Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 01/18/2024

Episode 43: Distractions

This is chapter 5 of "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, who was the editor of "Adventure," one of the highest circulating magazine in the heyday of the pulps. Originally published in 1922, now in the public domain.

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.

To hold a reader in the illusion of a story it is of course necessary to hold his attention, not merely in a general way, but entirely and without break, interruption or hindrance. He must live wholly and every instant in the story world—must never be recalled for even the fraction of a second to the real world he lives in.

In writing any story there are a thousand chances of breaking the illusion by some little touch. Most of these are almost automatically avoided even by writers of small ability. Otherwise there would be no fiction. The point is that what are usually a very small minority are not avoided by most writers. The result is that editors are likely to reject the story because it does not "hold the interest," is not "convincing" or "lacks punch." Their finding is probably just, though they may not have analyzed for causes, and the writer is not enlightened or even convinced of the finding.

Disproportionate Damage from Distractions. —Failing to avoid even an extreme minority of the chances for breaking the illusion is enough to injure the story very seriously. You can't afford to let your reader escape from the story's spell, slip back into the world he really lives in, even momentarily. For you have to waste at least a little of the story's potential force in getting him back again, which means that you can never get him back quite so fully as you had him before. You may even not get him back at all. You can't afford to have him become even momentarily a critic, for you must waste at least a little of the story's potential appeal in order to change him back from the critical attitude to sympathy and absorption. You can't afford to let his attention wander off to side-issues, for the story has to stop working at being a story in order to get him back on the main line and it needs every atom of its strength for the main job.

We recently published one of the best stories Adventure ever printed, a combination of simple narrative appeal and of literary excellence of the first water. It is bringing us many letters of appreciation. To-day I read a long letter from one reader who had found in that story nothing, either good or bad, except that there was an indirect inconsistency as to one character's exact age. That was what you might call the net result of that story on a reader. All the strength and merit of an otherwise splendid story completely wrecked for a reader by that one trifling point! Undoubtedly others detected the same inconsistency but suffered less acutely or did not register their "kick." But in each case the appeal of the story lost strength out of all proportion to the size of the detail involved.

It is a typical, not an exceptional, case, except for the unusual merit of the story ruined. Thousands of letters like that come in from readers, often many on the same tiny slip or discrepancy. To those readers the story in question left as its chief impress upon them a violence—at one tiny point—to their knowledge of fact or sense of consistency. In each case how many other such readers are there who do not write us?

Other thousands of readers protest over such slips, such distractions from the illusion, but are not so completely swamped by them, that they fail to consider the merits of the story as a whole. But, even with them, how big looms the tiny flaw in proportion to the whole! In each case how many other such readers are there who do not write in?

How to Use Your Friends. —No point that may distract a reader can be so small that it is not serious. You can not measure the harm done; in one case there may be no harm, in another a little, in another a great deal. But if writers who have their friends "criticize" their stories would ask these friends to give less attention to "literary" points and take careful note of every little thing that in any way attracted attention to itself or sent the mind wandering off to things outside the story, they would get some invaluable pointers—of the only kind that the usual friend is really capable of giving. If some day the colleges make systematic laboratory tests along these lines they should get data as surprising as they would be useful.

Unusual Words. —Consider how tiny a thing is capable of pricking the bubble of illusion, of jerking the reader for a brief instant back into his real world so that he must be drawn again into the fiction spell. If in reading a story you come upon some such word as "pringle," "anodic," "calipash," "mansuetude," "spiracle," "frigorific," "cambist," "gibbous," "ortelic" you probably find it unfamiliar and, if so, of course know that you do. Therein lies the breaking of the illusion. However brief the total time occupied by your reaction to the word, however slightly you may seem to have paused over it, you paused and you paused over it —gave attention to it, not to the story. You had to remember yourself, your own knowledge and experience. Quite possibly you also considered the author's contrasting knowledge and experience, and the author is not the story. Possibly you tried to figure out the meaning of the word from its derivation or the context, or dredged your own memory for it, making your pause over it still longer. Perhaps your pause totaled only a few seconds or a fraction of one second, but —the illusion was broken and had to be rebuilt.

Far less unusual words than those cited will be unfamiliar to part of most audiences.

Would one such word do very serious damage? Very unlikely. But it would do some, and even a small damage is to be avoided if possible. Would four such words? There can of course be no definite measurement, but one thing is sure—_four would do far more than four times as much damage as one._ The effects are cumulative, following a kind of geometrical progression. And no one knows when a serious breaking-point may be reached.

Is a writer never to use a "big word"? Not if it's too big for his audience. In the mouth of a character he may put any word he pleases, provided it is used for sound purposes of characterization or for some other specific demand of the story itself, but not for the mere telling of the story. He might, for example, wish to impress a learned or scientific atmosphere. In this case, too, there is the saving fact that the reader need not know the meaning of these words, and knows that he need not, just as he would know he need not if he were actually living in the scene. He does not feel challenged by them. "Big words" may be justified in scores of typical instances, but there is no instance in which it does not pay to consider whether the damage may not outweigh the gain.

