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Mark Twain’s Rules of Literary Art

Excerpted from “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” by Mark Twain.JayJay here. Over the years Jim has had a few classic sources of advice on writing that he would refer writers to. Here is one of them. Good things to keep in mind.

And I recommend reading the essay that these guidelines are taken from even if you have never read any Fenimore Cooper. It’s very funny. Over the years Jim has had many people ROTFL when he performed dramatic readings of it. Makes my sides hurt to even remember.


The rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction require:

    1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
    2. They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help to develop it.
    3. They require that the personages of 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. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit sufficient excuse for being there.
    5. They require that when 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 in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when people cannot think of anything more to say.
    6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
    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.
    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.
    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.
    10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages in 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. 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.In addition to the 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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33 Comments

  1. BD

    Wow, that's one of my favorite essays, and some of my favorite Twain. Thanks for bringing it out, made my night!

  2. Wow, that's great. I particularly like rule #11; you need to instinctively know what each character is likely to do when the shit hits the fan. That's so insightful.

    For some reason I'm reminded of the ending of Reservoir Dogs–the entire climax depends on three people who have a long history together having a believable rationale to abruptly decide to point guns at each other, and that we understand completely that each is so firm in their convictions that they won't be swayed by the gun in their own face. If the characters hadn't been so carefully drawn, the climax of the film would have fallen apart. As it is the resolution of the scene feels inevitable, where it could have been laughable.

    I know it's not comics-related, it's just the first example that popped into my head. Thanks for posting this!

  3. Anonymous

    @Steven Stahl

    I respectfully disagree. I can read a book by Dostoevsky, or Steinbeck, or Hemingway, and find almost no fault with it. Same with pretty much any episode of Deadwood – it just seems airtight

    Bad storytelling, however, is like a wheel that is not perfectly round – as soon as it starts rolling, you can feel every bump and shutter

  4. Identifying flaws in a story is easier than appreciating its strengths, if only because the strengths can be appreciated fully only after finishing the story and thinking about them. Plot holes, a faulty premise, stilted dialogue, mischaracterization, stereotypes, continuity violations — those can be recognized instantly and cause someone to stop reading and go on to something else.

    Perhaps discussing stories’ flaws is more useful generally than discussing good stories, because the discussions are instructive, to anyone wanting to avoid mistakes, and beneficial for people who want to avoid wasting their money. If a writer doesn’t repeat himself, some of a story’s strengths will be unique to it, while flaws are encountered repeatedly in whatever he does.

    At least some people who read superhero comics have underlying contempt for traditional material because they regard the stories as juvenile fantasies. People who depart from the perceived norm are considered innovative, in spite of whatever flaws their stories have, while writers who portray heroes as heroic are considered predictable and boring.

    Handling powers within the Marvel Universe systematically, in line with SF, would be pretty easy. One approach would be to say that practically all powers that aren’t specifically defined are based on psionic energy (cf. the Rick Jones power), with the expression of them modulated by genes in the brain. The only difference between the somatic mutants and the genetic mutants is that the genetic mutants are programmed to express powers at certain ages. Defining the structure of the M.U. in a bible would also be easy; getting writers to avoid violating the rules laid out in it would be much harder, unless an editor was assigned to stop offenses.

    One example of several people failing to recognize a storyline’s strengths was the mistreatment of the VISION & SCARLET WITCH maxiseries. Englehart’s method of having Wanda conceive the twins was brilliant, logical, and tied to the duo’s themes, but none of that was apparently recognized by Byrne, Bendis, Heinberg, or their editors. Whether one questions their reading comprehension skills, their attitude toward Englehart, or their attitudes toward the duo, it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that “Avengers Disassembled” was aimed at readers who actively applaud bad writing because they lack the intelligence to appreciate the strengths of good stories. To them, good stories are highbrow bores.

    And, of course, “Avengers Disassembled” provided the basis for the current Marvel Universe — so? I’d scrap the storyline and most of what followed it in the context of a reboot. That’s the problem with publishing stories with faulty premises: they affect all the stories that are attached to them. Attitudes toward editing vary, but I’m in favor of an iron fist. Don’t tolerate mistakes, fire writers who commit mistakes repeatedly, and push writers who have talent to do better.

