Short story writing

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Short Story Writing

by Charles Raymond Barrett

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A Practical Treatise on the Art of the Short Story

By Charles Raymond Barrett, Ph. B.



New York: The Baker and Taylor Co. 33-37 E. 17th Street, Union Square North

Copyrighted, 1898, by Charles Raymond Barrett Copyrighted, 1900, by Charles Raymond Barrett



















This book is an attempt to put into definite form the principles observed by the masters of the short story in the practice of their art. It is the result of a careful study of their work, of some indifferent attempts to imitate them, and of the critical examination of several thousands of short stories written by amateurs. It is designed to be of practical assistance to the novice in short story writing, from the moment the tale is dimly conceived until it is completed and ready for the editor's judgment.

The rules and principles here presented embody not what I conceive to be right, but what the great masters of the short story have thought to be right, and what they have proved to be at least successful. I speak only as a delver into the secrets of other men; and if I seem arrogant, it is due to the influence of the company I keep. My deductions are made not only from the artifices and triumphs of the successful, but from the struggles and failures of the unfortunate as well; and I have endeavored to make clear both the philosophy and the application of all the principles so deduced. Though in theory these rules are obligatory on all who essay the short story, they are frequently and knowingly evaded or violated by the masters of the art, whose genius is great enough to excuse their disregard of the conventions, or whose skill is sufficient to smooth over their technical lapses; but for the novice the only safe course is a careful observance of all conventions.

To the aspiring writer this book may seem to be merely a catalogue of "Don'ts", the gist of which is, "Don't write"; but that is to misread me. Short story writing is not easy, and I cannot make it so, even if I would; but it is far from my purpose to discourage any person who feels the Heaven-sent call to write, and who has the will and ability to respond to it. But that call is but a summons to labor--and to labor the severest and most persistent. To one who comes to it but half-heartedly, illy prepared, shirking its requirements, I can predict certain failure; but to the earnest, serious, conscientious worker, I would say a word of hope. The promotion from the rank of amateur to the dignity of authorship may be long in coming, but it will come at last. Fame, like all else that this world has to give, depends largely upon downright hard work; and he who has the courage to strive in the face of disappointments will achieve success in the end.

Throughout this book I have endeavored to give my statements definiteness by the employment of numerous examples, both good and bad. I have made no attempt to present an exhaustive analysis of the technique of individuals or of schools, but have chosen my illustrations with a single view to their aptness; I have, however, for the convenience of reference, taken these paradigms chiefly from the published collections of stories by the older and better known writers. My "awful examples" are verbatim excerpts from manuscripts which have passed through my hands; their authorship is concealed for obvious reasons.

To the best of my knowledge there is no book extant which treats solely of the technique of the short story. The nearest approach to it is "How to Write Fiction," an anonymous work published by Bellaires & Co., London; but to my mind that is too slight, too theoretical, and too enamored of the artificial French school to be of practical value to the amateur. Far better, as working guides, are the frequent fragmentary articles on the short story, many of them by successful short story writers, published in current periodicals, to which I am considerably indebted. But my greatest obligation is to a course in "The Art of the Short Story"--the first university course ever offered in that subject--conducted at the University of Chicago in 1896 by Dr. E. H. Lewis.

C. R. B.

CHICAGO, August 1, 1900.


The short story was first recognized as a distinct class of literature in 1842, when Poe's criticism of Hawthorne[1] called attention to the new form of fiction. Short story writing had, however, been practiced for many years before that: perhaps the narratives of Homer and the tales of the first books of the Bible may be considered as the first examples; certainly the short story is closely associated in its early history with narrative poems, allegorical tales, and mouth-to-mouth traditions, and it can be traced surely to the fabliaux of the thirteenth century. Later writers aided in its development: Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur" and Caxton's popularization of old romances marked a further progress; and some of the work of Defoe and Addison would almost stand the modern tests. But the short story as we know it to-day is a product of the nineteenth century; and it owes its position in literature, if not its very existence, to the work of Irving, Hawthorne, and Poe. They first recognized its possibilities and employed it seriously; and the art and genius which they put into their tales assured the short story a permanent place in literature. They differed in subject matter and style, but they recognized the same requirements and limitations; and the canons which they established then obtain to-day.

