W. T. (William Tenney) Brewster.

English composition and style; a handbook for college students online

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as anecdotes, some are well told and some ill told : the former
are called "short-stories," the latter "tales" and what not.
Scientifically, much of this discussion is mere logomachy,


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Narration 325

though it has some practical value in the writing of narrative.
Short stories are really a commodity for such modern readers
as may not have time, brains, or energy to master the longer,
more valuable, and intricate narrative combinations known
as novels. They assimie the limit of human leisure or human
fatigue to be between half an hour and two hours — the
empty moments of travel, of the siesta, of the long evening.
They are an extremely popular article to-day; there is much
demand for them; really good ones are scarce; the best dis-
play a good deal of skill and intelligence; but no serious
critic could ever think of comparing them in importance with
the longer and more sustained pictures of life furnished in
good novels. They are merely small coin.

The truth of the matter is that in the claim for unity as
the exclusive possession of the short story among fictitious
narrative forms, the term unity is used in a wholly narrow
and subjective sense, depending, as we have seen, on variable
physical and mental robustness. Treating the matter in a more
catholic spirit it is idle to deny unity to any narrative pro-
duction that lets us know unmistakably what it is about. In
this broader sense, such novels as Middlemarch have unity,
in that they represent a pretty complete view of the town in
which the events take place, and a novel told, like Lorna
Doone, in the first person, with plenty of attractive details and
many observations by the way, derives its unity from the char-
acter of the narrator. A cross section of life, of the life that
turns out ultimately to be empty, like that entrancing series of
gold bricks. Vanity Fair, derives its unity from the point of
view assumed throughout by the author, nor again should
one deny the term to a general conception considerably greater,
were that possible, than the Comidie Humaine of Balzac.
The unity of well-written chronicle history, which gives the
reader a notion of what is happening, is, of course, different
from the unity of, say. The Decline and Fall of the Roman
Empire, which is causal as well as chronological in its outline,
but either may be entirely well unified. Unity is quite as much


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326 English Composition and Style

a matter of intellectual comprehension as of artistic impres-
sion. A narrative of whatever kind should be about some-
thing and there should be no uncertainty as to what it is about
That is imity.

Coherence. In narration, coherence simply refers to the
juxtaposition of the events, presumed to be on one subject,
to have unity. A time order, the putting of the important
events in sequence, may be all that is necessary. On the other
hand, one event not only precedes another, it may also be the
cause of it. That is to say, a narrative may recoimt not
merely events, but may figure these events as situations, by
which term is meant a relation between people of such a diar-
acter that the status quo cannot be maintained. Love, jealousy,
respect for property, avarice, fear, and many other motives
may be sufficient to render a static condition between people
impossible and so lead to a series of situations. Many novels,
say, Stevenson's Treasure Island, The Wrecker, and Kid^
napped^ are carried on by situations of this unstatic char-
acter; they are series of accidents and escapes. But escape
from any kind of embarrassment, as from the intellectual
complication in which Mr. Henry James involves the prin-
cipal characters of, say, In a Cage, or The Sacred Fount, or
the effort of the emotion to escape from perplexity, as in
many novels, are equally non-static situations. They are not
imlike the situations which we meet and recognize in real life,
when relations are strained, and something has to happen,
for better or for worse. Situations in life and in narra-
tive are based on the assumption of a normal, quiet, smoothly
running life and a civilization disposed according to the nor-
mal customs and habits of the people concerned therein ; situa-
tions arise by reason of departures of any kind from this norm,
be it of individual, of family, of tribal, of national, life.
These situations permit the narrative method and give it co-

* For further analysis see my Specimens of Narration, p. 42.


