By Erle Stanley Gardner
An excerpt from “Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer” by Francis L. Fugate
Transcribed from May 1959 recording concerning Perry Mason television scripts.
In my opinion a good plot never hops into a person’s mind. Nor do I believe it is possible for a person to sit down and think up a plot. I know I can’t do it.
A plot has to be built.
If we know the necessary ingredients which go into a plot we can start taking those ingredients and fitting them together one at a time. If we are sure of the stability of our building blocks we know that by the time we get done putting them together we are going to have a structure. It may not be the structure we want but it is enough of a structure so that we can start remodeling here and there and get the type of structure we want.
The first thing we need in connection with any story is a story situation which appeals to the public.
The public wants stories because it wants to escape. We talk about escape literature, yet we don’t stop to think of how we escape by the use of escape literature, what we escape from, and why there is this yearning for escape.
Writing stories is a great profession and to be able to write interesting stories is a great privilege. The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience.
If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.
Any story which really inspires an audience has some basic appeal and for want of a better term I have assembled some of these and called them the lowest common denominator of public interest.
Every successful story, and above all every successful character, has as his very foundation one or more of these lowest common denominators of public interest. Therefore whenever a writer reads a story or sees a character that appeals to him he should start looking for the lowest common denominator of public interest which is in that story or in that character and which has appealed to the public.
Fiction's Three Indestructible Characters
There are three major characters who have been virtually indestructible in the course of fiction: Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes and Cinderella.
Bear in mind that it is not always easy to determine exactly what is the lowest common denominator of public interest. It is quite possible that the person will think he has it but find out that he doesn’t have it. Therefore, as far as possible, the person should never try to get the interest germ or kernel out of one story or out of one character and think he has found the lowest common denominator. He must find something which appears in almost every story that appeals to the public. Sometimes it is one denominator, sometimes another, but there probably are very few of these really lowest common denominators of public interest.
Take the case of Robin Hood. There are two lowest common denominators here. One of them is championing the underdog and the other one is the very subtle assurance given to people that the people themselves can oppose tyrants if they have the courage.
Our job of separating lowest common denominators is simplified because public reasoning instinctively recognizes these things and many, many of these lowest common denominators are expressed in terse sentences which are little proverbs.
For instance, the common expression, “Faint heart never won fair lady” is a very good indication of one of these common denominators.
Our whole progress of life is predicated upon the desire of the man to select a mate who can give him what he wants in his children and the desire of the female to get the man who can improve the race.
We have drifted far away from this in our present civilization, although the instinct remains. We now have erected so many safeguards that our civilization may be becoming the survival of the weakest, rather than the survival of the most fit.
However, in more primitive tribes we find this basic human instinct manifesting itself and it is still one of the best of the common denominators of public interest.
It is possible to bring certain ramifications of this principle into a story in such a way that it causes people to think.
For instance if we have a woman who is courted by a man who has great physical prowess but a low standard of ethics and his rival is a rather bookish individual who has no physical stamina whatever but does have great moral courage, we can create a story in which the superman makes the little man the laughingstock of everyone until a situation arises which requires a great showdown, where sheer guts and moral courage count, and then the bookish man comes through and the girl marries him.
This leaves a very satisfactory feeling in the minds of the audience because it has pointed out another common denominator of public interest which is also expressed in a proverb, that the race is not always to the swift.
However, to get back to Robin Hood.
People are oppressed in many ways. They are oppressed in many instances by the civilization they themselves have created. In other words, if they want sewage, police protection, and schools, they have necessarily harnessed themselves with taxes. If they are going to have taxes they have to have tax collectors. If they are going to have tax collectors they have to have penalties for the persons who hold out on taxes, and so it goes.
Yet people instinctively desire freedom and there is a vast yearning on the part of the people to be reassured that God is in His heaven, that all is right in the world and that justice will triumph over tyranny; that the blithe, debonair adventurer who sets aside all of the onerous laws which oppress the common people, yet who does it with a philanthropical (and therefore beneficial) idea in mind, is a hero.
In other words this person is doing what the average man yearns to do and has wanted many, many times to do.
In a good story the audience identifies itself with the hero and when the audience feels that it is identified with the hero and the hero does something truly heroic the audience feels inspired accordingly.
We have all had dreams in which we have been able to fly and there is a feeling of power when we waken before we quite realize that we have been dreaming, but while we still think we can fly.
