Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Storytelling Advice from Mark Twain

As mentioned last week, Mark Twain used lecture tours to promote his books and supplement his income. These tours took him around the country and even around the world. But nobody would have paid him to speak if he hadn’t known how to tell a story.

The advice in this week’s blog post is taken from a short piece appropriately named “How to Tell a Story.” In it, Twain distinguishes between what he calls comic and witty stories (and which we would call jokes) and the humorous story, which he labels as uniquely American.  As you read, don’t forget his penchant for irony. For example, he says that the humorous story strings “incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way,” but in fact nothing is purposeless—it all works together to create the effect he wants.

Mark Twain’s deadpan approach may not work for many writers, but the pause has a more universal application. Enjoy these selections and take from them what you can.

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it . . . .

Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it is a nub.

Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise, as if wondering what they had found to laugh at.

* * *

To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis of the American art, if my position is correct. Another feature is the slurring of the point. A third is the dropping of a studied remark apparently without knowing it, as if one were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.

* * *

The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length—no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Next week we will hear from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also used lecture tours to promote his books.


The picture at the head of this post was taken by A.F. Bradley in 1907. It is in the public domain  because of its age.

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