The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction
BY HARRY STEPHEN KEELER
PART ITHE MECHANICS OF IT
To understand how to build stories of either complex or simple plots, one must have a thorough knowledge of the elements of which plot is composed. You may marvel at the giant locomotive which carries a heavy train of cars over the Great Divide, but until you learn to know at least that the two chief components of that locomotive are the piston against which the steam is exerting actual pressure, and the connecting rod and driving wheel through which alternate thrusts of horizontal pressure are transmuted into rotary, then linear motion, you are not going to be able to duplicate even Stephenson's clumsy and insectivorous-looking Rocket engine of 1850.
Since the field of plot has been for many years a terra incognita, and is, in fact, today, judging from the discussions which take place in writers' clubs over the country: since plot itself, therefore, is a bugaboo to many thousands of writers, the first thing I shall attempt to do is to define itand I shall be so radical as to give my own definition. With that, I shall endeavor to separate plot into several easily understood and grasped components; and to show that these components enter definitely into atmospheric, thematic, or character stories, as well as mystery yarns. And for those readers who yet may not feel absolutely clear on the subject, I shall present a considerable number of actual geometrical diagrams picturing the 15 elemental combinations of which the most complex plots are only collocations.
With the presentation of these elemental plot diagrams, I shall give a more complex diagram covering two pages of this magazinethe graphic picture of a full booklength mystery novel, in which the "art" of the novel, if such exists, will be ignored, and the "construction" instead will be analyzed from its first situation to its last.
The analysis of this particular story. however, will bring out points that I can say, from my own experience and observation, are true of all complicated "web-work" stories, no matter from whose pen.
The selection of the novel for analysis will be guided by several diverse considerations. There are, as you know, certain elements that while admitting a story to the book market keep it out of the magazine marketor, while allowing it to pass the test of American tastes make it fail to comply with British tastes, or vice versa. Or, while passing all these tests, it may yet fail in the syndication field requiring peculiarly short choppy daily installments. Because of the suggestion, therefore, of the publisher of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST that my own current novel, "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows," published by E. P. Dutton & Company, has also had book publication in Great Britain via Hutchinson & Company, has had magazine publication once in Great Britain and twice on this side, and has been contracted for by the Bell Syndicate for newspaper serialization later, thus passing the tests of three publishing fields and satisfying two sets of national tastes, I shall take this novel as a subject for dissection and graphic picturization. Having a certain modicum of modesty I would prefer to analyze some other writer's novel, but I am actually limited in my choice by two factors quite other than that advanced by the publisher of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST: one, that I might violate the copyright laws by giving the full story and construction of another man's literary property; and two, that I am, fortunately, supplied with my original notes and diagrams which show how this story was actually built upliterally out of nothing.
This series is primarily for those who aspire to the novelette and the serial. Note: I do not limit its application to the mystery novelette or serial, as the principles given here apply to all stories, long and short, of which the mystery serial is only a variation. As to short-stories, I wish to say that I have myself devised and sold many short-stories that consisted of small quadrangular web-work plots, and have, in my capacity of short-story editor, accepted and bought many such. And sobut in the speaking of "quadrangular web-work plots" it appears that we are already getting into a terminology without having even yet defined our subject; so back we'll go to our statement that we will define plot.
Just what is it?
I MENTIONED in the foregoing that I intended to give my own definitionwhich is one more added to a considerable number. Plot has been defined elsewhere as "a problem and its solution""a series of incidents comprising a story""that which makes suspense"-"the story so moulded as to gain for the author the emotional response he desires"etc. The second definition was offered by no less a person than Noah Webster, but with all due regard to this gentleman, whose one novel contained all the words in the English language, I am going to say that he never attempted to sell a story to Street & Smith, or to serialize his dictionary in the newspapers, else he would not have found himself content with this sketchy definition.
I, on the other hand, do not know anything about the difficulties of the lexicographer or the science of etymology, but unlike Mr. Webster I have had to cope for fourteen years with the problem of making plots that would sell, and the last twelve years of this have been devoted exclusively to the production of the serial story of from 40,000 to 160,000 words. Not alone this, but I have also faced the question from the other side of the editorial door. That is to say, as the editor himself I read for many months the manuscripts of plot-novels as submitted to a magazine which had unlimited capital and whose rate, openly advertised, was one calculated to give it early access to the production of writers, small and big; and, queerly enough, I was, all during this time and for many years additional, again as editor, reading submitted serials on a publication whose low rate essentially dictated: that the stories thus secured would be in one or more ways defective stories. As editor, I grew acutely conscious of certain defects, particularly when I saw them repeated again and again from different pens, but the publisher's theory in this case was that his particular coterie of readers was not of a sufficiently technical mind in a literary sense to perceive them. Thus, with a personal production of a good many million words, and a reading of a good many million more, good, bad, and indifferent, I take the liberty for the first time of setting forth that which I have found plot clearly and indubitably to be:
Plot, I offer, is the chronological and spatial relationship between a number of incidents which are themselves reactions (sociological, medical, legal, economic, etc.) between characters or characters and inanimate objects, that shall permit, by its intersection with a particular character or set of characters, a story, through the minor and major crises, complications, denouement, climax, etc., thereby produced.
This is a little comprehensive to keep in mind; so let us simplify it into something which we can clearly visualize.
By allowing "chronological and spatial relationship" to ride as "relationship"; letting "incidents" presuppose themselves as happening between people, or between people and things; assuming also that incidents necessarily are reactions in the thousands of fields in which humankind contacts; and allowing the minor and major crises, complications, denouement, etc., in a character's life to be considered simply as "drama," we may reduce our foregoing definition to:
You will now note that we have led off with a distinct differentiation between a "plot" and a "story." Later on, by means of diagrams, we shall visualize this difference in such a way that, ever after, mere words only in treating such a subject as plot will seem as a sort of philandering with one's thesis!
If, reverting to the analogy touched upon in the opening paragraph of this series, we are to compare plot to a steam engine, it must be possible to take it apart and analyze it into some simpler components, so that we may say that, just as an engine is composed of bolts, nuts, gears, cylinders, cams, wheels, etc., so too is all plot made up of a certain number of basic relationships simply joined together in unlimited combinations.
But before doing that, we must follow our analogy of the steam engine and survey plot as to its two main aspects: force and direction. For there must be force involved, since plot, if concurring with the definition rendered under Chapter II, evidently has two abilities, to create a story and make it move, and to direct the course of that story. We f eel this, we sense it, even those of us who may be unable to define technically what a "story" is. And this division of plot into two aspectsthe Chinese would term these "aspects" feng-shuiis duly authorized for us by the fact that a steam engine's operation, too, can be considered scientifically and logically under two basic heads-force and movement (direction). Indeed, the title of this article was dictated by the fact that the entire field of mechanics, steel and concrete construction, and electro-dynamics, etc., has been divided for years into the study of each of these fields separately, i.e., Mechanics, the study of forces; and Kinematics, the study of spatial movements only. Explicating further, Mechanics is the study of steam pressures, tensile strengths, voltages, etc.; while Kinematics is the study of the application of these forces in various directions or various frequencies, with no reference whatsoever as to how much actual force is under consideration.
So, just as when you give a playful push to a child's kiddy-car, sending it rolling this way or that, if plot too is to make something roll, i. e., to create a moving story, we may put down as an axiom that it must function:
That is, we are interested in an incident both (a) as to the degree with which a character was urged to help create the incident or to become an unwilling participant in it, or to do something as a result of having been in it, and (b) why he was urged (or hopelessly impelled) to take part in this incident instead of some other; and why, as a result of it, he is urged to take part in a still further incident.
And now to consider only the "force" element of plot, or that which. as we have specified, causes an incident to be.
THE force element of plot is derived wholly from our old friend motivation, to which must be added all our natural laws and physical phenomena. In a moment I am going to discuss that last term, just sufficiently to indicate how it, too, for the academically minded, may be considered as "motivation." And as a very hasty and passing example of what I mean by tying up natural laws with motivation, I will offer the following: So that a young man and a young woman desiring to go picnicking on a cloudy day may emanate from said picnicking very bedraggled, there must be added to their picnicking desires, for the production of this eventuality, the known proclivity of clouds to precipitate moisture.
But now to consider motivation solely.
Motivation, as you know, has really two quite distinct angles, i. e., motiving and motivating. In constructing stories we do not always definitely stand and ponder, differentiating between these two things; for the mind works rapidly and unconsciously, from one to the other. But in complicated plots, the two processes come in very widely, and the plot-constructor often becomes blocked long enough at a particular point in a piece of plot-construction so that he becomes keenly conscious that these two factors exist as separate and discrete things from one another. For the younger element of writers now reading this journal, who do not appreciate the difference between these two dynamic actions, I will say that:
Now a bulging drawerful of notes on the technique of plot construction, collected over ten years, warns me that a full tomea two-volume workcould be constructed dealing with the various points that are to be taken up in the course of this series in THE AUTHOR & JOURNALISTand I could easily devote a full chapter to each and every point and then not say, perhaps, all that could be said. It must be, therefore, that in this series I can in most instances render you only a single, but clear, example of each technical point touched upon. At times my examples may be melodramatic, farcical, or even fantastic; but they will be invented solely for the purpose of conveying one point and no other.
The laws of motiving and motivating, into which we'll delve presently to get a clear picture, are constant throughout time, whether the story is laid in Rome in 100 A. D. or in New York in 1928, only where they involve solely
Motiving and motivating are changing phenomena when they involve
As an example of (a) : An old Roman satirist, Martial, who lived in the first century A. D. wrote, perhaps of one of his girl friends:
Evidently, any motiving or motivating hinging upon woman desiring to beautify herself is equally acceptable in a Roman story told in Latin, or a flapper story appearing today in College Humor.
As an example of (b) : If you have disappeared from your farm, and I, your friend, find your footsteps on the edge of your well, it is natural that I look downward, not up at the clouds for you, for objects fell downward before even Newton "discovered" gravity. And if furthermore somebody creeps up on me and knocks me on the head while I am peering down in that dark aperture, my own mischance is conditioned because I was. motivated (and motived) to look down by your disappearance in a terrestrial sphere where objects fall downward.
Now a moment ago I promised those who wished to be ultra-consistentthe academically minded, I term themthat I would endeavor to provide some basis on which they consider natural laws also as "moti ings" and "motivatings." I therefore refer such to one, Reverend Williams, who recently sent me for review his book "Evolution Disproved." Says he: "God is the author of all mathematical principles. The Square described on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares described on the other two sides, because He made it so. The circumference of a circle Is approximately 3.1416 times the diameter because He made it so." It would appear then, if Reverend Williams is correct, that all natural laws are God's motivations entering into our quite human plot!
And in further connection with (b) it should be obvious that the writer of a fantastic story, laidsayon Jupiter, is not subject to the same laws of motivation as the writer laying his story in Chicago. Gravity pulls harder on Jupiter; therefore people are made lighter yet bulkier. Different standards of love and attraction would probably prevail. William Wallace Cook years ago wrote a fantastic story of an Edgar Rice Burroughsian land where the people talked solely by clattering away on typewriter-like word-boxes. You could there, obviously, prevent an important political speech by stealing your opponent's wordbox. Here you steal, at best, only his thunder! In an artificial sphere created by you, as story writer, your people may not have the denary system as we do; they may have the number 14 as their mathematical base instead of 10. In such a system, as you may not know, our old familiar 17 becomes "13 !" People on Earth do not get worried around the time of sunset; but in H. G. Wells's "The First Men in the Moon" they actually commenced to sprint desperately for coverfor they were frozen to death if they missed getting inside of something before that red globe sank beneath the horizon.
