Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 12/07/2023

Episode 40: A General Survey

note: This is the second chapter of "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman. Originally published in 1922, it is now in the public domain.

Let us take a general survey of what is to follow, beginning with fundamentals.

The Art Process. —The art process of fiction involves three elements—the Material, the Artist and the Reader. So far as my experience and observation go, the Reader is not regarded as a part of the art process and in both theory and practice fails to get anything approaching due consideration. For that reason his part in the art process will receive full treatment in this book, while Material and Artist, being already amply covered in thousands of texts, will receive more cursory treatment. The reader can, nevertheless, be made a complete basis of both rhetorical and fictional theory. Almost any important element can, for that matter; it is merely a matter of choosing the point from which you shall look at the circle. The reader's having been hitherto slighted in this respect is alone sufficient reason to choose him if for no other purpose than that of viewing the art process from a new angle and thereby getting a more balanced concept of it Personally, I believe the reader's angle the correct one, being the final step, the lest of the other two.

Philosophers will at once quarrel with both my theory and my terminology. If they will confine their quarreling to the field of philosophy, they may settle the issue as they please. Must a genius think, only, or at all, of his readers when he sits down to write? Probably not, but this book is not written for geniuses, who need no rules or guidance or at least think they do not. Certainly either genius or plain human will fall into ruin if he thinks overmuch on rules and regulations of any kind when he should be giving himself up to creating. But I've noticed that even geniuses generally revise their work after its first launching in ink. Why?

Must art be seen or heard by others before it can be art? Naturally I realize that the Venus de Milo was a work of art before it was dug up, but what of that? It was only a potential work of art from any practical point of view and of no good to any one until brought where material and the artist's work on the material could continue and complete the process by creating in human beings the thoughts and emotions they strove to express. In that word "express," by the way, lies the whole divergence of theory. Theories have made it practically subjective only, ignoring its objective side—the recipient. Can you, outside the most abstract abstractions of philosophy, express anything without expressing it to some one? If you think you can, how are you going to be sure that you have expressed it? Who is to be the judge on this point? You, the artist, alone? Perhaps the philosophers can show me my position is untenable, but they can't show me one single fiction editor in all the world who wouldn't throw up his hands in despair at the very idea of letting every "artist" be the judge as to whether he had expressed what he thought he had expressed. Even non-editors, who haven't been tortured by the mistaken idea of "artists" that they have succeeded in expression, would be more than slow to admit the artists themselves as competent judges or to abide by the artists' judgments.

Consigning abstraction to the background, you are a fool if you put into material what no one else can get out of it. And I'd say that you were not a genius, the two terms not being mutually exclusive, for a genius—at least all whom the world has been able to discover—does not fail to convey his message to at least a few.

To how many people and to what grades of intelligence must the artist convey his message in order to prove himself an artist? I do not know. Neither, I think, does anybody else. There seems almost equal disagreement as to the character and quality of the message to be conveyed. But I can see no doubt that some message must be conveyed to somebody and it would seem that the greater and better the message and the more the recipients, the more successful is the work of art.

On the practical basis that the would-be fictionist wishes to sell his fiction to the magazine or book houses, it follows naturally that as a first step his success will be measured by the number of people to whom he is able to convey his message, the thought and feeling he desires to express. After reaching them, it of course becomes a question of the quality of his message, but that quality can be known only by those readers reached by it. It becomes a question, also, of the degree to which he reaches them.

But first, and most of all, he must reach them.

Clearness. —It follows that the prime essential is clearness. If they arc to get his message at all, they must be able to understand what he says. If they are to get it fully, he must express exactly what he means and do so in such manner that they will understand it exactly as he means it. This may seem too elementary for consideration. It isn't. The theory is readily admitted but not sufficiently practiced. The guiltiest are often the most unconscious of their guilt, for it is a common serious failing of writers to believe that because they have made things plain to themselves they have made them plain to others.

Clearness is not merely a question of unambiguous sentences, though the majority of writers do not successfully mount even that simple hurdle. Clearness includes supplying all necessary details, suppressing the unnecessary ones, giving to each the proportionate emphasis you wish the reader to give to it and seeing to it that his response is exact, and so shaping your presentation of the story that the reader must follow the exact path you have mapped out for him.

Other Essentials. —A valuable accessory in attaining clearness is simplicity. But most writers abhor simplicity, apparently because being simple seems to them to ruin their chance of being "literary."

Clearness, simplicity, force, but the last two of this old triology of the rhetorics are really included under clearness in its full meaning. So, too, perhaps, are unity and structure. In any case, all are necessary in getting the writer's message to his readers.

Shall I sound hopelessly elementary and banal when I say that, to register his message in full force, the author must enlist his reader's sympathies? Yet the majority of those who attempt fiction cither give this necessity no thought or are unbelievably crude and stupid, not only missing chance after chance to secure this sympathy, but continually and needlessly alienating it. I do not use "sympathy" in its sugary sense, but shall attempt no exact definition in this chapter of preliminary survey.

As essentials for the securing of the reader's sympathies may be included unity and structure—in some of their phases more properly included here than under clearness.

Also, he must economize his reader—carefully regulate demands on attention, thought and feelings according to a human being's normal ability to respond as well as according to the varying needs of different parts of the tale.

