The anatomy of a good story

(Image source)

“Life is an unceasing sequence of single actions,” wrote Ludwig von Mises, “but the single action is by no means isolated.”

So, in many ways, is plot.

But, unlike life, plot is selective — which means among other things that the author is the selector: the author chooses the actions her or his characters undertake.

This, incidentally, is one of the primary ways in which fiction differs from journalism or chronicle, and it’s why “the pressure to record,” as the excellent poet Thom Gunn once described it, is not — contrary to what you may have heard — the primary…

(Gerard Manley Hopkins)


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it…

An essay on durability in art

“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme,” wrote Herman Melville, and what he says is true — true of any and all art: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art. What is theme? Theme is the meaning that the components of your story or artwork add up to.

In literature, not all stories necessarily have a theme — and these are the stories that time so frequently sinks.

Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, usually have no theme to speak of.

Some of the great books in world literature…

This happened shortly after his mother died, when he was seventeen-years-old and the real violence had not yet begun. The day after her death, he dropped out of high school and went to live with his half brother, whom he’d only met once, eight years before.

His half brother’s name was Jon. He lived in a shotgun shack between Nogales and Tucson, at the end of a sandy road immediately beyond which rose the Baboquivari Mountains. In the opposite direction, in the middle distance, there was saguaro and candlewood and a desert as wide and windy as the sea. …

On the Excellence of Language


First, there’s a general idiom to the language of poetry — whether written, spoken, or both — and by “idiom” I mean a mode of expression or a distinctive character and excellence of language.

Second, there is within the general idiom a more specific idiom to each era or phase.

Third, there’s the idiom of each individual person and pen and her or his specific ways and modes and methods — methods of thought, I mean to say.

The writer who does not learn the first of these three goes without good navigation and may be headed for a shipwreck…

Line-Breaks and Structure in Poetry

Answer quickly, yes or no: is the following a poem — and I do mean exactly as it appears in the form I’ve transcribed it below?

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, and with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste: then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, for precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, and weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe, and moan the expense of many a vanished sight. Then can I grieve at…

An essay on the boundary between prose and poetry

(My image)

I once knew a girl named Poetry. Everyone called her Poe. Everyone except me. I called her Poetry.

I asked Poetry one day if she knew the meaning of her name, and she said yes: to make, she said, and she was right. The word “poem,” from the Greek poiein, means exactly that: “to create, to craft, to make.”

Like all other artistic works, poems are created things — crafted things — and poets are for this reason creators, pure and simple. (Prose literally defined means “straightforward” — from the Latin prosa, proversus: “turned to face forward.”) …

All art consist of two and only two fundamental components, and those two components are subject matter and style.

Subject matter is The What.

Style is The How.

Style is the way in which an artist presents her or his subject.

The following, for example, is Matthew James Taylor’s depiction of the human foot:

And here is another sketch of a human foot but by a different artist:

We stood on the banks of an icy stream
when you came to me lately in my dream.
You wore a long dark coat and golden rings.
Your lashes lifted and lowered like raptor wings.
Silent your grip. Silent the fog and fall of rain.
I felt in your flesh the beauty of your brain.
I can’t easily conceive not being haunted
by your nighttime visits — your grey eyes, my gaunted
visage — even if you’re there only a minute.
How dreadful my sleep without you in it.

“There is no work of art without a subject,” said Ortega — and with him here I do not demur.

Subject matter isn’t the only component of art, nor is it the most complicated, but it is the most fundamental. It is the component toward which all others are geared.

Subject is what the artist presents. It is the end. All other attributes are the means.

In the following sketch, for example, the subject-matter is the human eye:

(My image)

The paper, the medium, the artist’s style — these are the means by which the artist has presented her subject.

Because the…

Ray Harvey

Creative director of all things delightful.

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