Referring to (c) above: Suppose that in the year 1900 an explorer was going with a party into equatorial Africa; he would very likely encumber the party with a huge mechanical music box replete with heavy metallic circular records, causing six porters to sweat and groan and curse in Bantu; today he carries a light radio set, because he has learned how to transmute ripples in the ether into audible tones. And any motivating or motiving based on heavy metallic circular records becomes inacceptable due to the shift in our civilized accoutrements.
The above points may seem elemental to the practiced writer, but in forging into our own particular Tropical Africa here, the dark land of plot, it is best that we lay out our luggage and see what we have before we go. With that preliminary examination of our luggage, and a knowledge of where we are heading for, we may discuss motiving and motivating, and show as well some of the disturbances that one may produce on the other. In the meantime our assistant can be whittling a pencil for us, preparatory to our making some diagrams after we reach the kinematical phase of plot.
MOTIVING, as we have said, is the providing of the proper character to react in a given situation, with given conditions, in a given way: Let us briefly consider an acceptable example of motiving and an inacceptable one, with the same given conditions:
will confront us if we make the employer a very rich man, a clubman and man-about-town, Participant in many "affairs"; manufacturer of cocktail shakers, and stage-door Johnny. If we call him Wellington van Dever, we add to our woes. For such a man, in addition to standing his loss and "calling it a day" would likely be too afraid that his own unsavory private affairs would be dragged forth by the defense in a court prosecution; furthermore, much association on his part with the varied characters of night life, the stage, etc., would lead us to expect from him a rather tolerant point of view tending to excuse human fallibility, and thus overlook his employee's weakness as being the inevitable theft following temptation. He would perceive, if his mind were only half logical, that his occupationmanufacturer of cocktail shakerswas one tending to increase moral weakness (I protect myself here with my "wet" readers by adding "among the already weak") ; and his name, whether we believe in ordinary numerology or even the Chinese numerology known as the Yi-King, Tao, suggests somehow a broad-gauge, easy-going, give-and-take individual. And we could not legitimately arrive at our arrest of Henry Rogers.
is ours if our employer has been made a deacon in some religious sect that is very narrow in its viewsyou will note that I am not so rash as to endeavor to name such here, much less in any story I might write: a deacon who has never associated with any but people of mentally astigmatic vision; who is a manufacturer of-saywashboards; who has led an impeccable life; who has a somewhat limited capital himself. We may call him Phineas Hardscrabble. We now find that such a character has, as a result of his sect, a fundamentally narrow point of view; also a man who manufactured something to make women work harder than they already do in bearing children, etc., would have a narrow handling of a situation involving the future of a mere man. If his life had been impeccable, he could not suffer in the court trial resulting from such a prosecution; if his own capital were limited-i. e., if we motive him as a small capitalisthis prosecution would be vigorousand perhaps vicious. Even his name furthers all this.
Because of the vast field to cover, this brief example must suffice to crystallize in the student's mind one of the two phases of that force which causes incidents to be. For it is, you see, in the motiving of the employer that the vital necessary incident of the hero's arrest and prosecution is made-literallymade to happen. That is, it is made acceptable, for you as writer make existent only that which you can make your reader accept; in other words, only that which is well motived and motivated.
Now to do the identical thing for motivating that we have done for motiving, and then we are finished with considering the force principle of plot, and are ready to step into the kinematics of the thing, an angle from which may be surveyed certain salient points that will be of very definite benefit to the embryo plot-constructor.
MOTIVATING is, as we have said, the providing of the proper conditions and causes for a given character to act in a given way in a given incident.
will result, if Galloway brags to Dolores that he has had affairs with a hundred girls in his life. This will be inacceptable regardless of whether his statement is true or false, or whether Dolores realizes the truth or falsity of it. Depending upon whether or not his statement can be proven, or whether it rings true or false, a girl of her character would only consider that he was that much more desirable or undesirable; or that he was a braggart; or that he was a liar; or that he was a little conceited. In any event, only an increasing or dimming of her ardor would result.
will result if, for instance, Galloway takes from his pocket a number of papers strapped together with a simple rubber band to show her onesaythe contract he has obtained for a new engineering job, and the top paper of which is a folded-over letter from a girl to his brother, Homer Galloway, referring to some Mexican inamorata of the latter's, and saying: "My darling, when you concede that that hot-tamale is unworthy of you, you give me great happiness." If he lays this down on the stone settee while he steps over to get a drink at a nearby fountain, an acceptable motivating has been created for the desired incident: for not a woman on earth (except the feminine readers of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST) but would hastily read the visible lines of such an epistle, and not a true Spanish girl but who, by the time the young man got back, would be seeing redso red that the young man would find himself sitting there with a poniard in his breast and an hysterical woman saying: "Take thatyou double-crossing dog! So I, a Castilian, am a hot tamale, eh? And unworthy of youand you are her darling, are you?"
NOW if the distinction has been made quite clear, it should be evident that in many cases the motiving of a desired incident with respect to that participant in it who is not fixed by the exigencies of the required plot, can and does form part of the motivation for the fixed participant. So much so that a change of it can change the very motivation itself and destroy the incident. These are life's little trials for the story builder. For instance:
Now to create this incident, which incident is not so simple as it looks, it appears that some very vital motiving with respect to the thief will be required, so as to create a logical desire for such a worthless, inartistic bit of clay. No mere girl, burglar, artist, or sneak-thief would lug off a misshapen lump of clay, even if she or he knew that Mohammed had blown his holy breath on it fourteen centuries back in time. So we play exceedingly safe, therefore, in making our thief one Dunghis Ghan, an East Indianand a Mohammedanwho, being such, would most likely have followed the career of the holy statuette from its initial purchase in India, would have known where it had gone, and who could appreciate the priceless worth of Mohammed's own breath! But the moment we make him a brown-skinned, turban-clad gentleman from the land of the Ganges, our young man, Pendleton Wesbey, being fixed by the exigencies of the plot as the son of a clergyman, and a student of religions, ceases to become angry as he would against a burglar, because he, of all people, understands the intense religious devotion of a Mohammedan for such a piece of clay.
CONVERSELY, motiving which is fixed and required may frustrate the most desirable motivating at hand, and again make a plot incident unrealizable. As, for instance, in the following compound incident:
Now the conditions back the author, much as a horse used to be backed between the two "thills" of a buggy, pretty definitely into the following inescapableor at least desirablemotivating of the induction of this celestial narrator into the story, i. e., (a) that the founder of the college shall have established a long-respected but unwritten law that only white Americans may enter this college; (b) that he be still living, and have incorporated in his written charter for the college the definite ruling that any class might at any time by unanimous vote eject its professor in any subject and elect another instructor in that same subject, provided the new candidate were willing; and (c) that the Chinese scholar be brought into the college as a professor by a unanimous vote of a certain class, except that, to comply with "c," the Celestial's lecture be upon some subject quite other than the regular prescribed one.
Now we must remember that a class at Pogwallow or any other college is a class which contains a certain number of earnest students who have come to college to learn. As a group alone, it is certainly motived so that a powerful topic, indeed, would have to be discussed, by the distinguished visitor, to bring a unanimous vote to retain him. Now we might accept without much trouble that a class lectured to on any subject by a visiting humorist like Will Rogers who kept them in a continuous uproar would unanimously vote to retain this prize for good. Chinese are a serious and solemn race, however. Again, we might motivate the class's vital action by having it taught by the visitor that the white race is superior to all other races and will survive all others. White people like to hear such things; it acts as a sop to their individual inferiority complexes. Again, however, a Chinese could not consistently lecture on such a theme, quite aside from the fact that present indications are strong for the survival of the yellow race. Another subject might be "How Any Young American Can Get Rich on the Wheat Market." Again, the Chinese character precludes such a topic. Really, it appears that there is nothing left for our poor Chinese to do but to lecture on the making of delightful drinks out of hair-tonics; but being free to brew rice wine, Muikwailo, etc., in China and not having any problems like this, his character again prevents a knowledge on even this line. Thus, the one really desirable incident, his lecture and election, is nevertheless destroyed because of the motiving that has been fixed by Johnny Lansinger or Mr. Swanson.
Do not feel, however, that because you do not have to write a story to fit some hardhearted editor's requirements, you can escape such predicaments. For the hardest taskmaster in the world, even harder than the editor who sometimes can be argued out of his stand, or can be made to rescind his position by the judicious opening of a bottle of pre-war Scotch, is that part of your plot which is already created, fixed. inelastic, "hawg-tied" and staked-out, as it were, at a dozen points.
The desirable incident in the previous instance, however, can be made to stand; the problem there propounded can be solved by more complicated sub-plotwork, making the class elect the Chinese scholar regardless of any subject on which the latter may talk, but as a resultant of certain deals in votes made by certain members involved in odd (motivated) relationships with each other, or by certain trickery in counting the ballots, etc., etc. The old saying that there is always more than one way to skin a cat was never truer than in plot-work.
A BRIEF mention should be made now of some of the anomalies of motivation.
You might argue that the same motivating could not work with a fixed character so as to cause him (or her) to act in diametrically opposite ways, and without the interposition of a new f actor: But I point to you the wording in a published story in which it was very vital that a girl buy a peculiar, grotesque, bizarre vanity case with all her savings, and then sell it again for the same price all without further extraneous help. She says, in her later explanation in the story itself.
Of course this anomaly rests in the motivated trait of all human character to be attracted by the unusual but to tire of it that much quicker. Or, more briefly, a natural law of psychology is operating with our incident. And to teach you not to accept my statements too implicitlyto watch every step of this terrain yourselfthere was, after all, a certain extraneous circumstance which entered into the selling of this vanity case as compared with the buying of it, i. e., a week's possession of it!
It may be mentioned here, too, of all places in this series, that frequently a character may be compelled to act in some odd manner in a vital incident where there is no adequate basis for such action, either in motiving or motivating: a way around this is to relate one or more similar incidents in his past which would indicate his tendency to act in this particular way: to motive him artificially, in other words. In a recently Published novel, the very pivot of the plot was that a young man should desire himself to be buried only a wax figure and to have a genuine funeral sermon preached over his effigy. Since the whole novel swung on this incident, and there was no way adequately to motivate such a bizarre desire, the author motived it by having a character describe several past incidents in which this young man participated, showing him to be a sensationalist, pure and simple. The illuminating incident which required the most words was how, when a boy in Louisiana, he pretended to have taken a trip clear around the moon by being thrown out of a giant slingshot, falling back into a net between four trees, and how he corroborated his story with close-up photographs of the moon made from an orange and the light from a candle. Thus, his later funeral hoax appeared quite in keeping with his bizarre selfbut all this required words and many extraneous characterssub-plot, to be exact.
