Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part II)

Today, I’m continuing our talk about Mark Twain’s eighteen rules of writing. We begin with his third rule.

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.

Have you ever had a character that doesn’t stand out? The character has a name, but we might as well have name her, Woman #5 since no one is going to remember her anyway. Maybe we put her in the story to give another character someone to talk to and all Woman #5 does is say, “I agree.” The other character might as well be talking to a corpse.

We can fix Woman #5. First, let’s give her a name, like Barbara. Next, let’s make her interesting by giving her a peg leg. Lastly, let’s give her some thoughts and motives of her own. Maybe Barbara secretly hopes the other character’s boyfriend will break up with her and ask Barbara out. That’s a lot better than a corpse.

The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

This could be the same as saying to keep characters to a minimum, but there is more to it than that. Maybe a man is walking down the street and he sees a co-worker. The co-worker happens to be with his pastor. The man and co-worker talk about something that is going on at work and they go on their merry way. So why is the pastor there? Unless he plays a role in the story somewhere else, we might as well remove the pastor from the scene or the reader will wonder about him. If he doesn’t have a reason for being there, let’s take him out.

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.

There isn’t much I can say to Twain’s fifth rule. Dialogue should sound like talking rather than writing. But dialogue should also help to move the story along. We don’t want our characters engaged in small talk, unless the use of small talk is an important part of the story.

I like how he says the conversation should “stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.” We like to fill out our scenes and it is easy to try to make conversation extend past what if would naturally extend. Once we get past the relevant stuff, it’s time to bring it to a halt.