Mark Twain’s writing represents the hallmark of distinctly American literature in the late nineteenth century and also a shift in the writing techniques that constituted literary fiction at the time. Readers and non readers may recall fondly the image of Huckleberry Finn and Jim on a raft drifting down the Mississippi River in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) or Tom Sawyer’s appearance at his own funeral in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). These works, while some of the most famous, are hardly the nostalgic fare that these iconic scenes portray them to be. In fact, at the time of their writing, these works were considered quite innovative and continue to be a resource for writers even today. Here are a few lessons to learn from the master for your own content development.
Dialog is one of the most difficult components in fiction because it must sound like “real” speech without following the actual course of real speech. In daily life, conversations meander. Discussions go on tangents, return later to original topics and lots of comments about weather, current events, and appearance are stuck in along the way. Dialog in fiction must advance more quickly to the point. It must be intentional but not read that way. One method for writing dialog is to free write, allowing characters to talk and say any and everything they might to one another in a given situation. The writer must then return and revise by cutting out the majority of the text until only the essential remains. In Twain’s fiction, the dialog often runs counter what the reader knows to be true. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two con men present themselves to Jim and Huck as a duke and prince. The dialog moves the men into the position of sharing the raft and soon Jim and Huck are calling them “Lord” and “Your Majesty”.
Twain is considered a master of dialect and one who pioneered its use in literary fiction. While dialect is not necessary for all types of writing, it can be a useful tool when creating character and place. The contractions, odd spellings and strange pronunciations in Twain’s work have posed a challenge for some readers, and that is something to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to use it. But dialect also contributes to the sense of place and adds a flavor to the text. Likewise, Twain even uses dialect as a way to break up Huck’s voice and to introduce new perspectives. Twain also uses a technique called eye dialect, where a word is misspelled, but still pronounced correctly—for example, “becuz” versus “because”—to delineate education.
Show Don’t Tell
While Huck Finn, as the first person narrator, recounts his adventures in detail, effectively telling the story, the reader is constantly situated within the story through use of scene. Rather than dramatize all the events in the story, Twain glosses over travel scenes and dramatizes and slows down the scenes with the most action. Though Huck Finn is “telling” the story, the reader still experiences it. Details are one of the best ways to show not tell. When searching a wreck for supplies, rather than say, “we found a lot of gear,” Huck says, “We found boots, blankets, and clothes, and all sorts of other things, and a lot of books, and a spyglass, and three boxes of seegars.”
Situational humor is often created in Twain’s work using dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows something that the characters do not. For example, when Huck and Jim’s raft is boarded by a king and a duke, who command the boy and the runaway slave to serve them in a variety of different ways, the reader quickly realizes that these supposed nobility are actually con men. At first, this knowledge creates a sense of danger, but as the storyline progresses, the behaviors of all the characters grow comical, specifically the fighting between the two con men. This type of humor is often more successful than jokes told in dialog or with a humorous tone. Remember, when dealing with humor, it is best to avoid clichés, and readers are more likely to be amused by scenes they can envision.
Mark Twain continues to influence and inspire with his large volume of work. And these lessons only the scratch the surface of what can be learned from him. Probably the best advice he gives is to start out with a good story that will capture your readers’ imagination and then let these tips guide you along the way.