Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 04/21/2022

Episode 13: How to Make a Story Interesting

by John Gallishaw

From Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer

“There is no answer to Boredom”—from Katharine Fullerton Gerould’s article on the American Short-Story in the Yale Review for July, 1924.

At the outset let us recognize one fact. It is that creative writing is no longer the work of tyros. It is a profession, followed diligently by men and women as a means of livelihood. Because it is a relatively high-paid profession, it attracts yearly more and more competent followers. Steadily the competition becomes keener, and steadily the number of failures grows. The distressing feature of the whole business is that so often the line between acceptance and rejection is very slight. More frequently than their writers realize, stories are “almost good enough.” needing only slight changes to make them acceptable. Slight though these changes seem, they are nevertheless essential. It was Michael Angelo who said “Trifles make perfection; and perfection is no trifle.” Paraphrasing that, the aspiring short-story writer might well say to himself: “trifles cause rejection; and rejection is no trifle.” It is the recognition of these “trifles” which characterizes the competent literary craftsman. Between the established writer and the beginner the only real difference is competence in workmanship: their material is the same, they differ chiefly in the quality of their craftsmanship.

In two respects you may judge the craftsmanship of a short story writer. The first is his mastery of structure; and is the measure of an author’s capacity for Plotting. It implies an ability to observe, recognize, classify, and arrange his material. The second is his ability to present that material artistically. This second quality of craftsmanship includes the ability to blend the material of a story so that that reader is unconscious of the mechanism and is aware only of the effect. It is “the art which conceals art,” and comes from knowledge of the resources of language: it is English Composition applied to the special requirements of the Modern Short-Story. These two abilities in a writer (Plotting and Presentation) should be developed side by side. Both can be developed, like all capacity, by practice. To say that one of these capacities is more important that the other would be as absurd as to say that for transportation purposes the vehicle is more important than is motive power; transportation cannot exist without both; so likewise a story cannot exist without both Plotting and Presentation. But Plot exists prior to Presentation. That is the only reason that I ask you to consider Plotting before taking up Presentation.

The first and most important thing for the writer of short-stories to keep in mind is that the short-story is a modern form as far removed from Poe’s “tale” as the great S.S. Leviathan is from Fulton’s first steamboat. It is not concerned with creating a single emotional effect; neither is it any story which is merely short. If shortness were the sole criterion, a chapter from a novel would be a short-story. The short-story writer’s task is allied less closely to that of the novelist than to that of the dramatist. From the dramatist the short-story writer may learn one useful lesson.

The dramatist selects all the happenings for eventual Presentation in Meetings between two people. During these meetings there is an interchange of conversation. During such interchange, one of these people is an Actor and the other is a Stimulus to his actions. If a writer will once grasp this technical distinction, he will achieve a unity in his stories which will go far to keep the reader’s interest at a high pitch.

Through the responses of the actor to the stimulus the character of the actor is shown. This is so in all sorts of fiction writing. The purpose of all creative writers, whether novelists, dramatists, or short-story writers, is the same: to show character through the reactions of the actors to the various stimuli of life.

It may be said, then, that the writer presents his actors in a series of meetings and interchanges. These meetings or interchanges may be classified as Presentation Units. This knowledge will permit you to amend your definition of a Modern Short-Story to read thus: A story is one person’s account of things that have happened to him or to someone else, presented in a series of meetings or interchanges.

The mere rendering of a number of Presentation Units will not constitute a plot, A plot is made up of Crises or Turning points. The interest which is aroused in the reader from the Plot of a story may be, and frequently is, quite distinct from the interest which is aroused in a reader from the Presentation Units. Yet they are often combined and interwoven to such an extent that the reader cannot distinguish between the interest of the Plot and the interest of the Presentation Units. In general it is safe to say that from the writer’s point of view, the material he deals with can be classified technically as Presentation Units which will be combined by him with Plot Crises in such a way as to make the two alternate.

Thus the story pattern finally emerges as a series of blocks. But within these blocks there is a further subdivision, which is fundamental.

  1. Stimulus. (Most often another person.)
  2. Actor.
  3. Actor’s response, characterizing the actor.

When we come to a discussion of the Scene as the unit, we shall see that in the ideally developed Presentation Unit, the interchange is the result of an actor with an immediate purpose encountering and clashing with another actor or force opposed to that immediate purpose. Thus in every scene the actor has a definite and immediate purpose, quite distinct from the actor’s purpose in the main story. For that reason a scene or other Presentation unit may stand upon its own feet in respect to arousing the reader’s interest.

On the other hand the interest which the reader feels in the Presentation unit will be enhanced as soon as he is aware that it has a bearing upon the plot of the Main Story, and realizes that because of what has happened in this scene or Presentation Unit there is a Crisis or Turning-point in the Story. The writer who is determined to arouse and hold the reader’s interest will therefore select for his story such Presentation Units as will lead into Plot Crises in the Main Story.

