Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 02/01/2024

Episode 44: Clearness

This is chapter 6 of "Fundamentals of Fiction Writing" by Arthur Sullivant Hoffman, who was the editor of "Adventure," one of the highest circulating magazines 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.

Anything that is is not clear to a reader either causes him to skip it and therefore miss part of the story’s substance and effect, or else makes him puzzle. In either case the illusion suffers. If he puzzles, he has to use up attention on a point the writer had counted on being clear, his mind is on the puzzle, not obsessed by the spell; the story’s flow is stopped, the reader is conscious of himself, his difficulty and limitations, perhaps also of the author as the cause of his troubles—in a word, the reader has got away. Every time you confuse him you lose him. Deliberate mystification is a writer’s prerogative; having all his plans upset by mystification where none was expected or desired is a calamity.

Author's Ostrich Habit. —Naturally enough, authors are inclined to a kind of reversed ostrich habit. If a point was clear to them when they wrote it, they take for granted that it must be clear to the reader. They forget that they have full knowledge of all that is or happens in their fiction, while the reader can know only what comes to him from the printed page. Often when an editor points out an unclearness they argue with him, blissfully ignoring the fact that the editor is himself a reader and that the reader found it unclear. Possibly the author proves his case —that is, he points out other passages in the story which do clear up the unclearness if the reader remembers them and makes the correct inferences and connections. The fact that, in the actual test, these passages failed to produce the intended results on the reader slides off the author like water off a duck. Still less does he get the idea that a reader shouldn’t be distracted from the story by being compelled to go into a more or less complicated reasoning process in order to get what should have been handed to him on a platter. Even if several editor-readers found the point unclear, he stands by his guns.

Aside from the author’s vastly superior knowledge of his material amd intentions, many of his readers may be his mental inferiors. Also many of them may not be so interested in his story as he is and so give it less close attention than he expects. Part of them habitually "skip" through a story and demand a plain and shining path. Certainly no one mind is exactly like another and all readers will not respond as does the author to any given set of stimuli if even a tiny loophole is left open. A rule given playwrights is that if it is essential to impress a basic point on the audience, the point must be made at least three times in the first scene. So extreme a rule is not needed for fiction, but the necessity of clearness, even on minor points, is no less pressing.

It is a natural and common mistake to overestimate the average reader’s interest and attention and his ability and willingness to solve puzzles when he sits down to read a story. A writer usually forgets that to the reader his is merely one story out of dozens or hundreds recently read, out of thousands and ten thousands total. The writer’s friend-critics have a personal interest in him and a very special interest in his story that carry them smilingly over many obstacles; to the average reader the writer probably means nothing whatsoever personally—quite possibly his name at the head of the story was not even read—and the story is merely one of very many. Any special attention to it must be won by the writer’s skill and careful work.

Talbot Mundy, knowing in advance the general lines of this book, has furnished me from his voluminous reading with various quotations bearing on points covered, among them this from Quintillian:

"Care should be taken, not that the reader may understand if he will, but that he must understand, whether he will or not."

And from Whitman:

"Nothing can make up for the lack of definiteness."

Ambiguous Words and Sentences. —Any good text-book on English covers the subject and most writers would profit by the study thereof. If when they try a short story out on their friends they would ask for practical detailed criticism on such points as this, they would get laboratory results far more valuable than the proverbially undependable criticism of friends on the story as a whole.

Proper Names. —Be careful to give your characters names no two of which arc similar. The reader meets them for the first time and has the task of identifying each name with the proper character whenever it occurs. Why confuse him with two characters named "Lowe" and "Rowe," "Towne" and "Browne," "Morgan" and "Mordan," or even "Hadley" and "Hatfield"? Yet many and many a manuscript contains this needless stumbling-block for readers.

The same mistake is made in names of places, ships, and so on.

Another maddening and very common practise among writers is to use sometimes a character’s last name, sometimes his first. Even a short story with only two or three characters can be made a needless omelette of confusion, for this bad habit is extended to include titles and nick-names or familiar forms of the full names. Consider "Doctor James Stanley," "Edward D. Gage" and "Captain John S. Tompkins." "Gage" is a lawyer and often called "Judge" by his intimates. "Tompkins’" lack of height earns him the usual "Shorty." The author uses some of each, possibly for the sake of "variety," and the three characters become, to the reader an army, and hopelessly confused— "Stanley," "Ed," "Cap," "Gage," "Shorty," "Jim," "Judge," "John," "Doc," "Tompkins," "James," "Johnnie," "Edward." Such a confusion is alone enough to ruin the blissfully unconscious writer’s story. For the simple reason that readers can only half know what is going on. Yet in practise it is a very common mistake.

Technical and Foreign Words; Classical, Historical and Fictional References and Allusions. —The confusion arises when a reader happens not to understand the word, even from the context, or to be unfamiliar with the reference. Writers seem to take it for granted that all readers will grasp the meaning without effort or delay. Or mystify deliberately to air their culture. The warning seems silly when set down on paper but is warranted by the number of offenses in actual practise.

