Plotting the Short Story: Catching Contagious Germ-Plots
NaNoWriMo Getting Ready Series 1
Note: This excerpt from “Plotting the Short Story” by S. C. Chunn was originally published in 1922. Oddly, there seem few modern “guru’s” recommending this advice. These nuggets also apply to fueling your plotting inspiration for any length of writing. Especially when spotting the occasional zeppelin. Enjoy.
A comprehensive system of plot development, and an adequate supply of material to draw from, are almost indispensable to the writer who turns out a large number of stories each year. To the occasional scribbler who has little knowledge of plot form and structure it is of even greater value.
Years of experience as a writer, literary critic and student of the short story have brought out these facts:
- The writer who is “long” on writing is generally “short” on ideas, and
- An inadequate knowledge of the plot and its development causes more aspiring authors to fail than any other one thing.
Most beginners seem to have the idea that the writing game is a very easy game to play, as easy as ping-pong, for instance. A few of them have acquired a fair education; others, not so fortunate, are equipped with nothing but a gnawing desire to write, and on first appearances it seems to them that it should prove to be a very simple matter to weave their ideas into readable stories.
Some of them have a vague idea of what a plot is, but they know nothing about BALANCE, INCITING MOTIVES, CRUCIAL SITUATIONS, CLIMAXES, etc., and care less.
When they read in their favorite magazine a cameo-like story by some master writer, they do not realize that the author may have labored for days over that story, rearranging words, eliminating paragraphs and even whole pages from the original draft, and reconstructing the plot after he has torn it to pieces half-a-dozen times. The words flow so smoothly, the characters stand out so clearly, the plot is so simple — how easy it must be!
But these writers are soon disillusioned when the rejection slips begin to roll in on them with the regularity of well-oiled clockwork. Not until they have served a long apprenticeship do they learn that authorship is as much of a profession as surgery is and that, as in all other pursuits, it is simply a matter of the survival of the fittest.
No writer can hope to achieve real success in the writing field unless he is well-grounded in the fundamentals of plot construction, nor can he avoid an atmosphere of SAMENESS in his stories and give them the stamp of cleverness and originality unless he constantly adds to his store of plot material.
“The plot’s the thing,” and the writer who relies solely upon inspiration to furnish him with suitable plots for his stories cannot begin to compete with his more practical brother craftsman who stimulates his imagination with tid-bits from real life, as it were, and builds the foundations for his stories with the same care and exactitude that a stone mason would employ in building the foundation and framework of a house.
Inspiration is, without a doubt, a very great thing, although personally I know very little about it, never having had time to sit down and wait for it to visit me. But it is a fickle creature at best, and requires as much attention as a teething baby.
Even those rare exceptions among the writing fraternity who possess the divine spark need a solid base from which to start on their flights into the realms of imagery. It is not difficult to build an occasional plot.
With one girl and one man, or two girls and one man, say, for a starting point, almost any writer who has touched a few of life’s high spots can build a plot of some sort, but he cannot repeat the process over and over again with any great degree of success for the reason that he must attack each new story from a different angle, and when he relies entirely upon his own limited experience and his imagination, he soon finds this a very difficult thing to do.
For this reason experienced writers always keep on hand a varied assortment of story-ideas, original and otherwise, to be used as starting points when they make new voyages into the uncharted seas of fiction. These story-ideas are called germ-plots.
A germ-plot is an idea which may be broadened out and used as a foundation upon which to build a short story — a spark, to shift the figure, that starts a conflagration in the writer’s brain and makes him an object to be pitied until he sits down before his typewriter and pounds out a story to make us sit up half the night to read.
Germ-plots lurk on street comers, in dark allies, in dingy restaurants, in ballrooms, on the faces of men — and women, in the lisp of a child, in the newspapers, in magazine advertisements, in funny sayings, in love letters, in jail, in insane asylum — on board the train, ocean liner, zeppelin!
The germ-plot, in short, is any original or acquired idea, unusual situation, striking title, curious advertisement, funny character, queer dream, clever story — in fact, an5rthing that contains an element of mystery, adventure, humor, fantasy, love, etc., and which has a twist to it, is ideal material for germ-plots and therefore legitimate plunder for the writer.
To make my meaning clearer, let me give two or three concrete illustrations:
- One day several years ago, for instance, I saw something fall from the second story window of an apartment house and at first thought that it was a man. Then a gust of wind kindly came along and opened it up and I saw that it was a pair of purple pajamas. A moment later a young lady in scanty attire rushed out of the house, snatched up the brilliant garment and hurried back into the house again. When I got home I promptly developed the idea into a story called “The Purple Pajamas”—and sold it.