Plotting therefore deals equally with the Presentation Units and the Story Crises. It consists of selecting happenings and arranging them into an outline or pattern for a story. Presentation consists of filling in the details of this outline so plausibly as to give the reader the illusion of reality, and so interestingly as to capture the reader’s interest and to hold it throughout the story.

A short-story must have a Beginning, an Ending and a Body. The function of the Beginning is to set forth the story narrative problem confronting the chief actor, and such explanatory matter of setting, characterization, and prior happenings as may be necessary to lend plausibility and interest to that story narrative problem.

The Ending is concerned with showing the conclusive act by which the chief actor (or some force or forces set in motion by the chief actor) solves the narrative problem set forth in the Beginning.

The Body of the story is the story-proper. It shows the chief actor in a series of Meetings or interchanges, attempting to solve the main narrative problem.

The structural limitations of a story are, therefore, very simple. To adhere to these simple structural limitations is not a difficult requirement. The beginner and the established writer alike recognize them.

What you, as students of the short-story form, would like to know is why the work of one writer is accepted and the work of the other is rejected, when the two writers deal with material essentially the same. Sometimes this sameness in material goes so far as to embrace essentially the very same narrative problem in the Beginning, almost identical struggles in the Body, and very similar solutions of the same problems in the Ending. The reason for rejection lies in some lack in either the Story, which we classify as Plotting, or in the Scenes, which we classify as Presentation.

Since the accepted story and the rejected story could have been condensed to outlines which would have been remarkable for their resemblances, the reason for rejection could not therefore be because of faults in the Plotting. The reason for rejection must lie, then, in the Presentation.

The same happenings may be selected by two writers; but their arrangement, particularly in that portion of the story which we classify structurally as the Beginning, will cause one writer’s story to be so interesting that it will be accepted, while the second writer’s story will be rejected because it is dull.

More often than this, however, the reason for rejection is that the second writer selected the same happenings; but in developing them, in a series of Stimuli and Responses, his Presentation was ineffective, because it left the outline or skeleton too obvious to the reader, who had no sense of illusion. This is the greatest fault in Presentation. In most stories which are rejected the writers are too anxious to make the Story clear to the reader before establishing the illusion of reality through well-selected Presentation Units. On the other hand, when a story is rejected for lacks in the Plot, the writer has permitted himself to render Presentation Units, with no alternation of Story or Plot Crises. A writer who will keep in mind this necessity for alternation of Presentation Units and Story Crises can make any set of happenings interesting. Interest is the first requirement. It is a requirement dependent more often upon presentation than upon plot.

The comment most frequently made by publishers readers upon manuscripts which are “almost good enough” is “too slight— not enough story-interest.” A story which is poor in all other respects will often be accepted because, despite its manifold faults, it possesses dramatic interest. Yet dramatic interest is not a matter of plot so much as of Presentation. A person taking up two stories whose plots in selection and arrangement of happenings are about the same, will be held by one because it has this quality of dramatic interest—which is compounded of plot interest and presentation interest—and bored by the other. There are different kinds of interest which every good writer should be aware of; yet day after day readers in editorial offices receive thousands of manuscripts which never ought to have been sent, and never would have been sent had the writers been cognizant of the devices and methods which are fundamental in creating interest. Fortunately, these devices are easily recognized: they are the writer’s use of the Laws of Interest.

Interest, according to the dictionary, is sustained attention. To compel this sustained attention on the part of the reader is the task which confronts every writer who sets pen to paper. It is the reader who, seeing on the cover of a magazine the name of a certain writer, buys the magazine. It is the reader who writes to the editor, saying that he enjoyed a certain story; or, on the contrary, that he found a certain story dull. As Mrs. Gerould says, “There is no answer to boredom.” The reader is, after all, the final judge. But it is axiomatic that you cannot sustain a reader’s attention without first capturing it. To capture his interest and then to hold it is your never-ending task as a writer of the short-story. You see, you have two problems in regard to interest: to capture and to hold. To capture the reader’s interest you must excite his curiosity; and curiosity is a single impulse to know more about something. This involves his attention; but as soon as he knows what he wishes to regarding whatever has excited his curiosity his attention flags.

Before this point is reached, you must excite another kind of attention, a kind which does not so easily flag: sustained attention. When the appeal to his attention is based solely upon curiosity, his unexpressed interrogation is “What is it all about?” On the other hand, with sustained attention there is present the added element of expectancy, which causes him to ask himself, “What will happen next?” and essentially and fundamentally, “Now what will this actor do when he encounters that stimulus?” With sustained attention there is present curiosity plus expectancy, which is what we commonly call Suspense.

Let us consider for a moment how you may use these two kinds of interest in the structural divisions of your story. These structural divisions are the Beginning, the Body, and the Ending.