It is often necessary, if there is to be any story or drama, that the characters therein be made to remain not only on the scene but impotent to act against one another; this is so that the author may have time to develop his drama in a veritable "hot box." I have termed this expedient "locking," and it is achieved by a series of deliberately invented motivings and motivatings which may be suspended or modified for brief periods of time. I have in my own writing carried a story for 100,000 words in which, had I not "locked" my characters tightly against each other in the first 7000 words, there would have been no story, as everyone would have been killed, informed against, betrayed, or shown up by at least one other person. One of the best examples of this "locking" is found in the melodrama "Kongo" of which the entire first act is devoted to establishing such a relationship between a set of varied characters at a trading post in Central Africa that they are prevented from taking any overt action against each other and from departing from the spot (and from the drama!). Flint, the storekeeper and "emperor," dares not destroy Kingsland, the hasheesh fiend, because Kingsland was made a "doctor" by the authors and they also paralyzed Flint's legs; Whippy, the store clerk, dares not leave, because he's wanted outside of Africa for rape in Australia (the authors made it so); Kingsland, the hero, dares not leave because he's wanted outside of Africa for murder by abortion in London; Zoombie, the savage priest, dares not indulge in any action whatsoever beyond waving his arms, because his power among his own tribe is due to Flint's collection of electrical "ju-jus;" Annie has the "makrak" and is dependent both on Flint for sustenance and Kingsland for a cure. And so on and on. A minimum corps of union sceneshifters set this one scene in the Minturn-Central theatre in Chicago, and all these characters were unable to leave it, or, by the grace of God, to compel anybody else to leave it. The progression of the story in one of these "locked dramas" is done by temporarily suspending or modifying these "locks" in a series of leisurely checker-like moves on the part of the author or dramatist. For instance, if it is no longer desired to lock Flint against Kingsland, Kingsland can be revealed at any desired point to be a Doctor of Philosophy instead of a Doctor of Medicine!
Motiving should be made to help motivating, particularly if the incident resulting therefrom is one on which the entire story indubitably hinges. And vice versa where possible. The incident then becomes absolutely inevitable instead of merely acceptable. In a certain published serial it was necessary that a certain character give back to another character at a critical point a packet of which he had possession and legal ownership, and which he might have retained, and thus worried the reader for the rest of the reader's life as to what might have happened if it hadn't been given back! The whole story pivoted on this point "coming through" right. The author took great pains to create, all the way through, as the possessor of the packet, a kindly, benevolent gentleman, aristocratic and courteous, with even a little daughter (unnecessary to the actual plot) to mellow him further, and then at the critical point the author added motivation in addition. (The italics are mine) ;
BECAUSE of considerations which the preceding discussion must by this time make clear, I take exception strenuously to the contumely so openly expressed against plot-writers as being "carpenters," "jugglers of mere types," etc. It was Polti who claimed that a character was a character because he had contradictory elements in his makeup. Precisely, plot charactersespecially those in a narrative who are functioning in the conditions antecedent to the actual opening of the story, as well as the story itself, have to be often finely devised and complicated characterizations, especially when the plot demands that they shall act somewhat oppositely in somewhat similar situations. Types cannot function paradoxically. Only true characters can be converted, by the delicate stimuli provided by their collision with other objects or characters, to form dynamic plot engines capable of reversing their direction of rotation in an instant.
MELODRAMA, like plot, has had its share of definitions, including that simpler one of the child who says it is "one of those plays where they have green lights and thrilly music." But, thanks to our discussion of motiving and motivating, I would like to offer a new definition devolving upon those factors.
Have you ever noticed in a true melodrama (whether played on a stage or published as a dime novel) how the villain is a very, very bad man? He looks bad; from his teeth and mustache to his gun, whip, or cowhide boots; he has a bad history; and he talks with a sneer. The author has stamped, him with a notice which says: This is a villain. Now, having noticed this much, have you also noticed how his relentless persecution of another individual throughout three long acts (or 40,000 words) is often based upon nothing other perhaps than that that individual had defeated him in some petty deal on the stock exchange or legitimately won the affection of some woman the villain at one time fancied? And you have also noted, no doubt, how the beauteous heroine acts, unlike most girls: though starved, beaten, kidnaped, tortured by being bound in front of a buzz saw (once I saw her tied by her wrists to the steeple of Trinity Church), her relatives shot to death before her eyesshe yet preserves that virtue of hers which thousands of girls every year in big cities are giving up on a mere economic basis in exchange for decent clothing and shelter? Her adherence to moral principle in the face of these super-terrible tortures and mental strains is beyond all understanding except for the existence of her wonderful nobility of character; she was reared right, she has always been goodshe looks virtue and she talks virtue. She has golden hair very frequently, the color of the harps in Heaven; she dresses in white, the symbol of purity, and the stage manager even provides for her part, if possible, a girl with a noble brow!
This condition will be found to run, with variations in intensity, through all melodramatic literature and drama, and I therefore offer the following definition for melodrama based on more scientific terms than green lights and thrilly music.
Melodrama is a piece of dramatic structure of any sort in which the dynamic force creating the story is derived too much from motiving and insufficiently from motivating.
We have now concluded our discussion of the forces of plot considered purely as forces, a subject on which indeed a book could be written. We are now ready to view pot and plot elements and plot forces from the kinematic angle, but to do so we must draw up a figurative blackboard, provided for us by the invention of photo-engraving combined with the air mail between Illinois and Colorado, which reproduces my pen and ink diagrams done in Chicago in the pages of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST in Denver. These diagrams will show us in what respects Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone" is related to Jack Woodford's "The Loves of Trixie Triptoe," and Wilson Collison's "Up in Mabel's Room" to "Ben Hur."
PART IITHE KINEMATICS
KINEMATICS, we said, was the study of spatial movement. In considering why plots cause the story to move hither and thither instead of thither and hither, it is necessary to focus our attention on two elements, known as
Unlike motives themselves, which cannot be shown in a diagramthat is, we cannot graphically compare the thirst for a drink of creme-de-menthe with a belligerency towards the colored racewe can show diagramatically how motives may conspire to direct the course of an individual or object.
It is necessary that we build up this workable graphic conception so as to grasp what I shall term the 15 elemental plot combinations, and these have to be grasped if we are to understand the larger and more complicated structures found in stories which range from 25,000 to 125,000 words.
And do not believe the literary pessimist who tells you that there are only seven original plots in the world, any more than you would believe that the instrument known as the kaleidoscope can show you only seven patterns. It is only the number of pieces of colored glass in the kaleidoscope that are limited; so, too, the elements in life. But there are enough elements in life, if recombined in all their possibilities, to provide plots to the number of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000-at which point our linotype machine runs out of zeros!
THE first vital thing in the kinematics of plot to be impressed on the mind is something that should, presumably, have been taken up in the mechanics of the thingbut which has been left for discussion here in order that Part I might remain as simple as possible. But as that deals with the plot incident, and we are now going to study the possibilities of that element toward directing a story, we have made no mistake in leaving it until now.
Suppose I should tell you that there is a bank in which you may draw one hundred per cent interest for every deposit you make? You will not believe me. And if I add that it is (for you, who aim to sell stories for money) a financial bank in a way, too, you will remain incredulous. But this bank exists, and it exists as the plot incident which, under Part I, or the Mechanics of the subject, we commenced to regard as a small bundle of explosive force. And this explosive force that lies in a plot incident can always be doubled by any depositor.
To double it, the first vital thing the student of plot must watch is this: a plot incident once created should never be viewed nor even verbally expressed, in its A-to-B form only. It should also be expressed and thought of in its B-to-A form. This may seem puzzling, and I will objectify the statement by saying that you should never view an incident as merelysay"Peter Zeller, a ship mate of San Francisco, becomes acquainted with Leonard Wong, an eighth-breed Chinese boy." Immediately rephrase it with your lips and your mind to read: "Leonard Wong, an eighth-breed Chinese boy of San Francisco, becomes acquainted with Peter Zeller, a ship mate." As a result of clearly viewing this incident in two ways, two avenues for the force inherent in this meeting open themselves, i. e., Zeller may some day use this boy in some capacity, such as to gain him entrance into an opium den or Chinese gambling house; or the boy may use Zeller, some day, perhaps for a passage to Mexico, or Europe, or Australia.
Again, do not merely say: "Fenway, a newspaper reporter, calls on Miss Margaret van Allingham, a society girl, and offers her one hundred dollars for information where to find a girl friend of hers of her boarding school days whom she is hiding and whom the newspapers want." Phrasing it in such manner will only bring to your mind the effects on Fenway's course as to her acceptance or her refusal. If you will again rephrase your incident to: "Miss van Allingham, a society girl, is called upon by a newspaper reporter and offered one hundred paltry dollars for information as to the whereabouts of her friend," you at once perceive new angles to the situation. For example, that in the lady's heart is engendered indignation at the press, or the reporter, for the insult of even assuming she would betray a friend for that sum.
But it should not necessarily be thought that this double explosive force becomes immediately directed into the bilateral channels open to it. As a simple example of what I mean, if I swindle a man out of his money, I have the money as a result of the swindle, quite aside from his having a hatred of me and a desire to get even. Long after this happening an opportunity may arrive in which he can retaliate, and his hatred of me, resulting from that swindle, may motivate him to direct powerful action then and not before. So also, my possession of his money may lead me long afterwards, when I have met an heiress, to buy a Rolls-Royce with which to impress her. Two springs of force have arisen from that earlier incident, but they have not become operative till long after. The main thing to consider in this discussion is that by considering your incident in two phases-in an active and passive form, so to speak (although, remember, the passive form here is as dynamic as the active), your store of force has increased into two stores.
NOW you have studied geometry, you know that a line is the path followed by a point. If the point travels north and south, east and west, in a horizontal plane, its path will be a curved line, a wiggly line. If you have not studied geometry, you have my permission to clear your table top, dip a fly in your inkwell, and watch the path he makes on the table-top.
But if we go to represent characters and objects, these vital units in plot, as lines, thus getting the first kinematical element of plot, the plot thread, we are confronted with the fact that movement in time plays as important a part as movement in space. Indeed, it cannot be stopped. For instance, Amos Hobbs, a farmer, may sit down in a chair in his kitchen at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. At 6 o'clock he has moved two hours ahead whether he wishes to or not: whether he has been fast asleep all the time and never even snored. Or with this progression of time alone, he may, during the two hours, have gone out to the barn, thence to the pasture, thence to the creek.
So to make room for time in our graphic depiction of plot, let us present characters and objects as lines whose vertical wanderings shall indicate all spatial movement of any sort, and whose left-to-right movement shall represent progression forward in time only. Thus will be born the plot-thread. The simplest element, therefore, following this convention, will be the plot thread (passive form).
A PASSIVE plot thread, since it has not been heretofore defined nor even named in the study of plot, I shall define as the graphic depiction of the course of a unit of plot incapable of being motived or of acting under motivation other than natural laws. Such things are, of course, inanimate objects, social ideas, etc.
Survey the following diagram:
Graphically, it represents a passive plot thread called "Passive thread A," as operating between two points of time, t1 and t2 ; and it is obvious from the thickening of it at the point n that it is desired that the movement of the point constituting that thread is to be considered by us particularly at n. You will note that this line possesses extension only to the right and to the left, but does not change its vertical level, and since at the left it is t, and the right t2 and ever at the same level, it is obvious that the point composing it has been moving through time only, and not at all through space. That is, since vertical movement up and down on our diagram is to represent movement through space of any sort, our point has evidently been standing still.
We will therefore select one of many million possible assignments for the letters, so that we may have a concrete bit of life represented by the line above. I propose that "A" be a copy of a very rare book lying in the bin out in front of an old second-hand bookshop on West Madison Street, near Halsted Street, Chicago, between the hours of 2 P. M. of March 15th, 1928, and 4 P. M. of March 15th, same year. In order to enrich the picture a little bit, say that it is a copy of the De Devinis Institutionibus, written by one Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius. from the press of one Mr. Wendelin of Speier, back in 1472, with initials of red, and containing the Nepithomon wanting in the few copies of the De Devinis. If the left and right limits of this column in THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST are to be considered as mechanically cutting off all diagrams, it is obvious that the rare book lay there before 2 P. M. and after 4 P. M. because the line flows into and out of the space permitted to it.