    SRS

  5. Dear Steven,

    When you wrote,

    "Because a lot of people want to avoid confronting just how terrible some of the stories they love are."

    as an answer to my question, were you referring to teachers? Are literature teachers in school really in denial about the mechanics of stories? Or are they — like their students — simply unaware of the concept, in spite of formulaic utterances of the "it has a good plot" type which are meaningless when applied to plotless stories? Everyone knows how to praise stories they enjoy, but not everyone knows what that praise should mean.

    My literature classes constituted of kids being assigned books to talk and write about. But what can the kids say if they don't understand the mechanics of stories? Little of real value. Classes become guessing games. What does the teacher want to hear about book X? I guess those who win the games go on to become teachers who start the next round. I don't want to play games; I want to learn how things work. That's what Jim teaches here.

    As for the defenses of poor writing that you describe, they come from people who have a deep emotional investment in the sacred stimuli. The same people would criticize the very same errors in a comic not set in their beloved Marvel Universe. Stimuli are subjective. Story mechanics are objective. It's hard for people to switch modes, but I try. I can say, "This story has everything I like — giant robots, aliens, spaceships — but it fails as a story." I'm tired of being manipulated. "Look! Stimuli! Love 'em!" No, not anymore. I want better craft. Craft so good I don't even think about it, as opposed to "Hey, isn't this arteeeestique?" tricks that draw attention to themselves at the expense of the story.

  6. A reader likes what he reads or not. Some things done inartfully nonetheless have some appeal for various reasons. If they appeal, they appeal, well-crafted or otherwise. No one needs to apologize for or explain what they like or why they like it.

    I agree with that, to a point, but the reasons why they like it matter, especially since some readers react to the artwork separately from the writing.

    In FEAR ITSELF, Fraction made the lead villain, the Serpent, Odin's brother and a fear god, and depicted him as such up until the last issue, when he transformed into a Midgard Serpent (M.S.) lookalike and fought Thor to the death. If he was the M.S. then, why wasn't he the M.S. earlier, and why was his parentage different from both Norse mythology and Marvel's own M.S.?

    Since Thor is dead, there will be a new thunder god: Taranis, the Celtic thunder god, renamed Tanarus. Conceptually, that makes no sense at all. It's a stretch to accept the existence of the gods as it is — and to have one leave his pantheon for another one?!

    Then, of course, there are incidents such as NEW AVENGERS #17, in which the robot's absorption of kinetic energy was the story's central plot point, but was mishandled throughout the issue. The latest in a long series of cases of scientific illiteracy on display.

    Readers are free to like what they please, but when people comment on even the most obvious errors in a story, they're attacked by people whose only defense is "So you didn't like it! I and others did! Shut up!" The cumulative effect of their arguments is to deny that a person's intelligence and knowledge even affect his enjoyment of the story, or enable him to spot mistakes that others might miss. Would they go so far as to argue that if a person with an I.Q. of 80 enjoys a story filled with errors that more intelligent people notice that his reaction means the story should be "enjoyable" or "unenjoyable" for everyone? Perhaps not, but that's where their arguments lead.

    SRS

  7. (Continued from above)

    Stimuli are not the worst thing in the world. I've been rereading Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man #31-32 (moving on to #33 tonight!) and I won't dismiss it just because it has Spider-Man in it. We all like different things and that's fine.

    The danger lies in relying on stimuli instead of telling a story. Look at a story. Subtract the stimuli. Does the structure hold up? Does it still make sense? Or do the stimuli blind the fans (and even the creators) to holes that are obvious to anyone else?

    People who grew up on such poorly structured yet stimuli-rich fiction create even more of the same … or worse, imitating poor techniques in tales about their own characters. The fans who will forgive anything with the sacred name Spider-Man will not be as forgiving of the faults of No-Name-Man. The margin of error is smaller when you have to establish your own characters from scratch. No built-in crossover appeal. Thing is, if you win, you win big. You'll know that you succeeded on your own merits rather by pushing the easy buttons established by others long before you.

  8. Anonymous

    @Kid – I hear where you are coming from. I still get a couple of series here and there. There is just enough good stuff out there to keep me from giving up on comics – such as Spaceman, Butcher Baker (the Image series), and Miller's Holy Terror are recent examples

  9. Dear Steven,

    I'm not sure people even know what "terrible" means. They do know what they like and don't like, but they don't understand why their tastes are the way they are. They enjoy both stimuli and stories and conflate the two.

