Mark Twain on Writing Part I

Amid my morning Internet rounds, I decided to stop at StumpleUpon. This can be dreadfully dangerous and lead to hours of useless information gathering, but the long list of things I needed to do have helped me from clicking the “Stumble!” button repeatedly…. so far.

The first hit: Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing.

Though I think this is mostly a jab at James Fenimore Cooper, the points are still valid and deserve some pondering. Since Twain has several to mull over, we’ll break them up and discuss a few at a time. 

Today’s Rules:

1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

Though there are always exceptions to the rule, I agree with these two guidelines.

Stories should go somewhere. Not necessarily a physical somewhere, but in terms of character development and plot, something needs to happen. There should be some goal. Some change. Something. If The Hobbit were just about the dwarves and Gandalf showing up at Bilbo’s house, politely but rambunctiously making themselves at home, presenting their proposition for Bilbo to join them on their journey to the Lonely Mountain, and Bilbo refusing and continuing on with his happy little life in Bag End, it wouldn’t be much of a story. We need out of Bilbo’s stuffy little hole. We need to see the dwarves strive toward their goal. We need to see Bilbo change.

If you’ve seen the newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, then you can sympathize with the second rule. Not to spoil it, but there’s a short romance that occurs (don’t worry, Jack Sparrow isn’t involved… and neither are Will or Elizabeth) and fails to go much of anywhere. It presents possibilities that could have been explored, but they never are (and I doubt they will be if there is another film). And the lack of depth and relevance left the posse I went with and me wondering why it was included in the first place.

Those are my quick thoughts. What do you think?


5 responses to “Mark Twain on Writing Part I

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    In general, yes. The reader has to feel that things are going somewhere and that the events shown matter. But you can’t have _everything_ pay off, because then things become predictable and (as it always feels to me) airless. So, IMHO, there has to be a balance. Some things should just be there, as events in life are. Everything in life doesn’t lead somewhere.

    I talked about this on my blog, specifically about guns, but it applies more broadly:

    It also applies to sexual attraction. Sometimes, in real life, married people are attracted to someone other than their partner, and sometimes that attraction is even reciprocated, but quite often that’s where it stays, contrary to what Hollywood tells us.

    I talk about that here:

    (With Pirates of the Caribbean, though, I suspect it’s just sloppy moviemaking. :-) )

    • Bryna

      Very true. And keeping a balance with predictability is vital as well. (Pity Twain didn’t mention that… It’s one of my most frequent gripes.)

      As I think more about it, I suppose the one in Pirates felt so unnecessary because two minor characters were being forced into greater prominence than their role in the story deserved. Looking back, it felt joltingly out of place.

      • Anthony Lee Collins

        “And keeping a balance with predictability is vital as well. (Pity Twain didn’t mention that… It’s one of my most frequent gripes.)”

        I’m not sure what you’re referring to here. Probably I’m missing something obvious. :-)

      • Bryna

        Sorry about the lack of coherance on my part. I’ve already read all of Twain’s rules, and none of them really have to do with the balance of predictability and unpredictability. (At least, not at a quick glance.) However, that is one thing I notice can be a frequent problem for stories (my own being some of the worst at times), and the imbalance bothers me.

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    Ah, that makes sense. I know what you mean. I just finished a mystery where I think many readers will be able to figure out who the murderer was, but there are other mysteries as well that I think will be harder to figure out.

    I just finished critquing a YA novel for a friend, and it had a good balance of predictable and unpredictable, at least for me. One major twist I figured out in advance, and one authorial trick I caught (a “red shirt”). Two others, including the ending, caught me by surprise. That’s a good ratio.

    I’m hoping it gets published. I can definitely recommend it (for those who like paranormal YA romance).

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