Even an unusual word whose meaning is at once apparent to any one, like "cat-silent," should be carefully weighed as to advantages vs. disadvantages before it is used. And only in the rarest instances can there be justification for using such a word more than once in the same story, lest the recurrence added to the unusualness make a double distraction.

Foreign Words. —The same applies to words from foreign languages. Undoubtedly they are valuable in giving color, but this value is too often attained at too high cost in distraction and is frequently attainable through other means without loss. The damage they do is by no means theoretical, for readers do not hesitate to complain to editors on this score. I do not remember their doing so in the case of "big words," for naturally a man doesn't go to the trouble to admit he doesn't understand words in his own language, while often rather proud of not understanding foreign words. Sufficient color through foreign words can be gained by using only a few, even if these few are repeated, and by using only those instantly clear from the context or from unmistakable similarity to the corresponding English word (like "fader") if context heads the reader in that general direction. There is comparatively only a slight risk in using those that are very generally known, like "ami" or "mon chère," also ejaculations that are evidently such and therefore make no demand on the reader's understanding.

Classical, Historical and Fictional References. —The danger, of course, is that the reader may not be familiar with the reference, knows that he is not, and therefore becomes conscious of himself as a reader. Another risk is that, being familiar with them, his mind drifts off to them more than the writer intended. Used with discretion, they may have value, but they are generally not used with discretion and, generally speaking, a story is the better for telling itself without covering part of the ground by means of what are practically quotations from other stories. Also, there are other dangers than that of simple distraction, which will be covered under other heads.

Unusual Proper Names. —To put this case concretely, here is the list of the male characters in one single story I read yesterday in a manuscript: "Tom Goit," "Braith," "Grahame," "Tim Stine," "Linus Kime," "Jestock," "Bissonet," "Heads," "Arnet," "Jimson," "Kliedjorn," "Jed Willoughby," "Andy Meenal," "Vard Sant," "Simson," "Angus Stell," "Gant," "Beezaw," "Colin Corbin," "Happy Falls," "Jim Light," "Rafe Gillen," "Charley Jance." It is probably not entirely complete, but was made by running through the pages and taking all names noted, usual or unusual. Can any human being read that story without having his attention distracted to the fact that those names are violently unusual? Doesn't the fact that they are unusual add an air of unreality to the whole story— story-book names instead of real people's names? Won't many readers be definitely irritated by the artificiality and mannerism? Aside from this and similar breakings of illusion it was a good story and will undoubtedly be printed somewhere. Its author is a successful writer of fiction. But hasn't the story lost very appreciably through that amazing collection of proper names?

On the other hand there is a certain advantage in the use of such names in some types of story and for some audiences, though not in the story from which the above are taken or for the audience at which it is aimed. Some readers like proper names that are baldly fictional and unreal; that is what fiction means to them—unreality, utter difference from their own lives. These are much the same readers who like their stories filled with duchesses, earls and ancestral halls. A generation or two ago these were a rather large group, and larger still before that, but nowadays folks are more sophisticated in their fiction and need illusions that run more nearly with reality. And, at best, isn't it rather a cheap method of abnormality?

Unusual names serve also to make the characters more vivid to the reader's mind, but this method of characterization is a crude one that should give way to better ones entailing no risk.

In humorous stories of a certain type they are entirely legitimate. On the other hand, look carefully at your proper names lest, in a serious story, you give a character a name like "Hencastle" that brings a grin where you do not wish to have a grin.

Alliterative proper names are another phase of the evil in the case of readers sufficiently sophisticated to note the alliteration at all.

Avoid proper names that are difficult or ambiguous of pronunciation. Don't give your characters the same names as those of real people prominent in the public eye unless a name is so common that it is not likely to distract the reader from the story's illusion through thoughts of the real person; even a too similar name is risky in some cases, e.g. any variation of the unusual name "Roosevelt."

Dialect. —While belonging more properly under later heads it serves, too, as a simple distraction in itself. Its advantages are obvious, yet some readers will read no story with dialect in it and some magazines will print none.

Mistakes. —A typographical error, a mistake in spelling, punctuation or English is sure to check and drag out of the illusion any reader who notes it. Such matters are definitely the editor's responsibility, but he is far from infallible and the author would, in most cases, profit by safeguarding against him. An editor will be grateful, particularly the assistant editor who edits copy and reads proof. In our own office we can quote you lots of rules as to correct English—and show you violations of them in our own pages.

Mistakes in fact and statement will be considered later.

Unusual Mannerisms of Style. —Distinction is to be made between, on the one hand, individuality and deliberate shaping of style to attain a particular atmosphere or suit particular material and, on the other hand, mannerisms that are necessary to neither of these ends and harmful in distracting attention to themselves. No one can possibly draw a definite line between these two groups, but a warning is badly needed against forgetting the danger. It is a question for laboratory test. Try to get your friends—or better, your enemies—to read your story with this point in view, or do not mention it beforehand and cross-examine them afterward as to what mannerisms registered on their attention. And don't hand-pick your critics or "dogs" from any one class or group unless you mean your story to appeal to no other.

