“A Tale Shall Accomplish Something”: Writing Advice from Mark Twain

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How do you know if you’ve actually written a story? How do you know if your story is, in fact, a story and not a vignette, a scene, or something else?


Mark Twain was answering these same questions nearly 120 years ago. In a scathing critique entitled “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” Twain took to task a popular author who violated 18 rules that govern good story telling. You can read the entire list at the link, but today we’ll concern ourselves with Rule # 1:

. . . a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

It sounds simple, yet it's easy to violate this rule. Writers often complete stories that arrive nowhere or accomplish nothing. The situation established at the beginning of the story remains unchanged, and so does the main character.

This happens because the writer fails to consider one simple but all-important question: What has changed for the character as a result of the story?

The Illusion of Change

It’s easy to understand how writers violate this rule. As human beings, we have a built-in resistance to change. Change is scary. It’s often hard. It forces us to step into the unknown. And because we hate taking those steps, we resist the notion of making our characters take them as well.

Popular genres sometimes reinforce the notion that the “illusion of change” is an acceptable substitute for the real deal. In comics, Spider-Man can change his costume—but the new costume turns out to be an alien symbiote and, before long, Spidey is back in his red-and-blue longjohns. In the various Star Trek series, characters get promoted—which means they add an extra collar pip and sometimes take on a new position aboard the ship or space station—but these changes are cosmetic. They do not alter the character, his relationships, or his role on the show.

Instead, what passes for "accomplishing something" in most genre fiction is that the good guys win. After a long, harrowing struggle, they defeat the bad guys and all is right with the universe.

And that’s okay to a point. However, a story becomes predictable if it ends exactly where the reader thinks it should.

Changes that Stay with the Reader

So, what did Twain mean? How do you know if your story has accomplished something or arrived somewhere?

Twain provides a sterling example in his own novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Throughout the book, Huck shares adventures with a runaway slave, Jim. Even though Jim becomes Huck’s friend, mentor, and ally, Huck—raised to believe that slavery is justified by the Bible—continues to see Jim as property of his owner, Miss Watson. However, when Jim is recaptured, Huck and his friend, Tom Sawyer, scheme to free him—even though doing so means not only violating the law but that Huck will “go to hell.”

Huck’s change in attitude shows us that the tale has indeed “accomplished something” and “arrived somewhere.” Would Huck have made the same choice at the beginning of the novel? Probably not—hence the need for going through all those adventures with Jim.

Huck undergoes this change without altering his clothes or saving the world. Nor does he have to become a completely different character.  Deep, personal changes such as this make a story worthwhile and resonate with readers.

What do you think? How does your character change?

Comments

Kristi Bernard said…
Excellent question Greg. I suppose that is the goal with writing it to have characters grow as the story moves along. It's tough at times but I am hoping with my story that my young characters change by not wanting to grow up too fast. I want them to learn to be who they are and not to be something they are not. Things to ponder...
It sounds like you know where you want the story to end, at least on an emotional/psychological level. That gives you an enormous advantage, Kristi.

Thanks for stopping by.
Dave Whitaker said…
This is similar to what you've said in our writers' group about having some kind of conflict in every scene. It reminds me that it isn't just that the full work should have a purpose and that the characters should change as they move from point A to point B. Even the smaller steps along the way should follow this guideline.
The conflict in every scene does not have to be major, but there should be some sort of tension between characters, between the character and her environment, or between the character and the goal he wants to achieve.

In Huckleberry Finn, Huck and Jim spend much of their time alone on a raft, but the ongoing tension -- Jim is a runaway slave who could be recaptured at any moment -- always lurks in the background.

Thanks for posting,Dave.

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