It is evident, however, that the condition at it is to be particularly considered. and in view of the fact that you now have all the other conditions, we can describe point n as:
We call this a passive thread because we are allowing it to represent an objecta thing which can only be acted upon by external circumstances; which cannot of its own volition come into a relationship with any other character or object. In other words, the only possible force from which an incident can evolve is the motivation provided by this thread for some other thread, or the operation of natural laws involving its weight, color, etc. The object pictured by a passive thread cannot mentally function or emotionally function, regardless of the thousands of things that might happen to it.
SUPPOSE we now take a thread which we will call an active thread; and in addition to giving it thereby the power to be motived and motivated, we will also give it spatial movement as well as time movement. Thus it will be presented a little differently, i.e.
Our diagram represents a thinking, acting character called B, as he (or she) passes 1, from the point in time t1 to t2, and spatially from the level of the left hand end of the line to the level of the right hand end. Its obliquity, due to its movement through both space and time, gives it the tendency to intersect with other oblique and horizontal lines.
It may be presented by the following bit of life:
It is evident that the condition at n is to be particularly considered, and it may be described thus:
THANKS to this perfect combination of a thread which can act, and a thread which can be acted upon, our two miniature threads may be allowed to react with each other with no trouble in a plot relationship, with the following composite diagram to show such:
which might be readable as
Such geometrical superimposition would not necessarily be enough in itself to create an acceptable plot incident, however, and that is why I took up the force element of plot first in this series. If it were desired that n by such superimposition should represent "Phineas buys the Vindelinus (for five cents or so)" and Phineas already had been decreed by the exigencies of the plot to be a specialist in spear-heads instead of books, we would have had no acceptable motivation. For, as such, Phineas would not have been even driven over to one of the many bins on this street to examine a dusty, mud-spattered book printed in Latin. But, as I once told you, there are more ways in plot to skin a cat than there are cats; so, in that event, we could have made Mr. Wendelin, the publisher of our book, a "Mr. Guiseppi Hasta," and just as Mr. Alfred Knopf has his Borzoi hound on his publishing output, so Mr. Hasta would have conceivably been led to imprint all the covers of his books with a large spearhead representing his publishing output. And old Dr. Phineas Tanneyday might have believed that here was a book containing lost information about spearheads, and might have bought it. It may be necessary you see, in plot, to cause a king to preach Bolshevism! You can do it.
THE very superimposition of these plot threads, however, will give a diagram quite different than merely laying one of these threads over the other, i. e., it will resemble this:
for no longer in all probability will Dr. Tanneyday, discovering that he holds in his hands a genuine Vindelinus containing the Nepithomon, proceed leisurely on to Ashland Avenue; but he will board a Madison Street car and ride back to State Street to consult the daily quotations on rare books in the Rare Book Brokerage House in the Masonic Temple. His path has changed from B-B' to B-B"; and the Vindelinus no longer remains in the bin till 6 o'clock (A-A'), but is now deviated to State Street, and follows the path of Dr. Tanneyday (A-A" or A-B", as you like).
Here in simple space-time form is shown one of the primal functions of the plot incidentone of the most vital considerations ever to be realized in plot: the deviation of threads by their intersection with one another; but at the same time our plot diagram of space-time turns out to be insufficient to show full plot deviations. And that is because a plot incident causes far more than a space deviation. For characters and objects, though continually moving in time, are not necessarily always moving spatially. A complete life drama can be played out in a single room, with the characters never even leaving that room or entering it. The movement which characters are going into and out of are really dramatic relationships with other characters or objects, while all together are continually moving forward in time. That is, Amos Hobbs, a farmer, may sit down in a chair in his kitchen at 4 o'clock, with two persons, his hired hand and his daughter, in the same room. At 6 o'clock all may have moved not at all in space, but will have moved two hours ahead in time whether they wish to or not.
If, now, during these two hourssay at 4:30Amos Hobbs has been paid $1000 by Henry Hickmeier, his hired hand, who owed it to him; and if at 5 o'clock Amos gives S500 of that money to his deaf, homely daughter, Melissa Hobbs, as a marriage dowry, he has moved twice in a vital relationship with other characters; that is, he has become richer by one thousand dollars in cash and must alter his attitude to Henry Hickmeier; and he has expedited his own daughter's marriage and departure from his menage by his donation of a dowry to her.
Going back to old Dr. Tanneyday, our bibliophile, his course, after buying the Vindelinus, is deviated whether he merely goes back to State Street, or if he proceeds on to his attic near Ashland Avenue. Before supper that night, he may haveand by telephone solelysecured a loan on his book, or sold it for $10,000, ordered a season box at the opera, had a steak and mushrooms sent up to his room instead of cooking noodles; he may have signed a lease on an apartment, and lastbut far from leastmay have proposed marriage to the spinster lady across the hall. As for the book, which might have continued to lie in that West Madison Street bin, moving only inside and outside the door each morning, it has now been deviated off its course: it causes newspaper stories to be written, it winds up in the collection of some millionaire book collector, it inspires people to try to steal it, others to kill those attempting to steal it, spurious copies are made of itand all sorts of relationships occur both spatial and not spatial.
Therefore, since our first space-and-time diagram has two disabilities, first, that objects occupying the same spaceor practically the same spaceat the same time will show as the same thread; and second, that there exist changes in people's affairs which are not merely the occupancy of a succession of new areas, we will adopt a new expedient of diagraming. We will retain plot-threads, and still continue to allow their left-right extension to represent passage of time; but we will utilize the up-and-down scope only for the purpose of showing by means of knots or intersections where these plot threads come into vital deviational relationships with each other.
And do not disregard that word "deviational."
For it is in that essential that a plot incident is a plot incident, and deviation is the keynote of plot itself.
A PLOT incident always changes the complexion of affairs for one or more participants in it. This is one of the most salient rules of plot which should be drilled into the writer's brain. Whether a happening in which I participate arouses in me an emotion, or whether through it someone merely explains something concerning a past part of the web of relationships of which I am a part, my future course is probably determined and changed as a result of that knowledge. Your reading this very article is changing your course and mine by a measurable. degree: either your ideas are being modified and shifted to some extent, or else you are evolving antagonism toward my theories. Whether you accept these theories and alter your stories slightly, or whether your antagonism becomes so great that your future stories take on an individual anti-plot atmosphere as a gesture, your work has been affected one way or another. As your work changes, the market changesand the acceptance of my work changes, for if a story of mine laid on Mars gets into an editor's hands, or to the reviewers, at a time when yours laid on Saturn gets there, the entire delicate balance of acceptance, sales, etc., is disturbed. Every character we meet in life, everything that happens to us, affects our future life if by no other mechanism than that our judgment becomes more sure for analogous cases and analogous characters. And the idea of plot. is to show in smaller area, but in less subtle manner, how we are deviated and affected by other people and other things, all only puppets of a benign (or wicked) but masterful fate.
Now we may, thanks to the removal of the rigid space yardstick from the vertical extent of our diagram, picture our last diagram, which showed how Dr. Phineas Tanneyday bought a $10,000 Vindelinus for a nickel, a little more completely yet, thus
which shows the old incident n which is vitally turning off the careers of both the Vindelinus (A) and Dr. Tanneyday (B), being itself the resultant of two incidents, n-1 in the life of the Vindelinus and n-2 in the career of the Doctor. Let us say, in fact, that n-1 was where an auctioneer, ordered to dispose, at the best price, of the books in the library of an old ex-brewer, sold the Vindelinus (with several hundred other valueless volumes) to a second-hand dealer; had he not done so, the book might have continued to A'; i. e., to have gathered dust in his mansion or even to have been taken to Europe by the old man's widow who decided to go back to Germany to live.
As for incident n-2, Dr. Tanneyday may have been told that afternoon by a friend that some Greek or Italian nickel show in the polyglot district of Halsted near Madison needed an old man to take tickets in the afternoon, for which they would pay $7 a week, and he may have been hurrying over there to get-the position instead of drowsing (B-B'), as was his wont in the afternoons, in the reading room of the Public Library.
Now the path of a stone propelled from the body tends to be a straight line, but if that stone is on a string, held tightly in the thrower's hand, the centripetal force in the string ever bends the path of the stone inward, making it follow a circle. Thus, characters or objects in a plot may be considered as continually under a sort of deviation due to all their encounters with other people in the plot and people outside of it, and we may now dispense with our dotted lines and supplant our broken straight lines by curves, thus securing a workable graphic scheme for plot. Our curved threads, of course, represent people and objects under the force of continual deviation due to their relationships with others. Thus, our last figure will appear:
each plot incident having contributed to the bending provided by the previous incident.
Early in this discussion I dogmatized that a story was-created by the "intersection of a plot with the thread representing a single character." So too may an elemental plot combination intersect with a character's thread and produce the element of a story. If I insert actual threads in the preceding plot incidents, thus
in which thread C may be said to be the auctioneer who sold the Vindelinus, or the widow who ordered it sold, or the dealer who bought it; and thread D may be the friend who told Dr. Tanneyday of the job over on Halsted near Madison, or the want-ad itself which he may have read, I may now ask what is the plot and what is the story.
Let us darken one of our threads which we have decided to invest with the greatest human interest and emotional values, i. e., thread B, or Dr. Tanneyday. To answer my own question, the plot (elemental plot combination) consists of the three incidents, n, n-1, and n-2, and the story element, the intersection of these incidents on the human-interest thread B. The story element may be described or related as:
Dr. Phineas Tanneyday, very poor, went over in a poor district of Chicago to get a lob at $7 a week. A friend, Casper Kent, had told him of the existence of this job. But instead he picked up a $10,000 rare book and didn't even need the job.
Just the element of a story, you see, but caused by Dr. Tanneyday's intersection with one thread and a two-thread relationship.
Before closing this chapter, I would like to call your attention to one of the most well-defined analogies to plot-action existing in nature: the human eye-ball.
The eye-ball is actuated in its orbit by six muscles. These muscles are so placed (one even working through a bone pulley) that it takes the action of several to move the eye to any position, and very frequently to enlist & aid of one muscle to help another, a third muscle must be called in to neutralize the undesirable component brought into existence by the first helper. The way in which these six muscles have been placed and combined to help each other's beneficial actions, and defeat each other in inimical actions, is amazing. I do not think you need read Jackson, Savage, Howe, Hansell and Seber, Worth or Duane to survey them. The Encyclopedia Britannica gives a condensed version of the twists, torts, pulls and drawings actuating them. I am not an opthalmologist, but I have had occasion through certain personal exigencies to make a deep study of these muscles, and their combinations of actions would do more to convince me of a Deity than would the presence of the Atlantic Ocean, or the moon sailing around the earth. It has, at least, aided me immeasurably to understand plot. Space will allow but one example of the perfect way in which their action is combined, and I give it because I have named a certain elemental plot combination after it: I refer to the operation of the eye in looking down and in, for reading.
For the eye to look in and down, it is drawn inward toward the nose by the internus, and downward toward the lap by the inferior rectus. Nature, however, desired to make the second aid the firstfor even savages may string fine beads and focus on skin-sewing for long hours of timeso she threw the base of the inferior rectus back toward the root of the nose so it would pull on a slant and help to draw the eve in too, as it drew it down. The moment she did that, the muscle twirled or twisted the eyewheel-likeoutward, making it unable to fuse its image with its companion eye (which was getting the same kind of a deal at the same time). So nature brought a third muscle, the superior oblique, to help the second muscle draw the eve down, but to work through a pulley in such a way that it would at the same time twist the eyewheel-likein, and exactly counteract the out-twist being done by the inferior rectus which it is helping.
