This is a funny one. I’d read a reference to it in the updated edition of Syd Field’s seminal Screenplay specifically, Field reported that James asked: “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” (This is a nice, and very early, detangling of the silly false dichotomy between “plot-driven” and “character-driven” stories. In a great story, the plot progresses based on decisions and actions the characters take; and it is the events of the plot which reveal, and develop, the characters.) Anyway, I snap-bought it as usual (I read everything), later picked it up, and found myself nodding and agreeing constantly pretty surprised because, if you’ve ever read Henry James, you won't see, well, a whole hell of a lot of story there. (It’s basically all long detailed character studies, to generalize somewhat wildly.)
Two-thirds of the way through, I realized why. Henry James didn’t write it. While James’s name is on the cover, in fact his essay is in the back and only takes up a third of the book. It was written in response to the opening essay, which is by Walter Besant (from a lecture he gave at the Royal Institution in London in 1884). The James piece is the blowsy, meandering, defensive, neurasthenic prose readers of James would expect and in which he claims not even to know what “story” is. (I believe him.) The Besant piece, however, is outstanding. Herewith some excerpts, which I think have aged very well.
Here [in Fiction] the majority of reading mankind learn nearly all that they know of life and manners, of philosophy and art; even of science and religion. The modern novel converts abstract ideas into living models; it gives ideas, it strengthens faith, it preaches a higher morality than is seen in the actual world; it commands the emotions of pity, admiration, and terror; it creates and keeps alive the sense of sympathy.
As for the field with which this Art of Fiction occupies itself, it is, if you please, nothing less than the whole of Humanity. The novelist studies men and women; he is concerned with their actions and their thoughts, their errors and their follies, their greatness and their meanness; the countless forms of beauty and constantly varying moods to be seen among them; the forces which act upon them; the passions, prejudices, hopes and fears which pull them this way and that. He has to do, above all, and before all, with men and women.
The very first rule in Fiction is that the human interest must absolutely absorb everything else.
It not only requires of its followers, but also creates in readers, that sentiment which is destined to be a most mighty engine in deepening and widening the civilization of the world. We call it Sympathy… the Enthusiasm of Humanity.
Sympathy includes not only the power to pity the sufferings of others, but also that of understanding their very souls; it is the reverence for man, the respect for his personality, the recognition of his individuality, and the enormous value of the one man.
The mind of man cannot be exhausted: it yields discoveries to every patient student; it is absolutely inexhaustible; it is to every one a fresh and virgin field: and the most successful investigator leaves regions and tracts for his successor as vast as those he has himself gone over.
We come next to speak of the Laws which govern this Art. I mean those general rules and principles which must necessarily be acquired by every writer of Fiction before he can even hope for success. Rules will not make a man a novelist, any more than a knowledge of grammar makes a man know a language, or a knowledge of musical science makes a man able to play an instrument. Yet the Rules must be learned.
In Fiction the power of Selection requires a large share of the dramatic sense. Those who already possess this faculty will not go wrong if they bear in mind the simple rule that nothing should be admitted which does not advance the story, illustrate the characters, bring into stronger relief the hidden forces which act upon them, their emotions, their passions, and their intentions. All descriptions which hinder instead of helping the action, all episodes of whatever kind, all conversation which does not either advance the story or illustrate the characters, ought to be rigidly suppressed.
Given a situation, it should be the first care of the writer to present it as dramatically, that is to say as forcibly, as possible.
In fact, a novel is like a play: the writer is the dramatist, stage-manager, scene-painter, actor, and carpenter, all in one; it is his single business to see that none of the scenes flag or fall flat; he must never for one moment forget to consider how the piece is looking from the front.
As for the methods of conveying a clear understanding of a character, they are many. The first and the easiest is to make it clear by reason of some mannerism or personal peculiarity, some trick of speech or of carriage. This is the worst, as may generally be said of the easiest way. Another easy method is to describe your character at length. This also is a bad, because a tedious, method. If, however, you read a page or two of any good writer, you will discover that he first makes a character intelligible by a few words, and then allows him to reveal himself in action and dialogue.
