Mark Twain’s rules for writing fiction

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Authors, as we all know, are not always kind to one another. But there have been few assaults by one writer on another quite as ferocious as Mark Twain’s assault on Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer. To give you a flavour of the piece, here is the conclusion of the essay:

I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that “Deerslayer” is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that “Deerslayer” is just simply a literary delirium tremens. A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language. Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.

Ouch. But in the course of his attack, Twain outlines his own Rules for writing fiction. So here, in the hope that the rest of us can avoid Fenimore Cooper’s errors, are Mr Twain’s Rules:

  1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.
  2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.
  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. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
  4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.
  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. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.
  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. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.
  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. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.
  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. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” 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. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.
  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. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.
  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. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

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

  1. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.
  5. Avoid slovenliness of form.
  6. Use good grammar
  7. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

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2 thoughts on “Mark Twain’s rules for writing fiction

  1. I wonder what Mark Twain would say about Stephen King’s The Body (aka: Stand By Me). Most of the scenes leading up to finding the body have nothing to do with the search, such as the back story with Gordon’s older brother, or the incident with the junkyard dog, or the stories Gordon tells along the way. And, ultimately the search for the body has almost nothing to do with the rest of the novella once the boys go on to high school and drift apart.

  2. Very good point: thank you! I think that King would certainly argue that the body is, in Hitchcock terms, the Maguffin — it’s the hook of the story, but not what the story’s about. Judging, in an episodic story, which of the episodes are necessary, is one of the toughest jobs an author has: look at Moby Dick, or indeed Twain’s own Huckleberry Finn, both of which have passages that test most modern readers’ patience. Personally I think that in his best work King is pretty much a master of the well chosen detail, and the episode that best illuminates a character (“in his best work” being a fairly fierce caveat).

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