The modern short story is essentially an American product; and our masters of its art have established precedents for literary workers of the old world. In England, Stevenson, Kipling and Haggard are considered the originators of the modern short story; and Zola, de Maupassant, Daudet and Paul Marguerite in France, Tolstoi in Russia, and other famous foreign authors have their claims for consideration; but all of them, admittedly or not, are but disciples of the earlier American trinity. This book will confine itself to the English-American short story.

To-day the short story is so popular that we seem to be in a new literary epoch--the epoch of the short story--and there is no apparent cause to expect an early diminution in the demand for such literature; so that to the young writer the short story offers the best opportunity to prove his mettle. Then, too, it has the additional value of being an excellent school for the novelist. The short story and the novel have many radical differences; but in material, treatment and aim they are much the same, and the same general training is necessary for both. All short story writers do not become great novelists, nor have all novelists been short story tellers; but it is a fact that the majority of the present day novelists served their 'prenticeship in the ranks of the short story writers.


[Footnote 1: "Hawthorne's 'Tales,'" by Edgar Allan Poe. Graham's Magazine, May, 1842.]




There is no modern literary form which is as little understood as is the short story. The term short story is applied to every piece of prose writing of 30,000 words or less, without regard to its matter, aim, or handling; but our purpose demands a definition of some accuracy.

"In the first place, then, what is, and what is not, a short story? Many things a short story may be. It may be an episode, like Miss Ella Hepworth Dixon's or like Miss Bertha Thomas'; a fairy tale, like Miss Evelyn Sharp's; the presentation of a single character with the stage to himself (Mr. George Gissing); a tale of the uncanny (Mr. Rudyard Kipling); a dialogue comedy (Mr. Pett Ridge); a panorama of selected landscape, a vision of the sordid street, a record of heroism, a remote tradition or some old belief vitalized by its bearing on our lives to-day, an analysis of an obscure calling, a glimpse at a forgotten quarter ... but one thing it can never be--it can never be 'a novel in a nutshell'."[2]

"A short story ... must lead up to something. It should have for its structure a plot, a bit of life, an incident such as you would find in a brief newspaper paragraph.... He (Richard Harding Davis) takes the substance of just such a paragraph, and, with that for the meat of his story, weaves around it details, descriptions and dialogue, until a complete story is the result. Now, a story is something more than incidents and descriptions. It is a definite thing. It progresses constantly. It arrives somewhere. It must enforce some idea (no matter what). It must be such a reality that a man who read it would carry away a definite impression."[3]

It is evident, then, that the term short story is properly used only when it means a short prose narrative, which presents artistically a bit of real life; the primary object of which is to amuse, though it may also depict a character, plead a cause, or point a moral; this amusement is neither of that æsthetic order which we derive from poetry, nor of that cheap sort which we gain from a broad burlesque: it is the simple yet intellectual pleasure derived from listening to a well told narrative.

The first requisite of a short story is that the writer have a story to tell--that is, a plot. He may present pretty scenes and word pictures if he will, but he must vivify and humanize them by the introduction of certain characters, patterned after the people of real life; and these characters must move and act and live. The presentation of "still life" pure and simple is not in the province of the short story.

The question of length is but relative; in general a short story should not exceed 10,000 words, and it could hardly contain less than 1,000; while from 3,000 to 5,000 is the most usual length. Yet Hawthorne's "The Gentle Boy" contains 12,000 words; Poe's "The Gold Bug," 13,000; and perhaps the majority of James' exceed the maximum, while "The Lesson of the Master" requires 25,000, and "The Aspern Papers" 32,000. Indeed, the length of any story is determined, not so much by some arbitrary word limit, as by the theme with which it deals. Every plot requires a certain number of words for its proper elaboration, and neither more nor less will do. Just what the limit for any particular story may be, the writer must decide for himself. "It seems to me that a short story writer should act, metaphorically, like this--he should put his idea for a story into one cup of a pair of balances, then into the other he should deal out his words; five hundred; a thousand; two thousand; three thousand; as the case may be--and when the number of words thus paid in causes the beam to rise, on which his idea hangs, then is his story finished. If he puts in a word more or less, he is doing false work."[4]

The short story does not need the love element that is generally considered necessary to the novel, and many short stories disregard it altogether. Love usually requires time and moods and varying scenes for its normal development, so that it is difficult to treat it properly within the limits of the short story; and then only when some particular phase or scene admits of isolation. Then, too, many short stories are merely accounts of strange adventures, wonderful discoveries or inventions, and queer occurrences of all sorts--themes which amuse us from their mere oddity; or they are verbal photographs of life, which are interesting from their views of psychological and sociological problems; and none of them requires love as the chief motive. Ingenuity and originality, the principal constituents of such tales, are the story teller's great virtues; on them he bases his hopes. Therefore, he must have strong individuality, and the power of forcing his readers to view life through his eyes, without perceiving him.