- On another occasion I saw on a bulletin board a circular advertising for an escaped convict. The line “$500 Reward, Alive or Dead,” caught my eye and started a train of thought thundering through my mind. At first glance the idea may seem trite; nevertheless, it developed into a story that I called “The Man From Virginia” — and sold.
- Again. One day I read a newspaper account about a man who had a twin brother who looked so much like him that his wife, in a fit of jealous rage, shot her brother-in-law, in the belief that she was letting daylight through her husband! I nursed the idea for a couple of days, then wrote “His Brother’s Keeper” and placed it without difficulty.
Every writer should have a blank book in which to jot down his germ-plots as he uncovers them, which are later to be neatly typed off on uniform sheets of paper and filed away for future use. Anything that seems suggestive, whether it appears to offer material for immediate use or not, should find a home in the Plot Book, where it will be found waiting with a cheerful smile on its face, as it were, some dark day when inspiration has taken to her heels and ideas seem to be about as plentiful as snow on the Fourth of July.
To give the reader an idea of the kind of material that should be stored away, and the manner in which it is done, let us pick at random a few items from one of my many plot books:
- Saw man on street today who had a scar on his face resembling a question mark. (What an idea for a story!)
- Overheard a woman say: “When a man loves he will dare anything.” (Suggests original title “The Man Who Dared.”)
- Saw splotch of red on a white flower in the front yard of a house today. Looked like blood.
- Tramp standing before the window of a fashionable restaurant gazing hungrily at the food being served within.
The newspapers are a very mine of ideas for the writer, the news items, sporting page, headings and advertisements (especially the “personal column”) all being a common stamping ground for the germ-plot. A pair of scissors should always be kept at hand and used freely in dissecting out the interesting items one runs across when reading the papers. The shorter items and headings can then be typed off and filed away, and the longer articles pasted in a scrap book kept especially for this purpose.
Consider the following headings, items and advertisements, which were actually clipped from the daily papers:
- Saves Governor; Wins Pardon,
- Sells Self for Life for a Pair of Shoes.
- Baby Girl Left on Doorstep.
- Caught Boarder Kissing His Wife.
- Bride of One Day Mysteriously Murdered.
- Slayer Weeps Over Victim’s Body.
NEWS ITEMS: (Condensed)
- An unidentified white girl is found dead in a public park. Marks on the girl’s throat lead police to believe she was murdered. Her handkerchief was marked with a number — 47 (laundry mark?)
- The mysterious murderer known as “Doctor X” was hanged at the jail this morning. Even at the last he refused to tell his real name and it is probable his true identity will never be known.
- Two women fight in courts for possession of same baby. Both women claim to be the infant’s mother. Baby was left on the doorstep of a foundling asylum a year ago; now both women appear to claim it as their own.
- A earner pigeon with a broken wing fell to the ground in front of the post office and was captured by a messenger taxi. A message in code was carried, in a small metal cylinder tied to one leg; on the other leg was a metal band marked as follows: “HM-19373-Y.”
(From “Personal Columns”)
- R. L. P. Saw your message in yesterday’s paper. It came too late. You must try and forget. Brown Eyes.
- Men for desperate adventure wanted. No questions asked: none expected.
- Want to communicate with a young lady matrimonially inclined. Must be a blond and willing to accompany me to South Africa.
- Jack. Come home. Sarah is dying. All is forgiven. The black box has been found. Marie.
Where it is not practicable to preserve long accounts of murder trials, and sensational robberies, jot down the clues that have enabled the detectives to run the criminals to earth. Note the following, all of which were gleaned from the columns of the newspapers, and two of which at least have been used as the central ideas around which stories have been written:
- Hairs from murderer’s head clutched in victim’s fingers.
- Laundry mark on handkerchief.
- Imprint of murderer’s teeth in apple.
- Scent of rare perfume near scene of crime.
- Finger prints on dagger.
A writer should never read a magazine, novel or any other literary effort unless he has his notebook and pencil near at hand, for it is often the case that we will come across a catchy phrase or an odd situation as set forth by some brilliant brother of our fraternity which will give us an idea for a story — if we can remember it.
Take, for instance, the following suggestive lines gathered for the most part from stories in current magazines:
- “Jack leaped to his feet and gazed around him wildly. The clock struck thirteen.”
- “He sobbed out his soul in her arms.”
- “I will wear a read rose on the lapel of my coat so you will recognize me.”