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Narration 327

With plots of great coherence, these situations are often
prepared for long before they take place. Events of seem-
ingly trivial importance at the time of their occurrence, may
hav€ much to do with the later turn of events. Outside of
detective stories and such matters, instances of this kind of
coherence are not so very frequent or important: a good
example occurs in Quentin Durward where Quentin in the
course of a morning fray, has his morion cleft; this he ex-
changes for a Scotch bonnet, which later becomes the un-
witting signal for the rising at Liege and the horrible con-
sequences. In a larger sense, this coherence means that any
narrative, a story or a novel or an anecdote, will end as it
began: changes of character, new situations, setting, will be
accoimted for and not be introduced without adequate prepara-
tion. It is not an uncommon trick in amateur narration to
kill people in order to get out of a situation, but such methods
are very crude, lacking in ingenuity, and after all only a poor
transcription oi actuality. A narrative may properly end as it
began: if it is a "chapter of accidents" it should be acci-
dental in sense from the start; the canoe should not upset,
without wind, obstruction, or carelessness to upset it, and the
girl should not inevitably be drowned. Actual accounts of
accidents, as we see them in the daily press, are always ac-
cidental from the first word of the headline. There is no
reason why fiction, with whatever modifications, should not
follow this example.

Coherence is gained in a very important way by the dose
following of events from one point of view. Even where
the story is not told in the first person, it is quite possible to
maintain this closeness. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice,
and De Maupassant's Pierre et Jean are good examples of
stories in which the events fall into line about as they would
have unfolded themselves to the chief person; in Pride and
Prejudice, for example, what the heroine does not see for her-
self reaches her by hearsay. It is, on the whole, an admirable
way to be sure of coherence, and is far safer than the com-


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328 English Composition and Style

bined analytical and narrative methods. In Middlemarch, for
example, we see Casaubon as Dorothea saw him and we
also see him as George Eliot saw him, and the mixture is occa-
sionally confusing; sympathetic people wonder how Dorothea
could have married that pedant. But the point is that she
did not r^[ard him as a pedant. Now in Pride and Prejudice
we continually see Darcy, Wickham, and the rest, from one
point of view, and no such confusion arises: we know why
Elizabeth, in her own terms, could not marry Darcy, and why
later she would. One of the best ways of obtaining narra-
tive coherence, of making narrative move smoothly, is to in-
troduce all facts from one point of view.

Emphasis. What has been said of this subject imder gen-
eral composition (p. 68) applies to narration: important
matters, events, and situations are made important Em-
phasis is secured in a variety of ways: by the newspaper
headline naming the item to follow; by the short summary
preceding the longer account of an important happening; by
the announcement of the purpose of an author, — "Anna
virtmique cano," " I purpose to write the history," etc., — by
striking opening scenes; by situations which set the key for
the following events; by that cheapish device much aflfected
by Charles Reade, the use of capitals, s<!wnetimes standing
alone in paragraphs; by quick, striking paragraphs, as with
Victor Hugo, and a style full of short sentences; by skilfully
made chapter titles, and well-marked transitions between
chapter and chapter and paragraph and paragraph ; by repeti-
tions of constant and important ideas, by surrounding events
with maxima of various kinds; by suspending the meaning
and the denouement till the reader is quite harrowed and must
needs turn over some pages to see how it all came out; by
contrasting mystery with its clarification; by making Nature
assist at the revel of one's emotions (an obsolescent device,
last prominent in Blackmore and Charlotte Bronte), or by
making Nature mock the efforts of man (as commonly with
Mr. Thomas Hardy), — all these and many others are part


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Narration 329

and parcel of the substance of the story and at the same time
a means of bringing that substance into relief.

Increments of movement. Good unity and good coherence
insure good movement, albeit slow, to narrative; emphasis
ought to accelerate movement by making it clear whither we
are tending. Certainly the newspaper heading or the short
opening statement, enables us to get through the following
narrative much more quickly, — unless it discourages us alto-
gether, — ^or we know in the main what has happened and
hence we do not have to dig out every detail to find what
is really important. So the capitalized phrases of Charles
Reade explain to us that at such and such a point we ought
to be greatly moved and terrified; that the hero pursued by
the panther or crawling out of reach of the bear, was greatly
moved and terrified, and hence that we must take more in-
terest in the occurrence than we might ordinarily without the
guide posts. Now everything that directs our attention, in-
stead of allowing us to find out the direction for ourselves,
enables us, ordinarily, to traverse ground more quickly and
hence apparently increases the movement of narrative, as
well as of actual vehicles.