The devices designed primarily to capture interest are those which you will have to use in the Beginning of your story. By the Beginning is meant not the first few paragraphs merely, but sometimes as large a proportion as one-half or two-thirds of the whole story. The Beginning consists of two subdivisions: One of these is the Situation, or narrative problem, through which the reader is made aware that the chief actor is confronted by a problem demanding for its solution, action on his part.

The other subdivision of the Beginning is the part which causes writers the most difficulty, because of failure to understand, completely, its function. It consists of the explanatory matter necessary to capture the reader’s interest by making the Story Situation or Problem both interesting and plausible to the reader.

The function of this Explanatory Portion of the Beginning is to set forth the Condition or State of Affairs which precipitates the problem. In some stories the Main or Story Problem is so interesting, in itself that without explanatory matter, it can be presented at once, and be depended upon to capture the reader’s interest. It is then said to be an Intrinsically interesting Story Situation.

In most stories, however, the Main or Story Problem becomes interesting only after its importance has been built up for the reader by the Explanatory Matter: the Condition or State of Affairs which confronts the chief actor. It is then said to be a Synthetically interesting Story Situation.

Even in the case of the Intrinsically interesting Story Problem, Explanatory Matter (the Condition), although delayed in its introduction, must be included. It is essential to make everything clear to the reader. That is for Plausibility. It is also necessary to set forth this Condition facing the chief actor in order that the reader may feel that his interest had been roused justifiably. For clarification, you may wish to set before your reader certain biographical details which will help him to understand the actors; you may wish to impress upon him some special quality in the background or atmosphere; or you may feel—and this is by far the leading reason —that for a full comprehension of the importance, or difficulty, or urgency of the Problem confronting the chief actor, the reader should be made aware of certain prior happenings, and especially of the likelihood of failure and of the probability of opposition.

In Plotting the Beginning, therefore, you will keep in mind its two sub-divisions.

  1. The Main Narrative Problem or Story Situation, which is interesting either intrinsically or synthetically.
  2. The Explanatory Matter, making the reader aware of the Condition Precipitating the Story Problem.

It is safe to assume that if a reader is sufficiently interested to read through to the Body of your story, he will continue to read. Your chief problem, then, is to capture his interest at once. This you will do by appealing to his curiosity, pending the moment that you can count on his sustained interest in the Meetings or Interchanges that make up the Body of the story-proper.

Particularly is this true in the case of the Synthetically Interesting story, when the Condition must be set forth before the Story Situation can be presented. In this kind of story— and the great majority of stories fall into this category—everything depends upon the interest of the Presentation Units. Only after the reader has read the Presentation Units does he become aware of the importance of the Main Story Situation or Problem.

This demand for interest you must keep in mind throughout your story, from the opening sentence to the closing word; but particularly in the explanatory Matter of the Beginning. It is this Explanatory Matter which is most often depended upon to catch the reader’s interest. It is the Beginning of the story which, capturing the reader’s attention, most often determines for him—and this includes the professional “reader” in the editor’s office—whether or not he will continue to read the story.

Now the ultimate Beginning of any story, that part which comes at once to the reader’s attention, is the title. From the point of view of interest, a good title is, then, your first consideration in arousing the reader’s interest. The title should be arresting, suggestive, challenging. Kipling’s “Without Benefit of Clergy” has all of these requirements. So has Barrie’s “What Every Woman Knows.” So has Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” So has O. Henry’s “The Badge of Policeman O’Roon.” So has John Marquand’s “A Thousand in the Bank.” Octavus Roy Cohen is particularly apt in this respect. The moving picture producers know the value of an interest-compelling title; in fact, they carry the question of title to excess—into the realms of questionable taste. But their titles do arouse interest. And for the moment you are concerned only with interest. You may say definitely that the first device for capturing interest is in the selection of a title which will cause the reader to pause, which will whet his curiosity.

This desire to excite the reader’s curiosity will guide you always in selecting and arranging the materials that go into the Beginning of your story, that portion setting forth the story Problem and its involvements. No matter what sort of story you propose to write, regardless of your stage of progress in fiction-writing, your materials will always be the same: Stimuli, Actors, and Character Response forming a narrative pattern.

Yet you may use all of these materials in the Beginning of your story without exciting the reader’s interest. The arrangement may be wrong. The reader “doesn’t know what you’re driving at.” So you see, the materials cannot be arranged indiscriminately.

In order that the reader may find the Beginning of a story interesting, these materials must be arranged in such a way that the reader is aware that a character is facing a grave crisis in his career, is confronted by a problem demanding action on his part, or is in a dilemma from which he must extricate himself, or is in a position which makes it necessary for him to choose between courses of conduct.

There is always a narrative problem when there is something to be accomplished, or some decision to be made. Unless one of these elements of Purpose or Indecision is present there is no narrative problem. This is a fundamental requirement in the Beginning of any and every story. That is what makes it a story.

