May 3, 2011

Mark Twain's Rules of Writing

The following are the 18 rules of writing that Mark Twain scathingly accused Fenimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer of violating. According to Twain, fiction requires:

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

2. That the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.

3. 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. That the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. 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. That when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify the said description.

7. That when a person 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 at the end of it.

8. 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. That the personages in the 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. 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. That the characters in the tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

12. The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near to 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.

- - -

Such sound wisdom from the esteemed Twain. 3 is hilarious. 14 is beautiful. 11 is golden.

Do you agree with his rules? (I do.)

Does your novel violate any of these principles? (mine does.)

Have you read The Deerslayer? (I haven't.)

Is "surplusage" even a word? ( says it is.)

Do you like carrot cake? (I do.)




Faye said...

I agree with you Whisper. Some of those rules are funny, beautiful etc.

Jake said...

Yes. Yes. No. If so, it is a magnificent word. A hearty AYE to the last one. epic.

whisper said...

Faye - Yes, Mark Twain was rather... witty.

Jake - Carrot Cake is supremely delectable, perhaps even - dare I even say it - approaching the glory of Pie.

Yes. XD It is.

The Director said...

I pretty much agree with everything said.
(#10 I don't heartily agree with, but I mostly do-- seeing as sometimes there aren't just "good" characters and "bad" characters.)

I'm loving the list :D Thanks for posting!!

Pathfinder said...

These are really interesting. Thanks for posting them, Whisper!

I can't say I agree with the last part of rule 10. Sometimes you have to get the reader to like the bad guy so they'll accept them when they turn good. (yes, I realize this doesn't always happen)

By the way, I'm trying to get the Pirate Adventures up and running again, and I need to know if you're staying in as Captain of the Mighty Duck.

whisper said...

Director - Hm, you have a good point. In more modern fiction lately there are not so many 100% good or 100% bad characters; most are a mix of both, as in reality.

Pathfinder - Yesyes; villains who are all-out evil just for the sake of being evil are not as enjoyable to read about as those villains who have a weakness; a shred of humanity left in them. Perhaps that's why Bartholomew Thorne is one of my favorite villains...

The pirate adventures! *wistful expression* I wish I could sign the ship's articles at once, pledging my rapier to whatever stormy battles we of the UG next cook up! But regrettably, I do not think my current schedule will permit me to do so. I'll check up on the adventures every now and again, and if I have some spare time Captain Whisper might make an appearance for a scene or two. :) Thanks for letting me know about this!


Pathfinder said...

You're welcome! Thank you! Hopefully you can join us more often. You definitely make the adventures more interesting (and terrifying to your foes. Poor Griffin. :p)!

whisper said...

*grins* Thanks! I do miss those terribly.... it's been months since I've given a good keelhauling!


Kyle Johnston said...

So, true. I never managed to get through the Deerslayer, it totally lost my interest and I've never been inclined to pick it up again.

Dominus Vobsicum
Kyle Johnston

whisper said...

I never even attempted it, and you have won my respect, Sir Kyle, for even trying to start it. o_O

Dominus Vobsicum.... I took Latin for several years but my current grasp of it fails me. *whips out GoogleTranslator*

hm... Dominus I knew, but Vobsicum the translator cannot make sense of. It is your appelation, perhaps? *wonders*