too precious for practising works of such
length as these, and since the general principles of fiction apply to
both novel and short story alike, the student cannot do better than
practise his art in the briefer form. Moreover, if he is wise, he will
seek the advice of experts, and (a further base consideration) it will
be cheaper to have 4000 words criticised than a MS. containing 80,000.

Further, the foundation principles of the art of fiction cannot be
learned more effectively, even for the purpose of writing novels, than
in practising short stories. All the points brought forward in the
preceding pages relating to plot, dialogue, proportion, climax, and so
forth, are elements of the latter as well as of the former. If, as has
been said, "windiness" is the chief fault of the beginner, where can he
learn to correct that error more quickly? The art of knowing what to
leave out is important to a novelist; it is more important to the short
story writer; hence, if it be studied on the smaller canvas, it will be
of excellent service when attempting the larger. "The attention to
detail, the obliteration of the unessential, the concentration in
expression, which the form of the short story demands, tends to a
beneficent influence on the style of fiction. No one doubts that many of
the great novelists of the past are somewhat tedious and prolix. The
style of Richardson, Scott, Dumas, Balzac, and Dickens, when they are
not at their strongest and highest, is often slipshod and slovenly; and
such carelessly-worded passages as are everywhere in their works will
scarcely be found in the novels of the future. The writers of short
stories have made clear that the highest literary art knows neither
synonyms, episodes, nor parentheses."[159:A]

Short Story Writers on their Art

I cannot pretend to give more than a few hints as to the best way of
following out the advice laid down in the foregoing paragraphs, and
prefer to let some writers speak for themselves. Of course, it does not
follow that Mr Wedmore can instruct a novice in literary art, simply
because he can write exquisite short stories himself; indeed, it often
happens that such men do not really know how they produce their work;
but Mr Wedmore's article on _The Short Story_ in his volume called
"Books and Arts" is most profitable reading.

Some time ago a symposium appeared in a popular journal,[160:A] on the
subject _How to Write a Short Story_. Mr Robert Barr could be no other
than pithy in his recipe. He says: "It seems to me that a short story
writer should act, metaphorically, like this--he should put his idea for
a story into one cup of a pair of balances, then into the other he
should deal out words--five hundred, a thousand, two thousand, three
thousand, as the case may be--and when the number of words thus paid in
causes the beam to rise on which his idea hangs, then his story is
finished. If he puts a word more or less he is doing false work. . . .
My model is Euclid, whose justly celebrated book of short stories
entitled 'The Elements of Geometry' will live when most of us who are
scribbling to-day are forgotten. Euclid lays down his plot, sets
instantly to work at its development, letting no incident creep in that
does not bear relation to the climax, using no unnecessary word, always
keeping his one end in view, and the moment he reaches the culmination
he stops." Mr Walter Raymond is apologetic. He fences a good deal, and
pleads that the mention of "short story" is dangerous to his mental
sequence, so much and so painfully has he tried to solve the problem of
how one is written. Finally, however, he delivers himself of these
pregnant sentences: "Show us the psychological moment; give us a sniff
of the earth below; a glimpse of the sky above; and you will have
produced a fine story. It need not exceed two thousand words."

The author of "Tales of Mean Streets" says: "The command of form is the
first thing to be cultivated. Let the pupil take a story by a writer
distinguished by the perfection of his workmanship--none could be better
than Guy de Maupassant--and let him consider that story apart from the
book as something happening before his eyes. Let him review mentally
_everything_ that happens--the things that are not written in the story
as well as those that are--and let him review them, not necessarily in
the order in which the story presents them, but in that in which they
would come before an observer in real life. In short, from the fiction
let him construct ordinary, natural, detailed, unselected, unarranged
fact, making notes, if necessary, as he goes. Then let him compare his
raw fact with the words of the master. He will see where the unessential
is rejected; he will see how everything is given its just proportion in
the design; he will perceive that every incident, every sentence, and
every word has its value, its meaning, and its part in the whole."

Mr Morrison's ideas are endorsed by Miss Jane Barlow, Mr G. B. Burgin,
Mr G. M. Fenn, and Mrs L. T. Meade. Mr Joseph Hocking does not seem to
care for the brevity of short story methods. He cites eight lines which
he heard some children sing:

     "Little boy,
      Pair of skates,
      Broken ice,
      Heaven's gates.

