Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Proper Recipe for a Story?


One of the best things about the internet is how you can find anything, absolutely anything, on it if you look hard enough. Sometimes, you find it even if you aren't looking for it. That's what happened today as I was trolling the blogs in search of a link or two that might connect back to our discussion about characterization and plot.

There's not a student who makes it through the American educational system without reading Mark Twain or James Fenimore Cooper or both. My thanks to The Happiness Project (and to Nathan Bransford for the initial link) for reminding me of what Twain had to say about "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". I'll leave it to you to read the essay and will borrow from Gretchen Rubin at The Happiness Project her synopsis of what Twain had to say about the 19 rules of fiction:

Mark Twain divides his rules into large rules and little rules—all violated by James Fenimore Cooper:

Large 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. 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.

Little rules:
7. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

8. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

9. Eschew surplusage.

10. Not omit necessary details.

My favorites, when it comes to characterization and plot, are #2 and #4. Very little irks me more about a book than to have a scene, or set of scenes, that has nothing to do with the actual plot. They've been put there to simply pad the word count and impress the reader with the author's grasp of the English language. Sorry, but it if it isn't necessary to the story, leave it out. The same goes with characters. If they don't have a purpose in the story, if they don't advance the plot, get rid of them. Sure, you'll have some window dressing characters. Those who simply act as part of the set to help establish atmosphere, etc. But even that makes them important to the story. When an author throws in that character they really love, the drunk that reminds them of Uncle Billy or the little girl who reminds them of Susie next door when they were kids, but doesn't tie them to the story, I feel cheated, especially if I begin to care about that character only to learn later they were nothing but a throw-away.

I also have a fondness for those rules Twain classifies as the "little rules". They are rules that, as a reader, I want the author to follow and rules that, as a writer, I do my best to follow. Say what you mean. Use the right word. Don't pad your word count with things not necessary to the plot. And my all-time-favorite: Don't omit necessary details.

These rules might be over 100 years old, but they apply now, just as they did then. So, of these rules -- or any of the others listed in the original essay -- what is your favorite? Which one do you think Twain is wrong about? The floor is now yours.

I leave you with one last thought, courtesy of Paperback Writer, and Anthony Bourdain: "Given a choice between being trapped on a desert island with a group of writers or a family of howler monkeys, I think I'd pick the monkeys. At least I could eat them." -- Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits

8 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Poor Mark Twain. I went and read this original essay on Cooper. I can just see him gnashing his teeth and tearing his hair out with frustration.

It's almost as bad as the 1950s movies set in Africa where the Brave Explorers says, Hark, I hear a white woman scream!

LOL, thanks for sharing this with us, Amanda!

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I can see him doing just that. Of course, I pretty much wanted to do the same thing when I had to read Cooper. Especially since my teacher at the time thought Cooper was the best writer to ever grace the face of the Earth. As for all those 1940's - 1950's movies, oh yeah.

Of course, I also loved the quote from Anthony Bourdain, which begs the question: what authors would you like to be stranded on a deserted island with?

KylieQ said...

Not sure whether I'm misunderstanding rule 3 - the characters shall be alive except when they are dead?? I think I might be missing the point...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Amanda, I think I'd choose the author of 'How to Survive on a Desert Island'!!!!

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I might as well, as long as I knew that his rule number one wasn't, "kill the other people on the island as needed for food." Still, with my luck, I'd be shipwrecked with a certain "domestic diva" and would go crazy learning how to make doiles out of palm fronds and dinner plates from coconut shells.

Amanda Green said...

Kylie, the exact quote from the essay is, 3. They require that 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..

Followed by 4.They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

Basically, if I understand it correctly, in his own humorous style, Twain was saying that our characters need to be ALIVE, they need to be three dimensional, with the same foibles and strengths as real people.

matapam said...

Or it could be that he'd read something with a corpse that not only was of no use or purpose to the story, but also managed to express an opinion.

WangZheng259 said...

It seems pretty clear to me that it is a case of justifying the existence and presence of your living characters and your important corpses. I seem to recall a number of bodies from Huck Finn, but as I recall they were all originally people, and you could figure out how and why they died for the most part. Similarly in his short story about killing his conscience, the bodies that are mentioned later have a specific origin. When getting stuff from the closet, taking a shower, or cleaning the gutters, bodies don't just fall out, cause something to happen, and then never get heard of or explained.

These rules are intended for romantic fiction, so they may not all be appropriate or complete for other forms.

7, 8, 10 and 11 of the original essay are pretty good.

Two things I disagree with. Item the first 'Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language'. I think this is rather dated by now. Certainly, if Mark Twain were alive today, I think he could find worse examples on the internet. Second: 'its English a crime against the language.' I am also wondering if what constitutes a crime against the language can change over time. Computers and the internet mean that even a poor talent like mine can expose itself to many readers merely by sticking at it long enough.

Regarding the writers on an island scenario, ones with useful skillsets, no problematic health issues, and not philospohically inclined to leave me out on my own unless doing so was truly necessary to the survival of the rest.