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Blupete's Weekly Commentary


August 9th, 1998.

"The Art of Story Telling."

Wilkie Collins (1824-89) was to give this advice to the novelist, advice he vigorously followed in the crafting of his novels: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait." In advice more esoteric, the English novelist, Arnold Bennett was of the view that "a novel ought to be dramatic - intellectually, spiritually, or physically." Whatever the general advice might be, a novel is nothing without colorful characters. The Scottish writer, Tobias Smollett, noted for his well-drawn eccentric characters, particularly those of a nautical type, defined the novel, as follows:

"A novel is a large diffused picture, comprehending the characters of life, disposed in different groups, and exhibited in various attitudes, for the purpose of an uniform plan, and general occurrence, to which every individual figure is subservient. But this plan cannot be executed with propriety, probability, or success, without a principal personage to attract the attention, unite the incidents, unwind the clue of the labyrinth, and at last close the scene, by virtue of his own importance."1
The principal character in a novel, as W. Somerset Maugham asserted, must enlist the reader's sympathy. A character in a novel must never act out of character: it is fatal to the novel.
".... One point they [great novels] have in common: they have absorbing stories. You want to know this because you are interested in the characters the authors have invented. You are interested in them because you accept them as real people... And the subjects the authors treat are the subjects of enduring interest to human beings, God, love and hate, death, money, ambition, envy, pride, good and evil. They have in short dealt with the passions and instincts and desires common to us all."2
John Galsworthy, the creator of the many volumed series known as the Forsythe Saga, wrote:
"Now, true dramatic action is what characters do, at once contrary, as it were, to expectation, and yet because they have already done other things. No dramatist should let his audience know what is coming; but neither should he suffer his characters to act without making his audience feel that those actions are in harmony with temperament, and arise from previous known actions, together with the temperaments and previous known actions of the other characters in the play. The dramatist who hangs his characters to his plot, instead of hanging his plot to his characters, is guilty of cardinal sin."3
Galsworthy was of the view that there were five ingredients to a novel: plot, action, character, dialogue, and flavour. Of dialogue (and, incidently, Galsworthy was of the view that dialogue will take care of itself if proper care is taken of "character" and "action"), he writes:
"The art of writing true dramatic dialogue is an austere art, denying itself all license, grudging every sentence devoted to the mere machinery of the play, suppressing all jokes and epigrams severed from character, relying for fun and pathos on the fun and tears of life. From start to finish good dialogue is hand-made, like good lace; clear, of fine texture, furthering with each thread the harmony and strength of a design to which all must be subordinated."4
And, finally, it is to be recognised that novel writers - usually the more successful of them - consciously or unconsciously, give forth their own particular message as to what life is about and how it should be led. They are of the same stuff of which pulpit clergyman are made. The message ought not, however, be too far off that which the public wishes to have set before it. It is fatal to the contemporary popularity of the novel to proceed to set out views and codes of life which those in the main stream do not profess nor in which they have any belief. If the writer is propounding a theory out of the ordinary, then, what is necessary, is to set it forth amidst the most ordinary phenomena of life.

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NOTES:

1 Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), from the preface, .

2 Somerset Maugham's Great Novelists.

3 See A Modern Book of Criticism (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1919) at p. 115.

4 A Modern Book of Criticism at p. 116.

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Peter Landry

August, 1998 (2015)