Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Wisdom of Mark Twain

I followed this link from someone’s blog today, and found it both amusing and thought-provoking.

Literary fashions come and go. Creative dialogue tags, long descriptive passages sans action, and phonetically-rendered dialogue are just a few fashions from an earlier era that are about as popular today as whalebone corsets and celluloid collars. But even though he wrote for different audience tastes, ol’ Sam Clemens had a good grasp of the basics:

From Twain’s critique of James Fenimore Cooper:
There are nineteen rules governing literary art. . .

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Some things about writing are truly universal!

I would venture to say that as writers and critters, we should be careful to distinguish between critique of style vs critique of the “bones” of the story. If someone has read your entire story (as opposed to an outtake) and says, “I have trouble believing s/he would do that,” you might have a serious problem on your hands. But a comment about “too many adverbs” is stylistic. It's a recommendation that you read up on current literary fashions in your genre, and does not necessarily mean your work is fundamentally flawed.

The full text of Twain’s comments is here, and worth a read.

Gotta love that man!


Brian said...

Thanks for posting that.

As a child I read all the Mark Twain stories and books I could get my hands on. In college we studied them in literature and as an adult I admire the man his career and his place in history.

Crabby McSlacker said...

I think you make a really important distinction between criticism of the "bones" and the "style" of a story.

However, if someone's too stylistically annoying, I can't lose myself enough in the action to appreciate the bones.

And sometimes, when voice is strong and compelling and the "style" stuff just totally enchants me, I can put up with some major fractures in the "bones."

But generally, I totally agree with you. Styles come and go; bones are more universal.

Bernita said...

I agree with Crabby.
Thank you for posting it.

Alice Audrey said...

I have come to grips with this only in the last decade or so. Too many of my critique partners got hung up on my style and paid no attention to the things I worried about. Conversely, it has taken me a while to separate out my reaction to style vs to the bones of the story.