      Little girl
      Stole a plum,
      Cholera bad,
      Kingdom come,"

and remarks: "Many of our short stories are constructed on the principle
of these verses. So few words are used, that the reader does not feel he
is reading a story, but an outline." Mr Hocking has the British Public
on his side, no doubt, but the great British Public is not always right,
as he appears to believe.

I think if the reader will study the short stories of Guy de Maupassant
and Mr Frederic Wedmore, and digest the advice given above, he will know
enough to begin his work. Each experiment will enlarge his vision and
discipline his pen, so that when he has accomplished something like
tolerable success, he may safely attempt the larger canvas on the lines
laid down in the preceding chapters.


[155:A] _Daily Chronicle_, June 22, 1899.

[159:A] _The International Monthly_, vol. i.

[160:A] _The Young Man._



The Truth about Success

There are two kinds of success in fiction--commercial and literary; and
sometimes a writer is able to combine the two. Thomas Hardy is an
example of the writer who produces literature and has large sales. On
the other hand, there are many writers who succeed in one direction,
but not in the other. The works of Marie Corelli have an amazing
circulation, but they are not regarded as literature; whereas such
genuine work as that of Mr Quiller Couch has to be content with sales
far less extensive.

Now Thomas Hardy, Marie Corelli, and Quiller Couch have all succeeded,
but in different ways. No doubt the reader would prefer to succeed in
the manner of Hardy, but if he can't do it, he must be content to
succeed in the best way he can. It is easy to talk about Miss Corelli's
"rot" and "bosh" and "high falutin," but long columns of figures in a
publisher's ledger mean something after all. They do not necessarily
mean literary merit, delicate insight, or beautiful characterisation;
they probably mean a keen sense of what the public likes, and a power to
tickle its palate in an agreeable manner. Still, not every man or woman
is able to do this, and although such a success may not rank as one of
the first order, it _is_ a success which nobody can gainsay. Literary
journals have been instituting "inquiries" into the cases of men like Mr
Silas Hocking and the Rev. E. P. Roe: why have they a circulation
numbered by the million? No "inquiry" is needed. They are literary
merchantmen who have studied the book-market thoroughly, and as a result
they know what is wanted and supply it. Let them have their reward
without mean and angry demur.

However one may try to explain the fact, it is none the less true that
genuine literature often fails to pay the expenses of publication; at
any rate, if it accomplishes more than that, it is infinitesimal as
compared with the huge sales of inferior work. I do not know the
circulation of Mr Henry Harland's "Comedies and Errors"--possibly it has
been moderate--but I would rather be the author of this volume of
beautiful workmanship than of all the works of Marie Corelli--the bags
of gold notwithstanding. Of course, this is merely a personal preference
with which the reader may have no sympathy; but the fact remains that,
if a writer produces real literature and it does not sell, he has not
therefore failed in his purpose; he may not receive many cheques from
his publisher, but it is real compensation to have an audience, "fit
though few."

On the general question of literary success, George Henry Lewes says:
"We may lay it down, as a rule, that no work ever succeeded, even for a
day, but it deserved that success; no work ever failed but under
conditions which made failure inevitable. This will seem hard to men who
feel that, in their case, neglect arises from prejudice or stupidity.
Yet it is true even in extreme cases; true even when the work once
neglected has since been acknowledged superior to the works which for a
time eclipsed it. Success, temporary or enduring, is the measure of the
relation, temporary or enduring, which exists between a work and the
public mind."[167:A]

Failure has a still more fruitful cause--namely, the misdirection of
talent. "Men are constantly attempting, without special aptitude, work
for which special aptitude is indispensable.

     'On peut être honnête homme et faire mal des vers.'