Naming Characters Early. —Sometimes an effect of reality is gained by not at once naming characters in a story, giving the reader as it were, the effect of looking down upon a new world whose figures are no more known to him than they would be at first sight in a real scene. Generally, however, a reader is likely to resent being left to follow, for even a few pages, the fortunes of a nameless person. Include particularly the narrator in a first-person story.

Dialogue. —Over and over again an editor is compelled to go back over a passage of dialogue in manuscript and "count out" with finger or pencil until he finds a line that is definitely connected with a particular speaker. The characters are not sufficiently individualized to be recognized from their lines, context fails to identify, the lines are not labeled with the speakers’ names and the least flicker of attention leaves one lost at the end of a dozen or even half a dozen speeches. Sometimes the author himself gets lost and mixes or omits. An ordinary reader doesn’t have to "count out" as does the editor—he is more likely to snort and pass on, with part of the story lost to him and its net register on him badly damaged. If he doesn’t snort and pass on he stops to puzzle it out. Why injure a story by so crude an omission?

Too Many Characters. —The heading is self-explanatory. All the characters in any story are utter strangers to the reader until he becomes familiar with them; he can keep clear in his mind only a limited number of new acquaintances all made in the course of a few minutes; the kind of writer who uses many characters is usually the kind who is unable to individualize them with any vividness. A novel or novelette gives greater scope, but in a short story it may almost be given as a general rule that the fewer the characters, the stronger the story, not counting characters used in blocks, such as mobs, armies, spectators. Structure and proportion, as well as clearness, are of course involved.

Dialect and Slang. —Neither is familiar in all places or to all classes, and on the point of clearness both are to be condemned. Their advantages will be considered later.

The stupidest blunder in handling dialect is to misspell a word without really changing its pronunciation, thus confusing the reader’s eye yet gaining only the appearance of dialect—and the reader’s irritation.

Contradictions and Inconsistencies. —Their variety is infinite and their occurrence in submitted manuscripts frequent beyond the belief of those who read only the corrected printed page. A woman changes the color of her eyes; with a conversation that could occupy only one minute there is coincident action that couldn’t possibly be compressed into five, or, very commonly, a bland lapse of even more time without any action; a six-shooter emits seven shots without reloading; of a party of fourteen, five turn back and ten remain; a character uses a word that would never be used by such a person in real life, or acts, without explanation, entirely at variance with his nature as the author has pictured it; the hero acts on information he has not yet received; a man’s name changes during the story; a woman opens a door already open; a character goes somewhere else without leaving or becomes present without arriving. When you encounter such a break in a printed story doesn’t it jar you out of the illusion, lessen your respect for the author, and therefore permanently damage his story’s hold on you?

There can be no general rule for correction. When not the result of sheer carelessness and indifference, such errors are due to the author’s failure to visualize, to live his scenes himself. This failure in some cases is due to real inability or comparative inability, but in very many cases to attention so obsessed and ridden by principles of plot, rules for character drawing, regulations for niceties of style, application of technique in general and requirements of various magazines that there’s no brain-force left for making the story world a really convincing and natural one in its all important details.

Holding Reader to Correct Plot Line. —In other words, proportion and emphasis. Briefly stated, what is meant here is clearness of path for the reader through the incidents of the story, so that his mind will follow or leap ahead only in the exact direction the author wishes for the fullest effectiveness of his story. This will be taken up in detail later.

Simplicity. —The following from Schopenhauer (thanks to Mr. Mundy) gives us the heart of the matter:

"Nothing is easier than to write so that no one can understand; just as, contrarily, nothing is more difficult than to express deep things in such a way that every one must necessarily grasp them."

Yet to most of those sending manuscripts to magazines simplicity, particularly simplicity in words and style, is very pointedly something to be avoided whatever else is done or left undone. The twin cause of this appalling idea, this curse stupidly laid upon American fiction, is the firmly rooted belief that literature must be an expression that is, first, unnatural, second, learned, recondite, even sophomoric. In its lowest and very common form it is no more than the crude idea that editors must be very scholarly persons and that therefore they would scorn any manuscript that didn’t have a lot of "big words" in it. The simple language of Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, the Bible and other really enduring classics loom before their eyes, but no, they follow the jack-o’-lantern of "big words." They have this excuse—much of the fiction published in magazines and books is fairly rotten with "big words," a reflection on editors and reading public as well as writers.

The hard practical argument against "dictionary words" is that most people find them difficult to understand or at least lack the definite, vivid, full connotation for them that they have for the simpler and more common words of our very rich language. Such words reduce the size of an author’s fully appreciative audience. Another point is that the writer who doesn’t know any better than to make a business of using them is very often himself lacking in an understanding of their finer shades of meaning. A third point is that, unless such words are part of his own every-day vocabulary he is being unnatural in using them and thereby ruins his chances of attaining real style or producing real literature. Also he gives through them to his story an unnatural, artificial quality, an air of being forced. In the eyes of all those with a real understanding of real literature he makes of himself a plain darned fool.