A novelette, which had to be rewritten because of it, used the following mannerism hundreds and hundreds of times until each recurrence was not only a distraction but an agony: "he ran, and running, laughed aloud," "he sang, and singing, voiced his mood," "he fought, and fighting, worked toward the house." Another writer habitually, in the words following or introducing a line of dialogue, carries the legitimate "he said," "he urged," "he encouraged," etc., to such distracting extremes as "he frightened," "he anguished," "she informed," "he recognized," "he remorsed." Of late years there has developed the fad of saying "the heart, or soul, or head, of him" for "his heart," "his soul," "his head," etc. This variation from the usual has, in prose, a very limited field in which its advantage exceeds its damage.

A mannerism of style is warranted if it so fits into a story that it is an integral and practically unnoted part of it; otherwise it is a harmful factor. A better adapted mannerism could have gained the desired effect without making of itself an obtrusion.

Fiction as a Vehicle. —There are two ways of writing a story. One is to write fiction only; the other is to combine fiction with something else. Readers like both and both are legitimate, but the latter is of course not pure fiction; fiction is merely the vehicle for the other thing or things. One of the greatest evils among present-day fiction writers is the failure to make this distinction and keep it clearly in mind. Too often a writer does not realize that there is anything else mixed with his fiction; consequently his product is not straight or well-built fiction nor is the fiction part of it a carefully made vehicle for the other thing.

To make fiction serve any end other than its own is very likely to weaken its value as fiction, and before a writer thus weakens it he should make very sure that the advantages gained from making it carry something else compensate for that weakening. If he wishes to give his reader, for example, some direct philosophy, well and good, but he should— and seldom does—weigh the attendant loss.

There is a second distinction that should be made. When I say "plus something else" I mean plus something else that is added as a load is put upon a wagon, not something that comes to the reader as a result of the fiction. To say in a story "a man may prosper exceedingly on a policy of utter selfishness, but, having all his life taken without giving, in the end he gives for what he took" is putting a load on the wagon. To let the story itself say that, merely to tell a story that illustrates and brings home that truth without mentioning it specifically (unless through the mouth of a character), is only letting straight fiction perform a natural office, though a natural office that can be overworked at the cost of a well balanced whole. The former is the easier and less artistic method, and far too many writers follow it far too often. Its evil is that of any "load"—it breaks the illusion, tending to make the reader think of the person who hands him this bit of philosophy, of himself, of the world in general, instead of the story world only.

The present-day fad of opening a story with a bit of philosophy, though objectionable on another score, does little damage to the illusion, since it comes before the spell begins and may even serve as an intermediate step.

Obtrusion of Author. —This is a crying evil, a serious damage to the illusion. The author has no more business to appear concretely in his story than a playwright has upon the stage when his play is being acted. Once in ten thousand times he may himself be sufficiently interesting to atone for the wreck of the story's spell; the other nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine times he is a mistake, a bull in a china-shop. The following, all taken from submitted manuscripts, range from crude to subtle obtrusions:

  • "At the time of which I wish to speak"
  • "you must understand"
  • "consider the case of John Holt. But first consider the environment"
  • "see him"
  • "and it is the correct word"
  • "it is necessary to add, in explanation of this seeming paradox"
  • "had, somewhat grumbingly, be it said,"
  • "he had, for instance, tried,"
  • "and disappears from this story,"

Each of these compels a reader to realize that some one is talking to him. You can't be carried away in a dream when conscious that some one is telling it to you. Sometimes the point is made that an author's obtrusion puts the reader on more intimate terms with him. What has that to do with fiction as such? If the author didn't obtrude himself, the reader would have no interest in intimacy or non-intimacy with him. If the author is the one out of ten thousand, all right; otherwise, not.

If a writer must express philosophy or opinions specifically, let him use the legitimate device of the first-person narrative, taking care that the narrator is cast in such character as to make these opinions natural to him. Or else baldly use fiction as vehicle only, making his story a conversazione.

There is another legitimate device. Kipling ends a story with "I think he was right." But he begins that story with "When I was telling you of." In other words, he tells the story in an undeveloped frame or brackets. Partly by leaving the frame undeveloped and impersonal, his skill is sufficient to make you feel that it is not Kipling himself who talks to you, but some unknown participator in the action of the story or an onlooker. It is really, in effect, a first-person narrative with the privileges of such.

First-person narratives, unless presented as addressed to a fictitious audience such as the narrator's children or grandchildren, of course permit a fairly free direct address to or at the reader, since the writer poses as the actual teller. Incidentally, however, it is not consistent with his telling what goes on inside the characters unless made plain to him as one of them.

As found in submitted manuscripts, the great majority of authors' obtrusions seem unconsidered, and are accompanied by the damage to be expected from walking in the dark. The remainder, almost without exception, seem ill-considered. One exception out of a thousand instances is not a heavy average.

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.