How To Tell A Story anessay on humorous storytelling, by Mark Twain This essay,

How To Tell A Story
anessay on humorous storytelling, by Mark Twain
This essay, written by the American author and humorist in 1897, gives step-by-step instructions in telling the classic ‘jump story’ from folk tradition called The Golden Arm, whose variants are just as popular today. See the page on Humorous Stories and Storytelling for many more resources.
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, thewitty 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 see.
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 pretence that he does not know it is a nub.
ArtemusWard 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 to-day.
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 whooping 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, you booby.”
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 gaspings and shriekingsand 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 other story.
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 were thinking aloud. The fourth and last is the pause.
ArtemusWard 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 [and if too long] 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 practisewith it yourself and mind you look out for the pause and get it right.
The Golden Arm
Once ‘pon a time dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live ‘way out in de prairie all ‘lone by hisself, ‘cep’n he had a wife. En bimebyshe 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, Gaze 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-ende 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 ” Bzzz-zzz W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l-d-e-n arm? zzz zzz W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l- d-e-n arm!” (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 towards 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 W-h-o g-o-t m-y g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”
When he git to de pasture he hear it agin closternow, 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 up-stairs en jump in de bed en kiver up, head and years, en lay dah shiverin’ en shakin’ en den way out dahhe hear it agin! en a-comin’! En bimeby he hear (pause awed, listening attitude) pat pat pat hit’s acomin’ up-stairs! 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 skaselygit his breath! Den den he seem to feel someth’n c-o-l-d, right down ‘most aginhis 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 auditora 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 undertook.
Mark Twain, 1897.
Back to Humorous Stories and Storytelling by Tim Sheppard.
The Story of the Old Ram
from Roughing It
by Mark Twain
Every now and then, in these days, the boys used to tell me I ought to get one Jim Blaine to tell me the stirring story of his grandfather’s old ram but they always added that I must not mention the matter unless Jim was drunk at the time just comfortably and sociably drunk. They kept this up until my curiosity was on the rack to hear the story. I got to haunting Blaine; but it was of no use, the boys always found fault with his condition; he was often moderately but never satisfactorily drunk. I never watched a man’s condition with such absorbing interest, such anxious solicitude; I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before. At last, one evening I hurried to his cabin, for I learned that this time his situation was such that even the most fastidious could find no fault with it he was tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically drunk not a hiccup to mar his voice, not a cloud upon his brain thick enough to obscure his memory. As I entered, he was sitting upon an empty powder-keg, with a clay pipe in one hand and the other raised to command silence. His face was round, red, and very serious; his throat was bare and his hair tumbled; in general appearance and costume he was a stalwart miner of the period. On the pine table stood a candle, ar~d its dim light revealed “the boys” sitting here and there on bunks, candle-boxes, powder-kegs, etc. They said:
“Sh ! Don’t speak he’s going to commence.”
THE STORY OF THE OLD RAM
I found a seat at once, and Blaine said:
“I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more burlier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois got him of a man by the name of Yates Bill Yates maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon Baptist and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up rusher early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved West. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson Sarah Wilkerson good cretur, she was one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come abrowsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was no, it warn’s Sile Hawkins, after all it was a galoot by the name of Filkins I disremember his first name; but he was a stump come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’s big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’s noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’other one was looking as straight ahead as a spyglass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, ‘Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear’ and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’s much fetched him from Illinois got him of a man by the name of Yates Bill Yates maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon Baptist and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up rusher early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved West. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson Sarah Wilkerson good cretur, she was one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a- browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was no, it warn’s Sile Hawkins, after all it was a galoot by the name of Filkins I disremember his first name; but he was a stump come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’s big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’s noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’other one was looking as straight ahead as a spyglass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, ‘Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear’ and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’s much difference, anyway, becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yeller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on, it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife a ratty old buzzard, he was, that used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for ’em; and there that old rip would sit all day, in the shade, on a coffin that he judged would fit the can’idate; and if it was a slow customer and kind of uncertain, he’d fetch his rations and a blanket along and sleep in the coffin nights. He was anchored out that way, in frosty weather, for about three weeks, once, before old Robbins’s place, waiting for him; and after that, for as much as two years, Jacops was not on speaking terms with the old man, on account of his disapp’inting him. He got one of his feet froze, and lost money, too, becuz old Robbins took a favorable turn and got well. The next time Robbins got sick, Jacops tried to make up with him, and varnished up the same old coffin and fetched it along; but old Robbins was too many for him; he had him in, and ‘pe�red to be powerful weak; he bought the coffin for ten dollars and Jacops was to pay it back and twenty-five more besides if Robbins didn’t like the coffin after he’d tried it. And then Robbins died, and at the funeral he bursted off the lid and riz up in his shroud and told the parson to let up on the performances, becuz he could not stand such a coffin as that. You see he had been in a trance once before, when he was young, and he took the chances on another, cal’lating that if he made the trip it was money in his pocket, and if he missed fire he couldn’t lose a cent. And by George he sued Jacops for the rhino and got jedgment; and he set up the coffin in his back parlor and said he ‘lowed to take his time, now. It was always an aggravation to Jacops, the way that miserable old thing acted. He moved back to Indiany pretty soon went to Wellsville Wellsville was the place the Hogadorns was from. Mighty fine family. Old Maryland stock. Old Squire Hogadorn could carry around more mixed licker, and cuss better than most any man I ever see. His second wife was the widder Billings she that was Becky Martin; her dam was deacon Dunlap’s first wife. Her oldest child, Maria, married a missionary and died in grace et up by the savages. They et him, too, poor feller biled him. It warn’s the custom, so they say, but they explained to friends of his’n that went down there to bring away his things, that they’d tried missionaries every other way and never could get any good out of ’em and so it annoyed all his relations to find out that that man’s life was fooled away just out of a dern’d experiment, so to speak. But mind you, there ain’t anything ever reely lost; everything that people can’t understand and don’t see the reason of does good if you only hold on and give it a fair shake; Prov’dence don’t fire no blank ca’tridges, boys. That there missionary’s substance, unbeknowns to himself, actu’ly converted every last one of them heathens that took a chance at the barbecue. Nothing ever fetched them but that. Don’t tell me it was an accident that he was biled. There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said ir was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a-coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’s appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd or rusher he was part bull and part shepherd splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him. Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan County, and h� got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece. She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument. And they nailed a sign on it and put put on put on it sacred to the m-e-m-o-r-y of fourteen y-a-r-d-s of three-ply car – – – pet containing all that was m-o-r-t-a-l of of W-i-l-l-i-a-m W-h-e ”
Jim Blaine had been growing gradually drowsy and drowsier his head nodded, once, twice, three times dropped peacefully upon his breast, and he fell tranquilly asleep. The tears were running down the boys’ cheeks they were suffocating with suppressed laughter and had been from the start, though I had never noticed it. I perceived that I was “sold.” I learned then that Jim Blaine’s peculiarity was that whenever he reached a certain stage of intoxication, no human power could keep him from setting out, with impressive unction, to tell about a wonderful adventure which he had once had with his grandfather’s old ram and the mention of the ram in the first sentence was as far as any man had ever heard him get, concerning it. He always maundered off, interminably, from one thing to another, till his whisky got the best of him and he fell asleep. What the thing was that happened to him and his grandfather’s old ram is a dark mystery to this day, for nobody has ever yet found out.
1872
Do Analysis of Mark Twain’s “How to Tell A Story”
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