Mark Twain on Writing Part III

The past two posts have had some unifying theme. I haven’t managed to derive one from these three. (I blame it on my congestion from the exorbitantly high pollen count.) However, they fit well enough together, and placing them together means there’s only one more post about what Twain has to say about writing. So here we go.

8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
9. 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. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.

I’m sure Twain had his own very specific idea of “crass stupidities.” What exactly poor old (for he truly was old when Twain was young) James Fenimore Cooper did to incite such contempt from Twain, I’m not sure–though whenever I discover it, I’ll let you know.

When it comes to what is plausible, it all comes down to the type of world the characters live in. An elf isn’t likely to walk down the streets of New York City–unless, of course, it’s Christmas Eve, opening night of The Hobbit, or the elf is named Buddy which is an entirely different story–but they are commonplace in other lands. Each world has its own parameters. Once those parameters are set, though, readers still usually don’t want surprises that come from thin air. Regardless of how “cool” it would be, Iron Man, ninjas, and Master Chief do not belong in my more-fantasy-than-not novel.

Number 10 is a difficult one.

The first half is always (as far as I’ve ever observed) true. When I as a reader stop caring about the characters and their plight, the story no longer matters to me. I usually close the book or turn off the movie. And if I don’t, I ridicule everything as I wait for the ending to finally arrive.

However, tales aren’t always as simple as “good” and “bad.” And sometimes we’re supposed to sympathize with the “bad” guys. Macbeth is a protagonist, and he turned out to be quite evil by the end. Yet I still cared about him and his fate. I knew he would have to face the consequences of his actions, but I didn’t want to see him killed. Going back to prior discussions (like this one by Anthony Lee Collins), not all heroes are perfectly good. And the villains aren’t always completely evil. It can be complicated. Very complicated.

What are your thoughts?


5 responses to “Mark Twain on Writing Part III

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    8. There are definitely crass stupidities in mysteries. Crimes without adequate motivations. Stories where the crime or the solution or both depend on incredible coincidences. Etc.

    9. I agree with the fact that miracles are not allowable (unless established somehow). If something is going to be important, it has to be established in advance.

    10. I agree with your thoughts on this one.

    11. I know you didn’t have a #11, but I had to tell you that you just got an award! It’s the the Irresistibly Sweet Blog award, and I know you got it because I gave it to you (though I didn’t choose the name of the award). You can read about it here:

  • C.B. Wentworth

    I think it comes down to something very concrete – A good character is a good character regardless of what side of the fence they inhabit. Like you, I have to care about a character in order to stay fully invested in the story, but I have found myself rapidly turning pages for characters I didn’t necessarily like, but were so interesting I couldn’t turn away. I call it the “car crash” syndrome. Some characters are despicable, but I can’t turn away because I am curious. Humans have a dark side, (even the the best of us), and it takes brave writers to explore this aspect of human existence.

    • Bryna

      That’s a better interpretation of “good.” I’ve been there too–staying with characters more out of curiosity than anything else. “Car crash” syndrome sounds like a perfect name for the phenomenon to me. :)

  • Anthony Lee Collins

    Also, C.B., that “fence” is not in the same place for every reader. I’m sure for some people Lisbeth Salander is not a “hero,” for example. She recognizes no authority but her own, she applies her own moral standards (which are all black and white) to every situation, and she takes vengeance on those she does not approve of.

    I doubt Mark Twain would have considered her “good,” but a lot of people follow her activities because she is, as you say, so interesting that they can’t turn away.

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