However, in the completely developed Scene, this same element occurs. A narrative problem is a fundamental requirement of a scene as it is of a complete story. A scene has all the elements, in miniature, of a complete story. Usually they are, in scenes, problems of purpose. So that we may say then that there are scene purposes and a Story Purpose. Either may be used TO CAPTURE A READER’S INTEREST.

While the title is the first device by which you attempt to arouse the reader’s interest, you will ensure a let-down of this interest unless you make him aware, within the first few hundred words, approximately, of a Purpose. Ordinarily, this Purpose will be a Scene-Purpose. Its appearance will cause the reader to ask himself a question: “Can A succeed in getting information from B.?” etc.

Just as a hostess gives the guest soup, or an hors d’oeuvre to stimulate his appetite for the main dish, you furnish this scene to prepare the reader for the Main Story. You may have to provide him with more than one scene before you feel that he is ready for the Main Story Situation. But your fundamental task, in capturing your reader’s interest is to make him aware, at the earliest possible moment, consistent with plausibility, of a Main or Story Situation, quite apart from the scene purposes, which will thereafter condition the actor’s responses. This you will succeed in doing when you make the reader aware that the chief actor is called upon to Accomplish something or to make a Decision.

But at this point you will find yourselves puzzled by the fact that among the material which you have available, while there are plenty of happenings which show that there is something to he accomplished or decided, you do not find that something of sufficiently compelling interest to lead you to appraise it as a possible Main or Story Situation. And here a great and fundamental truth in regard to the Laws of Interest begins to dawn. Let me illustrate: If you are sitting by the shore of a quiet lagoon while a dog is swimming lazily from shore to shore you may be trying to cause the dog to fetch a stick. Although in your attempt to direct the dog there is something to be accomplished, you are only mildly interested. But if, instead of a quiet lagoon, there are windswept breakers hurling themselves against a precipitous cliff, and the dog instead of swimming lazily, is so exhausted that his attempts to reach the place you indicate seem difficult of accomplishment, your interest grows. Your interest will be increased if the dog is your dog and a valuable animal that has won many money prizes at dog shows. Further, if you have agreed to forfeit a large sum of money should the dog not be on hand at a certain hour, now very near, for another show, you will be still more interested. And if, instead of sitting quietly, you are pinned under an overturned automobile, your interest is intense. But it will be still more intense if you are trying to cause the dog to swim to the assistance of a small five year old boy, equally exhausted, and that boy is your son whom you love devotedly.

In the first instance you found yourselves mildly interested, in the second intensely interested. In analyzing the reasons for the differing intensity of your interest you will discover that in the second instance more depended upon what happened. And that is the great fundamental secret of interest— Importance. A Situation involving purpose or choice is interesting in proportion to what depends upon it. The more important the accomplishment the greater is the promise of Disaster in case of failure. The more that depends upon the decision or choice to be made, the greater is the promise of Disaster if the wrong decision is made. And any Situation, to a person of imagination, has potential fiction importance, because much may be made to depend upon it. When you fully comprehend and can supply this Law of Interest you hold the key to plotting.

Your third method of capturing interest, therefore, lies in making sure that the situation is Important, either Intrinsically in itself, or Synthetically, because of what depends upon it. In Will Payne’s story “Paradise Island” the situation (the thing to be accomplished) is Important in itself; a man sets out to kill another man: all the explanatory matter or the involvement making up the rest of the Beginning gains a borrowed importance from it. In Frank R. Adams’s story “Spare Parts” on the other hand, the situation (the thing to be accomplished) is unimportant; a man sets out to drive an automobile from Los Angeles to St. Louis. In exact contrast to Paradise Island, the explanatory matter, or the involvements, making up the rest of the Beginning, lend an importance to the Story situation. One is an Intrinsically important Story situation. The other is a Synthetically important Story situation.

In the Intrinsically important Story situation, the main situation being interesting in itself gives plot interest at once to the story, and can be presented before the explanatory matter. In the synthetically interesting Story situation no such gain of plot interest would result if the main situation were presented before the explanatory matter, because the plot interest is not apparent until after the reader becomes aware, through reading the explanatory matter, of the involvements which give importance to the main situation.

In your search for Story situations which are interesting you will be helped by what journalists call “a nose for news.” As your purpose is to arouse curiosity, you will do well to inquire as to what things people are curious about. Everyone remembers how, in the first years of the great war, Americans read avidly all that they could about the World War. Then there was a slump; curiosity was sated. It had ceased to be “news” temporarily. Now that a new and more “human” aspect of the conflict is being dealt with, the war is again “news.” Almost everybody is familiar with the story of the veteran newspaperman who explained to the cub reporter: “If a dog bites a man, it isn’t news; but it is news if the man bites the dog.” Only recently a man whose business in life is editing the news summed up news values very cleverly. He said:

1 ordinary man + 1 ordinary life = o 1 ordinary man + 1 ordinary wife = o 1 ordinary man + 1 auto + 1 gun + 1 quart = News 1 bank cashier + 1 wife + 7 children = o 1 bank cashier - $100,000 + 1 chorus girl = Head-lines.