A man may be variously accomplished and yet be a feeble poet. He may be
a real poet, yet a feeble dramatist. He may have dramatic faculty, yet
be a feeble novelist. He may be a good story-teller, yet a shallow
thinker and a slip-shod writer. For success in any special kind of work,
it is obvious that a special talent is requisite; but obvious as this
seems, when stated as a general proposition, it rarely serves to check a
mistaken presumption. There are many writers endowed with a certain
susceptibility to the graces and refinements of literature, which has
been fostered by culture till they have mistaken it for native power;
and these men being destitute of native power are forced to imitate what
others have created. They can understand how a man may have musical
sensibility, and yet not be a good singer; but they fail to understand,
at least in their own case, how a man may have literary sensibility, yet
not be a good story-teller or an effective dramatist."[168:A]

The conclusion of the whole matter is this: determine what your
projected work is to do; if you are going to offer it in a popular
market, give the public plenty for its money, and spice it well; if you
are going to offer a sacrifice to the Goddess of Art, be content if you
receive no more applause than that which comes from the few worshippers
who surround the sacred shrine.


[167:A] "The Principles of Success in Literature," p. 10.

[168:A] "The Principles of Success in Literature," p. 7.


Minor Conditions of Success

1. Good literature has the same value in manuscript as in typescript,
but from the standpoint of author and publisher, it can hardly be said
to have the same chances. Penmanship does not tend to improve, and some
of the scrawly MSS. sent in to publishers are enough to create dismay in
the stoutest heart. It is pure affectation to pretend to be above such
small matters. Just as a dinner is all the more appetising because it is
neatly and daintily served, so a _MS._ has better chances of being read
and appreciated when set out in type-written characters.

2. Be sure that you are sending your _MS._ to the right publisher.
Novels with a strongly developed moral purpose are not exactly the kind
of thing wanted by Mr Heinemann; and if you have anything like "The
Woman Who Did," don't send it to a Sunday School Publishing Company.
These suppositions are no doubt absurd in the extreme, but they will
serve my purpose in pointing out the careless way in which many
beginners dispose of their wares. Nearly all publishers specialise in
some kind of literature, and it is the novelist's duty to study these
types from publishers' catalogues, providing, of course, he does not
know them already. The commercial instinct is proverbially lacking in
authors; if it were not we should witness less frequently the spectacle
of portly MSS. being sent out haphazard to publisher after publisher.

3. Perhaps my third point ought to have come first. It relates to the
obtaining of an expert's views on the matter and form of your story.
This will cost you a guinea, perhaps more, but it will save your time
and hasten the possibilities of success. You can easily spend a guinea
in postage and two or three more in having the MS. re-typed,--and yet
the tale be ever the same--"Declined with thanks." Spare yourself many
disappointments by putting your literary efforts before a competent
critic, and let him point out the crudities, the digressions, and those
weaknesses which betray the 'prentice hand. It will not be pleasant to
see a pen line through your "glorious" passages, or two blue pencil
marks across a favourite piece of dialogue, but it is better to know
your defects at once than to discover them by painful and constant

4. Be willing to learn; have no fear of hard work; do the best, and
write the best that is in you; and never ape anybody, but be yourself.





Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an
examination I once made of the mechanism of "Barnaby Rudge," says--"By
the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his 'Caleb Williams' backwards?
He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second
volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of
accounting for what had been done."

I cannot think this the _precise_ mode of procedure on the part of
Godwin--and indeed what he himself acknowledges, is not altogether in
accordance with Mr. Dickens' idea--but the author of "Caleb Williams"
was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at
least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every
plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its _dénouement_ before
anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the _dénouement_
constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of
consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the
tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a
story. Either history affords a thesis--or one is suggested by an
incident of the day--or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the
combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his
narrative--designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue,
or authorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from
page to page, render themselves apparent.

I prefer commencing with the consideration of an _effect_. Keeping
originality _always_ in view--for he is false to himself who ventures to
dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of
interest--I say to myself, in the first place, "Of the innumerable
effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more
generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present
occasion, select?" Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid
effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or
tone--whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse,
or by peculiarity both of incident and tone--afterward looking about me
(or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall
best aid me in the construction of the effect.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written
by any author who would--that is to say, who could--detail, step by
step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its
ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to
the world, I am much at a loss to say--but, perhaps, the authorial
vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause.
Most writers--poets in especial--prefer having it understood that they
compose by a species of fine frenzy--an ecstatic intuition--and would
positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes,
at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought--at the true
purposes seized only at the last moment--at the innumerable glimpses of
idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view--at the fully matured
fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable--at the cautious selections
and rejections--at the painful erasures and interpolations--in a word,
at the wheels and pinions--the tackle for scene-shifting--the
stepladders, and demon-traps--the cock's feathers, the red paint and the
black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred,
constitute the properties of the literary _histrio_.