Thus, the eye is held where it should be held, and remains vertical, the victim of six balanced forces. Again and again this balance happens in all its nine (with the other eye) positions, showing that mathematics and plot existed before mathematicians or story writers. But space forbids further discussion of the other equally astounding cases.
What I want to do now is to present the fifteen elemental plot combinations which, from a long study and analysis of many plots, short-stories, novelettes, and novels, I find compose the most complicated onesand the simplest ones too! A perception of each, and how it differs from the others, will create, by addition and subtraction in your mind, a perception of all plot.
PART IIITHE 15 ELEMENTAL PLOT COMBINATIONS
IN presenting the 15 elemental plot combinations, I am going to dispense with the handy algebraic figure "n" to show the unknown chronological order which an incident may work in a succession of incidents, as well as "n-l" for the next previous incident, and "n+l" as the next following incident. For expediting our grasp of the true relationship, I am going to name, in each case, the plot incident under question "28"; and previous incidents will then be figures under that, like 27, 26, 25; and later incidents figures over that, like 29, 30, 31.
All the examples, except the Tanneyday example (certain factors in which were taken from one of my own novelettes), are pure inventions, and not taken from published stories.
This case is completely covered by our development of the Dr. Tanneyday diagram, figure 7.
Example: Nick Papadoros (A), a Chicago Greek restaurant owner, gives "Blindy" Connors (B), a blind beggar seated outside, a meal ticket on his restaurant (27) ; "Blindy" later mortgages his palatial court apartment building in Rogers Park, Chicago, and saves Nick from being closed out by the sheriff (28). All sequences where a man meets and falls in love with a girl, goes forth to seek his fortune and comes back to claim and marry her, are Case II on a large time-scale. The shortest timescale I ever saw Case II worked out on was when I saw an Australian performer (A) on the stage of the old Kinzie Vaudeville Theatre, Chicago, throw a boomerang (B) (27), intending to catch it; but he turned his head and was knocked out when the boomerang came back round (at 28).
Example: Hugh Armisted, a financier (A) who does not desire to pay for an expensive vault he has had installed on one year's trial, baits (26) an acquaintance, Peter Kroll (B), suspected to be an ex-cracksman, with $1000 for robbing his vault. That is, he gives Kroll a half of a thousand dollar bill, and places the other half inside his vault, sealing it with Kroll's own ring, and shows Kroll the hidden mechanism by which the burglar alarm can be short-circuited. Kroll laughingly disclaims the distinction awarded to him and puts his half of the thousand dollar bill away "until Armisted quits his joking." Since he has refused, evidently suspecting a trap, Armisted tries new tactics in (27); he inveigles Kroll into a poker game with marked cards and cheats him out of $900. Kroll's entire savings. (27 has been a result of 26 as far as Armisted's motivation goes; the refusal has motivated his cheating; also the ex-cracksman has been motivated to play perhaps by the fact that this man has apparently so much money that it would be a shame not to take some of it away from him by legitimate means, plus perhaps the natural reasoning that such a man must be a fool in poker if he was fool enough to believe that a cracksman would go back into such a dangerous field.) At any rate, one motive does stand out: he plays carelessly, thus getting cheated, because he believes no man freely offering $1000 would cheat in a card game, 27 is not sufficient cause for Kroll cracking Armisted's safe in 28, as it is not sporting, not to stand your poker losses; but because of first, his impoverishment (in 27) and the $1000 offer, second, (in 26) together, he robs Armisted's safe (in 28). 28 is a result of 27; and 26; but it required 27 to be interposed to make 26 effective.
Example: Curtis Corley (C), a tricky professor of mechanics and physics, sells for $1,000,000 to Great Britain (A) in 27, an invention for gasifying a given area of war terrain so badly that no living man, attacker or attacked, can live in it within shooting range. But Professor Corley stole (26) this invention or secret from Wyndham York (B), a pacifist student and genius in his classes. York, the student, as a result of this loss, becomes bitter and militaristic, and creates a new counter-invention consisting of an automatic death-ray which will pierce for miles. He sells this to Great Britain which, heretofore cool on the subject of death rays, grudgingly votes another $1,000,000 and buys it (28) to prevent some other nation from getting hold of it and nullifying her advantage in the ownership of the gas invention.
This relationship fulfills the requirements of Case III: Great Britain's (A) purchase (28) is necessitated by her first purchase (27) from Professor Corley (C) ; and the existence of something for her to purchase from York (B) is a result of York's loss to Professor Corley (C) (in 26). Also Professor Corley's sale to Great Britain (27) is made possible by his theft from York (26).
Example: A noted crook, Denver Dan Crealy (A) steals a paste necklace (B) (in 28). We may say that Dan has been hunting the original of this necklace, because of its once belonging to his family, or any other cause, and his location of itthe genuine oneand his theft is an outgrowth of certain newspaper publicity about the spurious necklace instituted (26) by the Marquis of Curtindale (F) who owns the original necklace.
(Now when you institute newspaper publicity about anything, you are, under certain circumstances only, likely to deviate strongly its course; and the Marquis has played a bold hand, actually having a story written up in which he is accused of possessing a paste necklace as the famous Curtindale necklace.) This institution of newspaper publicity (26) about this spurious necklace is a daring trick used by the Marquis because he feels practically certainand this is the truth, toothat his friend, a banker, Roger Gorham (D), custodian of his necklace, in incident 24 has substituted the paste necklace (B) for the Marquis' own string and is planning to fly the town with a certain actress with whom he is infatuated (or any other cause). The Marquis is merely suspicious of certain indications of Gorham's impending departure, which in turn are due, on Gorham's part, to 24; hence we may say that the Marquis is acting as an outgrowth of 24; and he has shrewdly reasoned that if he makes a demand for his necklace, he will precipitate the flight and lose his property. But if he gives out a feature story to the press making the press accuse him, Gorham will temporarily resubstitute the right necklace while reporters and photographers are interviewing him, and in this brief interval the Marquis will seize his property while the seizing is good! We may say, however, that Denver Dan acted so quickly (28) after the story broke that the paste necklace was not yet changed back, and thus the Marquis (in 26) produced a deviation other than what he intended! We may say also that Denver Dan reasoned that the story was only "newspaper stuff," but that the history contained in it of the Curtindale necklace gave him the clue and location (of what really was the paste one) and produced incident 28.
Now continuing back along the other thread, Denver Dan Crealy (A) got access to the safe by wounding a guard, Mike McGann (E), but the whole affair. was really possible only because (in 25) he was released from prison by a careless turnkey, Obadiah Jenks (C).
This fulfills the requirements of Case V: that 28 shall be an outgrowth of 27 and 26 with two other threads, yet dependent utterly upon the existence of 25 and 24 (with still other threads). That is, 28 is more dependent on the "hind" incidents than the ones just preceding. Given the conditions of thread A and B as they actually are at the left-hand margin of the diagram, 24 and 25 are necessary for 28; 26 and 27 can be "plotted out of the plot."
This is one of the most complicated elemental plot combinations there are, but vital, and because of its importance, I am going to objectify it twiceand then we'll go back to simpler elemental combinations again. Case VI might be described as
Example: A northwoods paper mill proprietor, Axel Christionson (A), falls down badly on a huge consignment of paper and prevents Medill McAllister (B) from printing an extra paper at a time when needed. The failure to bring out the extra, being deviative, is shown in 28. A Bolshevik laborer, Boris Krokosk (C), has conspired with the foreman, Andy Philps (E), to delay production, in 25, thus directly creating 28; but as a result of his successful conspiracy, Krokosk conveys a number of confidences resulting from this conspiracy before Axel Christionson (in 27) which deviates him to actually being made foreman himself.
Although A and C suffer a deviation by 27, number 28 is a result of 25.
Now going back along the other thread.
Medill McAllister (B) is prevented from getting out an extra (28) solely because of the need of such. (That is, if an extra hadn't been required for some reason, we could not say he had been prevented from bringing such out.) The need of such was created by the assassination of the President (F) by one of McAllister's reporters, Frank Woodstock (D) in 24. To elicit powerful aid to avoid consequences of his act, Woodstock hurries to his employer and in 26 divulges how he has unearthed a nest of political corruption in Washington.
Although B and D suffer deviation by 26, number 28 is a resultant only of 24. This relationship is so important to you if you absorb it, that I will invent a further example:
Example II: A wheat operator, Rutger Tinney (A), is the unwilling cause of ruining his friend, Howard Folk (B), by heavy buying in Amalgamated Copper on the board of trade in 28. But the ruining occurred only because a crazed broker, Crazy Harris (E), prevents, with a gun, a telephone operator, Maizie DeWitt (C), in 25, from phoning in to her employer some vital messagesay that Folk has unexpectedly changed from buying to selling. But while Maizie is in this restricted "compulsified" position of 25, she takes advantage of the excuse she will later be able to render, to get for herself a long-desired revenge against her employer and phones him (27) the spurious news that his daughter has eloped with his negro chauffeur and was married in Cincinnati.
If you will check this, you will find it fulfills the requirements of Case VI.
Going back now along the other thread, the ruined broker, Howard Folk (B), is also ruined (28) because an enemy, Clara Hartley (F), in incident 24, gets his chief counsellor and market interpreter, John McTigg (D), drunk, and removes an inhibiting influence which would have prevented him from even dealing in Amalgamated Copper. However, McTigg (D), as a result of being gotten drunk in 24, now goes to his employer, and while of no use as an inhibiting influence, does divulge (26) a secret of his ownthat an unknown StocksayAluminum Coffee Pots, Ltd.can make a fortune for a man able to sell short becausesayof forthcoming medical testimony that their use by housewives creates the poison, Aluminum Hydroxide.
Without attempting to worry you with too many considerations, as my only desire is to give you the "plot feel," I will say that wherever plot elements take the form here shown, with intermediate threads, plot takes on a semblance strongly suggestive of the "locked dramas" about which I spoke in Part I, Mechanics, because incidents have to inhibit as well as compel.
Now one more complicated one!
Much simpler in picture form, as shown above.
Example: A wholesale milliner, Hattie Evans (A), on Fifth Avenue, New York, intrigues the ladies of the public (B) with a vast flood of red hats (in 28) because the fair public (B) has gotten sick and tired of the earlier output of another enterprising style-former, Monsieur Du Farge (C), who satiated them with blue hats (in 25). (This pendulum motivation depends on the natural laws of psychology.)
Now back along the other thread:
Hatie Evans (A) was enabled to make a cheap purchase of an enormous quantity of red feathers, beads, straws and ribbons because Whipple (E), a wholesaler in hat trimmings, was bankrupted (in 26) on the board of trade by Grover Halloway (D), a trader, who now having much money and being a Don Juan, and having his attention called to the facts of the hat business from having bankrupted a big hat trimmings magnate, learns that there are more pretty girls in hat-making establishments and millinery shops than in any other line of business, and so buys a substantial but minority share of Miss Evans' business (27) to have an excuse to hang around there. (When he does this, he deviates his course to feminine adventuring, and Miss Evans' course to enlarging her business.)
As will be seen, studying along this branch, Miss Evans' purchase of red trimmings results from 26, and would have taken place whether 27 ever occurred or not; just the same, 27 is also a resultant (one of several possible ones) of 26.
