Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 12/14/2023

Episode 41: Creating the Illusion

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

By creating the illusion I mean making the reader forget the world he really lives in and carrying him into the world of the story, either identifying himself with one of the characters or looking on and listening entirely absorbed in what he sees and hears. The illusion is wholly successful, fully effective, only if the reader is made to live altogether in the story world. He must forget that he is a reader, that he holds a book or magazine in his hands, that the story is merely a story instead of actual happening. He must forget that there is such a thing as an author; he must forget the method and manner of telling in the telling itself. He must live the story.

The Illusion and Its Hold. —Naturally perfection of illusion is not generally attained, and naturally what holds some readers in thrall may not hold others. The more sophisticated the reader, the more difficult, other things being equal, to make him lose himself utterly in the story. Probably, too, the more fiction one has read, the less readily is one swept away into the story's spell. The same obstructions hold in any art, or in eating or any other pleasure. The penalty of sophistication in anything is further removal from the direct, elemental appeal. The penalty of satiety and overuse is a dulling of response. But these facts do not alter the matter of what the appeal is.

But do not the sophisticated get more out of fiction—out of the "highbrow" fiction they tend toward—than do the unsophisticated out of the same fiction? Get more what? More of the finer shadings undoubtedly, but less of the elemental appeal. And is it really fiction they are reading or something else mixed with fiction, and is it from fiction or other things they draw pleasure or edification? Their attitude is at least partly that of a critic rather than a recipient; their interest in "What is happening" is at least partly distracted to "how it is written." From fiction itself, from fiction as fiction, the unsophisticated, granting them understanding of the words they read, in most cases get a greater intensity of appeal than do the others. Understand, I am speaking not of general sophistication but of sophistication in fiction.

Fiction a Vehicle. —As you run over in your mind various writers of acknowledged rank you may feel that, in face of that rank, illusion is an unsound basis of test and comparison. The stumbling-block is that much of what we call fiction is not pure fiction but a hybrid, a cross, a half-breed or even a quadroon—fiction plus an essay, treatise, study, sermon, analysis, philosophy, satire, propaganda, a performance in technique, an exhibition of style, what you will. It is often the other element or elements, or the combination of elements, that appeals and that gives rank and value. There is no reason why writings should not be read and written for the sake of these other elements or of the combinations, but such writings are not pure fiction.

In such cases fiction is used not for itself alone but as a vehicle for something else. The wagon and its load may be more pleasing and valuable than the wagon alone, but only the wagon is fiction and therefore it is with the wagon alone that we are now concerned. No matter how good the load may be, you can not carry it unless you can build and drive a good wagon. Probably the majority of writers will profit most by giving their whole attention to the wagon, partly because they haven't a sufficiently valuable load to put in it and partly because they need their undivided effort to make the wagon fit to carry anything. Certainly it is sound for ninety-odd per cent, of fiction writers to master their vehicle before they attempt hauling messages and information in it.

This book deals with straight fiction only. Straight fiction may of course include analysis, philosophy, technique, information and all the other things for which it is so often made the vehicle, but if it is to remain straight fiction, these must be really integral and necessary parts of it—analysis of or by the characters themselves, the information inherent in the material, the technique necessary for presentation, the philosophy of a character, locality or nation. Having sufficiently mastered straight fiction, a writer is infinitely more likely to be successful in registering on his readers whatever it is he may wish to convey through fiction as a vehicle. His message may be so interesting or important that people will seize upon it eagerly, no matter how crude or weak the fiction-vehicle may be, but it would reach them all the more strongly if the vehicle were a competent carrier.

Illusion the Essence of Fiction. —The very essence of straight fiction is the creation and maintenance of an illusion. That this truth has been so largely lost sight of is due largely to the frequent mixture of fiction with other things, so that the mixture, instead of fiction itself, has tended to become the model and standard. If American writers are to make more rapid progress toward real success, they would do well to segregate fiction and study it for itself alone.

Illusion Easily Shattered. —Successful illusion depends on an infinite variety of things, is as sensitive to breakage as is a bubble and, once broken, though it can be again created, its strength is irremediably impaired. A writer of any merit can impose his illusion, yet often he does so apparently through instinct only, without evidence of carefully considered knowledge and intent. Certainly it is maddeningly common to see him again and again destroy his illusion, if only temporarily, with some "little" flaw that would almost unconsciously be avoided if he had clear conception of the fundamental importance of perfect and uninterrupted illusion.

The importance of maintenance of illusion can not be too much stressed. As a reader can you keep yourself within the spell of a story you are reading if you are subject to constant physical interruptions—conversation directed at you, people coming in and going out, loud and sudden noises? No more can a reader keep himself within the spell of a story if he is subject io constant interruptions from within the story itself. How can a story maintain its spell over you if you are again and again reminded by its text that it is, after all, only a story, somebody's words typed on the pages of a magazine you bought at the corner stand?