    Stimuli are elements thrown in to trigger easy reactions. They are not exclusive to fiction. Notice how American flag imagery is employed outside a storytelling context in the US. How many politicians don't have campaigns exploiting the flag? What the flag is for some, the "S" and bat symbols are for others. Fans who would never read about a reporter's closet or a millionaire's basement will collect Clark Kent's Closet and Bruce Wayne's Basement.

    When such stimuli-driven junk is criticized, their fans employ ritual defenses: e.g., "It's all about the characters!" They're not lying. For them, the characters are all-important. Not in the way a writer should think they're important, but just for their stimulation value. Because the characters have the sacred aliases, wear the sacred costumes, and — in TV and movies — are played by good-looking actors.

    The entertainment business is run by people who produce stimulation, not stories. Warners and Disney aren't interested in comic book stories; they want to own comic book stimuli. American superhero comics today strike me as stimulation by the stimulated. It doesn't mean much to people who haven't been imprinted from childhood to revere the sacred aliases and costumes.

    Stories are universal; stimuli less so. Some people will read anything titled Spider-Man even if there is no Spider-Man in it; others will pay for anything with giant robots, giant monsters, or this or that. If a writer relies on stimuli, at best he can attract a sect of the simulated. But a good story transcends genre and can appeal to people who have no interest in its props or costumes.

    I define a "good" story as one that more or less follows the rules that Twain listed here. But many will say that a story that stimulates them is a "good" story. It may be good at entertaining them, but it may not be any good as a story. For example, I bet there are thousands of Transformers fans who would enjoy the sight of every Transformer ever in one big battle. Fans are like trivia memorization machines and they find pleasure in testing their knowledge of the obscure. They'd try to name every single TF in a double-page spread: e.g., "Oh, look, there's a red Bumblebee!" However, if you don't already have 27 years of TF toys memorized, the spread would be meaningless to you.

    For the record, I love giant robots, and I've watched Transformers: The Movie (1986) many times. But is it something I'd recommend to anyone else? No. Because I recognize that what stimulates me may not work for someone else. I distinguish between stimuli and story.

  10. Dear Kid,

    You describe how I felt toward the end of 1992 when I was burning out on American comics, particularly the Image-y kind. I stopped buying new comics. Unfortunately I completely missed DEFIANT's debut the next year and Broadway's two years later. Bought nearly complete runs of both a few years ago. (Nearly because I'm still missing Birth of the Defiant Universe and Miracle on Broadway.) Almost 20 years later, I do buy new comics on occasion, but only if they're something special. Jim's "Dark Key" line fit the bill.

  11. Anonymous

    If you like the way Twain criticizes lit – I suggest reading his short story A Cure for the Blues – possibly the funniest thing I have ever read

  12. Dear Steven,

    A reader likes what he reads or not. Some things done inartfully nonetheless have some appeal for various reasons. If they appeal, they appeal, well-crafted or otherwise. No one needs to apologize for or explain what they like or why they like it.

    But, what I find is that command of the craft raises your batting average. It's the "level swing" for creators. You might make out six times out of ten even if you're very skilled, but at season's end, you hit .406 and you're the Ted Williams of your field. Those who don't know their craft may hit a home run one day, but at the end of the season their batting average is below the Mendoza line.

    To me, the craft should be invisible. If the reader is marveling at how cleverly you introduced a character, or how artfully you used parallel construction, in my opinion, you lost them, you failed. If the reader puts the book down and says "wow!" and has no idea why the story they just read was compelling, just knows that it was, you did it. You win.

    I know that when I go to a movie and get INVOLVED in it, stop dissecting the writer's and cinematographer's techniques and just enjoy it, those creators are GOOD! If I have to think about it later to analyze it, they did it. They win.

  13. Anonymous

    Mister.44, yes (volume 1, anyway), although it seems at least parts of it have been published in different forms over the years.

    I had to read Last of the Mohicans in college, and it was a horrible experience. I think I still have PTSD from it.

    –kgaard

  14. Why make kids read stories without teaching them the mechanics of stories?

    Because a lot of people want to avoid confronting just how terrible some of the stories they love are. Whether they minimize the importance of the plot, claim that all reactions are subjective, say that someone should react to the story as it is, or assert that all reactions are like/dislike, they don't want to concede that there are rules which can be applied generally to storytelling, even if mechanics can clearly be distinguished from a writer's style. If a story doesn't make sense to a reader because of poor mechanics, then nothing the writer does matters.

