I agree with most of Mark Twain‘s advice to writers, but not all of it. Please bear in mind that this advice was given specifically in the context of Twain’s pillorying of the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, whose writing Twain detested. Of course, Twain also detested the writing of the divine Jane Austen, so there’s no accounting for tastes.
Mark Twain’s Advice To Writers
- A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
- The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
- The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
- The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
- When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
- When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
- 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.
- Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
- The personages of 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.
- The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and shall make the reader love the good people of the tale and hate the bad ones.
- The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
- The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
- He shall use the right word, not its second cousin.
- He shall eschew surplusage.
- He shall not omit necessary details.
- He shall avoid slovenliness of form.
- He shall use good grammar.
- He shall employ a simple, straightforward style.
What do I not agree with?
- Obviously, I have to stipulate that the non-humans don’t have to talk like humans.
- And the characters don’t have to stop talking when they don’t have anything to say, if they’re the kind of characters who would run off at the mouth, right?
- And the reader should sometimes be surprised at what a character will do in an emergency, although it should be the kind of surprise that makes the reader go, Cool!
- I love it when writers only come close to what they propose to say, but do it such a way that my brain can make that leap. It makes my head tickle, and I like it.
- Sometimes I like a complex, convoluted style.
- So there.
And now, this:
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Write a story outraging as many of Twain’s advices as you can. Does the story work?