For this pushing, pulling, and encouragement of the mind,
the chief literary devices are suspense and climax. In the
former, over and above interesting facts and unmistakable
presentation, the sense, so to speak, is hung up just at those
points where we most want to know what really happened;
then presently we are allowed to come bursting out of the
psychological shell into which the author has thrust us and
to bathe in the liquid stream of swiftly flowing denouement.
The sensation is splendid ; the movement superb.

Climax is the height of interest, the situation to which all
others have been leading, from which the action is said to
fall. That is its application to drama; for it must be borne
in mind that much narrative is void of climax; in human
affairs, and the tale of them, climax and crises are far less evi-
dent than in fiction. Even in a work of fiction, as in history and


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330 English Composition and Style

biography, there may be more than one very important event
Obviously, stories, and histories and lives of great men have
some point, they start somewhere and they emerge in some
central interest or interests, — the treaty of peace follows the
glorious victory, the man accumulates his vast fortune or
writes the epoch-making book. Now, though narrative should
have point, or in other words, unity, the presence of a specially
heightened point called the climax is by no means evident in
all narration. Many novels have dozens of turning points or
crises or climaxes ; it is easier to lay hand on the climax of The
Bride of Lammermoor than of Old Mortality, of Esmond than
of Pendennis, of A Tale of Two Cities than of David Copper-
Held, but that does not mean that the former novel in each
pair is the better, except in respect to having a better-marked
climax. Except for very short stories whose length will not
admit more than one situation, climaxes in much good fiction,
as in life, are various and indefinite things. The best way
to look at them in narration is to regard them as giving the
reader, or the story writer, one point, or a series of points,
to get to; and from this point of view they undoubtedly aid

Singular as it may seem, slowness of the right kind is an
aid to movement. We have already seen how this may be in
the case of suspense. But that slowness also, which arises
from htmior, from deliberation, from wisdom, may be a help
in that the narrative is enriched by the way. Perhaps it
would be better to say, not that it has better movement, but
more energy and momentum; a greater weight of interest
is carried, though more slowly, over the distance. It is of
course evident that only minds of real intellectual endowment,
a Balzac, a Thackeray, a Tolstoy, can safely, though uncon-
sciously, adopt such methods ; they must be natural, for noth-
ing is worse than wisdom and humor that are neither wise
nor humorous. But, strictly speaking, this is not a matter of
narrative, and need not detain us.


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Narration 331

These remarks will illustrate certain well-known methods
in the composition of narrative and we may now turn to the
question of style in narration, a matter of far less moment.

Narrative style. It is very nearly impossible to offer any
general and, at the same time, sound remarks on style in
narration. Narration deals, as has been said, with events, but
those events are of so varied and diverse a nature that no
one kind of wording or of sentences may be said to be best
for this form of writing. On theoretical grounds, one might
be inclined to insist that lively words, such as specific verbs
of action, are typical in good narrative style, but examination
of diverse pieces of narrative admitted to be good will reveal
no uniformity in this matter. What is wanted is phraseology
that tells what happened as clearly and as forcibly as may
be. What happened may be the achievements of Sir Francis
Drake in harrying the Spaniards (p. 95), done in a some-
what large and general picture, it may be the graceful and
taking and daring entrance of the Disinherited Knight into
the lists at Ashby (p. 297), the luck of John Ridd in escaping
from the Doones (p. 90), the morbid apprehension of De
Quincey lest some untoward event occur to travelers in the
path of the stage-coach (p. 112), or the million and one other
things that may have happened. The principles applicable to
good style in general are applicable to good narrative style,
— that is, a writer expresses what he wishes to say in as
interesting and as exact language as he can. There is no
.specific narrative style aside from the facts that narratives
have to present; indeed, any prolonged attempt to exercise
Isiich a style, — on the assumption that because narration
deals with action, therefore words must be vivid and specific,
sentences short and brisk, — would probably result in a series
of conspicuous verbs and hectoring sentences. Other things
being equal, good narrative prefers specific words to general
words, the active voice to the passive, emphatic sentences to
involved sentences, parallel constructions to loose accretions.