Also, and as if to compensate for the lack of the love interest, the short story has a "touch of fantasy" which gives it a distinctive charm. This quality is the hint of--not necessarily the supernatural, but rather the weird; it is a recognition and a vague presentation of the many strong influences that are not explainable by our philosophy of life. It is the intrusion into our matter-of-fact lives of the uncanny element, which the novice so grossly misuses in his tales of premonitory dreams and visions, and of most unghostly ghosts. "It is not enough to catch a ghost white-handed and to hale him into the full glare of the electric light. A brutal misuse of the supernatural is perhaps the very lowest degradation of the art of fiction. But 'to mingle the marvellous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor than as any actual portion of the substance,' to quote from the preface to the 'House of the Seven Gables,' this is, or should be, the aim of the writer of short-stories whenever his feet leave the firm ground of fact as he strays in the unsubstantial realm of fantasy. In no one's writings is this better exemplified than in Hawthorne's; not even in Poe's. There is a propriety in Hawthorne's fantasy to which Poe could not attain. Hawthorne's effects are moral where Poe's are merely physical. The situation and its logical development and the effects to be got out of it are all Poe thinks of. In Hawthorne the situation, however strange and weird, is only the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual struggle. Ethical consequences are always worrying Hawthorne's soul; but Poe did not know there were any ethics."[5]

The short story usually treats of the lighter and brighter side of life. It is seldom in deadly earnest; it tends somewhat to superficiality; and it prefers cleverness to profundity, in both conception and treatment. Naturally, then, comedy rather than tragedy is its usual sphere; and though the tale may end in gloom, it more frequently suggests a possible tragedy in order to heighten the effect of the happy denouement. For similar reasons the short story avoids the didactic tone, either presenting its lesson in clever disguise, or limiting its moral efforts to providing innocent amusement for an idle hour.

In the strife between realism and romanticism the short story adopts the middle course, taking advantage of the better phases of both, but siding with neither; for every life is subject to both influences, often at the same time, and the short story aspires to present life as it is. "Without true realism and genuine romanticism--actuality and ideals--good work was never done, nor did any writer ever rise to be an author."[6] "No worthy work of fiction may properly be labelled romantic, realistic or symbolic, since every great work of art contains all these in some proportion. Love and fighting are not necessarily romance; nor are soup-kitchens and divorce courts necessarily realism.... Malice, futility and ugliness--the dreadful monotony of existence--are not necessarily real life; nor the tales of summer love and marriage ceremonies, successful fightings, or sacrifice and chivalry necessarily romance."[7]

In its technique a short story demands the utmost care; it lacks the bulk of the novel, which hides minor defects. It must have a definite form, which shall be compact, and which shall have its parts properly proportioned and related; and it must be wrought out in a workmanlike manner. It requires extreme care from its conception to its completion, when it must stand forth a perfect work of art; and yet it must reveal no signs of the worker's tools, or of the pains by which it was achieved.

From what has been said it is evident that the short story is artificial, and to a considerable degree unnatural. It could hardly be otherwise, for it takes out of our complex lives a single person or a single incident and treats that as if it were complete in itself. Such isolation is not known to nature: There all things work together, and every man influences all about him and is influenced by them. Yet this separation and exclusion are required by the conventions of the short story; and after all, there is always the feeling, if the characters are well handled, that they have been living and will continue to live, though we have chanced to come in contact with them for only a short time.

It is this isolation, this magnifying of one character or incident, that constitutes the chief difference between the novel and the short story.[8] In the novel we have a reproduction of a certain period of real life: all the characters are there, with their complex lives and their varying emotions; there are varied scenes, each one the stage of some particular incident or semi-climax which carries the action on to the final chapter; and there are persons and scenes and conversations which have no reason for being there, except that just such trivial things are parts of life. With the short story it is very different: that permits of but one scene and incident, one or two real characters, with one predominant emotion: all else is a detriment to the interest and success of the story. A book may be called a novel even if it is composed of a series of incidents, each complete in itself, which are bound together by a slender thread of common characters; but a story cannot properly be called a short one unless it has simplicity of plot, singleness of character and climax, and freedom from extraneous matter. "In a short story the starting point is an idea, a definite notion, an incident, a surprising discovery; and this must have a definite significance, a bearing on our view of life; also it must be applied to the development of one life course, one character. The novel, on the other hand, starts with a conception of character, a man, a woman, a human heart, which under certain circumstances works out a definite result, makes a world.... Lastly it develops a group of characters, who together make a complete community, instead of tracing the life course of one."[9]

