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English Composition, Lesson 07. The Point of a Story

An image of Sophocles for the Classical Liberal Arts Academy's English Composition course.
Sophocles (497-406 BC)

To complete this lesson, complete the following tasks:

  1. Study the lesson for mastery.
  2. Watch the lesson prelection.
  3. Complete the lesson exercises.
  4. Complete the lesson composition.
  5. Complete the lesson exam.

Lesson

It is not necessary that a story be concerned with a thrilling event in order to be interesting. Even a most commonplace occurrence may be so told that it is worth listening to. It is more important that a story have a point and be so told that this point will be readily appreciated than that it deal with important or thrilling events. The story should lead easily and rapidly to its point, and when this is reached the end of the story should not be far distant. The beginning of a story will contain statements that will assist us in appreciating the point when we come to it, but if the point is plainly stated near the beginning, or even if it is too strongly suggested, our story will drag.

At what point in the following selection is the interest greatest?

During the Civil War, I lived in that portion of Tennessee which was alternately held by the conflicting armies. My father and brothers were away, as were all the other men in the neighborhood, except a few very old ones and some half-grown boys. Mother and I were in constant fear of injury from stragglers from both armies. We had never been disturbed, for our farm was a mile or more back from the road along which such detachments usually moved. We had periods of comparative quiet in which we felt at ease, and then would come reports of depredation near at hand, or rumors of the presence of marauding bands in neighboring settlements.

One evening such a rumor came to us, and we were consequently anxious. Early next morning, before the fog had lifted, I caught sight of two men crossing the road at the far end of the orchard. They jumped over the fence into the orchard and disappeared among the trees. I had but a brief glimpse of them, but it was sufficient to show me that one had a gun over his shoulder, while the other carried a saber.

“Quick, Mother, quick !” I cried. “Come to the window. There are soldiers in the orchard.”

Keeping out of sight, we watched the progress of the men through the orchard. Our brief glimpses of them through the trees showed that they were not coming directly to the house, but were headed for the barn and sheds, and in order to keep out of sight, were following a slight ravine which ran across the orchard and led to the back of the barns.

Mother and I were very much excited and hardly knew what to. do. Finally it was determined to hide upstairs in hopes that the men were bent on stealing chickens or pigs, and might leave without disturbing the house. We locked the doors and went upstairs, taking with us the old musket and the butcher knife. We could hear the men about the barn, and after what seemed an interminable time we heard them coming towards the house.

Though shaking all over, I summoned courage enough to go to the window and look out of a hole in the shade. As the men came into sight around the corner, I screamed outright, but from relief rather than fear, for the men were not soldiers, but Grandpa Smith and his fourteen-year-old gi-andson. They stopped at the well to get a drink, and when we opened the window, the old man said, ” We’re just on our way to mow the back lot and stopped to grind the scythe on your stone. We broke ours yesterday.”

Then he picked up the scythe which in the fog I had taken for a saber, while the grandson again shouldered his pitchfork musket.

What effect would it have on the interest aroused by the preceding story to begin it as follows?

“One morning during the Civil War, I saw two of my neighbors, Grandpa Smith and his grandson, crossing our orchard, one carrying a scythe and the other a pitchfork.”

Why is the expression, “before the fog had lifted,” used near the beginning of the story? Would a description of the appearance of the house, the barn, or the persons add to the interest aroused by the story? Is it necessary to add anything to the story?

Exercise

In each of the following selections decide where the interest reaches its climax. Has anything been said in the beginning of any of them which suggests what the point will be, or which helps you to appreciate it when you come to it?

The next evening our travelers encamped on a sand bar, or rather a great bank of sand, that ran for miles along one side of the river. They kept watch as usual, Leon taking the first turn. He seated himself on a pile of sand and did his best to keep awake ; but in about an hour after the rest were asleep, he felt very drowsy and fell into a nap that lasted nearly half an hour, and might have continued longer had he not slid down the sand hill and tumbled over on his side. This awoke him. Feeling vexed with himself, he rubbed his eyes and looked about to see if any creature had ventured near. He first looked towards the woods, for of course that was the direction from which the tigers would come ; but he had scarcely turned himself when he perceived a pair of eyes glancing at him from the other side of the fire. Close to them another pair, then another and another, until, having looked on every side, he saw himself surrounded by a complete circle of glancing eyes. It is true they were small ones, and some of the heads which he could see by the blaze were small. They were not jaguars, but they had an ugly look. They looked like the heads of serpents. Was it possible that a hundred serpents could have surrounded the camp?

