Inventio and Elaboratio

I’ve run across the two terms twice recently, which in itself is enough to merit at least a remark. Once in the Gardiner on Bach and then in something Dr. Johnson said, giving advice. Invention and elaboration, to be plain.

When it comes to writing, music or letters both, apparently, invention is the flash of insight, the point out of which something is born. It is the greater work, according to Johnson, and during invention you should write as quickly as possible, get it all down. Invention is where the idea is grasped. Elaboration is how you polish and extend the idea. What Gardiner says about this in his book on Bach is much the same.

I’m struggling with invention in my story.

Elaboration is the easier part–still hard work but not as intense. I have to look at the scenes I’ve got and give them completeness, roundness, clarity of purpose. I have to make sure I’m not switching points of view abruptly on my readers. I have to eliminate false leads I’ve created and cultivate my hints toward the ending garden. That’s elaboration all. But the invention is where you have this flash of imagination, you get the idea that will carry that point of the story onward. True, one story is one idea, but I think a long story is a set of subordinate stories which eventually can all be seen flowing into the main stream so that the reader is borne down to the main channel of the river which is the main idea, and so to the satisfaction of the conclusion.

Invention is a gift as well (Gardiner uses the word donnée, and at last I found a context for that word that has puzzled me since I came across it in Weaver–I’d looked it up, but a dictionary didn’t make sense of it for me like this did). It has to come. One searches for it, one ponders it, but one can’t summon it at will. At least I can’t. I go reading in order to find suggestions, or I wait, living life because one never knows where one will come into one. In a long story one can also do one’s elaboration and sometimes out of that invention may arise. But not always, oddly.

I had a lot of it in summer, but here I am in winter all bereft. It is the thing I’ve learned, however, in 2013: don’t do half-baked invention. If one waits for the flash of imagination, then one has something worth bothering about.

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2 thoughts on “Inventio and Elaboratio

  1. If it’s any comfort, I don’t think the man who invented the Chronicles of Fundamentarlia can be considered short on invention.

    Do I remember you having any of the Loebs? There’s a Loeb version of the Rhetorica ad Herennium that you might enjoy looking at. It lays out the five elements needed for good discourse of any kind — there are invention and elaboration and 3 others. The RaH was one of the very few Roman poetic/rhetorical works to survive into the Middle Ages, and it kept the flame burning, so to speak. It was very popular in the Renaissance, and probably even Dr. Johnson was still reading it or was reading rhetorical manuals influenced by it in the 18th century.

  2. What is a comfort is overcoming the difficulty, which I think I may just have done. HA! And I think the key was provided by a father who took his kids to Target, bought them chocolate, and then sat them down to work on their algebra.

    It does sound like a work Bede would be interested in. Maybe there’s some added inventio in your suggestion.

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