What is a germinal idea

MORE or less indefiniteness frequently attaches to the term germinal idea. It is made synonymous with motive, theme, purpose; with the subject of a story; and since subject is loosely used, it may even be confused with title. It is regarded as almost an abbreviated plot; in short, as the kernel of the story. It is true that the germinal idea may take any of these forms; that it may suggest them or develop into them. Yet theme, motive, subject, title, purpose, are not synonymous, either with each other or with germinal idea. To clear up this vagueness it may be well to explain each of these terms by illustration in a single story.

The story is briefly as follows: Four outcasts, among whom as leader is a well-known gambler, on their way from one village to another are held for a week snow-bound on a mountain on which they had unnecessarily stopped to rest. They all meet death before help reaches them. The title of this story is The Outcasts of Poker Flat; the subject, how four outcasts met their death in a mountain snow-storm. The purpose is to show the essential soundness of heart which may coexist with outward, conventional badness. The theme is the acceptance of chance as a controlling motive. Motive is that which controls the individual actor. The Duchess had a motive in halting the journey; Oakhurst had a motive for wishing the continuance of the journey; Uncle Billy had a motive for departing with the mules; Mother Shipton had a motive in refusing to eat her share of the provisions. The germinal idea may have been one of several things; perhaps an incident, perhaps an impression of the wild lawlessness of a California mining camp, or of the calculating nature of John Oakhurst. The difference between these terms is, perhaps, now obvious. The title is the name by which a story is distinguished. The subject is the statement, in narrative terms, of what the story is about. The purpose is the writer’s object in telling a particular. story. The theme is the basic fact upon which the plot of the story hinges. Motive, sometimes the borrowed musical term motif, is commonly used as the equivalent of theme. Yet motive in this sense is misleading, for it is applied as well to the unseen spring of action for an individual. Motive is that which leads a certain person to act in a certain way under certain given circumstances. Yet the so-called motive of a story involves an interplay of motives of the characters. Thus title and subject, purpose, theme, and motive, though allied, are essentially distinct.

The germinal idea is, however, none of these. It is the bare, undeveloped idea from which the imagination receives its original thrill. It is essentially the starting-point of a story. It is not the beginning of the actual plotting any more than it is of the actual writing. It is that which first awakens the consciousness of a writer to a possible story. It is a mere suggestion from which a story may in time grow. One cannot be sure that a germinal idea will ever be fruitful. Occasionally, it may be utilized at once; frequently it will be dormant in the mind for weeks and then suddenly become active; sometimes it must be coaxed into activity by long reflection. Rarely does the germinal idea reveal just what sort of story may result, since it is but seldom that a whole story presents itself at once. The germinal idea may or may not be presented along with certain features of its development. It-is indefinite in quantity; perhaps a word, possibly a whole plot. Sometimes, too, it may prove mistaken seed, — very good, perhaps, for an essay or a sketch, but unavailable for a story. Not every germinal idea has its story, but every story has its germinal idea. For such productive idea, search must be painstakingly kept up. In this chapter, then, we shall try to treat of the germinal idea in its variety and sources, and of the principles which will govern its possible growth toward plot.

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