In “How It Happened,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses the short story fiction form to explore themes of overconfidence, death, and the paranormal. Short stories vary in length, typically ranging between 1,000 to 20,000 words. A story less than 1,000 words is often called “flash fiction,” and a...
In “How It Happened,” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle uses the short story fiction form to explore themes of overconfidence, death, and the paranormal. Short stories vary in length, typically ranging between 1,000 to 20,000 words. A story less than 1,000 words is often called “flash fiction,” and a story over 20,000 words can be a novella. You’ll know you have a short story on your hands when you can finish the narrative in one sitting and most elements of the story all contribute to a single event or disposition.
Doyle employs a fairly traditional story structure which is often divided into five parts: exposition (introduction), complication (a problem), rising action (related events that create tension and pique the reader's interest with information that supports the climax), climax (peak of the story, a critical turning point in the narrative and characters’ existence), and conclusion (a resolution of sorts).
Although analysis of a story’s structure can be subjective and fluid, the exposition in “How It Happened” could be seen as Doyle’s introduction of the writing medium who channels the deceased narrator and might extend into the second paragraph where the narrator meets his chauffeur, Perkins, who is waiting with his vehicle at the train station. The complication could be seen as the narrator’s insistence on driving a new vehicle with an unfamiliar gear system on a treacherous road in the dark. The rising action probably occurs as they drive up to Claystall Hill and the vehicle begins to malfunction. The climax is likely the crash, and the story’s conclusion happens when the narrator “bec[omes] aware of [his] own existence once more” and acknowledges his death.
Doyle makes use of several literary conventions in the narrative. There’s an emphasis on visual imagery regarding light throughout the piece, such as the “illuminated clock at the end” of the train platform, the “big motor, with its glaring head-lights and glitter of polished brass,” and the narrator’s frequent observation that “the lights [of the vehicle] were brilliant.” As the rising action occurs and the climax approaches, Doyle incorporates auditory imagery and simile to heighten the tension. When the narrator describes “the wheels…whirring like a high wind and the big body creaking and groaning with strain,” the reader feels the climax approaching, and his reference to the runaway vehicle as “a great, roaring, golden death to any one who came in our path” foreshadows the conclusion.
The pleasant tone of the story distracts the reader from moments of foreshadowing, one of the more effective literary devices of the story. The opening line, “she was a writing medium,” is easily obscured by the casual mood of the story but indicates that a death has occurred. “The glaring head-lights and glitter of polished brass, waiting for [the narrator] outside” foreshadows the narrator’s association with light, an element often associated with death and the afterlife, just as the narrator’s exclamation “good lord, what an awful smash!” associates the narrator with spirituality.
The audience within the story is an unnamed writing medium, or a psychic who can communicate with the dead. The reader isn’t told whether the medium is accompanied by any other characters. The audience outside of the story is the general public. The story features both descriptive and narrative writing styles. Descriptive writing often features heightened sensory information to help the reader imagine particular people, places, or things. Narrative writing typically tells a story that features some kind of lesson or insight.