The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter IX - The Style Of Fiction by@sherwincody

The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language : Chapter IX - The Style Of Fiction

The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series.
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Sherwin Cody

American writer and entrepreneur who developed a long-running home-study course in speaking and writing

The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study, by Sherwin Cody is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here.


Narrative, Description, and Dialogue.


In fiction there are three different kinds of writing which must be blended with a fine skill, and this fact makes fiction so much the more difficult than any other sort of writing. History is largely narrative, pure and simple, newspaper articles are description, dramas are dialogue, but fiction must unite in a way peculiar to itself the niceties of all three.

We must take each style separately and master it thoroughly before trying to combine the three in a work of fiction. The simplest is narrative, and consists chiefly in the ability to tell a plain story straight on to the end, just as in conversation Neighbor Gossip comes and tells a long story to her friend the Listener. A writer will gain this skill if he practise on writing out tales or stories just as nearly as possible as a child would do it, supposing the child had a sufficient vocabulary. Letter-writing, when one is away from home and wishes to tell his intimate friends all that has happened to him, is practice of just this sort, and the best practice.

Newspaper articles are more descriptive than any other sort of writing. You have a description of a new invention, of a great fire, of a prisoner at the bar of justice. It is not quite so spontaneous as narrative. Children seldom describe, and the newspaper man finds difficulty in making what seems a very brief tale into a column article until he can weave description as readily as he breathes.

Dialogue in a story is by no means the same as the dialogue of a play: it ought rather to be a description of a conversation, and very seldom is it a full report of what is said on each side.

Description is used in its technical sense to designate the presentation of a scene without reference to events; narrative is a description of events as they have happened, a dialogue is a description of conversation. Fiction is essentially a descriptive art, and quite as much is it descriptive in dialogue as in any other part.

The best way to master dialogue as an element by itself is to study the novels of writers like Dickens, Thackeray, or George Eliot. Dialogue has its full development only in the novel, and it is here and not in short stories that the student of fiction should study it. The important points to be noticed are that only characteristic and significant speeches are reproduced. When the conversation gives only facts that should be known to the reader it is thrown into the indirect or narrative form, and frequently when the impression that a conversation makes is all that is important, this impression is described in general terms instead of in a detailed report of the conversation itself.

So much for the three different modes of writing individually considered. The important and difficult point comes in the balanced combination of the three, not in the various parts of the story, but in each single paragraph. Henry James in his paper on “The Art of Fiction,” says very truly that every descriptive passage is at the same time narrative, and every dialogue is in its essence also descriptive. The truth is, the writer of stories has a style of his own, which we may call the narrative-descriptive-dialogue style, which is a union in one and the same sentence of all three sorts of writing. In each sentence, to be sure, narrative or description or dialogue will predominate; but still the narrative is always present in the description, and the description in the dialogue, as Mr. James says; and if you take a paragraph this fact will appear more clearly, and if you take three or four paragraphs, or a whole story, the fusion of all three styles in the same words is clearly apparent.

It is impossible to give fixed rules for the varying proportion of description, narration, or dialogue in any given passage. The writer must guide himself entirely by the impression in his own mind. He sees with his mind's eye a scene and events happening in it. As he describes this from point to point he constantly asks himself, what method of using words will be most effective here? He keeps the impression always closely in mind. He does not wander from it to put in a descriptive passage or a clever bit of dialogue or a pleasing narrative: he follows out his description of the impression with faithful accuracy, thinking only of being true to his own conception, and constantly ransacking his whole knowledge of language to get the best expression, whatever it may be. Now it may be a little descriptive touch, now a sentence or two out of a conversation, now plain narration of events. Dialogue is the most expansive and tiring, and should frequently be relieved by the condensed narrative, which is simple and easy reading. Description should seldom be given in chunks, but rather in touches of a brief and delicate kind, and with the aim of being suggestive rather than full and detailed.

Humor, and especially good humor, are indispensable to the most successful works of fiction. Above all other kinds of writing, fiction must win the heart of the reader. And this requires that the heart of the writer should be tender and sympathetic. Harsh critics call this quality sentiment, and even sentimentality. Dickens had it above all other writers, and it is probable that this popularity has never been surpassed. Scott succeeded by his splendid descriptions, but no one can deny that he was also one of the biggest hearted men in the world. And Thackeray, with all his reserve, had a heart as tender and sympathetic as was ever borne by so polished a gentleman.

As an almost perfect example of the blending of narrative, description, and dialogue, all welded into an effective whole by the most delicate and winning sentiment, we offer the following selection from Barbox Bros. & Co., in “Mugby Junction.”


By Charles Dickens.

Although he had arrived at his journey's end for the day at noon, he had since insensibly walked about the town so far and so long that the lamplighters were now at their work in the streets, and the shops were sparkling up brilliantly. Thus reminded to turn towards his quarters, he was in the act of doing so, when a very little hand crept into his, and a very little voice said:

“O! If you please, I am lost!”

He looked down, and saw a very little fair-haired girl.