Brought suddenly to his feet, Leon stood for some moments uncertain what to do. He believed that the eyes belonged to snakes which had just crept out of the river; and he feared that any movement on his part would lead them to attack him. Having risen to his feet, his eyes were above the level of the blaze, and he was able in a little while to see more clearly.

He now saw that the snakelike heads belonged to creatures with large oval bodies, and that, besides the fifty or more which had come up to look at the fire, there were whole droves of them upon the sandy beach beyond. As far as he could see on all sides, the bank was covered with them. A strange sight it was, and most fearful. For his life he could not make out what it meant, or by what sort of wild animals he was surrounded.

He could see that their bodies were not larger than those of small sheep; and, from the way in which they glistened in the moonlight, he was sure they had come out of the river. He called to the Indian guide, who awoke and started to his feet in alarm. The movement frightened the creatures round the fire; they rushed to the shore, and were heard plunging by hundreds into the water.

The Indian’s ear caught the sounds, and his eye took in the whole thing at a glance.

“Turtles,” he said.
“Oh,” said the lad; “turtles, are they?”
“Yes, master,” answered the guide. “I suppose this is one of their great hatching places. They are going to lay their eggs in the sand.”  (Captain Mayne Reid)

Would the preceding incident be interesting if we were told at the beginning that the boy and the Indian had encamped near a hatching place of turtles ?

Not every story that reads like fiction is fact, but the Brooklyn Eagle assures its readers that the one here quoted is quite true. The man who told it was for many years an officer of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company in Illinois, and had annual passes over all the important railroads in the country. His duties took him to Springfield, the state capital, and as he generally went by the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis road, the conductors on that line knew him so well that they never asked to see his pass.

“One day I received a telegram summoning me to meet one of the officers of my company at Aurora the next morning. I had only a short time to catch my train to Chicago, and in my haste left my pass-book behind. I did not find this out until I reached Chicago, and was about to take the last train for Aurora that night. Then I saw that the conductor, a man brought over from the Iowa division, was a stranger, and the fact that I would need my pass reminded me that I did not have it.

“I told the conductor the situation, but he said he could not carry me on my mere representation that I had a pass.

” ‘Why, man,’ said I, ‘I am an officer of the company, going to Aurora on company business, and this is the last train that will get me there in time. You must take me.’

“He was polite, but firm. He said he was a new man on this division, and could not afford to make any mistakes.

“When I saw that he was determined, I rushed off to the telegraph office ; but it was too late to catch anybody authorized to issue passes, so I settled it in my mind that I must go by carriage, and the prospect of an all-night ride over bad roads through the dark was anything but inviting. Indeed, it was so forbidding that I resolved to make one more appeal to the conductor.

” ‘You simply must take me to Aurora!’ I said, with intense earnestness.

” ‘I can’t do it,’ he answered. ‘But I believe you are what you represent yourself to be, and I will lend you the money personally. It is only one dollar and twelve cents.’

“Well, sir, you could have knocked me down with the flat side of a palm-leaf fan. I had more than two thousand dollars in currency in my pocket, but it had never for an instant occurred to me that I could pay my fare and ride on that train. I showed the conductor a wad of money that made his eyes stick out.

” ‘I thought it was funny,’ said he, ‘that a man in your position couldn’t raise one dollar and twelve cents. It was that that made me believe you were playing a trick to see if I would violate the rule.’

“The simple truth was, I had ridden everywhere on passes so many years, that it did not occur to me that I could ride in any other way.”

Oral Composition III

Relate to the class some personal incident suggested by one of the following subjects:

  1. A day with my cousin.
  2. Caught in the act.
  3. A joke on me.
  4. My peculiar mistake.
  5. My experience on a farm.
  6. My experience in a strange Sunday school.
  7. What I saw when I was coming to school.

In preparation for this exercise, consider the point of your story. What must you tell first in order to enable the hearers to understand the point? Can you say anything that will make them want to know what the point is without really telling them? Can you lead up to it without too long a delay? Can you stop when the point has been made?

Exam

  • English Composition, Lesson 07 Exam