The explanation, of course, is that the things which have no news value are the things which are usual; those which have news value are those things which are unusual. So you come to another method of stimulating or creating interest— the Unusual. This quality of being unusual may be in the Story situation (the thing to be accomplished or decided) or it may be in the status of the character who is confronted by the situation. In “The Face in the Window” by William Dudley Pelley, although the situation is unusual (a woman sets out to capture a dangerous, escaped murderer), in the status of the woman there is nothing unusual. She is an ordinary New England villager. But ordinarily, New England village women do not spend their time in such a pursuit. On the other hand, in “Western Stuff” by Mary Brecht Pulver, the story situation (the thing to be accomplished) is usual enough (a woman finding that another woman is monopolizing her husband’s attention, sets out to regain him). The status of the character, however, is unusual. She is the queen of the rodeo riders, a type of person one does not meet very often. In selecting as material unusual situations for main or story narrative problems your test will be the very simple test of asking yourself if, out of a hundred people you know, how many have to meet that problem. In selecting unusual types, you will make a similar test. Out of a hundred people you meet on the street, how many are that special type.

It is in this interest in the unusual that you find the explanation of the great vogue of the “local color” story in America. People are interested in certain places, places in which they have been, or places in which they would like to be. Certain regions and certain places are symbolic. Most Americans are interested in New York City. A few years ago the majority of stories had their setting in New York. It was the mecca of many people who had been there or were hoping to go there. People read about places with which they would like to be familiar. Men sweltering in cities like to read stories of the Maine woods, of the Rockies, of the “great open spaces where men are men and women are mates.” Out of twenty stories read, which I selected at random recently from current magazines, fifteen had settings in foreign countries; only two were laid in New York; one in a small college town in New England; one in Hollywood; and one was laid on a Western ranch. New York is no longer in the lead. Thus it goes. One after another, certain regions are discovered, are exploited, have their vogue, and fade out, to give place to some more interesting region. After a while they cease to be interesting because they cease to be unusual; they have become usual, the glamour is off them; familiarity has bred contempt. What applies to places in this respect applies also to the people in the stories. A writer finds certain kinds of people interesting; on paper he makes them live. Kipling wrote about the Anglo-Indian; O. Henry wrote about New York shop-girls; Ben Ames Williams writes about New England countrymen; Octavus Roy Cohen writes about the negroes of Alabama; H. C. Witwer writes about prize-fighters. The public is tremendously interested; other writers less original and less competent, noting the success of the first, try unsuccessfully to portray the same kind of people; soon there is such a succession of them that the reading public tires of them; they cease to be people and become types; the pages of the poorer fiction magazines are full of them; the moving pictures particularly swarm with them. Beginning as individuals, they prove on examination to possess little individuality; they have ceased to be unusual.

Many writers producing stories about unusual people against unusual backgrounds are amazed to have those stories rejected. If they understood the Laws of Interest, the reason would be clear. Setting and people have of themselves no narrative or plot interest. Setting and people are stimuli. A plot is responses arranged as crises. But the amateur writer will continue to write standardized background stories. They run to types. In the United States this standardization has reached a point where there is a public for particular kinds of plots—the Western story, the Sea story, the War story, the College story.

The significant thing about this division into types of backgrounds is not so much that there is a public for each type as that there is a large public who never read certain type stories, because those stories, depending for their interest upon their background, are more or less stereotyped as to plot and have ceased to be interesting. In many cases readers await eagerly the appearance of a certain type of story, continue to read that type for a year or so, weary of it; and turn from it in search of some other type. To those readers, the first type has ceased to be unusual.

It would appear from all this that it is an axiom that the device to capture interest is the unusual. Yet you will remember that I told you that five out of the twenty stories which I examined achieved their interest while dealing with the usual American background. Actually there was something unusual either in the actors or in the happenings.

Still, you find competent artists like Edna Ferber, who write extremely interesting stories apparently about usual people in usual surroundings doing the most usual things. In such cases you will discover that the artist has thrown new light on an old subject. Interest is achieved by unusual interpretation of a usual phenomenon, or the unusual adaptation of a usual incident. And so you come to your fifth device for capturing interest—the apparently usual is conceived as unusual. It is not a question of phrasing, it is a question of originality of conception.

In a story by Edna Ferber which appeared in the Red Book a few years ago there is an example of this. A New York shop-girl comes out of her dingy home looking marvelously attractive. That was the material Edna Ferber had to work with; but her imagination conceived the comparison of the dainty girl and her dingy surroundings with a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

In Irvin Cobb’s story, “We of the Old South,” which appeared in the Cosmopolitan for November, 1924, the material he had to work with was a girl who had borrowed her name one place, her accent another, etc. Cobb’s imagination took this out of the commonplace and made it unusual by likening her, in the vernacular of men who deal in motors, to an “assembled product.”

