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Fido and the Rabbits.
The "Awkward Squad" on Parade.
So long as we confine ourselves to recounting the actions of one person, we meet with few difficulties. For ordinarily a person does but one thing at a time, and to give a faithful account of his actions we have only to relate them in the order of their doing, our chief disadvantage here lying in the fact that we cannot always relate events in as rapid succession as they occur. But our deeds seldom stand alone. Perhaps the great majority of our acts derive their interest and their significance not merely from their relation to what has preceded and to what shall follow, but also from their relation to something else, whether distant or close at hand, that is going on at the same time. Human life is a wonderfully, even terribly, intricate and complex affair. So here the writer is met at once by an insuperable difficulty. How shall he carry along together these diverse occurrences? While one man runs up the railroad track signaling wildly and another works desperately to close the broken switch, the train comes thundering down the grade with its engineer vainly endeavoring to operate the air-brake and its
passengers reading and talking unconcernedly inside. Here are half a dozen strands twisted into a single string. But words are not strands and cannot be twisted into strings; they are more like links, and can only be added, one at a time, and one after another, to form a continuous chain. You see the difficulty. We talk about the thread of a narrative, and the figure is better than we know. For, like most other threads, it usually consists of several strands. But it is simply impossible for the writer- the fabricator with words to carry them along together. His material forbids that. He can only take up one strand at a time, carry it as far as he deems wise, and then leave it hanging there while he goes back after another. That is, he can only show us first a portion of this strand and then a portion of that, and tell us that they ought to be woven together, leaving it to our imagination to carry out the process. The result at best will be imperfect. But that should not discourage; it should only stimulate to greater effort. Where there are no problems, no difficulties, there is no incentive to work. If one man were to attain perfection, no man thereafter could hope to outdo him.
Relate an incident from life in which there were two or more prominent actors, bearing in mind the difficulties pointed out above and overcoming them as best you can. Notice in the following model the ingenious interweaving of the actions of three persons.
With that I tried to force my kinsman toward the black; but he felled me to the ground, burst from my grasp, leaving the shoulder of his jacket, and fled up the hillside toward the top of Aros like a deer. I staggered to my feet again, bruised and some
what stunned; the negro had paused in surprise, perhaps in terror, some half-way between me and the wreck; my uncle was already far away, bounding from rock to rock; and I thus found myself torn for a time between two duties. But I judged, and I pray Heaven that I judged rightly, in favor of the poor wretch upon the sands; his misfortune was at least not plainly of his own creation; it was one, besides, that I could certainly relieve; and I had begun by that time to regard my uncle as an incurable and dismal lunatic. I advanced accordingly toward the black, who now awaited my approach with folded arms, like one prepared for either destiny. As I came nearer, he reached forth his hand with a great gesture, such as I had seen from the pulpit, and spoke to me in something of a pulpit voice, but not a word was comprehensible. I tried him first in English, then in Gaelic; both in vain; so that it was clear we must rely upon the tongue of looks and gestures. Thereupon I signed to him to follow me, which he did readily and with a grave obeisance like a fallen king; all the while there had come no shade of alteration in his face, neither of anxiety while he was still waiting, nor of relief now that he was reassured; if he were a slave, as I supposed, I could not but judge he must have fallen from some high place in his own country, and fallen as he was, I could not but admire his bearing. As we passed the grave, I paused and raised my hands and eyes to heaven in token of respect and sorrow for the dead; and he, as if in answer, bowed low and spread his hands abroad; it was a strange motion, but done like a thing of common custom; and I suppose it was ceremonial in the land from which he came. At the same time he pointed to my uncle, whom we could just see perched upon a knoll, and touched his head to indicate that he was mad. From The Merry Men, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
COMPLEX INCIDENT, REVISED.
We used an illustration in the last exercise and the sentence ran thus: "While one man runs up the rail
road track signaling wildly and another works desperately to close the broken switch, the train comes thundering down the grade with its engineer vainly endeavoring to operate the air-brake, and its passengers reading and talking unconcernedly inside." Here is an attempt to present four or five simultaneous actions. As a matter of fact they are presented, not together, but in succession - the only way possible with words. But they are given rapidly, they are crowded into one sentence, and the very first word of that sentence warns the reader that the action is complex and that he must hold the successive portions of the picture in mind until the whole is completed. This is one device conventional way of overcoming the difficulty. In narration of this kind we are compelled to use a great many such words and phrases as these: while, meanwhile, in the meantime, just then, simultaneously, a moment before, etc. Participles also may often be used to advantage, but you will need to handle this device with great care, for perhaps in the use of no other one form of speech is the young writer so likely to betray his inexpertness. Avoid such expressions as, "Let us now return to the chief actor in this scene; "We must now ask the reader to imagine himself," etc. They are too formal to suit the taste of the present day. Every transition from one stage of the action to another, whether backward or forward, should be made with the utmost smoothness and naturalness. Your object should be always to carry the reader with you, to make everything so clear that he cannot possibly fail to follow, but at the same time to do this so skillfully that he will scarcely be aware of the transition.
Examine your last essay carefully and critically. Rewrite it and see if, with the help of the above suggestions, you cannot improve upon it. Form the habit of criticising your own work dispassionately and unsparingly. And if you care anything for literary finish or even for mere accuracy, form the habit of rewriting, again and again if need be. It is all very well to talk about the "first inspired utterances of a full mind." We do not learn to write, any more than we learn to talk, by inspiration. It takes long and laborious practice. We find our encouragement in the fact that in time it may become almost as much a mechanical matter to write in a correct and pleasing style as it is to form the written characters themselves.
GAMES OF SKILL, ETC.
A little consideration will show that we are gradually getting beyond the domain of pure narration. A warcorrespondent who, from some commanding height, watches the progress of a battle and writes up an account of it for the newspapers, is said to describe the battle. This is partly due to the fact that we use the word describe somewhat loosely- no more loosely however than its derivation warrants- and partly to the fact that there is here a real distinction. The reporter writes, not merely what is done, but what he sees done. He strives to reproduce for others a mental picture of what he has actually before his eyes. And the action is very complex. A hundred things are going on at