Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Edith Wharton on Plot and Character Development

There are at least two reasons why a subject should find expression in novel-form rather than as a tale; but neither is based on the number of what may be conveniently called incidents, or external happenings, which the narrative contains. There are novels of action which might be condensed into short stories without the loss of their distinguishing qualities. The marks of the subject requiring a longer development are, first, the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters, and secondly the need of producing in the reader's mind the sense of the lapse of time. Outward events of the most varied and exciting nature without loss of probability be crowded into a few hours, but moral dramas usually have their roots deep in the soul, their rise far back in time; and the suddenest-seeming clash in which they culminate should be led up to step by step if it is to explain and justify itself.

Wharton doesn't use the terms plot or character development in this chapter on writing short stories in her book The Writing of Fiction, but I find it helpful for thinking about plot and character development. Her distinction between "external happenings" or "outward events" and "moral dramas" or "inner life" is what interests me.

Her point is that the latter categories require a long form--the novel. I'm already committed to working on a novel (it's the name of my blog, after all!), so what helps me here is the reminder that the real story that I have to always be careful to shape and intensify is the moral drama of my characters.

In other words, character development is plot. It's another way of expressing the theme that I've touched on several times in previous posts--the necessity of integrating all the parts of fiction.

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