Comparison and Imagery are qualities of the Imagination. It is the Imagination which enables the writer to recognize the unusual, particularly when it is not obviously apparent. By this ability, which will help you to add a great deal of interest to the part of every story which is normally the dullest part,— the explanatory matter of the main situation,—your rank as a creative artist will be judged. To be a writer you must be at once a psychologist and an advertising expert. You must understand the value of different appeals. Kipling created an India that no one knew existed. But he got his interest not so much by the unusual that was India, as by the unusual that was the Englishman in India or the Irishman in India— by a juxtaposition of the known against the unknown— by contrast. You all know that on a black velvet gown a string of pearls will show up better than against a background of their own color. A contrast or a juxtaposition of opposites, then, is your sixth method of achieving interest. This contrast may be between the main actor and the setting.

In Collier’s for February 6, 1926, May Edgington in “Purple and Fine Linen” made use of this kind of contrast when she showed a woman begging in a district of London sacred to old and dignified clubs. This contrast may also be between the main actor and another actor with a prominent rule. Irvin Cobb in “We of the Old South,” made use of this kind of contrast by throwing together a typical, simple, ingenuous, kindly, old Southern Colonel and an equally typical chorus girl. Almost automatically in this juxtaposition of an actor and an unfamiliar background, or of an unusual type person against the usual type person, or of the unusual type and the usual problem, or the usual type and the unusual problem you come to your seventh method of capturing interest —the foreshadowing of conflict, of difficulty to be overcome, of disaster to the cause.

It is important at this point that you do not confuse the two different kinds of interest, presentation interest and plot interest. The interest aroused by the title; the interest aroused by the juxtaposition of opposites; the interest aroused by imagery; the interest aroused by the unusual conditions and unusual characters, and even the interest which comes from the promise of difficulty, conflicts or disaster are all subsidiary to and dependent upon story or plot interest. Plot interest is concerned with making the reader aware of the importance of narrative turning points or crises. The other types of interest are utilized to keep the reader from being bored, while he is being given the information which contributes to the unusualness or importance of those narrative turning points or crises, of which the essential one is the main crisis or the main Story situation. For I cannot too often reiterate that without an important situation (something important, either intrinsically or synthetically, to be accomplished or decided) there can be no story. Equally, without a story there can be no story or plot interest. All other interest is presentation interest.

The comment of the editorial reader upon the “almost accepted” story, you will remember, was “not enough story-interest.” Real “story-interest” does not come until the Body of the story when the reader is aware of the Story Situation, and the conflict begins. Not until conflict is shown in the form of an encounter can there be sustained “story-interest.” But in the Beginning, while you excite the curiosity of the reader in regard to the outcome of the main situation (the main thing to be accomplished or decided), you also entice him to continue interested by holding out to him the promise of conflict, difficulty, or disaster. This is plot interest, and distinct from his interest in the scenes themselves. You have, therefore, you see, counting the title, seven ways of capturing the interest of your reader in the Beginning of your story and one of these (the seventh—the foreshadowing of difficulty, conflict, or disaster) contains in addition to curiosity, the quality of expectancy, which makes your story dramatic.

  1. A title which is arresting, suggestive (in the better sense) and challenging.
  2. A Story situation (something to be accomplished or decided).
  3. Importance of the situation or its involvements, made clear in Scene or Scenes.
  4. The inclusion of something unusual in the Story situation or in the chief character.
  5. Original conception or interpretation so that the apparently usual is made unusual.
  6. A contrast or juxtaposition of opposites.
  7. The foreshadowing of difficulty, conflict, or disaster, to carry interest over to the body of the story.

Up to this point I have concentrated upon indicating to you the possibilities of arousing or capturing interest. From now on I shall ask you to abandon the consideration of that kind of interest which is curiosity, for the consideration of that kind of interest which is sustained attention. I shall ask you to turn from that portion of the story which is technically classified as the Beginning, to that portion of the story which is technically classified as the Body. The Beginning, you must remember, does not mean always merely the first few paragraphs: it includes that portion of the story which sets forth the Main situation confronting the chief character and such explanatory matter of setting, characterization, or prior happening as are necessary to give plausibility and interest to that situation. This main situation may precede the explanatory matter or it may follow the explanatory. A good Story situation, judged in regard to interest, is one growing out of a great crisis in the life of the main character, with much depending upon the outcome, and which demands instant action from the character. It is interesting in proportion as it is important or unusual. Its primary function is to show that something is to be accomplished or decided by the main character, involving the probability of difficulty or disaster, and primarily of conflict with some opposing force or forces.

Once the reader’s interest has been aroused by the prospect of conflict you will be unwise to delay the appearance of the opposing forces. At the earliest moment consistent with plausibility you will arrange a meeting between your main actor and one of these forces. And keeping in mind the necessity for plot interest, you will arrange that the outcome of this meeting will form a new crisis by confronting the hero with a new situation; with the necessity for trying again to bring about a solution of the narrative-problem, so that the reader is made aware that until this new situation is disposed of, the outcome of the main situation is still in doubt. This new crisis or turning point in the Body of your story will hold for the reader an importance borrowed from the original Story Problem presented in the Beginning of your story.