Hardly anything is more important than this to believe in your own story… unless the characters exist and move about… in scenes and places which must be omitted in the writing, he has got no story to tell and had better give it up. I do not think it is generally understood that there are thousands of scenes which belong to the story and never get outside the writer’s brain at all. Some of these may be very beautiful and touching; but there is not room for all, and the writer has to select.
The modern English novel, whatever form it takes, almost always starts with a conscious moral purpose. When it does not, so much are we accustomed to expect it, that one feels as if there has been a debasement of the Art. It is, fortunately, not possible in this country for any man to defile and defame humanity and still be called an artist; the development of modern sympathy, the growing reverence for the individual, the ever-widening love of things beautiful and the appreciation of lives made beautiful by devotion and self-denial, the sense of personal responsibility among the English-speaking races, the deep-seated religion of our people, even in a time of doubt, are all forces which act strongly upon the artist as well as upon his readers, and lend to his work, whether he will or not, a moral purpose so clearly marked that it has become practically a law of English Fiction.
After all these preliminary studies there comes the most important point of all the story. There is a school which pretends that there is no need for a story: It is, indeed, if we think of it, a most strange and wonderful theory, that we should continue to care for Fiction and cease to care for the story. We have all along been training ourselves how to tell the story, and here is this new school which steps in, like the needy knife-grinder, to explain that there is no story left at all to tell. Why, the story is everything. I cannot conceive of a world going on at all without stories, and those strong ones, with incident in them, and merriment and pathos, laughter and tears, and the excitement of wondering what will happen next. Fortunately, these new theorists contradict themselves, because they find it impossible to write a novel which shall not contain a story, although it may be but a puny bantling. Fiction without adventure a drama without a plot a novel without surprises the thing is as impossible as life without uncertainty.
As for the story, then. And here theory and teaching can go no farther. For every Art there is the corresponding science which may be taught. We have been speaking of the corresponding science. But the Art itself can neither be taught nor communicated. If the thing is in a man he will bring it out somehow, well or badly, quickly or slowly. If it is not, he can never learn it.
I am quite sure that the chief lesson to be learned from the study of nearly all our own modern novelists is that adventure, pathos, amusement, and interest, are far better sought among lives which seem dull, and among people who seem at first beyond the reach of romance, than from eccentricity and peculiarity of manner, or from violent and extreme reverses and accidents of fortune.
Lastly, let him tell it without apparent effort: without trying to show his cleverness, his wit, his powers of epigram, and his learning. Yet let him pour without stint or measure into his work all that he knows, all that he has seen, all that he has observed, and all that he has remembered: all that there is of nobility, sympathy, and enthusiasm in himself. Let him spare nothing, but lavish all that he has, in the full confidence that the wells will not be dried up, and that the springs of fancy and imagination will flow again, even though he seem to have exhausted himself in this one effort.
I do not mean that ready recognition will immediately bring with it a great pecuniary success. Unfortunately, there has grown up of late a bad fashion of measuring success too much by the money it seems to command. It is not always, remember, the voice of the people which elects the best man, and though in most cases it follows that a successful novelist commands a large sale of his works, it may happen that the Art of a great writer is of such a kind that it may never become widely popular.
Remember that great Masters in every Art are rare. Perhaps one or two appear in a century: we ought not to expect more. It may even happen that those modern writers of our own whom we have agreed to call great Masters will have to take lower rank among posterity, who will have great Masters of their own.
And wherever we go for our material, whether to the higher or the lower ranks, we may be sure of finding everywhere love, sacrifice, and devotion for virtues, with selfishness, cunning, and treachery for vices. Out of these, with their endless combinations and changes, that novelist must be poor indeed who cannot make a story.