“Yes,” she said, confirming her words with a serious nod. “I am, indeed.
I am lost.”

Greatly perplexed, he stopped, looked about him for help, descried none, and said, bending low:

“Where do you live, my child?”

“I don't know where I live,” she returned. “I am lost.”

“What is your name?”


“What is your other name?”

The reply was prompt, but unintelligible.

Imitating the sound, as he caught it, he hazarded the guess, “Trivits?”

“O no!” said the child, shaking her head. “Nothing like that.”

“Say it again, little one”

An unpromising business. For this time it had quite a different sound.

He made the venture: “Paddens?”

“O no!” said the child. “Nothing like that.”

“Once more. Let us try it again, dear.”

A most hopeless business. This time it swelled into four syllables. “It can't be Tappitarver?” $ªזđ said Barbox Brothers, rubbing his head with his hat in discomfiture.

“No! It ain't,” the child quietly assented.

On her trying this unfortunate name once more, with extraordinary efforts at distinction, it swelled into eight syllables at least.

“Ah! I think,” said Barbox Brothers, with a desperate air of resignation, “that we had better give it up.”

“But I am lost,” said the child nestling her little hand more closely in his, “and you'll take care of me, won't you?”

If ever a man were disconcerted by division between compassion on the one hand, and the very imbecility of irresolution on the other, here the man was. “Lost!” he repeated, looking down at the child. “I am sure I am. What is to be done!”

“Where do you live?” asked the child, looking up at him wistfully.

“Over there,” he answered, pointing vaguely in the direction of the hotel.

“Hadn't we better go there?” said the child.

“Really,” he replied, “I don't know but what we had.”

So they set off, hand in hand;―he, through comparison of himself against his little companion, with a clumsy feeling on him as if he had just developed into a foolish giant;―she, clearly elevated in her own tiny opinion by having got him so neatly out of his embarrassment.

“We are going to have dinner when we get there, I suppose?” said Polly.

“Well,” he rejoined, “I―yes, I suppose we are.”

“Do you like your dinner?” asked the child.

“Why, on the whole,” said Barbox Brothers, “yes, I think I do.”

“I do mine,” said Polly “Have you any brothers and sisters?”

“No, have you?”

“Mine are dead.”

“O!” said Barbox Brothers. With that absurd sense of unwieldiness of mind and body weighing him down, he would not have known how to pursue the conversation beyond this curt rejoinder, but that the child was always ready for him.

“What,” she asked, turning her soft hand coaxingly in his, “are you going to do to amuse me, after dinner?”

“Upon my soul, Polly,” exclaimed Barbox Brothers, very much at a loss,
“I have not the slightest idea!”

“Then I tell you what,” said Polly. “Have you got any cards at the house?”

“Plenty,” said Barbox Brothers, in a boastful vein.

“Very well. Then I'll build houses, and you shall look at me. You mustn't blow, you know.”

“O no!” said Barbox Brothers. “No, no, no! No blowing! Blowing's not fair.”

He flattered himself that he had said this pretty well for an idiotic monster; but the child, instantly perceiving the awkwardness of his attempt to adapt himself to her level, utterly destroyed his hopeful opinion of himself by saying, compassionately: “What a funny man you are!”

Feeling, after this melancholy failure, as if he every minute grew bigger and heavier in person, and weaker in mind, Barbox gave himself up for a bad job. No giant ever submitted more meekly to be led in triumph by all-conquering Jack, than he to be bound in slavery to Polly.

“Do you know any stories?” she asked him.

He was reduced to the humiliating confession:

“What a dunce you must be, mustn't you?” said Polly.

He was reduced to the humiliating confession:

“Would you like me to teach you a story? But you must remember it, you know, and be able to tell it right to somebody else afterwards?”

He professed that it would afford him the highest mental gratification to be taught a story, and that he would humbly endeavor to retain it in his mind. Whereupon Polly, giving her hand a new little turn in his, expressive of settling down for enjoyment, commenced a long romance, of which every relishing clause began with the words: “So this,” or “And so this.” As, “So this boy;” or, “So this fairy;” or “And so this pie was four yards round, and two yards and a quarter deep.” The interest of the romance was derived from the intervention of this fairy to punish this boy for having a greedy appetite. To achieve which purpose, this fairy made this pie, and this boy ate and ate and ate, and his cheeks swelled and swelled and swelled. There were many tributary circumstances, but the forcible interest culminated in the total consumption of this pie, and the bursting of this boy. Truly he was a fine sight, Barbox Brothers, with serious attentive face, an ear bent down, much jostled on the pavements of the busy town, but afraid of losing a single incident of the epic, lest he should be examined in it by-and-by and found deficient.

Exercise. Rewrite this little story, locating the scene in your own town and describing yourself in the place of Barbox Bros. Make as few changes in the wording as possible.

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Cody, Sherwin, 2007. The Art Of Writing & Speaking The English Language Word-Study. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved April 2022 from

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by Sherwin Cody @sherwincody.American writer and entrepreneur who developed a long-running home-study course in speaking and writing
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