Whenever the editorial reader says “not enough story-interest” he means one of two things: that the story lacks a sufficient number of such crises to keep the reader in suspense as to the outcome of the story, or that the meetings which intervene between the crisis are not sufficiently interesting in themselves to hold the reader’s sustained attention until a new crisis is reached. In the first case, the lack is in your plotting; in the selection and arrangement of your happenings, so that the reader is aware of crisis. In the second case the lack is in your presentation, which usually means that you have not enough clash in the meetings which you select. This is what the average man or woman means when he says “I didn’t like that story because ‘nothing happens.’” Most stories which are rejected have this basic fault. They do not have enough encounters; and the reader is, therefore, unaware of any sense of clash of opposing forces. Or they do not keep the reader in suspense by making him feel that success is unlikely. With the encounters under way you have story interest. In the well constructed story these encounters will be the outgrowth of the main or story situation.

In presenting the meetings or interchanges which make up the Beginning you achieve story interest by making the reader aware of the main or story situation and showing the prospect of conflict. In presenting the meetings or interchanges which make up the Body of your story, you will be concerned with showing the reader that conflict in a series of encounters. Throughout the presentation units which make up the Body of your story, the reader sees that the actor is engaged in an encounter or in a series of encounters as a result of his attempt to solve a Story Problem of which the outcome is in doubt. The inclusion of this conflict or clash of opposing forces is, then, the eighth method of creating interest. It is the chief method of holding interest. Yet, no matter how vividly you can present these meetings and interchanges of opposing forces, you may still receive rejection slips if your plot sense is so poor that you fail to indicate to the reader that the result of every such meeting or encounter is a crisis in the central attempt of the main character to solve the problems raised by the main situation, such crises or turning points forming new situations which still leave the ultimate outcome in doubt.

Then each conflict is made interesting by expectancy, by a desire on the part of the reader to know what is to happen next. Thus story-interest can be aroused by either crises or meetings, but preferably by both, because story interest comes from suspense, which may be in relation to the outcome of the actor’s immediate purpose in a single meeting or to the outcome of the Main situation of the story as a whole. Always, however, in the Body of your story the Kind of interest which you seek to excite is the interest of sustained attention or what is commonly known as “suspense.”

As soon as you leave that portion of your story which is classified as the Body, and begin the consideration of that portion which is classified as the Ending, a third type of interest appears. In the Beginning of your story you arouse the reader’s interest by hinting of encounters to come; the interest is chiefly the Interest of Curiosity. In the Body of your story you postpone gratifying the curiosity which the Beginning arouses, by keeping the reader in doubt as to the ultimate outcome of those encounters; the interest is the Interest of Suspense. But when the curiosity is gratified, and the suspense over, there remains the task of making the reader feel repaid for the time he has given to the reading of your story. He must be left with a feeling that his curiosity was justified by what eventuated, and that the end was worth waiting for. He must be left with a sense of satisfaction regarding the outcome, a feeling that given the actors and the circumstances the only ultimate result of the encounters is the result you have shown. The Ending need not necessarily be the conventional “happy” ending. It is required only that it seem inevitable. The interest in the Ending of your story is the Interest of Satisfaction.

In achieving this third type of interest, there are two devices used especially. Of one of these O. Henry was the great modern exponent. He is remarkable for the adroit twist which he gives to his plots; so much so, in fact, that he is today remembered chiefly because of that, whereas his real claim to distinction rests upon no such flimsy foundation. He had a great eye for contemporary types. But before he portrayed them they were not types. Nevertheless, he is now cited chiefly because of his extraordinary mastery of one of these devices—the use of the unexpected. The Reversal of the original situation confronting the main character has always been a favorite method of causing in the mind of the reader the sense of satisfaction as to the outcome. It is made dramatic by surprise. Henry Fielding, whom we commonly regard as one of the originators of the English novel, phrased this Law of Interest very neatly, thus:

“… within these few restrictions, I think, every writer may be permitted to deal as much in the wonderful as he pleases; nay, if he then keeps within the rules of credibility, the more he can surprise the reader, the more he will engage his attention, and the more he will charm him.”

O. Henry’s story, “The Cop and the Anthem” is a typical example of the use of the unexpected by the reversal of the situation. The tramp who sets out to be arrested, is arrested after he has changed his mind; after all the ordinary causes for arrest have failed to land him in jail, he is arrested for listening to church music.