Costliness of Breaking the Illusion. —Each such interruption or reminder does its share in wrecking the illusion, each compels the story to begin over again in the business of making you forget your world in its world, each leaves the remainder of the illusion the weaker. Even a single one in a story works very appreciable damage to the illusion as a whole, lessens the net result of the story's impact upon readers. Instead of the story's registering one hundred per cent, of its value, it is, as a result of a single break in its illusion, likely to register, not ninety-eight or ninety-five per cent, but eighty-five or seventy or sixty per cent. There can, of course, be no exact measure of the loss in the story's effectiveness, of the amount of failure in the third step of the art process, but very surely this loss is almost universally underestimated or altogether ignored.

Whatever the value of your story as fiction, you can not afford to have its one hundred per cent, reduced even five per cent in its register upon your reader, and the instant you remind him that he is still merely himself in his same old world—or, even worse, make him momentarily a critic instead of a reader —you seriously damage the illusion and lessen your story's effect. The break may occupy only a fraction of a second's time, the reader, after a few paragraphs may forget all about the break, may even be wholly unconscious at the time of its effect upon him, but the harm has been done nevertheless. It can be no comfort to the writer that the reader doesn't know why the story failed to register its full strength; the important point is that it did fail.

Some breaks in the illusion accomplish even more harm than letting the reader escape from the story's spell, since it is always so easily possible to lose a reader's sympathies or, worse, let him fall into a critical attitude, or, worst of all, cause him irritation or arouse his hostility. If, in reaching the reader, a story loses part of its value by merely letting him get from under its spell, the loss is still greater if it loses his sympathies, for even when he is again brought under its spell he can not possibly be so wholly given over to it as he was before. If you have made of him a critic—well, how much sympathy has a critic? If you have irritated him, naturally your chances of pleasing him are sadly diminished, since you must overcome a heavy handicap before you can even begin to do so. And if you have made him your enemy, you may as well bid farewell to any chance of your story's success. No matter how good the first two steps of that story's art process—Material, Writer —if the third step—Reader—can not be taken, then nothing has been completed except an unrealized potentiality.

Need of Emphasizing the Illusion. —And yet, when it comes to the actual writing of fiction these practical, common-sense, vital Facts are unrecognized or forgotten to an almost unbelievable degree. Day after day the magazine offices are rejecting manuscripts that would have been accepted but for the failure of illusion. Generally the editor calls it "unconvincingness." Year after year class-room and text-book go on teaching plot, style, characterization that go for naught if they are unable to register upon the reader. Year after year writers, oppressed with rules and abstractions, laboriously build pieces of machinery and expect readers to take these obvious, clanking collections of bolts, girders, wheels and cogs for something that is alive. Why not? They've been taught to consider only the making of a perfect machine according to formula. They find the magazines heavily laden with machines and are the more convinced that machinery is the ultimate attainment. Little teaching do they get that helps them put the breath of life into their stories or gives them the habit of seeing also from the reader's point of view! They "try it on their friends"—God save the mark!—their friends respond or pretend to and the problem of the reader, if it arose at all, is satisfactorily settled for all time.

But mustn't they be taught plot, etc.? Of course. But plot, etc., are merely tools. A man may be passing skillful in the handling of chisel and mallet yet fail dismally as a sculptor. Plot, etc., are necessary, but they must be taught, not as abstractions, but as reasoned and reasonable outgrowths of something more vital than they.

Individuality Crushed by Rules. —Some writers escape from the net or are too big to be caught in it. These are in a painful minority. The tragedy is in the host of those who had sufficient talent and individuality for a moderate success but never attain it because their talent is diverted to formulas and their individuality crushed by academics.

Those who escape do so generally through cither disgust or despair. They sweep the rules away or turn their backs upon them and go ahead on their own. One advantage gained thereby is instant, inevitable, automatic, for they have made an all-important step forward—being no longer ridden and haunted by formulas and rules, the writer at last has a chance to live the illusion of his own story and therefore a far better chance of making the reader live it.

The following is part of a letter from a writer who appears in The Saturday Evening Post, McClure's and other magazines of that grade. Years ago he used to send me well-made but colorless and formal stories. During some of the years between he had done no writing. Then he sent me one of the new kind. Amazed at the remarkable improvement in his work, I asked him what had happened. In his reply the omitted name is that of a magazine:


In those days I was rigidly following the rules of what I call the X school of the American short story.

X stories and the stories of the school which it dominated, were all like Fords. They were of limited horsepower, neat, trim and shiny, taking up very little road space, structurally correct and all following the blueprint without the slightest deviation. There weren't any big powerful Cadillacs zipping along, or any dirty, greasy trucks hauling huge burdens and disturbing and upsetting the normal run of things. It was an endless highway just jammed with Fords.