But can there be no great literature without simplicity? None that couldn’t be greater with it. A straight line is the shortest distance between two points; any deviation from it is lost motion, unnecessary; the best literature contains no lost motion and nothing that is unnecessary. But is not a "big word" sometimes the straight line? Yes, but for one case of this kind there are twenty when it is not. Sometimes the author uses it for a simpler phrasing not sufficiently mastered to come to mind at need; sometimes it is necessary only because he has committed himself by some roundabout phrasing demanding it for completion; sometimes he commits himself to it by following the inferior method of telling the reader what is inside a character instead of making it plain through what the character says and does and what other characters say and do to him.

The final test for the use of "big words" is the nature of the material or ideas handled. In some cases they arc necessary to a degree, sometimes to a great degree. But in practise the nature of the material is generally not correctly assayed, or is mishandled, or the need imagined. The ignorant use them through ignorance; for those with a good knowledge of words it is generally easier to use the "big word," the Latin derivative instead of the simpler Anglo-Saxon.

Is it not therefore more natural and so better for this last class to use the "big word"? That depends on why it is natural—or on whether it is natural or merely habitual. A writer may have come into the use of them, not by natural development but through deliberate effort, a stunt for the sake of seeming learned or being impressive, so that their use, while easy to him, is merely the result of his having made of himself a kind of abnormality—an artificial result of artificial talking and method of thought. On the other hand is the far rarer case of him whose mind naturally expresses itself through polysyllables, generally because of an education from books instead of people. I know one writer who spoke to no one for two years except for the barest necessities because when he used what to him was perfectly natural language the people he met thought he was "stuck up" or showing off.

I do not know why Henry James wrote as he did, but contrast the two following cases:

I once shared an apartment with an ardent admirer of James and as I did not share his admiration we argued frequently. James came to New York while my friend was preparing a bibliography of his idol’s works. There was some question as to several early articles or stories that had magazine but not book publication and my friend wrote for the simple information necessary. It could have been given amply and courteously in two or three sentences. The reply was appalling in its totally unnecessary complexity, length and creation of detail, so much so that my friend woke me up to show it to me and joined in my unholy glee. It was, surely, a natural expression, but why was it natural?

And certainly it was not adapted to the nature of the material or idea.

Now read the first one hundred and fifty words of A Coward by De Maupassant, even in translation, then write down the things you know about the character described in those few very simple words and you will be amazed at the length of the list.

Consider that De Maupassant and his master Flaubert stand preeminently for unrelenting search for "the one word’’ and that both of them are characterized by extreme simplicity of presentation. And is any character of Henry James’ so much more intricately drawn than "Madame Bovary"?

Among more modern writers take Joseph Conrad. I am a Conrad "fan," but consider him, comparatively speaking, a poor workman though a great artist. Here we have simplicity of words but not of expression in a general sense. I do not by any means fully understand most of his stories and I find that others are about equally at sea if they are honest or are cross-examined. In most of the qualities that make a great fictionist he stands in the front rank, but he is lacking in corresponding ability to simplify and clarify his thought, to make the proper abstraction and selection of thought expressions. His content and gifts are so rich that even only a part of them registered on readers is sufficient to rate him a master, but the fact remains that he conveys only a part of what he has to say. Instead of a direct, clear-cut, simple path to his goal he gives the reader a maze of paths that is not lacking in blind alleys.

Whatever be the generally accepted academic philosophy of simple versus complex expression, it can not outface the fact that the minority of readers can not so fully understand or appreciate complexity and that with them the effectiveness of a story is thereby crippled. Certainly in practise there is crying need for the mastery that can say all yet say it simply. If, instead of straining for complexity, beginners would aim at simplicity, especially of words, they would not only come closer to writing both good magazine stories and good literature, but would find themselves able to "handle" greater and greater complexity of thought and with a precision and effectiveness that can not be equaled by the other method.

Remember that the simple, every-day words are in almost all cases the stronger ones.

Repetition. —Before leaving the subject of clearness as a whole (it will come up again in connection with other subjects), a word might be ventured on repetition. The present horror of it is a badly exaggerated reaction. To repeat without due cause an unusual word or phrase in a short story, or a usual one too close to its first use, is a distraction and therefore harmful to the illusion, but sometimes due cause is ignored. A story, all so clear to its author, presents hundred of facts with which the reader must familiarize himself. The easier you make this for him and the more you insure his getting all the points necessary to a full appreciation of your story, the more fully will your story register on him. To present a vital point once so vividly that it is almost sure to register is best of all and correspondingly difficult to do, but keep your eyes open for cases where repetition, probably not in exactly the same words, will accomplish the same purpose nearly as well and perhaps more surely.

Aside from clearness, in skillful hands repetition can become a most subtle and powerful instrument for dramatic and poetic effects of high literary quality.

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.