“Literary Composition” by H.P. Lovecraft
(First published in the January, 1920 issue of The United Amateur)
In a former article our readers have been shewn the fundamental sources of literary inspiration, and the leading prerequisites to expression. It remains to furnish hints concerning expression itself; its forms, customs, and technicalities, in order that the young writer may lose nothing of force or charm in presenting his ideas to the public.
A review of the elements of English grammar would be foreign to the purpose of this department. The subject is one taught in all common schools, and may be presumed to be understood by every aspirant to authorship. It is necessary, however, to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech. As a general rule, it is well to give close critical scrutiny to all colloquial phrases and expressions of doubtful parsing, as well as to all words and usages which have a strained or unfamiliar sound. The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbour a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.
Types of Mistakes
Most of the mistakes of young authors, aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects, may perhaps be enumerated as follows.
Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available. Many of the popular manuals of good English are extremely useful, especially to persons whose reading is not as yet extensive; but such works sometimes err in being too pedantically precise and formal. For correct writing, the cultivation of patience and mental accuracy is essential. Throughout the young author’s period of apprenticeship, he must keep reliable dictionaries and textbooks at his elbow; eschewing as far as possible that hasty extemporaneous manner of writing which is the privilege of more advanced students. He must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books.
No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules. As Mrs. Renshaw remarked in the preceding article, “Impression should ever precede and be stronger than expression.” All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading, and the learner must never cease to hold this phase uppermost. In many cases, the usage of good authors will be found a more effective guide than any amount of precept. A page of Addison or of Irving will teach more of style than a whole manual of rules, whilst a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook. Let every student read unceasingly the best writers, guided by the admirable Reading Table which has adorned the UNITED AMATEUR during the past two years.
It is also important that cheaper types of reading, if hitherto followed, be dropped. Popular magazines inculcate a careless and deplorable style which is hard to unlearn, and which impedes the acquisition of a purer style. If such things must be read, let them be skimmed over as lightly as possible. An excellent habit to cultivate is the analytical study of the King James Bible. For simple yet rich and forceful English, this masterly production is hard to equal; and even though its Saxon vocabulary and poetic rhythm be unsuited to general composition, it is an invaluable model for writers on quaint or imaginative themes. Lord Dunsany, perhaps the greatest living prose artist, derived nearly all of his stylistic tendencies from the Scriptures; and the contemporary critic Boyd points out very acutely the loss sustained by most Catholic Irish writers through their unfamiliarity with the historic volume and its traditions.
One superlatively important effect of wide reading is the enlargement of vocabulary which always accompanies it. The average student is gravely impeded by the narrow range of words from which he must choose, and he soon discovers that in long compositions he cannot avoid monotony. In reading, the novice should note the varied mode of expression practiced by good authors, and should keep in his mind for future use the many appropriate synonymes he encounters. Never should an unfamiliar word be passed over without elucidation; for with a little conscientious research we may each day add to our conquests in the realm of philology, and become more and more ready for graceful independent expression.
But in enlarging the vocabulary, we must beware lest we misuse our new possessions. We must remember that there are fine distinctions betwixt apparently similar words, and that language must ever be selected with intelligent care. As the learned Dr. Blair points out in his Lectures, “Hardly in any language are there two words that convey precisely the same idea; a person thoroughly conversant in the propriety of language will always be able to observe something that distinguishes them.”
Before considering the various formal classes of composition, it is well to note certain elements common to them all. Upon analysis, every piece of writing will be found to contain one or more of the following basic principles: Description, or an account of the appearance of things; Narration, or an account of the actions of things; Exposition, which defines and explains with precision and lucidity; Argument, which discovers truth and rejects error; and Persuasion, which urges to certain thoughts or acts. The first two are the bases of fiction; the third didactic, scientific, historical and editorial writings. The fourth and fifth are mostly employed in conjunction with the third, in scientific, philosophical, and partisan literature. All these principles, however, are usually mingled with one another. The work of fiction may have its scientific, historical, or argumentative side; whilst the textbook or treatise may be embellished with descriptions and anecdotes.
Description, in order to be effective, calls upon two mental qualities; observation and discrimination. Many descriptions depend for their vividness upon the accurate reproduction of details; others upon the judicious selection of salient, typical, or significant points.
One cannot be too careful in the selection of adjectives for descriptions. Words or compounds which describe precisely, and which convey exactly the right suggestions to the mind of the reader, are essential. As an example, let us consider the following list of epithets applicable to a fountain, taken from Richard Green Parker’s admirable work on composition.
For the purpose of securing epithets at once accurate and felicitous, the young author should familiarize himself thoroughly with the general aspect and phenomena of Nature, as well as with the ideas and associations which these things produce in the human mind.