The X story, from a standpoint of construction, was astonishingly well done. It had a beginning, a middle and an end, but few intestines anywhere along the route. The workmanship was wonderful. It was astonishing how many people there were who could write such beautiful English. There was one punch, one climax, which was very carefully led up to, and that was all.

Well, I tried to follow the rules as apparently laid down. I agonized over each word and sentence to get 'em just exactly right. I have sat at my typewriter for an hour to get just the few syllables that their standards seemed to demand.

The Hades of it was that the reader was being cheated all the time. He got a lot of very fine writing, but not much story. It was like sitting down to a dinner where the appointments were perfect, the water clear and icecold, the napery thick, the glassware thin, flowers on the table, an orchestra, perfect service, and not enough food for a canarybird. In other words, a race of bird-shot stylists was being propagated who could write beautifully about an ant-hill but hadn't the equipment to do anything for a mountain.

I trailed along because I didn't know any better and because I hadn't been waked up and shaken down. I had lived, but I had not assimilated and correlated my experiences.


Now his present method, and if your nose is inclined to turn up at his idea of style, before you let it, make very sure that he hasn't taken the one sure road to the only kind of style worth any one's having. And note carefully what he says about the outside of the motor-car:


I try to give the reader a lot for his money. I don't try to do any fine writing. Only one of a million of us can be a polished stylist. I'm not that one, but I think I can evolve a story and tell it. So there is no more agonizing about the style. I try not to make the outside of the motor-car which bears my people all gold and shiny and flower-decked so that the countryside will look at the car, and not at those it contains. I just try to make it a good, suitable, unobtrusive vehicle which will start and get to the journey's end without any tire trouble or backfires. I try to imagine real people—very often they are friends and acquaintances whose mental reactions I have noted under circumstances similar to those described in the yarn. And I try to visualize every important scene before I set it down. That is, I shut my eyes and see the people as though I were looking at a scene from a play.

And it's just a joy, under those conditions, to write. To go to my machine with the keenest anticipation. It is the finest sort of an adventure to translate a good story and send it on its way. I write much more easily and I think less artificially than in those days of deadly correctness—and dullness.


There are thousands of other cases—proved, not yet proved or never to be proved—of writers whose individuality has been crushed out or whose success has been prevented or delayed by the present academic and unhuman methods of teaching the writing of fiction, by forgetting the illusion and the reader for the sake of the means of securing them. Here is an example so extreme that it must in fairness to other teachers of fiction be labeled as the last word in formula. It is, nevertheless, only the usual method fully and relentlessly developed. It is taken word for word from the teacher's printed statement of his "mathematical rule" for plot:


If the thread A, or viewpoint character, figures with the thread B in an opening incident of numerical order "n" there must follow rapidly after the opening of the story an incident n-plus-1 involving threads A and C, an incident n-plus-2 involving threads A and D, an incident n-plus-3 involving threads A and E, and so on, up to perhaps at least n-plus-4 or n-plus-5; and furthermore, n must produce n-plus-1, n-plus-2 must be the result of n-plus-1, n-plus-3 must be the result of n-plus-2, and so on.


That formula is, I dare say, sound and, if sound, undoubtedly useful. The teacher sells his own stories regularly to magazines and, as he is an apparently successful teacher, probably numerous pupils of his are doing the same. (It is stated that his output for the last five years was about one million words, with sales of about ninety-six per cent.) Yet I think you will agree that his formula leaves something to be desired.

If I have talked overlong of Reader and Illusion in their general aspect it is because I have found that, while some writers grasp the idea at once, a minority seem incapable of seeing any possibility of difference between what a writer intends the reader to get and what the reader really does get, incapable of believing that they have not expressed in full and with perfect exactness all that they saw and know and felt when writing, and incapable of conceiving any reader who would not be spell-bound by their stories and in full sympathy with every shading and inflection whether real, imagined or flatly reversed in expression.

The interrupters and destroyers of illusion are almost infinite in variety and number. The means of avoiding them, indeed, constitute a complete set of working rules for the writing of fiction—better still, a basis from which a writer can draw his own rules to meet all occasions as they arise. They may be very roughly divided into classes, the small, cruder interruptions that are comparatively detached and temporary and the more fundamental, organic and permanent ones. Most of the latter being treated, though from a different point of view, by the usual textbook, the smaller ones are in greater need of consideration and will be taken up first.

It is understood, however, that definite classification is not attempted and that the division into sub-groups is for convenience only. An item in one group may belong equally in several others and will often be treated under more than one.

Fundamentals of Fiction Writing is finally once again available in print and ebook. And if you get the edition I linked to, you are supporting this site.