(When new threads are born.)
Example: Sam Drewer, a rum-running captain (A), receives (28) a decoy code telegram (B) directing him to leave the harbor at once, in spite of fog and everything. (Imagine how this would deviate a rumrunner, continually on the alert for Volstead agents.) But the code telegram (B) has sprung into existence (27) from the fact that Haines (C), a rival rumrunner, has been helped in its construction by Professor Waltham (D), a liquor-hungry professor of codes and ciphers (27). (Note: The telegram evolves from the rival rumrunner's desire to do harm to Drewer, plus the professor's knowledge of ciphers. Neither is sufficient in itself.) (26 may be where the professor, a professor of mathematics, first became interested in codes and ciphers; and 25 may be where Haines first evolved his hatred of Drewer.)
Example: A crazed negro, Sammy Cuzzly (A), in the Black Belt, holds up and kills (28) a druggist, Grover Lenson (B), with a revolver (C).
Cuzzly (A) has been crazed by the theft (27) of his morphine by Mammy Chudd (D), a negress.
Lenson (B) has been forced to work over-time that night by his clerk, Walter Fenway (E), quitting in 26.
The revolver (C) has been left temporarily (25) on Lenson's open shelf by a gambler customer, Charles Jordan (F), afraid of being picked up for gun-totting.
Many incidents involving three threads can be dissociated into several two-thread incidents separated by tenths or hundredths of a second, but such dissociation is frequently too academic to be considered.
Example: An exhausting poker game (28), lasting four days and nights, between three men, who are Ebenezer Wick (A), who loses $1000; Clarence Henden (B), who wins $1000; and Wiltshire Clark (C), who breaks even, so motivates the three men through weariness and changes in their bank accounts that Ebenezer, the loser (A), joins the church, being easily converted (29) by his pastor, the Reverend Shakewell; Clarence, the winner (B), proposes marriage to and is accepted by (30) Lily Lassiter (E) ; while Wiltshire, the man who neither won nor lost, convinced that poker playing is a tremendous loss of time, energy and health buys (31) a near-defunct magazine (F) entitled, "The Organ for the Abolishment of Inefficient Pastimes and Pursuits."
REQUIRED: That an incident 28 between two plot threads A and B be helped or created by both 27 and 26 with C and D; but of such nature that certain elements of 27 will also neutralize certain elements of 26 that otherwise would have prevented 28.
Example: This will be just a bit strained or fantastic, but it is desired to show clearly the specific action of this double-hinged elemental combination. Required, therefore, that Minna Furlong (A), a former sharpshooter in the circus, shall fulfill a gypsy's prediction that she shall die "by the knife" and "by her own hand" (28) the thread B being the dagger she actually uses.
Her fit of discouragement is due to two things: First that a psychological thief who can find hiding places, Shifty Morris (C), steals from her (27) her special circus revolver, an odd-calibred weapon which uses a cartridge not now manufactured, of which her husband has locked up the only box obtainable, and the revolver is concealed in a spot known apparently only to her and her son, from which she deduces erroneously that this son, the apple of her eye, is a certain holdup man who has been appearing in the locality.
Her fit of "nerves" is also occasioned by her despair at the sloppy and happy-go-lucky attitude of her husband, John Furlong (D), a former circus juggler or knife thrower, who (in 26) was engaged in cutting off, with a juggler's dagger, for fishing sinkers, the tips of a few of these rare, special and unobtainable cartridges of which he possesses her only box, and who was interrupted therein, leaving the outfit strewn over the grand piano!
You will note that she commits suicide as a result of 27 and 26; but 27 gets rid of the gun that would have assuredly been used with the cartridges of 26, and would have thus prevented the proper 28.
(The quadrangular polygon, frequently appearing in short-stories.)
I take the liberty of giving only a very slightly altered version of a short-story I sold about 13 years ago.
Example: Ronald Baer (A), president of the Cherry Valley Interurban Traction Company and Robert Holly (B), a young man who loves Baer's daughter, have a stormy argument about the latter's suit and break up in a rage (28). Baer goes to his daughter, Natalie (C), who works in the office of the company, and ordering her limousine taken away from her, commands her (29) to walk home each day from work, which will carry her along the traction line and through the Red Rock Tunnel. Holly goes out and agitates for a strike, bringing it under way at 30. (A strike, being a terminable, creatable, deviatable and deviating thing, can function as a plot thread. The girl (C) walking home, and going through the short dark tunnel, gets her foot caught in a frog inside of the tunnel just as a heavy interurban car is bearing down on her; and is saved from death (31) by the strike (sudden cessation of electricity from powerhouse).
[(a.) The tale, news story, atmospheric short-story, or "Pilgrim’s Progress" plot.]
Most tales, also news stories, as well as atmospheric short-stories, which merely narrate the various incidents occurring between two vital incidents, are of this structure; so, also, may be said to be "Pilgrim's Progress," in which Christian (A), the central character, solves one problem after another, but none has any particular relation toward any other except chronological. One or several could be omitted without detracting from the coherence of the whole. For instance, Christian's encounter (28) with the Giant Despair (B) does not in the least bear upon his struggle (29) with the Slough of Despond. Or, also, the order of each could even be reversed.
[(b.) Adventure stories, etc.]
Case XIII-b is found in many treasure island serials and treasure-hunting stories, and adventure stories of all sorts. The various encounters (28, 29, 30, 31, 32) between the two parties (A and B) hunting the treasure throw the balance acutely first to one, and then to the other, keeping the reader "set up." I particularly remember that "The Pirate Woman," by Captain A. E. Dingle, which appeared first in The Argosy, and of which I bought "second rights" for a magazine I edited, was thus constructed in the main: many of the encounters on a certain island could have been left out, or an editor wishing to condense the story could have dropped out several segments of the one thread and corresponding convulutions of the other thread (see diagram) and, joining together the broken parts, could have had a novelette instead of a novel.
(The Row-of-Bricks plot, frequently found in short-stories.)
The second previous figure, Figure 19, will show this pattern, but the example must be different, for instance:
Example: A tramp electrical lineman, David Lauriston (A), meets a girl, Myrene Cary (B), in a small steel town called Tippingdale, and is actuated to apply for a job in the steel mills, under a foreman Ferguson (C), who dispatches him out on a dangerous high-tension job involving 22,000 volts, with a villain helper, Red McAfee. (D), necessitating his first instructing a power operator, old Sam Webb (E), to keep a certain high-tension circuit open. Because of not being sure of Webb's reliability, he goes to a life insurance agent, Hooker (F), who, scanning his application for life insurance, is enabled to drop Lauriston a tip that sends the latter to his long-lost father, Chase Lauriston (G) (not shown in diagram).
You will note that the incidents are like a row of up-ended bricks, where one brick, in toppling forward, topples the next one forward, and thus through to the end. Many, many short-storieseven 0. Henry'sare of this structure; although 0. Henry also used the quadrangular polygon as well.
(The Scheherezade plot, or pseudo-web.)
The chief example of Case XV is "The Arabian Nights" where Scheherezade (A) spins, night after night, a new conglomeration of relationships which, however much they seem to resemble a web, are merely a sort of tree-like formation, with trunks, branches, and twigs.
It is so done as to provide hundreds of simple storiesreally talesalthough the real story all the time is that of Scheherezade (A) herself.
NOW we are done with these elemental plot combinations. No doubt, as in the field of biology, there are sports and mutations of these, as well as new elemental combinations themselves which have never yet been born. What I want to do now, however, is to show you a huge number of these elemental combinations blended together into a single web-work plot, the telling of whose story and the full presentation of whose relationships demanded 104,000 words. And what will be of most interest, perhaps, is how this web was started and how other webs, likewise, both small and large, may be started in a similar manner.
In the next installment of this series, Mr. Keeler reaches the heart of his subject. One of his popular mystery novels, published both in America and abroad, "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows," will be diagrammed and analyzed. The method by which it was built up will be shown step by step.
A TRUE web-work plot consists of a plot structure in which many or all of the 15, Elemental Plot Combinations described in part III appear combined and recombined one with the other and all, of course, in the same narrative.
On pages 18 and 19 of this issue of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST appears a complete diagram or graph of the mystery novel "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows" (by Harry Stephen Keeler) which appeared serially on both sides of the Atlantic and likewise as a book on both sides, being issued by Hutchinson and Company of London and E. P. Dutton and Co., of New York.
Our diagram, as seen in the black numbered spots (the unnumbered crossings of threads do not count; they are merely due to our having to use a sheet of paper to represent characters moving three-dimensionally) emphasizes that the novel contains 80 markedly deviative incidents which change the destiny or course of one or all of the participants therein, either immediately or subsequently.
We also find that the novel contains 34 plot threadssome active, some passiveof which 18 figure in the plot both antecendent to the opening of the actual narrative, as published, and the course of the narrative itself 7 appear only in the antecendent conditions; and 9 appear only in that portion of the plot which develops after the story has opened.
It will be seen (by the typewritten scale at the top of the graph) that the plot structure lying back (to the left) of the opening of the story (39) covers 500 years from the incident (1) which serves as an opening gun for the creation of the plot. It will likewise be noted that once the story opens (39) it requires from then to the close (80) exactly 4 days 15 1/2 hours.
It might be of interest also to note that one plot thread consisting of two steel garden spades (entering 17 from 14, and thence into 18) is carried from 18 to 35 as an idea only, which at 35 is transmogrified by one of the villains into a symbol or deuce of spades; indeed, into a great number of such!
It may be noted from the graph alone that several incidentsnotably No. 17, a wreck on the Pacificdeviates 5 vital characters into 5 channels, different from those they were already in. presenting thus a quintuple variation of Elemental Plot Combination No. X.
Just as one plot thread was, for part of its course, an idea, so does another plot thread consist of a purely abstract conception, namely the Chinese game of Yeng-San, which, changing the destiny of humans and itself being changed and affected by outside factors (i. e. being banned by the Chinese government) constitutes a thoroughly conventional plot thread.
It will also be noted that the heavy black line represents not only the "viewpoint character," Absalom Smith, the hero, but the story itself. The events are viewed through his eyes, and the reader as a rule has no cognizance of what has taken place elsewhere until Absalom Smith, in some certain incident, learns of it.
In the key to the graph (in small type below) the opening incident of the narrative, number 39, is given the bold-face letter A to indicate that it is the first to be brought under the reader's scrutiny. The incidents thereafter, as they actually take place before the eyes of the reader, are in turn lettered B, C, D, etc. The unlettered incidents lie outside of the viewpoint character's progress, and are brought to his (and the reader's) attention only indirectly, through the mouths of others, or by direct abortive lapses from viewpoint.
The chart does not show at what exact point in the story a character becomes aware of an old incident in the plot; that is, while I can show how in actual time Beatrice Mannerby's creation of the spurious Ng Yat newspaper story (30) occurs two months prior to the opening of the narrative, I cannot show how Absalom Smith, the hero, learns of her little bit of feminine ingenuity only almost at the end of the narrative, i. e. in incident 75, where Beatrice, now technically under arrest, tells what she did. But I will endeavor later to give a principle or two covering this ever-present problem of story presentation.
BEFORE going briefly into the specific matter of how all web-works are started, including this one, it might be well to preface such a question with a few remarks as to the philosophy and general methods of such composition.
In the first place, why a web-work anyway?