To prove that these various requirements are recognized and observed by masters of the art, I would ask you to consider the following list, which The Critic selected from nearly five hundred submitted in competition for a prize which it offered for a list of the best twelve American short stories:

"The Man Without a Country," Edward Everett Hale.

"The Luck of Roaring Camp," Bret Harte.

"The Great Stone Face," Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"The Snow Image," Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"The Gold Bug," Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Lady, or the Tiger?" Frank R. Stockton.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Washington Irving.

"Rip Van Winkle," Washington Irving.

"Marse Chan," Thomas Nelson Page.

"Marjorie Daw," Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

"The Revolt of Mother," Mary E. Wilkins.[10]


[Footnote 2: "The Short Story," by Frederick Wedmore. Nineteenth Century, Mar., '98.]

[Footnote 3: "How to Write Short Stories." An interview with F. Hopkinson Smith in the Boston Herald. Current Literature. June, '96.]

[Footnote 4: Robert Barr in "How to Write a Short Story; A Symposium." The Bookman. Mar., '97.]

[Footnote 5: "The Philosophy of the Short-story," by Brander Matthews. Lippincott's. Oct, '85.]

[Footnote 6: "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.]

[Footnote 7: "The Art of Fiction," by Gilbert Parker. The Critic, Dec.,'98.]

[Footnote 8: In many respects the art of the short story and the novel are so closely allied that I have been able to reenforce my observations with magazine articles which were meant to apply primarily to the novel.--THE AUTHOR.]

[Footnote 9: "How to Write Fiction." Published anonymously by Bellaires & Co., London.

Part I, Chapter I.]

[Footnote 10: "The Best Twelve American Stories." The Critic. Apr. 10, '97.]



The treatment demanded by any particular story depends more upon its class than upon the tale itself; a story which recounts an actual occurrence is much less exacting than one which attempts to depict manners; and, in general, the more the writer relies on his art, the more difficult is his task. It is therefore both possible and profitable to separate short stories into definite groups and to consider them collectively rather than as units. This classification is based chiefly upon the necessity of a plot, the purpose or aim of the narrative, and the skill and care required for its successful treatment. It is crude and arbitrary from a literary standpoint, for a good short story is capable of being listed under several different classes, but it serves our practical purpose. Each story is placed according to its dominant class; and the classes are arranged progressively from the simplest to the most difficult of treatment. The examples are presented only as definite illustrations; there is no attempt to classify all short stories, or all the stories of any particular author.

I. THE TALE is the relation, in an interesting and literary form, of some simple incident or stirring fact. It has no plot in the sense that there is any problem to unravel, or any change in the relation of the characters; it usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd happenings, which depend on their intrinsic interest, without regard to their influence on the lives of the actors.

(a) It is often a genuine True Story, jealously observant of facts, and embellished only to the extent that the author has endeavored to make his style vivid and picturesque. Such stories are a result of the tendency of the modern newspaper to present its news in good literary form. The best illustrations are the occasional contributions of Ray Stannard Baker to McClure's Magazine.

(b) It may, however, be an Imaginative Tale, which could easily happen, but which is the work of the author's imagination. It is a straightforward narration of possible events; if it passes the bounds of probability, or attempts the utterly impossible, it becomes a Story of Ingenuity. (See Class VIII.) It has no love element and no plot; and its workmanship is loose. The best examples are the stories of adventure found in the better class of boys' and children's papers.

II. THE MORAL STORY, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.

(a) The Fable makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but publishes it by a final labelled "Moral," which epitomizes the lesson it conveys. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and satire, as in George Ade's "Fables in Slang." Æsop is of course the immortal example of this sort of story.

(b) The Story with a Moral attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved by Hawthorne's use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example" of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The Grateful Negro," are excellent illustrations of how not to write. Many of Hawthorne's tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The Ambitious Guest," and "Miss Bullfrog." The stories of Miss Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed in a later division. (See Class IV.) Contemporary examples of this style of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and Temperance papers.

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