Mark Twain’s Rules for Writing, or Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses

Mark Twain gave us a great set of rules for a story, wrapped in a beautifully scathing critique of Fenimore Cooper’s books.

The abridged rules:

  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
  3. 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. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. 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 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.
  6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
  7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of aparagraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.
  8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.
  9. Events shall be believable; the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausably set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
  10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
  11. The characters in tale be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.

Twain, of course, sees Cooper as breaking each of these rules, and that resoundingly. Worth reading, and worth reflecting on the points as reflected in your own writing. Does your story accomplish something? Is the dialog irrelevant and unbelievable? Do your scenes and situations develop the work, or lead nowhere? Do you play “crass stupidities” upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest”? 🙂

Read the full essay here

(Abridged rules)

One Response to Mark Twain’s Rules for Writing, or Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses

  1. Accountants Beckenham on July 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Great post – I shall try to apply some of these principles to my blog posts – difficult when the subject is accountancy though.

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