I am aware, on the other hand, that the case is by no means common, in
which an author is at all in condition to retrace the steps by which his
conclusions have been attained. In general, suggestions, having arisen
pell-mell, are pursued and forgotten in a similar manner.

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to,
nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the
progressive steps of any of my compositions; and, since the interest of
an analysis, or reconstruction, such as I have considered a
_desideratum_, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in
the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on
my part to show the _modus operandi_ by which some one of my own works
was put together. I select "The Raven" as most generally known. It is my
design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is
referable either to accident or intuition--that the work proceeded, step
by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a
mathematical problem.

Let us dismiss, as irrelevant to the poem, _per se_, the
circumstance--or say the necessity--which, in the first place, gave rise
to the intention of composing _a_ poem that should suit at once the
popular and the critical taste.

We commence, then, with this intention.

The initial consideration was that of extent. If any literary work is
too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with
the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression--for,
if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and
everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, _cæteris
paribus_, no poet can afford to dispense with _anything_ that may
advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in
extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends
it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely
a succession of brief ones--that is to say, of brief poetical effects.
It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such, only inasmuch as it
intensely excites, by elevating, the soul; and all intense excitements
are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least one
half of the "Paradise Lost" is essentially prose--a succession of
poetical excitements interspersed, _inevitably_, with corresponding
depressions--the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its
length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity, of

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards
length, to all works of literary art--the limit of a single sitting--and
that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as
"Robinson Crusoe" (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously
overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this
limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to
its merit--in other words, to the excitement or elevation--again, in
other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is
capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct
ratio of the intensity of the intended effect:--this, with one
proviso--that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for
the production of any effect at all.

Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of
excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the
critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper _length_
for my intended poem--a length of about one hundred lines. It is, in
fact, a hundred and eight.

My next thought concerned the choice of an impression, or effect, to be
conveyed; and here I may as well observe that, throughout the
construction I kept steadily in view the design of rendering the work
_universally_ appreciable. I should be carried too far out of my
immediate topic were I to demonstrate a point upon which I have
repeatedly insisted, and which, with the poetical, stands not in the
slightest need of demonstration--the point, I mean, that Beauty is the
sole legitimate province of the poem. A few words, however, in
elucidation of my real meaning, which some of my friends have evinced a
disposition to misrepresent. That pleasure which is at once the most
intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in
the contemplation of the beautiful. When, indeed, men speak of Beauty,
they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect--they
refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of
_soul_--_not_ of intellect, or of heart--upon which I have commented,
and which is experienced in consequence of contemplating "the
beautiful." Now I designate Beauty as the province of the poem, merely
because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to
spring from direct causes--that objects should be attained through means
best adapted for their attainment--no one as yet having been weak enough
to deny that the peculiar elevation alluded to, is _most readily_
attained in the poem. Now the object Truth, or the satisfaction of the
intellect, and the object Passion, or the excitement of the heart, are,
although attainable, to a certain extent, in poetry, far more readily
attainable in prose. Truth, in fact, demands a precision, and Passion a
_homeliness_ (the truly passionate will comprehend me) which are
absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty which, I maintain, is the
excitement, or pleasurable elevation, of the soul. It by no means
follows from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be
introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem--for they may
serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in
music, by contrast--but the true artist will always contrive, first, to
tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim; and,
secondly, to enveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is
the atmosphere and the essence of the poem.

Regarding, then, Beauty as my province, my next question referred to the
_tone_ of its highest manifestation--and all experience has shown that
this tone is one of _sadness_. Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme
development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy
is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.

