The Strand Magazine, December 1924
IN the matter of plots, I find that I use, for short stories, a method exactly opposite to the one which gets me my best results in the case of novels—if in these earnest days I can apply such a dignified name to my longer yarns.
When I want to write a short story, I sit down on one chair, place the feet comfortably on another, put notebook, pencil, matches, pipe, and tobacco handily on my lap, select a character, and then keep on sitting till I have discovered what happened to him the time he forgot his wife’s birthday or on the afternoon when he went to Wembley. In other words, the story grows out of the character. It may turn into an entirely different story half-way through, but the character remains the same.
A novel is another matter altogether, far less simple, and it is to the strain of getting plots for novels that I attribute the hideous, lined face and bald head which appear in the photograph accompanying these words. A good novel ought to have a theme, so I start by trying to think of one. Failing in this, I dig up a scene—any scene, so long as it seems to have possibilities. I then take the actors in the scene and try to learn more about them. Then I think of other scenes, bung them down on a bit of paper, and pin this bit of paper to first bit of paper. This goes on for about a week, by which time my drawer contains perhaps ten bits of paper, carefully pinned together and scrawled over with the sort of thing the fever-patient moans in his sleep.
Then, just as I am beginning to feel that nothing will emerge from this chaos, scene number fifteen suddenly clicks with scene number eight. I join them and write them down on another bit of paper. And then, when I am shaving or in my bath, it occurs to me that by turning the blackmailer into a dog-fancier and giving the girl an aunt who keeps rabbits, and eliminating the curate in favour of a pickle-manufacturer from Milwaukee, I have got a faint, shadowy suggestion of a plot.
At this point I really get going. I stand no nonsense from my characters. The pickle-manufacturer has to become a dowager duchess—and like it—in order to fit the scene where the dog-fancier (now a blackmailer once more) goes to the Hunt Ball so as to keep in with the girl’s aunt, whose rabbits have been taken away from her and replaced by a racing-stable.
The final stage begins when one or two characters who can’t be altered creep into the story. Then I know where I am.
As regards characters, some of those which have appeared in my stories have come from chance remarks from friends about men they have known. Years ago a cousin of mine told me that he was at Winchester with a long, thin, solemn, immaculately-dressed boy who used to wear an eyeglass and talk kindly, but not patronizingly, to the head master. The character, Psmith, who has appeared in several of my books, was based on my idea of that youth, whom I never met. Ukridge was a friend of W. Townend, the writer of sea-stories, who told me about him. Jeeves was an invention of my own. I was in the middle of a short story, when it suddenly struck me that a young man of my hero’s mental calibre could not possibly have thought out the solution of the problem in which a friend of his was involved, and it seemed to me that a super-intelligent valet would just meet the case.
When it comes to the actual writing of a story, I always work on the typewriter. I have never tried dictation.