- “I have given you my life, my love, my wealth, myself. Can I give you more?” (Suggests original title “The Woman Who Gave Her AIL”)
- “His foot was as twisted as his smile.”
- “The moon was red, as if a film of blood covered it.” (Suggests title “When the Moon Shone Red.”)
When a striking title occurs to you, write it down whether you think it will ever be of use to you or not. Some of the greatest short stories ever written were inspired by titles. Anyway, the day may come when you will develop a plot for which you can find no suitable name. If you have a good supply of titles on hand, you will doubtless be able to find the very thing you are looking for to embellish the child of your brain.
In one of my notebooks I find, among others, the following suggestive titles:
The Devil’s Prayer. The Man Who Sneered. The Serpent’s Fang. The Scarlet Halo. The Thirteenth Hour. The Mummy’s Hand. The Kiss of Hate. The Girl in Black.
Curious or striking names, too,, will often prove suggestive and give us an idea that may be the means of making some joyous editor part with a substantial check. Names such as the following, for instance, are well worth preserving:
“Iky” (nickname for girl).
Alias The Hawk.
I often find it easier to build a plot around an odd character than around an odd situation, and have a separate book for Types and Characters. Types of interesting classes of people, followed by brief explanatory notes, should be entered in the book, as, for example:
Instinctive: Usually those who commit crimes for the sheer love of the excitement that enters into every criminal’s life. Clever criminals of this type popular with readers. Arsene Lupin and the Lone Wolf good examples.
Occasional: Usually average human beings of normal mentality driven to crime by necessity, temptation, or to shield or save themselves or others in unusual circumstances over which they have no control.
Master mind: Criminologists who solve mysteries by deduction or logic. Men of real genius in their particular line. Eccentric, curious mannerisms, etc., but with many lovable qualities. Popular with readers. SHERLOCK Holmes and the “Thinking Machine” good examples.
Reformed convict : Usually a young man of some education with a wide knowledge of crime and criminals. This type of detective is always popular when cleverly drawn. Cleek is a good modem example.
While I have given but two examples in each of the foregoing classifications, it should be remembered that there are many other types of criminals and detectives, such as (criminals) ACCIDENTAL, UNWILLING, ORIENTAL, LOW-BROW OR THUG, etc., and (detectives) SCIENTIFIC, CRIME SPECIALIST, SECRET SERVICE AGENT, POLICE, CORRESPONDENCE SCHOOL, etc., all of which are worthy of a place in the Plot Book.
In another part of the book the interesting characters one meets with should be made note of. When the characters are fictional — creations of other writers — this fact should be noted, because such characters can, of course, only be used to suggest other characters of a similar type. For example,
Dr. Fu-Manchu. Chinaman, cruel, crafty. Sinister motives. Deeply-learned in the sciences. Highly developed mental powers. Sibilant voice. Green, filmy eyes. Cunning, more than a match for the police. Popular with readers. (The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer.)
“The Ghost.” Cracksman. Girl. Beautiful. Early history obscure. Brand on right shoulder. Disguises herself as man. Evening clothes, high silk hat, mustache, etc. Clever, daring. Matches wits with celebrated criminologist who is in love with her. (Original.)
Doctor: About 30 years of age. Long and lanky. Red-headed. Fiery temper. Heart of gold. Genial and companionable AT TIMES. Something of a genius. County practitioner. Careless about dress. Mannerisms. Wrapped up in profession. Delays wedding to perform operation. (Red Pepper Bums, Grace Richmond.)
Mountaineer: Rattlesnake Bill: Old, toothless, bronzed, wrinkled. Ex-feudist and moonshiner. Goes barefooted and hatless. Wears dilapidated blue jean pants and hickory shirt. Lives in log cabin. Kindly and lovable. Biggest liar in state. Children all love him. (Original.)
I could write on in the same vein indefinitely and fill up page after page with matter of a similar character, but I desire only to point out a few of the sources from which the writer may-gather plot material and give him an idea of the kind of material that should be preserved, and I believe the examples I have given will prove sufficient for my purpose.
It is the sacred duty of every ambitious writer to acquire the note-book habit. No writer can realize the opportunities he has lost in the past, or hope to get anywhere in the future, until he does.
A Plot Book can be started with a single stray thought and once the habit has been acquired it will become almost second nature to jot down useful bits of information which in time will grow into a mine of inspiration for the writer when his original-thought machine refuses to function.
This and Other Useful Books:
- The Complete PLOTTO
- PLOTTO Genie: For Flash Fiction and Short Stories
- Mastering Plotto: Learn How to Plot Content Structure Fast
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