Descriptions may be of objects, of places, of animals, and of persons. The complete description of an object may be said to consist of the following elements:
Descriptions of places must of course vary with the type of the place. Of natural scenery, the following elements are notable:
Descriptions of animals may be analyzed thus:
Descriptions of persons can be infinitely varied. Sometimes a single felicitous touch brings out the whole type and character, as when the modern author Leonard Merrick hints at shabby gentility by mentioning the combination of a frock coat with the trousers of a tweed suit. Suggestion is very powerful in this field, especially when mental qualities are to be delineated. Treatment should vary with the author’s object; whether to portray a mere personified idea, or to give a quasi photographic view, mental and physical, of some vividly living character. In a general description, the following elements may be found:
In considering the preceding synopses, the reader must remember that they are only suggestions, and not for literal use. The extent of any description is to be determined by its place in the composition; by taste and fitness. It should be added, that in fiction description must not be carried to excess. A plethora of it leads to dulness, so that it must ever be balanced by a brisk flow of Narration, which we are about to consider.
Narration is an account of action, or of successive events, either real or imagined; and is therefore the basis both of history and of fiction. To be felicitous and successful, it demands an intelligent exercise of taste and discrimination; salient points must be selected, and the order of time and of circumstances must be well maintained. It is deemed wisest in most cases to give narratives a climactic form; leading from lesser to greater events, and culminating in that chief incident upon which the story is primarily founded, or which makes the other parts important through its own importance. This principle, of course, cannot be literally followed in all historical and biographical narratives.
The essential point of fictional narration is plot, which may be defined as a sequence of incidents designed to awaken the reader’s interest and curiosity as to the result. Plots may be simple or complex; but suspense, and climactic progress from one incident to another, are essential. Every incident in a fictional work should have some bearing on the climax or denouement, and any denouement which is not the inevitable result of the preceding incidents is awkward and unliterary. No formal course in fiction-writing can equal a close and observant perusal of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce. In these masterpieces one may find that unbroken sequence and linkage of incident and result which mark the ideal tale. Observe how, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” each separate event foreshadows and leads up to the tremendous catastrophe and its hideous suggestion. Poe was an absolute master of the mechanics of his craft. Observe also how Bierce can attain the most stirring denouements from a few simple happenings; denouements which develop purely from these preceding circumstances.
In fictional narration, verisimilitude is absolutely essential. A story must be consistent and must contain no event glaringly removed from the usual order of things, unless that event is the main incident, and is approached with the most careful preparation. In real life, odd and erratic things do occasionally happen; but they are out of place in an ordinary story, since fiction is a sort of idealization of the average. Development should be as lifelike as possible, and a weak, trickling conclusion should be assiduously avoided. The end of a story must be stronger rather than weaker than the beginning; since it is the end which contains the denouement or culmination, and which will leave the strongest impression upon the reader. It would not be amiss for the novice to write the last paragraph of his story first, once a synopsis of the plot has been carefully prepared—as it always should be. In this way he will be able to concentrate his freshest mental vigour upon the most important part of his narrative; and if any changes be later found needful, they can easily be made. In no part of a narrative should a grand or emphatic thought or passage be followed by one of tame or prosaic quality. This is anticlimax, and exposes a writer to much ridicule. Notice the absurd effect of the following couplet—which was, however, written by no less a person than Waller:
Unity, Mass, Coherence
In developing a theme, whether descriptive or narrative, it is necessary that three structural qualities be present: Unity, Mass, and Coherence. Unity is that principle whereby every part of a composition must have some bearing on the central theme. It is the principle which excludes all extraneous matter, and demands that all threads converge toward the climax. Classical violations of Unity may be found in the episodes of Homer and other epic poets of antiquity, as well as in the digressions of Fielding and other celebrated novelists; but no beginner should venture to emulate such liberties. Unity is the quality we have lately noted and praised in Poe and Bierce.
Mass is that principle which requires the more important parts of a composition to occupy correspondingly important places in the whole composition, the paragraph, and the sentence. It is that law of taste which insists that emphasis be placed where emphasis is due, and is most strikingly embodied in the previously mentioned necessity for an emphatic ending. According to this law, the end of a composition is its most important part, with the beginning next in importance.
Coherence is that principle which groups related parts together and keeps unrelated parts removed from one another. It applies, like Mass, to the whole composition, the paragraph, or the sentence. It demands that kindred events be narrated without interruption, effect following cause in a steady flow.
Forms of Composition
Few writers succeed equally in all the various branches of literature. Each type of thought has its own particular form of expression, based on natural appropriateness; and the average author tends to settle into that form which best fits his particular personality. Many, however, follow more than one form; and some writers change from one form to another as advancing years produce alterations in their mental processes or points of view.
It is well, in the interests of breadth and discipline, for the beginner to exercise himself to some degree in every form of literary art. He may thus discover that which best fits his mind, and develop hitherto unsuspected potentialities.
We have so far surveyed only those simpler phases of writing which centre in prose fiction and descriptive essays. Hereafter we hope to touch upon didactic, argumentative, and persuasive writing; to investigate to some extent the sources of rhetorical strength and elegance; and to consider a few major aspects of versification.