Is not the following explanation of it wholly acceptable? Aside from normal interest in dramatic happenings, is it not true that in every human being is a longingan instinctive hungerto believe that life, in its great complexity and utter meaningless involvements, does move in a regulated manner; that it is not all incoherent, all mixed up and utterly without pattern, but that the whole thing is mathematically accurate in its causes and effects? We see it proved frequently in small limited relationships and we often call such proof "poetic justice."
But on the large stage represented by years, oceans, continents, and infinite numbers of reactions between people, the thing is not so susceptible of proof.
Life, on the larger scale, though full of effects which are the direct results of causes, is apparently plotless. It is too complex. There has never yet appeared in life a causal relationship involving even 80 incidents and 34 strands that can be as unified as one artificially created. And it is this artificial relationship, this purely fictional web-work plot, this bit of fife twisted into a pattern mathematically and geometrically true, that fills the gaps in one's spirit which rebels at the looseness of life as it apparently is.
" Should one aim for plot or for story?" I give you this answer: The author should imagine himself as possessing, so to speak, a near-sighted eye and a far-sighted eye. The near-sighted eye should watch the developments being built into the story and concentrate on its job, for this is the story which the reader is going to follow before the curtain begins to lift and show him the web-work plot back of it all. But all the time the far-sighted eye must be watching two things: First, will the developments in the story help to weave a more structurally satisfying plot? Second, will the plot as thus far built help to provide interesting developments (in the story) for the nearsighted eye to concentrate upon?
Naturally a change in story may necessitate a change in plot, or vice versa; with every change, some distortion of the whole structure may take place. The web-work at times literally seems to quiver like a sea of jelly. Every tap of the hammer makes a dozen changes necessary. But gradually as both the story and plot develop together, it becomes more and more stable, till finally it is as near perfect as it can be made.
The story intrigues the editor, but the plot sells it to him.
THERE is, sticking forth in every webwork plot, the crumbling relic of a preliminary structure that to the technician marks the initial simple structureor movefrom which the entire plot was created. And sometimes, too, this structure is so admirably preserved that the terrible seesawings and agonies of the plot-maker have not destroyed its pristine beauty and classic lines !
This brings us to a statement of a mental process which eleven years ago was first enunciated by this writer and was named by the publisher of THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST "The Keeler Law." It was then stated in a form calculated by this writer to give it mathematical definiteness (and a headache to the non-mathematical) and because I am still hoping for some royalties from Mr. Emerson, owner of Bromo-Selzer, I will re-state it as it was stated in 1916. It ran, as I phrased it:
Because already I am beginning to feel shaky about the possibility of receiving those Bromo-Selzer royalties, or even a free bottle, I will re-state this "law" today, after eleven years, as the following simple rule:
In 1922 Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, in his "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing," attacked the above stated law as "the last word in formula." It is more than possible, of course, that Mr. Hoffman misconstrued the statement of the law as supposedly declaring that a plot must definitely be built in that way, rather than that the mind must follow that formula only in initiating the plot. If he did not thus misconstrue it, my chief defense to his allegation that "this is the last word in formula" is that it has brought many thousands of dollars into my till; many books and magazine serials out under my name; and many hundreds of newspaper reviews in papers in America, the British Isles, New, Zealand, Australia, British India and South Africa. As editor for many years of a magazine devoted to adventure storiesand Adventure was one of the most successful and profitable magazines ever issued, as well as one showing that a popular magazine may attain a real dignityMr. Hoffman has been confronted with plots that are prolongations of Elemental Cases II, III, XIIIa and XIIIb, and XIV, varied by entanglements here and there with one or another combination. Whereas the law I have stated refers to web-works. And if he will tell me how one may create a set of complicated yet correllated dramatic relationships without deriving them from an initial set already created, I will be glad to learn of it. If he can make of me furthermore sufficiently a gambler in a literary sense that I will work out a number of initial incidents in the optimistic hope that the rest of my plot will provide the entire compulsion for these incidents, he can invest me with a great deal of courage which I do not have: for when it comes to time and energy, I wantand so do you, I believein case invention fails and balks, as it so frequently does, to have the structure on which all else hangs sound in itself, able to stand on its own feet, depending on nothing and nobody for its compulsion.
But let us get down to examples. You may, as time goes on, watch all stories. For the present, the closest story at hand is the one that has been graphed and to which there is a printed key on page 18.
IF you will note carefully, Absalom Smith. the hero, is brought successively and quite early in the narration, into an encounter with six or seven other characters of some importance in the structure. Each of the first incidents brings him into relation with a new (to the reader) character. In No. 39 he receives a $1000 offer, subject to certain provisions, from Snell, City Editor of the Argus; in No. 40, he visits Monte van Tine, a young clubman; in No. 41 he has an encounter with "Sam Barker," his enemy, on the steps of the Argus, in which he foolishly drops a hint that he has an inside tip to things. In No. 42, he calls on Ambrose Smith, his brother, to try to get a loan to reach New Orleans and follow his tip; in No. 43, his father gives him everything he has in the world to reach New Orleans; in 44 he calls on Albert Wick, an acquaintance, to make certain arrangements about his mail. In No. 45 he receives a (supposed) photograph of Beatrice Mannerby whom he is trying to locate. Thus, one after another, his path has been made (by the author) to cross the paths of a number of very actively functioning factors in the plot, and also a few which proved (for the author) to be nearly "duds." Yet had the author not made these crossings, he would not have had even the nucleus of this web. And the philosophy of these early crossings isor should beobvious. It is necessary (in initiating the plot) that the viewpoint character make a number of rapid crossings with other characters or threads, so that they may be gotten into the networkso that the author may begin to weave! Just so sure as the strands are kept down by not sufficient crossings in the beginning, there is nothing to weave withor else the web-work will be no more complex than the pigtail down a little Dutch girl's back. In this story (the serial form) the narration opens in the first paragraph establishing Absalom Smith's point of view. In the next six hours, seven incidents involving him take place, each introducing a different character or object. Thus and thus only is thrown into existence a set of strands by which the weaving of that which is to lie ahead of the story is to take place, and also that which is to follow. I was many years discovering this fact, but only a few days in discovering the philosophy of it. I have found that unless one deliberately projects a number of characters in quick succession into a story, one will flounder helplessly in trying to build up a web-work.
It should be emphasized here, however, and before we proceed a step further, that in the final manuscript, as completed by the author, the narrative may not necessarily open at the point where this preliminary invention or row-of-bricks "trial plot" was begun, even if this original row-of-bricks structure has remained unchanged, as so frequently happens. The opening curtain may ultimately be placed back of all this, or it may be placed midway in it, in which case some of the incidents in this row-of-bricks plot will lie in the "conditions precedent."
But we will later clarify all these points of a highly important principle, by actual demonstration.
Why, someone asks, must each incident in this preliminary half dozen be a direct resultant of the previous incident? That is because at this point there is no fully developed set of incidents back of the "weaving board" (the opening of the story) from which any of these early incidents may be derived by the process of invention; nor is there any later plot either. It is, in fact, from this early "invention" that all else is woven, to the left, to the right. Therefore it must stand on its own feet, since it supports the webwork, not the webwork it; and since it may prove impossible to derive any of its incidents from the portion of the plot that covers "conditions precedent."
In "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows," tracing up this causation and comparing it with certain crude notes and diagrams on pieces of manilla paper still in the author's possession, it appears that only two incidents were re-derived: that is, the original plot notes show that the young newspaperman gets the offer (39) ; to try and make a loan, he goes to his friend, the young clubman who gives him the tip and the story of how he was doublecrossed in lieu of a loan (40) ; therefore he goes to the villain to have it out (41) ; having in his anger dropped a tip to the villain he goes reluctantly to his successful and sarcastic brother to make the loan (42) ; being refused, he goes with equal reluctance to his partly paralyzed father to make the loan (43); having got it, he goes to a friend and arranges for having his mail forwarded to New Orleans (44) ; he then digs up a picture of the missing person (45).
This "beautiful" structure got altered by the plot which was woven to create it, but not so badly altered but that it still looms up indisputably as the preliminary organization of incidents from which the 80-incident affair must have been evolved. It is because through the lightning-like sifting and cementing and eroding process of invention this structure often partly vanishes, leaving only its ruins, that Mr. Hoffman descries the "law" as the last word in formula.
As an example of this "vanishing," the author in this story saw, after his preliminary row-of-bricks invention, that there were too many "goings to get a loan" with the consequent danger of monotony from using the same motive. In fact, there were three such. So he reduced these to two (42 and 43), by having the hero sent for (40) by the young clubman as a result of the latter's having been a private secretary (26) and knowing all about a certain "doublecrossing." As a result of another change of derivation, he had the hero receive (45) the picture of the missing girl, through a certain sub-plot, instead of digging it up, and moreover was thus enabled to foist a spurious photo on the reader and cover up the identity of the heroine. Still further, to demonstrate how that part of the plot which evolves from the initial "row-of-bricks" (to the right) can change an incident therein, the refusal of the loan by the sarcastic brother (42) is made to drag, in certain additional matters concerning a Japanese oil well and playing cards, etc., which prove very advantageous to the later plot. For an incident, like a human being, can be "fat" or "skinny."
But because this preliminary structure as originally invented by the author was a perfect row-of-bricks in itself, following the law stated, had none of these things come up, had none of these changes been made, it could still, in a sense, have thumbed its fingers to its nose as far as the world was concerned, and could have supported the entire 80 incidents.
Yet could this law, you ask yourself a little skepticallv, be after all the beautiful theory of a theorist? As I write this part of the series on web-work plot, I step into the adjoining room off my studio and tear from the morning Chicago Tribune the synopsis of Louis Tracy's story "The Woman in the Case," running in the Tribune. I have not read the story, and probably never shall, but let us see what we shall see:
Now following this only for the first half of the above paragraph, you will note that John Arden, or thread A, crossed in succession a series of threads: B, a night watchman; later, at the same moment, C and D, Esmee and Mrs. Sinclair; and, through overhearing their conversation about a certain Lord Farndale, a thread E; and you will also note that A crossed B because A lost his key: and A crossed C and D because of B giving him certain rooms, and he crossed E through overhearing the conversation between C and D. You will notice you have not seen an old plotmaster like Louis Tracy having two women discuss philosophy, cake-baking, or kissproof lipstick at a time when he is working at high pressure to get threads into his story, namely Lord Farndale, who if he is really dead will obviously function no further in the following part of the plot, but who (from parts of the synopsis I have later seen) has evidently been very actively used in the conditions precedent.
But one of my readers who has been kind enough to read the proof thus far on this series and has accepted the statement about the necessity of creating the preliminary psychological structure, asks how this preliminary structure existing in "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows" itself came to be invented. instead of some other structure following the A, B n, n + 1 law, etc. And although such explanations involve to some extent dramatic considerations, on which subject a book also could be written, I am glad to follow the thing out exactly as found on those manilla notes filed away in a desk drawer.
THERE were no particular ideas in the beginning for what came to be "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows" beyond that of developing a human drama by the intersection of a character with a web of relationships. It was the intention, therefore, to create that web. As a starter, however, one must have the thread which should intersect the web and provide the drama, and so the author created a likable, fairly typical young fellow, capable of acting the part of a hero and interpreting affairs clearly enough to be a good viewpoint character for an average reader. Since the average reader must be made to enter into close accord with a heromust "feel" events from his viewpoint as well as "see" themit seems essential that the hero selected should have no repellent traits of character and should not be too extreme in any particularjust a pleasant. earnest, chivalrous, ambitious. healthy-minded young fellow, whose personality the reader could be led to assume without repugnance. The necessity of later inventions will motive this hero more definitely; so one must start with a character who shall be highly elastic. yet acceptable even to the most cynical. Thus Absalom Smith came into existence, but at that early stage any name would do for him, and the author's notes show, in fact, that he bore a number of names, beginning with "Kenton Jeffries," since it was not until the plot was fairly developed that the need was discovered for the most common name in the world, Smithyet preceded by a pre-name that should be uncommon.
