Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The undisputed master of caustic wit, Mark Twain occupies a strange position in today’s literary canon. His novels – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – have not aged particularly gracefully in terms of content, but his essays and articles have made an unexpected comeback, and his craft remains the gold standard.
There’s a reason William Faulkner called Twain ‘the father of American literature’ – the man was damn good, and he helped usher in a new dominant literary style all by himself, often at the expense of his unfortunate predecessors: James Fenimore Cooper (of The Last of the Mohicans fame) in particular drew the short straw when, freshly dead, he was torn apart by Twain in ‘The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper.’ Awkward.
So what exactly can Twain teach writers today? Let’s take a look.
1. ‘Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream’
This is Twain’s nineteenth-century version of the much-repeated mantra ‘show, don’t tell’. Twain’s words have been endlessly reiterated and repeated (perhaps most famously by Anton Chekhov: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’), but they’re worth such focus: if you’re going to write engaging fiction, you need to show your characters enacting their personalities and thoughts – don’t tell us your protagonist is funny, have her tell a great joke.Tell the reader too much and you stop them engaging with your work.Click To Tweet
But it’s worth unpacking Twain’s statement further. His choice of example is telling: Twain, it seems, is an advocate for rooting character development and plot in dialogue. We see this in his own fiction:
‘Here’s Huck Finn, he hain’t got no family; what you going to do ’bout him?’
‘Well, hain’t he got a father?’ says Tom Sawyer.
‘Yes, he’s got a father, but you can’t never find him these days. He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more.’
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Twain could simply have told us that Huckleberry Finn’s father was an absent drunk – instead, he avoids unnecessary exposition by having the sad facts of the novel rooted in the dialogue of its characters.
2. ‘The more you explain it, the less I understand it’
If it were up to me, every just-starting-out writer would have this tattooed across their chest. Nothing drains drama and tension as much as over-explanation, and nothing alienates readers as much as having implicit or obvious points spelled out.
This quote is partially about the value of brevity, but more than that, it’s about clarity and treating your readers like intelligent human beings. Over-explanation can poison everything, from action (‘He shot her in the chest because he was angry and he really didn’t like her’) to plot (‘But the adventurers had seen this symbol before – it was the same one that they’d seen back in the hospital, tattooed onto the wrist of that shady nurse’) to character development (‘Before the war, he’d been a gentle, loving soul – but the horrors he had witnessed had turned him into an angry, bitter man’).Over-explanation ruins stories – express it succinctly or consider taking it out.Click To Tweet
Over-explanation takes the joy out of fiction by robbing the reader of their role. They’re no longer able to join the dots, aren’t even given the space to guess at what’s coming – everything is spoon-fed to them. And that, as Twain would surely agree, is no fun at all.
3. ‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be’
Twain takes aim here at ‘very’, but it isn’t the only offender – joining ‘very’ on the firing line are ‘slightly’, ‘a little’, ‘really’, ‘extremely’, and, worst of all, ‘a bit’. These empty qualifiers do nothing but dilute the action or sentence they’re a part of, and they should be avoided like the plague. If you need to intensify an adjective, choose a stronger adjective – for example, instead of ‘very unpleasant’, you could just say ‘disgusting’. Speaking of adjectives…
4. ‘As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out’
The full quote here is worth reading:
When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.
– Mark Twain
The message here is simple: adjectives (and adverbs for that matter) can swiftly overpower text and fill the space that should be full of more active storytelling. This tip has since been echoed by writers including Raymond Carver and Stephen King, and is related to that central aforementioned tenet: ‘show, don’t tell.’ We can adapt the Chekhov quote here to suit out purposes: don’t give us a shiny moon, show us the glint of light on broken glass. If you’re relying too heavily on adjectives and adverbs, it means you’re telling, not showing. According to Twain, that just won’t do.
5. ‘The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it’
We’ve talked before about how everything in your story needs to be doing something, so I’m glad Twain has our back. Every side-plot, every tangent, every description – it all has to be justifying its presence. This is partly why planning is so important: it gives you the opportunity to think about what each scene is doing. Is it moving the main plot forward? Is it developing your characters? Is it building your world? If not, what’s it doing there?
On the same note, don’t throw in characters for the sake of it. As Twain says:
The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
– Mark Twain
This means no filler-folk – no wandering nobodies who turn up just populate a given scene. However, note Twain’s ‘sufficient’ – this defends his statement against the polar opposite: including characters who perform one plot-saving or character-developing action and then are never heard from again.You control the entirety of your story, so why would any detail be unnecessary?Click To Tweet
For example, imagine if, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf was not a main character at all, but just someone who turns up in the Mines of Moria to neutralize the Balrog before disappearing. Such instances of Deus ex Machina – that is, instances where a seemingly insurmountable obstacle is suddenly and conveniently taken care of – butcher books. Steer clear!
6. ‘Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please’
Like the more modern American writer Jennifer Egan, Twain puts a lot of weight on knowing your stuff before settling down to write. And he’s right: if you haven’t done your research, you can’t move with confidence through your source material, meaning your writing will comes across as flat and uncertain.
Now, you might think that this is only useful advice for writers of historical fiction, but that’s not the case – it’s not so much about knowing your history/sociology as it is about establishing your plot’s internal logic. Even your mad sci-fi odyssey needs internal rules and laws that the book’s characters and events obey; the reader needs to get a sense of what can be expected to happen and what would be considered unexpected or shocking.
Without this logic, the reader will have a hard time judging when something exciting or climactic happens in your story because they won’t have anything to act as a barometer of what’s normal and what’s not.
Once your laws or ‘facts’ are in order, you can begin distorting them as much as you please – after all, many plots are built primarily on the sudden distortion of a law that was previously assumed to be firm. Of all Twain’s tips, this is one to have fun and experiment with. Just make sure not to be the subject of Huck’s moaning:
That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The mark of Twain
Mark Twain’s enduring influence cannot be overestimated. His advice, once so revolutionary, has since come to define the modern standard for writing – every editor who’s ever shouted “show, don’t tell” or “use verbs and nouns, not adverbs and adjectives!” owes a substantial debt to Twain.
So next time you’re putting pen to paper, bear these tips from the first great American novelist in mind. A little of his genius might rub off on you.
What are your favorite stories or essays by Mark Twain? Have I missed any of your favorite tips? Let me know in the comments, or check out more great advice with 7 Ways William Faulkner Can Help You Improve Your Writing and Advice From Kurt Vonnegut That Every Writer Needs To Read.