The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook
myself to ordinary induction, with the view of obtaining some artistic
piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the
poem--some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn. In
carefully thinking over all the usual artistic effects--or more properly
_points_, in the theatrical sense--I did not fail to perceive
immediately that no one had been so universally employed as that of the
_refrain_. The universality of its employment sufficed to assure me of
its intrinsic value, and spared me the necessity of submitting it to
analysis. I considered it, however, with regard to its susceptibility of
improvement, and soon saw it to be in a primitive condition. As commonly
used, the _refrain_, or burden, not only is limited to lyric verse, but
depends for its impression upon the force of monotone--both in sound and
thought. The pleasure is deduced solely from the sense of identity--of
repetition. I resolved to diversify, and so heighten, the effect, by
adhering, in general, to the monotone of sound, while I continually
varied that of thought: that is to say, I determined to produce
continuously novel effects, by the variation _of the application_ of the
_refrain_--the _refrain_ itself remaining, for the most part, unvaried.

These points being settled, I next bethought me of the _nature_ of my
_refrain_. Since its application was to be repeatedly varied, it was
clear that the _refrain_ itself must be brief, for there would have been
an insurmountable difficulty in frequent variations of application in
any sentence of length. In proportion to the brevity of the sentence,
would, of course, be the facility of the variation. This led me at once
to a single word as the best _refrain_.

The question now arose as to the _character_ of the word. Having made up
my mind to a _refrain_, the division of the poem into stanzas was, of
course, a corollary: the _refrain_ forming the close to each stanza.
That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of
protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations
inevitably led me to the long _o_ as the most sonorous vowel, in
connection with _r_ as the most producible consonant.

The sound of the _refrain_ being thus determined, it became necessary to
select a word embodying this sound, and at the same time in the fullest
possible keeping with that melancholy which I had pre-determined as the
tone of the poem. In such a search it would have been absolutely
impossible to overlook the word "Nevermore." In fact, it was the very
first which presented itself.

The next _desideratum_ was a pretext for the continuous use of the one
word "nevermore." In observing the difficulty which I at once found in
inventing a sufficiently plausible reason for its continuous repetition,
I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the
pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously
spoken by _a human_ being--I did not fail to perceive, in short, that
the difficulty lay in the reconciliation of this monotony with the
exercise of reason on the part of the creature repeating the word. Here,
then, immediately arose the idea of a _non_-reasoning creature capable
of speech; and, very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance,
suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally
capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended

I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven--the bird of ill
omen--monotonously repeating the one word, "Nevermore," at the
conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone, and in length
about one hundred lines. Now, never losing sight of the object
_supremeness_, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself--"Of all
melancholy topics, what, according to the _universal_ understanding of
mankind, is the _most_ melancholy?" Death--was the obvious reply. "And
when," I said, "is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?" From
what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is
obvious--"When it most closely allies itself to _Beauty_: the death,
then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic
in the world--and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited
for such topic are those of a bereaved lover."

I had now to combine the two ideas, of a lover lamenting his deceased
mistress and a Raven continuously repeating the word "Nevermore."--I had
to combine these, bearing in mind my design of varying, at every turn,
the _application_ of the word repeated; but the only intelligible mode
of such combination is that of imagining the Raven employing the word in
answer to the queries of the lover. And here it was that I saw at once
the opportunity afforded for the effect on which I had been
depending--that is to say, the effect of the _variation of
application_. I saw that I could make the first query propounded by the
lover--the first query to which the Raven should reply "Nevermore"--that
I could make this first query a commonplace one--the second less so--the
third still less, and so on--until at length the lover, startled from
his original _nonchalance_ by the melancholy character of the word
itself--by its frequent repetition--and by a consideration of the
ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it--is at length excited to
superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different
character--queries whose solution he has passionately at
heart--propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of
despair which delights in self-torture--propounds them not altogether
because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird
(which, reason assures him, is merely repeating a lesson learned by
rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling
his question as to receive from the _expected_ "Nevermore" the most
delicious because the most intolerable of sorrow. Perceiving the
opportunity thus afforded me--or, more strictly, thus forced upon me in
the progress of the construction--I first established in mind the
climax, or concluding query--that query to which "Nevermore" should be
in the last place an answer--that query in reply to which this word
"Nevermore" should involve the utmost conceivable amount of sorrow and

Here then the poem may be said to have its beginning--at the end, where
all works of art should begin--for it was here, at this point of my
pre-considerations, that I first put pen to paper in the composition of
the stanza:

