How to Tell A Story
by Mark Twain
The Humorous Story an American Development.—Its Difference from
Comic and Witty Stories
I do not claim that I can tell a story as it ought to be told. I only
claim to know how a story ought to be told, for I have been almost daily
in the company of the most expert story-tellers for many years.
There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the
humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is
American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The
humorous story depends for its effect upon the MANNER of the telling; the
comic story and the witty story upon the MATTER.
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 strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and
only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic
and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous
story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was
created in America, and has remained at home.
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; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one
of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager
delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And
sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he
will repeat the "nub" of it and glance around from face to face,
collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to
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. Dan Setchell used it before
him, Nye and Riley and others use it today.
But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub; he shouts it at
you—every time. And when he prints it, in England, France, Germany,
and Italy, he italicizes it, puts some whopping exclamation-points after
it, and sometimes explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very
depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.
Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote which
has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen hundred years.
The teller tells it in this way:
THE WOUNDED SOLDIER
In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off
appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear,
informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained;
whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate, proceeded
to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls were flying in all
directions, and presently one of the latter took the wounded man's head
off—without, however, his deliverer being aware of it. In no long
time he was hailed by an officer, who said:
"Where are you going with that carcass?"
"To the rear, sir—he's lost his leg!"
"His leg, forsooth?" responded the astonished officer; "you mean his head,
Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood
looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:
"It is true, sir, just as you have said." Then after a pause he added,
"BUT HE TOLD ME IT WAS HIS LEG!!!!!"
Here the narrator bursts into explosion after explosion of thunderous
horse-laughter, repeating that nub from time to time through his gasping
and shriekings and suffocatings.
It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form;
and isn't worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story form
it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have ever listened
to—as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.
He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has just
heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny, and is trying
to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can't remember it; so he gets all mixed
up and wanders helplessly round and round, putting in tedious details that
don't belong in the tale and only retard it; taking them out
conscientiously and putting in others that are just as useless; making
minor mistakes now and then and stopping to correct them and explain how
he came to make them; remembering things which he forgot to put in in
their proper place and going back to put them in there; stopping his
narrative a good while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier
that was hurt, and finally remembering that the soldier's name was not
mentioned, and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance,
anyway—better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after
all—and so on, and so on, and so on.
The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself, and has to stop
every little while to hold himself in and keep from laughing outright; and
does hold in, but his body quakes in a jelly-like way with interior
chuckles; and at the end of the ten minutes the audience have laughed
until they are exhausted, and the tears are running down their faces.
The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness of the old
farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result is a performance which is
thoroughly charming and delicious. This is art—and fine and
beautiful, and only a master can compass it; but a machine could tell the
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 where thinking
aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.
Artemus Ward dealt in numbers three and four a good deal. He would begin
to tell with great animation something which he seemed to think was
wonderful; then lose confidence, and after an apparently absent-minded
pause add an incongruous remark in a soliloquizing way; and that was the
remark intended to explode the mine—and it did.
For instance, he would say eagerly, excitedly, "I once knew a man in New
Zealand who hadn't a tooth in his head"—here his animation would die
out; a silent, reflective pause would follow, then he would say dreamily,
and as if to himself, "and yet that man could beat a drum better than any
man I ever saw."
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.
On the platform I used to tell a negro ghost story that had a pause in
front of the snapper on the end, and that pause was the most important
thing in the whole story. If I got it the right length precisely, I could
spring the finishing ejaculation with effect enough to make some
impressible girl deliver a startled little yelp and jump out of her seat—and
that was what I was after. This story was called "The Golden Arm," and was
told in this fashion. You can practice with it yourself—and mind you
look out for the pause and get it right.
THE GOLDEN ARM
Once 'pon a time dey wuz a momsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de
prairie all 'lone by hisself, 'cep'n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en
he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she
had a golden arm—all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz
pow'ful mean—pow'ful; en dat night he couldn't sleep, caze he want
dat golden arm so bad.
When it come midnight he couldn't stan' it no mo'; so he git up, he did,
en tuck his lantern en shoved out thoo de storm en dug her up en got de
golden arm; en he bent his head down 'gin de 'win, en plowed en plowed en
plowed thoo de snow. Den all on a sudden he stop (make a considerable
pause here, and look startled, and take a listening attitude) en say: "My
LAN', what's dat?"
En he listen—en listen—en de win' say (set your teeth together
and imitate the wailing and wheezing singsong of the wind), "Bzzz-z-zzz"—en
den, way back yonder whah de grave is, he hear a VOICE!—he hear a
voice all mix' up in de win'—can't hardly tell 'em 'part—
(You must begin to shiver violently now.)
En he begin to shiver en shake, en say, "Oh, my! OH, my lan'!" en de win'
blow de lantern out, en de snow en sleet blow in his face en mos' choke
him, en he start a-plowin' knee-deep toward home mos' dead, he so sk'yerd—en
pooty soon he hear de voice agin, en (pause) it 'us comin AFTER him! "Bzzz—zzz—zzz
When he git to de pasture he hear it agin—closter now, en A-COMIN'!—a-comin'
back dah in de dark en de storm—(repeat the wind and the voice).
When he git to de house he rush upstairs en jump in de bed en kiver up,
head and years, en lay da shiverin' en shakin'—en den way out dah he
hear it AGIN!—en a-COMIN'! En bimeby he hear (pause—awed,
listening attitude)—pat—pat—pat HIT'S A-COMIN' UPSTAIRS!
Den he hear de latch, en he KNOW it's in de room!
Den pooty soon he know it's a-STANNIN' BY DE BED! (Pause.) Den—he
know it's a-BENDIN' DOWN OVER HIM—en he cain't skasely git his
breath! Den—den—he seem to feel someth'n' C-O-L-D, right down
'most agin his head! (Pause.)
Den de voice say, RIGHT AT HIS YEAR—"W-h-o—g-o-t—m-y
g-o-l-d-e-n ARM?" (You must wail it out very plaintively and accusingly;
then you stare steadily and impressively into the face of the
farthest-gone auditor—a girl, preferably—and let that
awe-inspiring pause begin to build itself in the deep hush. When it has
reached exactly the right length, jump suddenly at that girl and yell,
"YOU'VE got it!")
If you've got the PAUSE right, she'll fetch a dear little yelp and spring
right out of her shoes. But you MUST get the pause right; and you will
find it the most troublesome and aggravating and uncertain thing you ever