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332 English Composition and Style

a time order to no sequence at all ; but these remarks are true
of any good style.

Summary; practical applications. Briefly, the view held
in the preceding pages is that any happenings, real or
imaginary, are, — within the limits of things that may properly
be spoken of, — fit subjects for narrative treatment The main
eflFort is to make these things interesting. Such interest arises
chiefly from the fact that they were interesting to the nar-
rator and that, either through fact or through quality, they are
unusual to the reader. Good treatment demands that above
all things the narrative make progress, that it fail not to
keep adding to itself, that at all costs what it is about be clear.
Aside from powerful facts, interest is maintained by such
literary devices as situations, point, climax, suspended interest.
Composition is the indispensable thing; the writer should know
where he wants to come out. The good narrative style is the
style which carries this movement on in the clearest and most
interesting manner.

Now experience shows that beginners in the art of narration
fail to make their work interesting for several reasons. The
facts that they choose to tell about, however enthralling to
themselves, appear like stock happenings; the writers fail to
see what is really and specifically interesting, they miss the
individual and unusual point or the good situation. This is
often indicated by the number of unnecessary details that are
introduced ; the reader is at a loss to know what he should be
interested in. To avoid falling into this slough of dullness,
the writer needs to determine what is really valuable, and to;
write with his eye on that. On the other hand, desire to avoid
this mediocrity not infrequently leads writers into denoue-^
ments much more grievous than the premises will bear ; hencd
we have much melodrama. The best narrative hangs together
in tone as well as in facts. Again, writers should rarely go be-
yond their knowledge, should not attempt what they do not see
or imagine clearly and authoritatively. The more varied and
individual one's wording, the better the narrative style.


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Narration 333


X. What is narration? Name classes of narrative with which
you are familiar from your own experience, and explain briefly
the nature of each class.

2. Taking several examples of narrative with which you are
familiar, as newspaper stories, accounts of games, current events,
magazine stories, novels, and the like, briefly show (i) how
much description, exposition, and argumentation there is in each,
(2) whether the main interest lies in the events, the characters,
or the setting, and (3) whether a large amount be given pro-
portionally to events, to dialogue, or to analysis.

3. In each of these narratives, determine the central point of
interest Isolate the beginnings and the endings and show by
what steps the narrative progresses between these two points. If
any material seems to be unnecessary, try to show reasons, if
any, for its use, and, where possible,* suggest improvements.

4. Analyze briefly a novel which you have recently read. To
what class may it be said to belong? Does it contain much or
little action? Is its plot simple or complicated? Straightforward
or involved? Are its characters, in the main, types or individuals?
What is its purpose?

5. State briefly the gist of the following essays : Criticism and
Fiction by W. D. Howells, The Art of Fiction by Walter Besant,
The Art of Fiction by Henry James, A Humble Remonstrance by
R. L. Stevenson. Explain differences in the purpose and the
point of view of these essays, and show why one view is sounder
than another.

6. What is meant by the terms romanticism and realism as
applied to fiction? Name two authors who may be regarded as
representatives of each of these so-called methods, and give a
short characterization of each. What can you say with regard
to Stevenson's division of fiction into the novel of adventure,
the novel of character, and the dramatic novel? Comment on
Mr. James's definition: "A novel is in its broadest definition
a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, con-
stitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the inten-
sity of the impression." Name a novel or a short story which
seems to you to be an excellent example of literary art, and give
the reasons for your view.


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334 English Composition and Style

7. What is meant by " plausibility," " verisimilitude," " a touch
of fantasy," "vision," "imagination," "tone," "value," "atmos-
phere," as applied to narrative ? Illustrate these terms from stories
with which you are familiar.

