Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 02/08/2024

Episode 45: Overstrain

This is Chapter Seven 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. This chapter deals with "overstrain", which is what happens when you make your readers work too hard to understand your story.

This will be the last chapter from the book that I post here. There's more to be had in the book, though.

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.

A reader has just so much of attention, interest and appreciation to give to any story and, to hold him in the illusion, it is of the highest importance not to wear him out before you are through with him and not to use him up on minor points or on matters that should put upon him no strain whatever.

Brevity. —Most of all, don't talk too much or too long. A story is never so dead as when buried in words. Most of the stories submitted can be cut to advantage, often very heavily cut. The reader gets worn out waiting for something to happen—is bored by being told in a hundred words what he could have grasped in twenty.

Do not feel that you must give the entire history of the hero's life in a short story; only a certain few incidents and facts have direct bearing and the remainder must be mercilessly cut out. Nor all the scenes and action of any story. Make it your object to have as much as possible happen off-stage; what forces itself to the footlights will probably belong there.

Unclearnesses and Distractions. —Any unclearness or ambiguity or any distraction is of course a profitless strain upon the reader. Don't compel a reader to reason out things that should be clear at a glance. Even the intentional unclearness of subtlety, though by no means a fault, must also be weighed as to disadvantage in strain.

All the points covered in Chapter VI apply in this one.

Sentence Length. —Vary it. If you can, vary it in accordance with variation in emotions of material, in desired effects on reader, but vary it in any case. The very monotony of a long succession of either long or short sentences is wearing.

Don't drag a reader through a sentence so long that in following it he tires out before he can draw mental breath.

Hold Reader to Correct Plot Line. —From first word to last, don't wear him out by letting him cover useless distance over false trails.

Classical and Other References. —In addition to their dangers of distraction and unclearness they force a reader, if they reach him, to picture or consider characters, events and scenes in addition to those of the story. They are of course justified in comparatively rare instances.

Dialect, Archaic Speech, Slang, Foreign, Unusual and Technical Words. —All these offer obstacles to at least part of your audience. To a probable minority dialect is a delight, it is of course necessary to faithful realism, and it undoubtedly gives color. Yet many will not read a dialect story, their chief reason being the labor necessary to understand it. There are, too, those who consciously or unconsciously object to anything foreign, meaning by foreign anything different from their own. It is, for the author, a question of weighing advantages against disadvantages. Archaic speech, as far as strain is concerned, is merely dialect. One writer makes the rule of using the speech of the time in which his story is laid for all periods following and including that of Elizabeth, using modern English for all earlier periods, his argument being that her reign approximately draws the line between speech that is now intelligible with little or no effort and speech that is not. Archaic forms of foreign tongues must be rendered to us in English, so fall under the same rule.

Slang, too, is to be weighed as to advantages and disadvantages. It is perhaps more difficult than in the cases of dialect and archaic speech to compute the proportion of readers to whom it will be sufficiently intelligible. On the other hand, it is generally in itself humorous and therefore of particular value when a humorous effect is desired; gives color; aids in characterization.

The danger of foreign, unusual and technical words is much the same on the score of strain as on the score of distraction and unclearness.

Relief Scenes. —At some point a reader's response to a demand on his emotions ceases and he grows callous to the appeal, but writers often forget this fact and continue to demand long after he has lost his ability to respond. Perfection is to bring him to your climax at the full flood of response, but to do so requires careful handling. A steady, gentle increase of demand is best if you can be absolutely sure of results, but a most useful safeguard is the use of relief scenes. If you've keyed him up to a dangerously high pitch, give him a rest-scene before you add a further call upon his emotions—shift the scene or time and let him look a moment at a quiet landscape or gentle action. Make the change a decided one and you not only rest him but profit by the sharp dramatic contrast between the relief scene and those following and preceding it.

Frames or Brackets. — That is, a story within a story—a story one of whose characters tells the main story. Its advantage is a gain in semblance of reality—if it is handled with sufficient skill. It very seldom is. Its disadvantage is an overstrain, in demanding of the reader that he form two illusions instead of one, and a consequent dividing and weakening of attention. Having accomplished the task of getting clear in his mind one setting and one set of characters, he is forced to take up a new set of characters and probably a new setting, a double strain within the compass of a single story. If, as is often the case, a character in the frame (or several characters) persists in interrupting the course of the inner, the real story, conflict or confusion of illusion is compounded.

Most writers could profit by not attempting the doubly difficult task of a bracketed or framed story. Unless exceptional skill is brought to bear, the frame-story is almost sure either to be too slight and unconvincing or to be made more or less convincing by being developed at such length that it is too serious an encroachment upon space needed for the real story. Yet it is a favorite attempt with those least able to handle it.

Mystery Stories. —These must be considered as a class by themselves, for their deliberate intent is to make the reader strain at solving a puzzle or at following its intricate presentation and solution, and he turns to them at least partly for the mental stimulus involved. Yet overstrain is entirely possible. In fact, this type, by reason of its inherent intricacy and effort for the reader, demands particularly that he be not compelled to strain over points that are non-essential to the mystery proper. Unskilled or unfair writers sometimes intentionally add confusions that are in no way necessary, and many a mystery story lessens its hold on readers by unintended unclearnesses or suggestions that mislead in unnecessary directions and to no purpose. A reader may like to solve puzzles, but he most emphatically has the right to be at all times clear as to just what the puzzle is.

Plot. —Unnecessary intricacy, of course, should be avoided in any type of story; the difficulty in a given ease is to draw the line between necessary and unnecessary. But for any writer who has not made very decided progress toward mastering his art a fairly safe rule is to simplify his plot as much as possible. Perhaps that plot might be made more effective if developed in greater intricacy by skilled hands, but his hands are probably not sufficiently skillful and the net result of his attempt is likely to be a reader worn out by too many loosely knit threads of plot. As he grows in skill he will find that more and more intricate plots become—for him—simple plots and therefore to be undertaken with confidence.

This will be the last chapter from the book that I post here. There's more to be had in the book, though.

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.