The next device upon which I have not touched is one which, although extremely effective, is not employed nearly as much as it might be. You have seen that an incident of no intrinsic interest can be given a synthetic or built-up interest through combination with other incidents. But a synthetic interest may be given to an incident or happening by its meaning. An incident meaningless and undramatic in itself may become very meaningful and striking in proportion as it is significant or symbolic. Wilbur Daniel Steele, in a story called “When Hell Froze,” causes a woman to plunge her hands into a pan of lye to symbolize her admission of infidelity to her husband. In “The Sign of the Lamp’’ Thomas Burke causes one of the characters to pull down a window shade, an act insignificant in itself, but rendered significant because it is a signal to the police that a certain fugitive is hiding in the room. In the Beginning of a Saturday Evening Post story a girl jokingly tells her step-father that she is proof against emotional disturbances and that if she ever does fall in love she will consider it a sufficiently important occasion to send her step-father a telegram. At the close of the story she says”I must send a cable to Cyril." When ordinarily a man says, in reply to an invitation to drink: Thank you, I don’t drink, it is not especially interesting; but when it signifies a definite result of a struggle against dissipation it becomes significant. There is a striking example of this in the closing sentence of the story “Sunk” by George F. Worts. This tenth device for achieving interest is the inclusion of the symbolic or significant act.

The twelfth and last of the devices for sustaining interest is the one which is usually the result of practice. You know that frequently you read, and find interesting, a story whose plot is by no means strikingly original; you will read again and again a type of story in which the same characters appear; you will even look forward to stories in which the people and the happenings are deliberately distorted. You enjoy these stories because of the author’s gift for language. There is something original or charming in the phrasing. It is, as Pope puts it, “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” This originality or charm of phrasing may run throughout the story. It may be used while you are exciting Curiosity, or Suspense, or Satisfaction. This method of achieving interest is not to be confused with the third method, the unusual interpretation of usual phenomena, which comes before phrasing and is in no way dependent upon phrasing. Interpretation is a part of Plotting; phrasing is a part of Presentation.

In applying these Laws of Interest to your work, you will, of course be careful not to attempt too arbitrary a distinction as to the scope of the different Kinds of Interest. While it must be apparent that a certain kind of interest belongs primarily to the Beginning or the Ending or the Body of your story, it must be equally apparent that it cannot be confined to that portion alone. For example, although the use of the unexpected outcome is ordinarily employed in the Ending of a Story to show the ironic reversal of the Story Situation set forth in the Beginning of the Story, you may make use of this quality of unexpectedness in the ending of a Scene. In that case it will form a crisis in the Story Pattern or Plot, and may occur at any point in the progress of the Story—in the Beginning or in the Body. It may come at the conclusion of any meeting at any point in the Story. It may even occur during a meeting.

At the conclusion of this discussion I have prepared, for your information a diagram. It will help you to understand the main divisions into which a story falls. I have represented each of these main divisions as a block, and within each block is a statement setting forth the functional purposes of that particular division. On the left of each such division is a list of the devices normally employed by the writer to enlist and hold the reader’s interest.

This diagram is intended to be used by you as a standard of specification against which you may check a story you write. You will be helped vastly by reading stories in current magazines, in an endeavor to see by what devices the writers succeed in enlisting and holding interest.

You will be very much interested to discover that your stories may be made interesting by the employment of the devices indicated. You will also learn a great deal by attempting to determine, in reading other people’s stories, the exact point at which you become seized with a desire to skip. You will discover, usually, that you will read a Scene between two people without loss of interest; but that your interest will drop, if, at the conclusion of the Scene there is no indication of a crisis in the Plot. You will see for yourself, in this way, that a Scene in a story becomes interesting in proportion to what depends upon it. Realizing this analytically, your task is to put it into effect, creatively. Stories will not come to you ready-made. A condition may exist which is unusual; but it will not of itself, constitute a Story Situation. Your task is to select or invent Important Main or Story Situations. You will first have to vizualize it as Something to be Accomplished by an Actor, or as Something to be Decided (Some choice to be made) by an Actor. If the Story Problem so raised is not in itself interesting, make it interesting by making much depend upon it, by causing it to become important to the actor, and preferably make it both important and unusual. Once you grasp this essential, the road is clear ahead; until you grasp it, everything is chaos. It is not easy.

Facility in invention comes only from practice. Many people never become good at plotting, in the sense that it is easy for them. Their chief reliance must be upon Presentation. But Presentation is not easy. It is so tiring that many people rebel against the labor it entails. That is not the time to abandon effort. Many people find their muscles complaining against physical exercise. Ordinarily, the more the muscles complain, the more you need that exercise. So it is with exercises of the imagination. The imagination, like everything else in nature, grows by what it feeds upon. Most of you will find the inventive side of Plotting difficult at first.

But that should not discourage you. Although, at first, problems of plotting appear appallingly difficult, they become increasingly easier. Keep your goal clearly in mind. The reader’s interest must be captured and held. In attempting to do this, you are in competition with thousands of others. And the reader has ample choice. He won’t read your story unless it interests him. If he is bored he’ll stop reading. Remember “There is no answer to Boredom.”

Laws of Interest Chart

A html version of this chart can be found here.