    But especially in the context of comics, when issues are published in series, arguing that a story is invalid because of poor mechanics makes persons' heads explode. If an editor can't refute whatever criticism is aimed at a story, or admit that criticism he can't refute is justified, he shouldn't be an editor.

    SRS

  15. Kid – collect back issues of stuff, TPB, or give some of the smaller names a try to see if something clicks.

  16. Kid

    I came home from my local comic shop yesterday and put my comics, unread, on top of the a pile from my last two or three visits, which are also unread. I just can't seem to work up an enthusiasm for them, and wonder if it might be time for me to give up on comics. I've browsed through them, but nothing grabs me enough to want to sit down and read them.

    The only exception to this is the 100 page Jack Kirby Omnibus Sampler, which I'm halfway through. I can't help but think this is the way comics SHOULD still be done. Someone do us all a favour and pass that list to the writers of today. Quick – before it's too late.

  17. This is made even more powerful after having read some James Finnemore Cooper (who I happen to like–I argue that Natty Bumppo was the first AMERICAN superhero!). Then read this essay…you, too, will rotfl.

  18. I think that Dragon software is great, I have it for my iPhone. It might be helpful for Jim to get some ideas down to be refined later. I know that he puts a lot of effort into structuring and carefully wording everything he writes, but maybe as a first draft it could help.

  19. ja

    JayJay,

    I saw a television commercial for a computer speech program. I thought if you were still considering this to save tons of time for Jim to do this blog (or write any of his stories), you might want to check this out:

    https://www.dragonoffer.com/

  20. Anonymous

    Hmmm, these rules seem sensible enough. Maybe it'd help undo this current creativity drought we're experiencing in the entertainment industry right now. I bet the tv show The Critic would fit the bill for this model.

  21. Didn't they just release his autobiography that was to be printed 100 years after his death?

  22. Re: #17 … Good is not good enough. It must be the goodest possible. That is the only proper way to get the message to the reader.

  23. That's true, Marc. Jim has written a number of screenplays and prose as well. The principles of good writing are universal, though he is known for his expertise in comics.

  24. Dear JayJay,

    Such a course would be a dream come true for me. If Jim were on Kickstarter, I'd help fund such a course and I would gladly pay for it because I am certain I would enjoy it. There are things that can be demonstrated more effectively on video than on a computer screen. Video would be the next best thing to learning from Jim in person. And the talents and knowledge of this blog's readers could help to make that course a reality.

    If split into parts, certain sections would also appeal to non-comics writers. Prose writers can learn from Jim just as comics writers can learn from Mark Twain.

  25. Number 17 is what does me in.

  26. Anonymous

    LOL – he also said of Jane Austen "It's a shame she was allowed to die a natural death"

  27. Hmm, Mark Twain wrote the Fenimore Cooper essay in 1895 and Dracula was published in 1897. I wonder what Twain thought of it, if he even read it. He must have since Twain knew Stoker.

    Twain had no shortage of opinions about other writers… he had the following to say about Jane Austen: "Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book." He also said: "I haven't any right to criticise books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

    It makes me laugh even though I love Jane Austen's work.

  28. Marc, one of my dreams is to somehow arrange for Jim to teach a course on creating comics and be able to film it. If the course were only a decent enough length he could really go into the kind of detail the subject deserves and it would be fun as well. I've has a great time over the years learning from him. I think others would enjoy it too.

  29. Nick Yankovec

    Could someone send Rules 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 10 and 11 over to Brian Bendis please? And when it comes to Bendis' Avengers, Rule 4 should be tattooed on his body in a prominent position.

  30. Dear JayJay,

    I'd love to see Jim's dramatic reading of "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences"!

    I read Twain in school, but I never read these rules until I saw them on your site. I don't understand why they aren't taught in schools. Why make kids read stories without teaching them the mechanics of stories?

  31. Maybe Bram Stoker read these rules and felt challenged to break #3.

  32. I wonder if #3 was rendered obsolete with the advent of zombies in fiction, or maybe even the publication of Dracula two years after this was published. He was undead, wasn't he? Other than that, the list looks unimpeachable!

  33. More concise, couldn't be written… Thanks, JJ!

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