In the 1960s, the prestigious California Writers’ Club invited my mother several times to deliver talks on the short story form. She had been researcher, writer, reviewer and editor for Time, Newsweek, and other major U.S. publications. As a freelance writer, her short stories appeared in many of the top national magazines.
For readers of Scene4, this is Part 2 of the second of Harriet Halliday Renaud’s talks on writing, but it was actually the first of a series of three talks she gave; this one was given in Oakland. In Scene4’s archives, you can see the texts of the previous talk, given in Sacramento in 1962, in three parts along with more introduction to her, as well as Part 1 of the talk we have here [qv].
This section that follows (Part 2) completes the talk H. H. Renaud gave in March 1960.
Where we left off, Renaud had turned to the subject of plots: “I never get tired of saying over and over again, what I believe: I believe a good story does not start with plot, but with a fully realized character, or a fully realized life situation, or the fully realized implications of an atmosphere, or some realized experience of the author’s, and the stimulus to examine any one of these can come from anywhere… but it will rarely, rarely come first from plot.”
After the end of the text of her talk, Renaud wrote in pencil: perpetual emotion. The subject of writing is what Renaud felt “perpetual emotion” about. We’re fortunate to have her eloquent reminders to balance that emotion with keeping ourselves “on the hook,” persevering, and putting that story draft away into a drawer for at least two weeks.
Lissa Tyler Renaud
Write the Story (Part 2, on Plots)
Harriet Halliday Renaud
I would like to tell you two anecdotes which illustrate, I think, some of this thinking about plots: Some years back, while I was working on a news magazine, I shared a bullpen with a researcher who was a very scornful and disdainful young woman—or so, at least, she advertised herself to be. She claimed that all magazine writing was meretricious, that she was planning to go to the public library almost any day, and get out files of ten-year-old magazines and copy their plots, rewrite them, and sell the stories. This was some time ago, and she wanted to shock me, and she did. I recoiled and she smiled with satisfaction, and whether she ever tried it or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that she has since published two highly original books, both of which had considerable critical success, and one of which even made some money. Portions of both of them appeared in a magazine of which she was particularly
contemptuous, and as soon as I’d read the first piece, I realized it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had copied out all those hairy old plots. If all she’d had to sell was a plagiarized plot, she wouldn’t have been able to get published, and it wouldn’t have mattered. What can’t be plagiarized is the writer’s special vision, his own unique feeling intelligence, his controlled and shaped perception of what happened, to whom, and why. There was an English play on the subject of Hamlet some twelve years before Shakespeare put his hand to the plot—and from his hand emerged the difference which has enriched the world for 360 years.
So, about plots—I don’t think it matters how you get there. It doesn’t matter whether you use Plotto cards or try to get ideas from putting together every tenth word from one column of the Oakland Shopping news. All the material you use gets filtered through you, and if some facet of the story doesn’t strike a special, unique response in you—if you don’t feel that quickening sense of warmth and excitement when you’re getting that story down, then the most heavily plotted story you can conceive of won’t sell. It won’t sell simply because it won’t tell a story any one will care to read. The warmth and excitement aren’t anything you can fake, in the same way you can never sell anything to a market where you feel you’re writing down to your audience. The public isn’t a great beast, as someone said in the 18th century; the public is a responsive reader,
and editors are not guides and mentors of the public taste, but simply reflectors of it. If what you’ve written isn’t something you believe, the public won’t get to read it because editors won’t buy it.
Now, about that warmth and feeling of excitement I mentioned. I’m sure you’ve all had that experience, when you suddenly see all the separate parts of your story shaping, fitting together; when you suddenly see how it must, how it inevitably must end; and you find yourself writing faster and faster, and you find yourself, because you’ve finally gotten hold of your story and your story has gotten hold of you, really caring, not just writing it, but caring whether the girl says Yes or no. And in a flash the absolutely brilliant, scintillating, incandescent remark with which she says Yes comes to you. And so you finish your story—warm, exhilarated, stimulated by your feeling of achievement, by the miracle of vision and reality which you have just fused into one. And then you slip your story into your desk drawer—if you’re smart, that is. And two weeks later you take it out and read it—well, you’ve still got a story all right, but it’s almost certain that you don’t feel any of that breathy, panting excitement, and you don’t run upstairs waving your manuscript around hoping someone will ask to read it.
What you do is, you fetch up a big sigh from the bottom of your disappointed boots, and you pick up a pencil in your cold, cold hand, and you start throwing things away; and very likely the first thing you throw away is that absolutely incandescent remark with which the girl says Yes. And then you throw away this and throw away that, and you put on a new beginning, and throw away two pages in the middle. And before you’re through you maybe even throw away the girl.
So what happened to all that warmth and excitement, that feeling of absolute rightness? You’ve thrown away a good percentage of the parts that had engendered all that feeling in you when you were writing, so now what good are they to you? Where are they? Well, they’re still there—in your story, paradoxically enough. You may have gotten rid of a lot of words; you may have discovered that you really could get along with one girl less in developing your theme; but the life-giving warmth that you found in yourself to put into your story, that’s still there, adding warmth and life.
The best way I know how to illustrate what I mean by this point—is to tell you that I used to be a great devotee of the flashback, and to some degree, still am. It seemed to me that I could not tell how my hero had gotten into a particular mess he was in unless, after establishing the mess as a mess, I went back and told where he came from; how he got here; whether his mother was a laissez-faire type or a clean everything off your plate type; whether he liked football or jungle gyms better when he was a boy; I’m sure you’ve got the picture.
Now, it just so happens that my internal machine just naturally turns out stories that are about 7500 words, which everybody knows is 2500 words more than a fiction editor’s dream. And after a good deal of painful denial and refusal even to consider the possibility, I was forced to accept the fact that my script would hit an acceptable length almost immediately, if I would only throw away the flashback. And so then, because I’m not a closet writer, because I don’t write simply to express myself—when I write, I write to publish—I managed to give up my flashback, and found I’d won both ways. I could sell my story, and although I had taken out my flashback, it was still there, in the story. All the sure, hard knowledge about that boy that I’d put into my flashback had communicated to the final story that extra dimension, that authenticity that makes the difference between a character who
exists only in the writer’s mind, and the one which has life for a reading public.
One day, when I was in the hospital, a man I know who is devoted to the theatre (what I mean is, he is cross-eyed crazy about it), and who directs a very good little theatre, wandered in to visit me. Now, the only reason he did this was because he was the doctor who had delivered my baby a half hour ago, but when somebody visits me I feel I have to make it worth his while, and I reached for some socially appropriate remark. Well, it was a fairly child-oriented atmosphere up there on that maternity floor, and so what I came up with was some drowsy question like: “That daughter of yours who goes to drama school, can she act?”
“She is getting to be a very good actress,” he said. “She has that quality, on the stage, of being both hot and cold.”
So then I was glad I had made the effort and asked.
I’ve thought of that remark often since—because it’s true—whether you’re creating a character on a stage, or an image on an easel, or a piece of music, or a short story—that you must be able to express the deeply felt experience that gives your work its impulsive vitality, its heat, and the cool awareness with which to appraise, and shape and control.
And so what I wish for you, for me, for us all—is a subject that will catch for us, that will get from us that necessary initial feeling of total involvement—and that having found the subject we should then be able to give it the treatment it needs—both the hot and the cold, the instant warmth and the not so instant cool.
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Note: You can read some of Harriet Halliday Renaud’s short stories in the Scene4 archives.
Previously in This Series of Talks
Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 1)
Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 2)
Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 3)
Write the Story (Part 1)