This brings us to the Sherlock Holmes stories.
I have had a lot of people analyze in print and in conversation the charm of the Sherlock Holmes stories but I don’t think I have ever heard any one of them who has given what is to me a convincing explanation of the common denominator of public interest which has made the character of Sherlock Holmes immortal.
It is my opinion there are two common denominators of public interest in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
One of them lies in the extreme masculine atmosphere and the yearning for freedom.
As pointed out, people want certain things. In getting them they have to pay a price. They don’t want to pay the price but it becomes necessary. People don’t want to pay taxes, they want schools and sewers. But schools and sewers go hand in hand with taxes.
The average man wants to get married and raise a family; at least, he wants to get married and then the family starts coming along because that is nature’s way of carrying on the scheme of life. But when the family begins to come along there are doctors’ bills, nurses’ bills, the necessity to find a baby sitter when a person wants to go out; dirty diapers, teething problems; then later on, schools and schooling, clothes and clothing, and the problems of adolescence where the parent has to assume responsibility while at the same time pretending ignorance or innocence.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were delightfully free from all of these. They had a bachelors’ quarters so thick with acrid tobacco smoke any woman would have thrown them out on the sidewalk. They lived and reveled in this atmosphere and I think it is a big factor in the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
However, if we want to find the real basis for popularity I think we need to look at the advertising of the day.
The advertiser pays a lot of money for writing. He isn’t paid for writing, he pays for writing. He has to buy the space in which he puts his copy and of necessity that copy must be good enough to bring in returns which more than justify the cost of the space. Therefore whenever we find any basic trend in advertising we can be certain that it is paying off, and if advertising is paying off it is paying off because it is getting public response. And if it gets a public response it is because it has touched a responsive chord in the minds of the public. Therefore by watching advertising we can get a pretty good idea of certain common denominators of public interest.
Sometime ago one of the advertisers started the idea of self-improvement without work: Play the piano in six easy lessons, “Imagine their surprise when I answered the waiter in French.” The girl who got engaged wasn’t the one with the charming personality and the good figure but the girl who washed her face with Woodbury’s Facial Soap. The man who dominated the directors’ meeting had been given Sanka Coffee the night before. The life of the party, with a wealth of information, was one who had had the foresight to subscribe to Elbert Hubbard’s Scrapbook, and so on, down the line.
This trend of advertising is alarming, but it can’t be discounted. It represents a growing trend on the part of the public to get something for nothing and to acquire culture while drinking Sanka Coffee or beauty while rubbing the lather of Woodbury’s Facial Soap on the skin.
Sherlock Holmes had this common denominator of public interest and I think it is the big factor in the Holmes stories.
The reader identified himself with Sherlock Holmes to such an extent that Holmes’ mental feats of observation and deduction appeared so easy the reader became convinced that he could go out and duplicate the processes. At least for a time, the reader thought he could fly and had the sense of power which went with it.
The Cinderella story has been told and retold many, many thousands of times. It is a common denominator which has the greatest public appeal. It is a soothing syrup to the unfortunate. It leads people to believe that there is somewhere a magic power, a fairy godmother, which will make their dreams come true—therefore it isn’t simply a waste of time to have dreams. People love to dream, people love to yearn. If they can be convinced that the yearning and the dreaming have some solid foundation in fact they are going to love the media by which that belief is inculcated in their minds.
There are various modifications of the Cinderella story.
How many times have we seen in pictures the story of the young woman who wore her hair slicked back, had unsightly spectacles, dressed in a dumpy manner, and lost out or all but lost out to a female vamp who had curves and wiggles? Then suddenly there was a transformation. The girl got the right idea. She had her hair fluffed out, she put on spectacles which didn’t show or used contact lenses, and became the ravishing beauty.
These things have a basic foundation in the human mind. The girl who is ugly yearns to be beautiful. If she is convinced that perhaps she can become beautiful she has received a terrific lift. It has helped her character. It has helped her master the problems of life.
There are many of these common denominators of public interest and yet probably fifteen or twenty of them would cover the whole gamut of successful story writing.
The point is that a writer in starting a story should first decide what lowest common denominator of public interest, or what combination of common denominators he is going to put in the story. Once he puts them in the story he knows he is starting on a firm foundation. If he doesn’t have them in the story he doesn’t have anything.
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