Gordian Plot


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This is from an old book on short story writing needs more modernizing.

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.


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

(_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_. It has no love element and no plot; and

its workmanship is loose


, 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 labeled "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. " AEsop 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. Contemporary examples of this style

of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and

Temperance papers.

(_c_) _The Allegory_ is the only really literary form of the _Moral

Story_, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral

purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so

that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its

lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies

or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men.

Examples: Hawthorne’s "The Birthmark, " "Rappaccini’s Daughter, " and

"Feathertop. "


owes its interest to the innate love of the

supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human

nature--the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for

"just one more" ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror

of the last one. It may have a definite plot in which supernatural

beings are actors; but more often it is slight in plot, but contains a

careful psychological study of some of the less pleasant emotions.

(_a_) The _Ghost Story_ usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost

is an actor. The ghost may be a "really truly" apparition, manifesting

itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the

end, as in Irving’s "The Spectre Bridegroom, " and Kipling’s "The Phantom

’Rickshaw;" or it may prove to be the result of a superstitious mind

dwelling upon perfectly natural occurrences, as in Irving’s "The Legend

of Sleepy Hollow, " and Wilkins’ "A Gentle Ghost. " It requires art

chiefly to render it plausible; particularly in the latter case, when

the mystery must be carefully kept up until the denouement.

(_b_) The _Fantastic Tale_ treats of the lighter phases of the

supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its

purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits

a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate. Examples:

Hawthorne’s "A Select Party, " "The Hall of Fantasy, " and "Monsieur du

Miroir;" and most of our modern fairy tales.

(_c_) The _Study in Horror_ was first made popular by Poe. . It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It

requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen

sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check. The plot is used only

to give the setting to the story. Most any of Poe’s tales would serve as

an illustration, but "The Pit and the Pendulum, " and "The Fall of the

House of Usher" are particularly apt.


is a short story in which the chief interest

rests in the development and exposition of human character. It may treat

of either a type or an individual. Good character delineation is one of

the surest proofs of a writer’s literary ability.

(_a_) When the character depicted is inactive the resultant work is not

really a story. It usually has no plot, and is properly a _Sketch_, in

which the author makes a psychological analysis of his subject. It

inclines to superficiality and is liable to degenerate into a mere

detailed Description of the person. It demands of the writer the ability

to catch striking details and to present them vividly and interestingly.

Examples: Hawthorne’s "Sylph Etherege" and "Old Esther Dudley;" Poe’s

"The Man of the Crowd;" James’ "Greville Fane" and "Sir Edmund Orme;"

Stevenson’s "Will o’ the Mill;" Wilkins’ "The Scent of the Roses" and "A

Village Lear. "

(_b_) When the character described is active we have a _Character Study_

proper, built upon a plot which gives the character opportunity to work

out his own personality before us by means of speech and action. The

plot is subordinated to the character sketching. The psychological

analysis is not presented by the author in so many words, but is deduced

by the reader from his observation of the character. Such studies

constitute one of the highest art forms of the short story, for the

characters must live on the printed page. The short stories of Henry

James and of Miss Wilkins could almost be classed _in toto_ under this

head; Miss Wilkins’ characters are usually types, while those of James

are more often individual, though rather unusual. Other good examples

are Hawthorne’s "Edward Randolph’s Portrait;" Irving’s "The Devil and

Tom Walker, " and "Wolfert Weber;" Stevenson’s "Markheim" and "The Brown

Box;" and Davis’ "Van Bibber, " as depicted in the several stories of

"Van Bibber and Others. "

Notice that in both subdivisions nearly every title embodies a reference

to the character described, showing that the author intentionally set

out to sketch a character.


is a short story which aims to present a

vivid picture of our own times, either to criticize some existing evil,

or to entertain by telling us something of how "the other half" of the

world lives. It is in a sense a further development of _The Tale_, though it has a more definite plot. It is the most favored form of

the short story to-day, and its popularity is responsible for a mess of

inane commonplace and bald realism that is written by amateurs, who

think they are presenting pen pictures of life. For since its matter is

gathered from our everyday lives, it requires some degree of skill to

make such narratives individual and interesting.

(_a_) The _Instructive Story_ of this class may be further subdivided as

(1) that which puts present day problems in concrete form, with no

attempt at a solution; and (2) that which not only criticizes, but

attempts also to correct. In either case, it aims to reform by

education; it deals with actual problems of humanity rather than with

abstract moral truths; and it seeks to amuse always, and to reform if

possible. It must not be confused with the _Moral Story_ of Class II.

Octave Thanet writes this style of story almost exclusively, and any of

her work selected at random would be a good illustration; her "Sketches

of American Types" would be listed under (1), and such stories as "The

Scab" and "Trusty No. 49" under (2). Under (1) would come also Brander

Matthews’ "Vignettes of Manhattan;" and under (2) Edward Everett Hale’s

"The Man Without a Country" and "Children of the Public. "

(_b_) The most usual story of this class is the _Story of To-day_, which

uses present day conditions as a background, and which endeavors only to

amuse and interest the reader. Naturally, however, since the scenes and

persons described must be new to the reader, such a story is also

educating and broadening in its influence. Its plot may seem trivial

when analyzed, but it is selected with a view more to naturalness than

to strength or complexity. Here we should list nearly all of our modern

so-called "society stories, " and "stories of manners. " Any of Richard

Harding Davis’ short stories will serve as an excellent illustration,

and most of the stories in current periodicals belong in the same



It might be called the "fairy tale of the grown-up, " for its

interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous

which no human being ever outgrows. It requires fertility of invention,

vividness of imagination, and a plausible and convincing style. Yet it

is an easy sort of story to do successfully, since ingenuity will atone

for many technical faults; but it usually lacks serious interest and is

short lived. Poe was the originator and great exemplar of the _Story of

Ingenuity_, and all of his tales possess this cleverness in some degree.

