‘Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837

The magic trick:

Using a classic story structure to get the backstory established and the action started

“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” in addition to being a remarkably imaginative and entertaining story, is a great piece to return to as a writer when you need to streamline your structure. It’s a masterwork of straightforward storytelling.

Let’s break down the opening section.

Dr. Heidegger once invited four friends to his study. Classic first sentence.

Then Hawthorne describes very briefly each of the four guests.

Cut to just one sentence in the present tense – the doctor explaining that he’s invited his friends here so they can help him with an experiment.

Cut to a lengthier description of the story’s setting – Dr. Heidegger’s study.

Repeat another Dr. H quote about the experiment. Then we get our first description of the host. It’s only now that we finally get into the action of the story.

You could argue that it’s simplistic, that the form has advanced a long way from this template in the last two centuries. And of course you’d be right. But there’s something to be said for such an approach. Especially if you’re writing and find yourself flailing, losing control of your material. This is a great way to hit the structural reset button. And that’s quite a trick on Hawthorne’s part.

The selection:

“My dear old friends,” repeated Doctor Heidegger, “may I reckon on your aid in performing an exceedingly curious experiment?”

Now Doctor Heidegger was a very strange old gentleman, whose eccentricity had become the nucleus for a thousand fantastic stories. Some of these fables, to my shame be it spoken, might possibly be traced back to mine own veracious self; and if any passages of the present tale should startle the reader’s faith, I must be content to bear the stigma of a fiction-monger.

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