As the hero stood here, the author was led to try him out as a newspaperman. It was at that critical point that one story of many millions commenced to be spun, woven, cemented or built.
At the beginning incident of the whole invention, a million stories are trembling to be crystallized on the black ribbon of the typewriter, like those fairy babies of Maeterlinck who were all waiting to be born. Had the author here made his hero an engineer, a society man, a steel mill employee. a negro slave in Timbuctoo, or any other of thousands of individuals, the whole course of the story would have been different.
But, deciding on the hero as being a newspaperman, before the author could begin to weave there must be more threads. So Smithto call him by the name finally usedwas decreed to be out of a job, which allowed him to be brought into forcible relationship with another character, city editor of the Argus, who might have a job lying around loose. Had Smith gotten the job, that might have been the end of the story, but possessing the scars of many encounters with vicious and intractable plots, the author did not end his story on the first incident following the opening. He made the city editor give the young man an offer of $1000 to locate some missing person.
One character thus crystallized a second character, and sufficient motive power was introduced to propel the first character directly at several more. Moreover, a handy note of mystery was created by the nature of the assignment given to the reporter, and one of those very, very fortunate things was created: a "free" thread; the "him," "her," or "it" who had disappeared!
THESE "free" threads, capable of being held in reserve for a long time and of being objectified into many things, are the handiest weapons the plot-maker-can have. It is a dollar in the bank against a hungry daya bone in Father Plotmaker's cupboard. It wasn't until quite a bit of plot had been actually woven that this free thread was made one Beatrice Mannerby, daughter of a rival publisher. It could have been an old college professor. Mayor Big Bill Thompson of Chicago (perhaps kidnapped by the English), the city editor's own son, a rival publisher, some musical comedy actress, or a Chinese xzylophonist. Sufficient it was that an editor said "X has disappeared. Locate X for us, and you can have our thousand bucks reward."
The author was not uncognizant all this time that a story must have romance. and that a thread constituting a lovely girl introduced into the initial structure will result in the lovely girl's assuredly being in the completed structure! But temporarily, and at the risk of creating only a stag party, the author plowed on mentally with masculine threads only. Smith, impelled by a S1000 offer, is sent to a man (any man) who is in a position to give him a lead on the missing person; this man will be allowed to give the desired lead, but also additional information tending to show Smith that he has an enemy: this will naturally send Smith around to his enemy for a verbal set-to, in which he may be allowed to drop too many hints of the big news story that is trembling in his "mitt," but having thus "spilled the beans," he will naturally start out to search for a loan to follow up the tip given him: let him go therefore to one man who will refuse him, then one man who will give it to him; with which (for certain reasons mentioned later) he may then go to somebody, a man friend, to arrange for having his mail forwarded; this done, he may then dig up a photograph of the missing person.
What is of chief importance here is that a webwork plot has been started. The author has created six or more incidents, each derived roughly from the other, each involving a new thread, and all with great potentialities. None of these strands were, in the author's mind, even woven into a pattern. Most of them had not even been named. Figure 23 would represent the story (and the plot!) as it thus far existed in the author's mind, the numbers referring to incidents actually found on the graph of the completed story.
The incidents marked T are "trial incidents" which the author may include in his preliminary attempts at weaving; and so that any of them may be dropped independently of the others, or interchanged.
Thread "X" is a "free" thread being tightly held on to by a desperate author!
HAVING reached this point, the author realizes that he must now crystallize his preliminary threads and incidents into some objectiveness rather than hazy encounters and figureheads with alphabetical letters for names.
He creates a definite disappearance, at last making it that of a girl called Beatrice. He sends the hero first to a milliner, Mrs. Curtray, for whom she once worked; then to her boarding house landlord, Mike McTegg; then to a young clubman, Monte van Tine, whom she once interviewed on some subject; then, since Smith is in the newspaper business and engaged on a newspaper venture, he makes the latter's enemy also a newspaperman and calls him Sam Barker; then, to get a loan; he sends the hero unsuccessfully to the hero's own brother, whom the author puts in the shoe business (later, the author has to change this to the oil business, but what of it?) ; then to an old washwoman, Mrs. Murphy, who once worked for his mother; then to the hero's own father; then to a friend, Albert Wicks, in the printing business; and then to a newspaper morgue where the hero obtains a picture of Beatrice.
The author's diagram from which he must weave now looks like this:
Now, having concrete strands, he commences to weave, gradually, as the story, is carried forward. He weaves not only for possible incidents in the past, but incidents in the future.
Studying his figure 24, he evolves from it a small partial web-structure as found in figure 25, by ratiocination much along the following line. He says: "If Barker is to be Smith's enemy and is moreover a newspaperman, I will just make it that Smith is out on the streets, ragged and hungry because Barker himself "double-crossed" Smith out of a good job in a certain incident (25?), the details of which I will work out later." He then extends these two threads back to an intersection (25?) shown. He ruminates again and says: "I believe I'll drop out the trial threads, the milliner, the landlord, and the washwoman; I can put 'em back later if I have to." (They have been dropped in the diagram.) Says the author: "If my hero is ultimately to succeed, like all heroes, in his quest, his thread will cross that of the girl Beatrice." So he extends Smith's and Beatrice's threads
both to a putative incident (108?), of which he does not bother at this point to insert the details. "Somebody is sure to buck Smith mighty hard for reasons of his own before Smith reaches his goal. I'll call this person Zeller, and Smith, in at least one incident (90?) (and maybe more) may have an encounter with him." A hitherto nonexisting thread, Zeller, is now laid down and extended to intersect with Smith's thread somewhere ahead of (108?), but the details of this intersection are not yet invented.
"That hazy relationship between Beatrice and Monte van Tine," the author ruminates. "WhyI'll make her a society girl, and I'll extend their threads to some old relationship (15?) of a social nature." He does this and continues: "Whyin factthats where I'll get the desired photograph of her (by thread birth), from his photographing her on some country club steps. The author, therefore, extends the photo thread
back to that incident (15?) from which its existence is now supposed to be due. Says the author: "How did this Monte get not only information about Beatrice, a society girl, but about Smith, a newspaperman being doublecrossed? Why not because Monte was private secretary to the owner of the paper where the doublecrossing took place? In fact, I can, if I wish, make this owner Beatrice's father, or I can dispense with that if I will, but at any rate I'll extend Monte's thread back to an incident (20?) where he became a private secretary to a man named Mannerby, and that will throw a new thread, Joseph Mannerby, newspaper owner, across the weaving board." Which is no sooner said than done.
We have now commenced to weave very definitely. I cannot carry you further than this, because I have no more notes, and because the processes of invention are at times too swift, at other times covering days. But it is obvious that, the existence of threads gives you that with which to weave; and that the existence of these threads is dependent on the first creation of a hazy row-of -bricks plot and its subsequent crystallization into colorful details of some sort.
AN author creating a complicated plot does not merely weave forward. For everything that happens to the hero and others with whom he is engaged has to be accounted for by devising deviating actionsplot incidentsthat have taken place at some time in the past. In like manner some of his weaving, even when done after the opening "gong" of the story, is between threads other than the viewpoint character (or characters!). Such incidents have to be brought to the reader's knowledge in some way; but retrospective narration is not ordinarily as gripping as direct narration. Readers do not care so much to know what has happened as what is going to happen next. If you see a richly clad man waving his arms wildly in the window of a deserted warehouse which is on fire, your first thought is not: "How did that man happen to be in that warehouse?" but "How can the fireman rescue him?" Only after he is safely out will we begin to inquire about the details of his presence there.
This example conveys an approximate idea of the relative effectiveness of retrospective and direct narration. But in nearly all long fiction, particularly mystery stories, retrospect is a necessity.
At what points, then, in the story should this retrospective narration be given? The point usually determines itself. If given where it relieves curiosity tension, and withheld where it will destroy suspense, it is being handled as properly as by any rule I could give.
I would ask you to note, as applicable of a principle, that in the plot graph published in the October AUTHOR & JOURNALIST, one certain incident in Wong's threadNo. 25his getting a job on the Leader and becoming "Sam Barker"was held back clear until the end of the story. The reader never sees the plot as you see it in that graph until the missing incident is supplied at the end. And that point is a very important point to the writer. For when the second comes that the reader sees the graph (or the relationships on the graph are completely and fully given to him), the story is over.
Another point, equally important.
What of the final intersections shown between any two threads on the graphor any two threads in a satisfying story? What, if anything, particularly characterizes these last intersections?
When characters have told all they can, or have functioned in the last incident which is to have a desired effect on the plot, they usually are dropped. But please note a very important point. Where they are dropped, a point of stability has been reached with respect to their dramatic affairs.
Let us examine a few points in the graph of "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows." In No. 36 Sing Moy turns over an important bit of information to the T’ong. He is now stabilized so far as his own affairs go. Incident No. 56. The Mystery Smith or "X. Y." Smith dies from shock due to the receipt of a two-of-spades. He burns the card in addition. If there is anything more stable than a dead man or a pile of oxidized carbohydrates, the reader is asked to dig it up for himself. And so on up to No. 80 in which Beatrice and Absolom plight their troth. This is at least conventional stability, though the cynics may tell us that only now is real instability created.
Just so much as these various terminal intersections of threads bring about stability for each or one, just so much will the reader f eel, at the end of the narrative, that the drama has been played out.
A NUMBER of questions have doubtless arisen in a number of minds. I know, because they arose in my own mind throughout the years, and because they have been asked me personally and at writers' gatherings. I have agreed to answer pertinent questions through THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST, and shall be glad to do so. One query may be anticipated. It is:
Do you diagram all your own stories in the way "The Voice of the Seven Sparrows” was diagrammed, before you commence to write?
My answer is no. The full diagramming as was done here is helpful in an analytic study of plot. I have diagrammed other stories, to be sure, particularly those of Bertram Lebhar, who was an instinctive and natural web-work plottist of splendid ability; but such diagramming has been done distinctly for the study of plot. Doing this and deriving principles from it has been a perfect exemplification of the inductive process of logic. I do, however, often diagram fractional parts of my own story, in the initial plotting, in order to see what strands I have available, and to see just what a certain tentative conception gives. For the most part I go by an acquired sense of feel.
In conclusion, my main idea has been to teach you neither a method nor a rule for building narrative, but to give youas much as was in my powerthis "feel" of plot. Much of my own work, and perhaps the majority of the work of professional writers, has been done only through the "plot feel,” without any acute consciousness of the principles that might be its cause.
It is only through a purely inductive process, and a personal love of inductive reasoning, that I have worked backward, as it were, and endeavored to find what similar factors existed in all of that which was known as plot."
To those interested in plot, if I have given you any new principles, I am glad. If you have only the plot feel, you have something more than half a dozen principles. And if you have any unasked questions that were not answered in this series, the author would like to say that he maintains open house on Friday evenings at his mystery workshop, at 1321 Addison Boulevard, Chicago, and you are invitedif you are in Chicago by any chanceto come and propound then, without the necessity of calling by phone or by introduction, other than that you met him in THE AUTHOR & JOURNALIST.
And as Trader Horn would say, "I bid you a fond adieu! Aye!"