Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part III)

Today, I’m continuing our talk about Mark Twain’s eighteen rules of writing. We begin with his sixth rule, a rule that is very familiar.

When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.

Can you see it? This is Twain’s version of the immensely popular show, don’t just tell rule. If we have a character that we have described as a delicate flower and then she comes in cussing like a sailor, we have violated this rule. Perhaps we think it’s funny to have a delicate flower let loose and come out of her shell for no apparent reason, but the reader will not be amused.

I saw a little of this problem with Lori Wick’s The Princess. The book begins with us seeing this sweet girl with a great relationship with her parents and other people. It is for this reason that she is selected to marry the prince. Then later in the book we see her explode when her husband changes her schedule without asking. She goes from being this good natured person to being hot tempered. There is inconsistency in what the author has told us about the character and the way the character acts.

When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel at the end of it.

This rule also deals with consistency in a character, but this deals with the character’s language. If a character says, “y’all” in one place, we don’t want him to say “you” in another and then “ye” somewhere else. All three words have the same meaning and are interchangeable, but our characters will have a preference for one over the other. That preference may be driving by the geographical location or the training of the character. Our character’s choice of words not only say something about him, but they will probably not change during the space of our story.

We can also take this as being a rule to justify changes to the character. If changes are taking place and we aren’t showing the reader why the character is changing then we aren’t telling the most important part of the story.

Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by either the author or the people in the tale.

We might restate this rule as respect the intelligence of the reader. Twain talks about Cooper’s Indians being unable to jump safely onto a boat that would have been about the length of two eighteen wheelers and at most three feet below them. Most of them ended up in the water, after the boat had passed. With that he makes his point as to why we must think through the events we create. Our readers are going to be looking at what we write.

In television we have a classic example. How many times have you watched a television show and the guy with a gun puts it away so he can beat up some guy with his fists. We are left with the question, why not just shoot him?