     "'Prophet!' said I, 'thing of evil! prophet still, if bird or
      By that heaven that bends above us--by that God we both adore,
      Tell this soul with sorrow laden, if, within the distant Aidenn,
      It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
      Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore?'
                      Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'"

I composed this stanza, at this point, first that, by establishing the
climax, I might the better vary and graduate, as regards seriousness
and importance, the preceding queries of the lover--and, secondly, that
I might definitely settle the rhythm, the metre, and the length and
general arrangement of the stanza--as well as graduate the stanzas which
were to precede, so that none of them might surpass this in rhythmical
effect. Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct
more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely
enfeebled them, so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.

And here I may as well say a few words of the versification. My first
object (as usual) was originality. The extent to which this has been
neglected, in versification, is one of the most unaccountable things in
the world. Admitting that there is little possibility of variety in mere
_rhythm_, it is still clear that the possible varieties of metre and
stanza are absolutely infinite--and yet, _for centuries, no man, in
verse, has ever done, or ever seemed to think of doing, an original
thing_. The fact is, that originality (unless in minds of very unusual
force) is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or
intuition. In general, to be found, it must be elaborately sought, and
although a positive merit of the highest class, demands in its
attainment less of invention than negation.

Of course, I pretend to no originality in either the rhythm or metre of
the "Raven." The former is trochaic--the latter is octameter
acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic repeated in the
_refrain_ of the fifth verse, and terminating with tetrameter
catalectic. Less pedantically--the feet employed throughout (trochees)
consist of a long syllable followed by a short: the first line of the
stanza consists of eight of these feet--the second of seven and a half
(in effect two-thirds)--the third of eight--the fourth of seven and a
half--the fifth the same--the sixth three and a half. Now, each of these
lines, taken individually, has been employed before, and what
originality the "Raven" has, is in their _combination into stanza_;
nothing even remotely approaching this combination has ever been
attempted. The effect of this originality of combination is aided by
other unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an
extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the
lover and the Raven--and the first branch of this consideration was the
_locale_. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a
forest, or the fields--but it has always appeared to me that a close
_circumscription of space_ is absolutely necessary to the effect of
insulated incident:--it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an
indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of
course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

I determined, then, to place the lover in his chamber--in a chamber
rendered sacred to him by memories of her who had frequented it. The
room is represented as richly furnished--this in mere pursuance of the
ideas I have already explained on the subject of Beauty, as the sole
true poetical thesis.

The _locale_ being thus determined, I had now to introduce the bird--and
the thought of introducing him through the window, was inevitable. The
idea of making the lover suppose, in the first instance, that the
flapping of the wings of the bird against the shutter, is a "tapping" at
the door, originated in a wish to increase, by prolonging, the reader's
curiosity, and in a desire to admit the incidental effect arising from
the lover's throwing open the door, finding all dark, and thence
adopting the half-fancy that it was the spirit of his mistress that

I made the night tempestuous, first, to account for the Raven's seeking
admission, and secondly, for the effect of contrast with the (physical)
serenity within the chamber.

I made the bird alight on the bust of Pallas, also for the effect of
contrast between the marble and the plumage--it being understood that
the bust was absolutely _suggested_ by the bird--the bust of _Pallas_
being chosen, first, as most in keeping with the scholarship of the
lover, and, secondly, for the sonorousness of the word, Pallas, itself.

About the middle of the poem, also, I have availed myself of the force
of contrast, with a view of deepening the ultimate impression. For
example, an air of the fantastic--approaching as nearly to the ludicrous
as was admissible--is given to the Raven's entrance. He comes in "with
many a flirt and flutter."

     "Not the _least obeisance made he_--not a moment stopped or stayed
      _But, with mien of lord or lady_, perched above my chamber door."

In the two stanzas which follow, the design is more obviously carried

     "Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling
      By the _grace and stern decorum of the countenance it wore_,
      'Though thy _crest be shorn and shaven_, thou,' I said, 'art sure
            no craven,
      Ghastly, grim, and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore--
      Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore?'
                      Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore.'

