Friday, 13 December 2013

How To Develop A Story (by Lewis Carroll)

This is something I've always wanted to share with you.   It's a piece called 'Photography Extraordinary' written by Lewis Carroll for one of the home-made family newspapers he wrote and illustrated, The Rectory Umbrella and Mischmasch. It was published in the Illustrated News of Jan 28 1860, five years before the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland - when Carroll was twenty-eight.

It's very funny. I recognise both his satirical claim that writing a novel could, via some technical advance, become a mere 'mechanical labour' - and the comment about the first example being 'utterly unsaleable in the present day'. Plus ça change.  In amongst the fun, however, are several lessons for the aspiring writer.  For example, the same plot elements can be worked very differently.  And if your work is dull, you may need to develop it... 

Getting into the spirit of the the thing, I thought I should use different intensities of colour to highlight his point. Allow me to reproduce, without further ado, Lewis Carroll's

Photography Extraordinary!

The recent extraordinary discovery in Photography, as applied to the operations of the mind, has reduced the art of novel-writing to the merest mechanical labour.  We have kindly been permitted by the artist to be present during one of his experiments.

The operator began by stating that the ideas of the feeblest intellect, when once received on properly prepared paper, could be ‘developed’ up the highest intensity. He … summoned a young man from an adjoining room, who appeared to be of the very weakest possible physical and mental powers. … The machine being in position and a mesmeric rapport established between the mind of the patient and the object glass … [he] at once commenced the operation.

After the paper had been exposed for the requisite time, it was removed and submitted to our inspection; we found it to be covered in faint and almost illegible characters. A closer scrutiny revealed the following:-

“The eve was soft and dewy mild; a zephyr whispered in the lofty glade, and a few light drops of rain cooled the thirsty soil.  At a slow amble, along a primrose-bordered path, rode a gentle-looking and amiable youth, holding a light cane in his delicate hand; the pony moved gracefully beneath him, inhaling as it went the fragrance of the roadside flowers: the calm smile, and languid eyes, so admirably harmonising with the fair features of the rider, showed the even tenor of his thoughts. With a sweet, though feeble voice, he plaintively murmured out the gentle regrets that clouded his breast:

‘Alas! She would not hear my prayer!
Yet it were rash to tear my hair;
Disfigured, I should be less fair.

She was unwise, I may say blind;
Once she was lovingly inclined;
Some circumstance has changed her mind.’

There was a moment’s silence; the pony stumbled over a stone in the path, and unseated his rider.  A crash was heard among the dried leaves; the youth arose; a slight bruise on his left shoulder, and the disarrangement of his cravat, were the only traces that remained of this trifling accident.”

“This,” we remarked as we returned the papers, “belongs apparently to the Milk and Water School of Novels.”  “You are quite right,” our friend replied, “and, in its present state, it is of course utterly unsaleable in the present day: we shall find, however, that the next stage of development will remove it into the strong-minded or Matter-of-Fact School.”  After dipping it into various acids, he again submitted it to us: it had now become the following: -

“The evening was of the ordinary character; barometer at ‘change’: a wind was getting up in the wood, and some rain was beginning to fall; a bad look-out for the farmers.  A gentleman approached along the bridle-road, carrying a stout knobbed stick in his hand, and mounted on a serviceable nag, possibly worth some £40 or so; there was a settled business-like expression on the rider’s face, and he whistled as he rode; he seemed to be hunting for rhymes in his head, and at length repeated, in a satisfied tone, the following composition:-

‘Well! so my offer was no go!
She might do worse, I told her so;
She was a fool to answer ‘No’.

However, things are as they stood;
Now would I have her if I could,
For there are plenty more as good.’

At this moment the horse set his foot in a hole, and rolled over; his rider rose with difficulty; he had sustained several severe bruises, and fractured two ribs; it was some time before he forgot that unlucky day.”

We returned this with the strongest expression of admiration, and requested it might now be developed to the highest possible degree. Our friend readily consented, and shortly presented us with the result, which he informed us belonged to the Spasmodic or German School.  We perused it with indescribable sensations of surprise and delight.

“The night was wildly tempestuous – a hurricane raved through the murky forest – furious torrents of rain lashed the groaning earth.  With a headlong rush – down a precipitous mountain gorge – dashed a mounted horseman armed to the teeth – his horse bounded beneath him at a mad gallop, snorting fire from its distended nostrils as it flew.  The rider’s knotted brows – rolling eyeballs – and clenched teeth – expressed the intense agony of his mind – weird visions loomed upon his burning brain – while with one mad yell he poured forth the torrent of his burning passion:-

‘Firebrands and daggers! hope hath fled!
To atoms dash the double dead!
My brain is fire – my heart is lead!

Her soul is flint – and what am I?
Scorch’d by her fierce relentless eye,
Nothingness is my destiny!’

There was a moment’s pause. Horror! his path ended in a fathomless abyss - *** A rush – a flash – a crash – all was over. Three drops of blood, two teeth and a stirrup were all that remained to tell where the wild horseman met his doom.”

Our friend concluded with various minor experiments, such as working up a passage of Wordsworth into strong, sterling poetry: the same experiment was tried on a passage of Byron, at our request, but the paper came out scorched and blistered by the fiery epithets thus produced.

Picture  credit:
Lewis Carroll, self portrait, circa 1856 Wikimedia Commons


  1. What a fun piece. And what a good exercise to apply it to our modern day writers. A passage of Pratchett? A turn of Tolkien?

  2. Two teeth and a stirrup! Love this.

  3. Quite a discovery--thank you very much for posting.