(_a_) The _Story of Wonder_ has little plot. It is generally the vivid

Description of some amazing discovery (Poe’s "Some Words with a Mummy, "

Hale’s "The Spider’s Eye"), impossible invention (Adee’s "The Life

Magnet, " Mitchell’s "The Ablest Man in the World"), astounding adventure

(Stockton’s "Wreck of the Thomas Hyde, " Stevenson’s "House with Green

Blinds"), or a vivid Description of what might be (Benjamin’s "The End

of New York, " Poe’s "The Domain of Arnheim"). It demands unusual

imaginative power.

(_b_) The _Detective Story_ requires the most complex plot of any type

of short story, for its interest depends solely upon the solution of the

mystery presented in that plot. It arouses in the human mind much the

same interest as an algebraic problem, which it greatly resembles. Poe

wrote the first, and probably the best, one in "The Murders in the Rue

Morgue;" his "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Gold Bug" are other

excellent examples. Doyle, in his "Sherlock Holmes" stories, is a worthy

successor of Poe.

In _Detective Stories_, the plot is all-important, for the

interest depends entirely upon the unraveling of some tangle; but

even here it must contain but a single idea, though that may be

rather involved. Such stories are really much simpler than they

appear, for their seeming complexity consists in telling the story

backwards, and so reasoning from effect to cause, rather than vice

versa as in the ordinary tale. The plot itself is simple enough, as

may be proved by working backward through Poe's "The Murders in the

Rue Morgue. " This is, by the way, a method of plot-making which is

often, and incorrectly, employed by novices in the construction of

any story. It has been aptly called "building the pyramid from the

apex downward. "[12] It results from an exaggerated conception of the

importance of the plot. But it is not so much _what_ the characters

do that interests us, but _how_ they do it.


almost belongs in the category of _Stories of

Ingenuity_, so largely does it depend upon the element of the unusual;

but for that fact it should have been listed earlier, because it has

little care for plot. Indeed, these stories are the freest of all in

their disregard for conventions; with them it is "anything to raise a

laugh, " and the end is supposed to justify the means. In general they

are of transient interest and crude workmanship, little fitted to be

called classics; but Mark Twain, at least, has shown us that humor and

art are not incompatible.

(_a_) The simplest form is the _Nonsense Story_, as it may be justly

called. Usually it has the merest thread of plot, but contains odd or

grotesque characters whose witty conversation furnishes all the

amusement necessary. If the characters do act they have an unfortunate

tendency to indulge in horse play. The work of John Kendrick Bangs well

illustrates this type of story. His books, "The House Boat on the Styx"

and "The Pursuit of the House Boat, " are really only collections of

short stories, for each chapter can be considered as a whole.

(_b_) _The Burlesque_ has a plot, but usually one which is absurdly

impossible, or which is treated in a burlesque style. The amusement is

derived chiefly from the contrast between the matter and the method of

its presentation. Most of Stockton’s stories are of this type: notably

his "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Mark Twain, too, usually writes in this

vein, as in "The Jumping Frog" and "The Stolen White Elephant. "


is the highest type of the short story. It

requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act

out their parts. In its perfect form it is the "bit of real life" which

it is the aim of the short story to present. It is the story shorn of

all needless verbiage, and told as nearly as possible in the words and

actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax.

Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its

conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the

short story.

(_a_) The short story has _Dramatic Form_ when the author’s necessary

comments correspond to the stage directions of the drama. Such a story

is, in fact, a miniature drama, and is often capable of being acted just

as it stands. It has a definite plot, but it is developed by dialogue as

frequently as by action. It is the extreme of the modern tendency toward

dramatic narrative, and is just a little too "stagey" and artificial to

be a perfect short story. It is, however, in good literary standing and

in good favor with the public, and it is most excellent practice for the

tyro, for in it he has to sink himself completely in his characters.

Examples: Hope’s "The Dolly Dialogues;" Kipling’s "The Story of the

Gadsbys;" and Howells’ one act parlor plays, like "The Parlor Car, " "The

Register, " "The Letter, " and "Unexpected Guests. "

(_b_) A short story has _Dramatic Effect_ when it deals with a single

crisis, conveys a single impression, is presented chiefly by the actors

themselves, and culminates in a single, perfect climax. It may, or may

not, be capable of easy dramatization. It is less artificial than the

story of pure _Dramatic Form_, but is just as free from padding and

irrelevant matter, and just as vivid in effect. It allows of greater art

and finish, for the writer has wider freedom in his method of

presentation. Examples: Poe’s "’Thou Art the Man!’" and "Berenice;"

James’ "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Passionate Pilgrim;" Wilkins’

"A New England Nun" and "Amanda and Love;" Stevenson’s "The Isle of the

Voices;" and Irving’s "The Widow and Her Son" and "Rip Van Winkle. " But,

indeed, every good short story belongs in this class, which is not so

much a certain type of the short story, as the "honor class" to which

each story seeks admittance.

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