      Much I marvelled _this ungainly fowl_ to hear discourse so plainly,
      Though its answer little meaning--little relevancy bore;
      For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
      _Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door--
      Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door_,
                      With such name as 'Nevermore.'"

The effect of the _dénouement_ being thus provided for, I immediately
drop the fantastic for a tone of the most profound seriousness:--this
tone commencing in the stanza directly following the one last quoted,
with the line,

     "But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only,"

From this epoch the lover no longer jests--no longer sees any thing even
of the fantastic in the Raven's demeanour. He speaks of him as a "grim,
ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore," and feels the
"fiery eyes" burning into his "bosom's core." This revolution of
thought, or fancy, on the lover's part, is intended to induce a similar
one on the part of the reader--to bring the mind into a proper frame for
the _dénouement_--which is now brought about as rapidly and as
_directly_ as possible.

With the _dénouement_ proper--with the Raven's reply, "Nevermore," to
the lover's final demand if he shall meet his mistress in another
world--the poem, in its obvious phase, that of a simple narrative, may
be said to have its completion. So far, every thing is within the limits
of the accountable--of the real. A raven, having learned by rote the
single word "Nevermore," and having escaped from the custody of its
owner, is driven at midnight, through the violence of a storm, to seek
admission at a window from which a light still gleams--the
chamber-window of a student, occupied half in poring over a volume, half
in dreaming of a beloved mistress deceased. The casement being thrown
open at the fluttering of the bird's wings, the bird itself perches on
the most convenient seat out of the immediate reach of the student, who,
amused by the incident and the oddity of the visitor's demeanour,
demands of it, in jest, and without looking for a reply, its name. The
raven addressed, answers with its customary word, "Nevermore"--a word
which finds immediate echo in the melancholy heart of the student, who,
giving utterance aloud to certain thoughts suggested by the occasion, is
again startled by the fowl's repetition of "Nevermore." The student now
guesses the state of the case, but is impelled, as I have before
explained, by the human thirst for self-torture, and in part by
superstition, to propound such queries to the bird as will bring him,
the lover, the most of the luxury of sorrow, through the anticipated
answer "Nevermore." With the indulgence, to the extreme, of this
self-torture, the narration, in what I have termed its first or obvious
phase, has a natural termination, and so far there has been no
overstepping of the limits of the real.

But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an
array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness,
which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably
required--first, some amount of complexity, or more properly,
adaptation; and, secondly, some amount of suggestiveness--some
under-current, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in
especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that _richness_ (to
borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of
confounding with _the ideal_. It is the _excess_ of the suggested
meaning--it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current
of the theme--which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest
kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.

Holding these opinions, I added the two concluding stanzas of the
poem--their suggestiveness being thus made to pervade all the narrative
which has preceded them. The under-current of meaning is rendered first
apparent in the lines--

     "'Take thy beak from out _my heart_, and take thy form from off my
                     Quoth the Raven, 'Nevermore!'"

It will be observed that the words, "from out my heart," involve the
first metaphorical expression in the poem. They, with the answer
"Nevermore," dispose the mind to seek a moral in all that has been
previously narrated. The reader begins now to regard the Raven as
emblematical--but it is not until the very last line of the very last
stanza, that the intention of making him emblematical of _Mournful and
Never-ending Remembrance_ is permitted distinctly to be seen:--

     "And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
      On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;
      And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
      And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the
      And my soul _from out that shadow_ that lies floating on the floor
                      Shall be lifted--nevermore!"


[175:1] I do not hold myself responsible for Poe's literary judgments:
my purpose in reproducing this essay is to reveal Poe's _methods_.



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p. 125.



The word "manoevring" has an oe ligature in the original.

The following corrections have been made to the text:

     Page 77: says Mr W. M. Hunt.[original has comma]

     Page 87: If you know your characters[original has

     Page 101: and "risk" the reader's acuteness,[original has

     Page 113: in a way quite different to[illegible in the
     original] everybody else

     Page 126: for which, indeed, the spot[illegible in the
     original--confirmed in other sources] is most fit

     Page 202: 9. "Criticism and Fiction."[quotation mark missing
     in original] By W. D. Howells.

     [120:A] Erichsen: "Methods of Authors.[period missing in

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