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Short Story Writing by Charles Raymond Barrett

Working Plot of The Ambitious Guest


... there are some themes so hackneyed--such as the lost will, the glorified governess, or the persecuted maiden who turns out to be an earl's daughter--that they would not now be tolerated outside the pages of a 'penny dreadful,' where, along with haughty duchesses, elfin-locked gypsies and murderous abductors, they have become part of the regular stock-in-trade of the purveyors of back-stairs literature. The only theme that never grows trite or commonplace is love."[16] "Another offense ... is the light theme that, being analyzed, amounts to nothing. It may be so cleverly handled that we read with pleasure--and then at the end are disgusted with ourselves for being pleased, and enraged at the writer for deluding us; for we thought there would be something beneath his graceful manners and airy persiflage, and lo, there is not."[17]

The plot of a short story should allow of expression in a single short, fairly simple sentence; if it cannot be so compressed there is something radically wrong with it. This may be called the "elemental" or "true" plot. It will be in general, perhaps vague, terms, and will permit differing treatment by different writers; yet its trend and its outcome will be definitely fixed. This true plot, in turn, can be expressed in yet more general terms, often as the primal truth which the story illustrates; this may be called the "theme" of the story. Thus in "The Ambitious Guest," the theme is "The futility of abstracted

ambition;" or, in its most general terms, "The irony of fate." The true plot is:

An unknown but ambitious youth stops at a mountain tavern and perishes with its inmates.

In the development of a plot from this germ into the completed story, it is often of advantage to make what may be called a "skeleton" or "working plot." This skeleton is produced by thinking through the story as it has been conceived, and setting down on paper in logical order a line for every important idea. These lines will roughly correspond to the paragraphs of the finished story, but in a descriptive paragraph one line will not suffice, while a line may represent a dozen paragraphs of dialogue; then, too, paragraphing is partly logical and partly mechanical, and varies considerably with the person.

Working Plot of "The Ambitious Guest."

? 1.

The scene is a tavern located at the Notch in the White Hills.

The time, a September night.

The place is in danger from landslides and falling stones.

The family--father, mother, grandmother, daughter and children--are gathered happily about the hearth.

? 2, 3.

The tavern is on a well-frequented road.

? 4-7.

A young stranger enters, looking rather travel-worn, but quickly brightens up at his warm reception.

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