The Illusion. —Lastly, to convey his message fully, he must impose and preserve the illusion of his story. In this are really included all the necessities named, even clearness. And, I think, all necessities that can be named. This, it may be said, is fiction—the imposing and preserving of an illusion. I make it the basis of this book because it offers what seems at present the angle of approach most needed in teaching the successful writing of stories, in correcting the faults most common and most fatal, and in providing writers with a consistent and comprehensive theory that they can apply to their needs and problems as these arise.

Itself a return to the. solid foundation of underlying elementals, it has the very practical merit of compelling writers to make the elementals the constant test of their work. Necessarily involving a constant and careful consideration of the reader, it seems the best remedy for the greatest weakness in fiction writing—the tendency to limit the. art process to the second of its three steps, Material, Artist and Reader. If the third step can be helped to its due share of attention, the first step can wait its turn, at least so far as the successful writing of magazine and ordinary book fiction is concerned.

Do I then mean that the prime object of fiction is the imposing of an illusion? That here lies the test of fiction? That no fiction is written or read or valued except for its success in creating an illusion? The imposing of an illusion is the object and test of fiction as fiction. Fiction serves many purposes. It may teach something, show something, what you please. But for these things it is only a vehicle, and the test of it as a vehicle lies in its success at imposing an illusion.

As to whether my theory of fiction is "new" and "revolutionary" I can offer only that it was new to my experience and revolutionary only in that, in the actual editorial work of helping writers develop their abilities for fiction, it has seemed to effect results that no other theory was able to effect. I might add, also, that the fiction department of a Coast University, having come across some of my correspondence with contributors, wrote me that the fully developed principle of preserving the illusion had not, to their knowledge, been elsewhere advanced, that they had adopted it as a regular part of their course, and that it had satisfactorily stood the test of several years. On the other hand I have learned, even since the actual writing of this book was begun, that for several years Doctor Dorothy Scarborough has taught this principle to her classes in short-story writing in Columbia University.

As to the newness of dividing the art process into the three steps of Material, Artist, Reader, I can not say. So far as I know, it is my own idea, the joining together of two lines of thought on which I had been working. On the other hand, I should be amazed if others had not previously advanced the same theory.

Literature vs. Magazine Fiction. —What distinction do I make between literature and magazine fiction? In fundamentals, none. Only a small percentage of magazine fiction is literature in the distinctive sense of that term. That so little of it is literature is partly due to the arbitrary and entirely non-literary restrictions imposed by the magazines with their various aims as to types of audience. Some will not accept unhappy endings, some bar sex questions, some use no stories of foreign lands, some demand action, some permit no mention of drink or tobacco, some will have no "problems," some require a breezy, sophisticated style, some must have this, some abhor that. Most writers must sell what they write or stop writing through lack of means or lack of tenacity. Naturally they generally strive to make their goods acceptable to the market, writing with a careful eye on the likes and dislikes of the magazines and all the more harassed and limited because what is one magazine's meat is another magazine's poison.

Some, like Sinclair Lewis, Talbot Mundy and others, fully realizing the situation and keeping their heads, write what they know will sell, write it as well as they can under the limitations, and keep on writing it until they have attained sufficient standing and financial foundation—and sufficient mastery—to write what they wish and in the way they wish. But the vast majority become permanent slaves in the galley where they must serve their apprenticeship, perhaps growing very skillful in handling one oar among the many oars but hopelessly unable to paddle their own canoe.

If money success is essential or preferred, by all means draw a sharp distinction between literature and magazine fiction and, unless you are quite sure your talents are considerable, confine yourself to the latter. On the other hand, granted sufficient ability, aiming at the former may very well carry you further in every way. If what you wish is, regardless of worldly success, to write the best that in you lies, forget everything else, including the restrictions of the magazines.

Another cause of the scarcity of literature in magazine fiction is that writers, editors and readers become obsessed with fads, generally of a superficial nature, as to style, or treatment, or types of material. Underneath this is a more fundamental cause—the habit of imitation. O. Henry wrote and died and even yet the mails are full of manuscripts from writers who are trying to write O. Henry stories—and can't, for the simple and everlasting reason that no one of them is O. Henry. Every John Smith of them would do better work if he wrote John Smith stories, but lots of them are still selling O. Henry stories because editors too are still under the O. Henry spell or know that many of their readers are. Kipling, Doyle, James and other famous authors have each their army of imitators, many a sheep-like soldier serving in several armies at once.

Nor do the imitators always aim so nigh. Any writer popular in the magazines, no matter how ephemeral his vogue, serves them almost equally well. The lowest depths are reached when the model is no one in particular but merely a composite of all that is most hack and usual on the printed page.

Not long ago there arose again the fad of beginning a story with a paragraph of philosophy. It has spread like a disease and, I think, is one. There were—or are—the era of glittering sophistication in style, the Dolly Dialogues and Prisoner of Zenda eras, doublet and hose, business, sex, Stevensonian rhythm, and so on.

But all these fads and other limitations serve only to lower the proportion of literature in magazine fiction. Neither they nor anything else creates any fundamental difference between the two. Both are fiction, both subject to the laws of fiction. And even that magazine fiction beyond the pale of literature is aimed, somehow, at the reader and is to be judged on that basis.