8. Show, briefly, how you would make the following narrative
facts interesting. Determine what seems to be the chief point in
each sketch and indicate any change in the order of events that
you think might better the tale. Try to write out any one of these
sketches or anecdotes and compare it with the stories referred to
in the footnote:*

I. An officer of the English regiment of White Hussars was,
after the battle of Sebastopol, taken prisoner by the Russians.
He was then sent away to Siberia, where he remained a prisoner
and an exile for thirty years. At last, however, he escaped, and

*The originals of nearly all these brief summaries will be found in
various accessible collections, as Carpenter and Brewster's Modem
English Prose, Brewster's Specimens of Narration, Canby's English
Composition, in Theory and Practice, Waite and Taylor's Modem
Masterpieces of Short Prose Fiction, Matthews's The Short-Story and
Nettlcton's Specimens of the Short-Story. This is merely for con-
venience. Almost any other good narrative would answer as well.
Unfortunately — since this exercise is as good a method as can be
employed for making clear what good narrative is — the method can-
not be so readily applied to narrative of fact, where the facts can best
be had from reading the original narrative. It would be possible and
profitable, however, for the student to read a number of fact narratives,
noting the means of progression, the style, and various other matters
spoken of in the text of the present book.

The references follow :

1. Kipling: The Man Who Was,

2. Hawthorne: The Ambitious Guest.

3. Henry James : The Lesson of the Master.

4. Stevenson : Markheim,

5. Poe : The Purloined Letter.

6. Bret Harte : The Outcasts of Poker Flat.

7. Thackeray: Phil Fogarty.

a Scott: Wandering Willie's Tale.

9. E. E. Hale : The Man Without a Country.

10. F. J. Stimson: Mrs. Knollys.

11. De Maupassant: The Necklace.
13. Daudet: The Siege of Berlin.


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Narration 335

found his way down through Central Asia to the city of Peshawur
in India. One evening, almost dead from hunger and exposure,
he stumbled into the Mess Hall of the White Hussars in Peshawur,
where he was finally identified as one of the former officers of the
regiment Three days after, however, the officer died.

2. A youth one stormy night strayed into a quasi-inn among the
mountains and sat down to talk with the family. He said that
he was a stranger in those parts, and that he was ambitious of
fame. This led the different members of the family to speak of
their various hopes and desires, but just as they were about to
conclude and retire for the night a land-slip came down from a
near-by mountain and destroyed them alL

3. A rising young literary artist, much in love with a young
woman, and also with very serious notions of the dignity of art,
following the counsel of a great man of letters, decided to pursue
the muse of his profession, and accordingly went abroad for a
few years to make serious preparation for it. On his return he
found that the great man of letters had married his lady love.

4. A young man, who had always failed in life and had always
lost whatever ground he had gained, finding himself impecunious,
entered a shop, and, under pretense of looking at some goods,
slew the proprietor, knowing that he was entirely alone. Then
he bolted the door and proceeded to loot the house. But he
gradually became terrified by the loneliness about him and at last
this so wrought on his imagination that he actually thought that
he was confronted by another man, who appeared to be his
better self. So he decided to go and give himself up to the police,
since there was before him nothing but failure.

5. M. Dupin, a distinguished amateur detective, was employed
to find and recover an important and incriminating letter that had
fallen into the possession of a clever and unscrupulous minister
of state in France. The police were unable in any way to find
what had become of the letter, but Dupin, inferring that the most
obvious feature in the whole situation had been overlooked, suc-
ceeded in recovering the document

6. Mr. John Oakhurst a gambler of the town of Poker Flat,
together with a ruffian and two women of bad character, was
driven from the town by the vigilance committee and forbidden
to return on pain of death. They took refuge in a valley among
the mountains some distance away, and here they were joined
by an eloping couple from Poker Flat. Intending to continue
their journey till they reached some favorable place, they were

Online LibraryW. T. (William Tenney) BrewsterEnglish composition and style; a handbook for college students → online text (page 29 of 43)