How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

BOOK: How To Tell A Story And Other Essays
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How To Tell A Story And Other Essays
How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

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 pretence 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 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
, 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:

How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

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 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

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

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.

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
[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 practise with it yourself--and
mind you look out for the pause and get it right.

How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

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 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, 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--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--" 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 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 up-stairs en jump in de bed en
kiver up, head and years, en lay dah 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 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 skasely git his breath!  Den--

den--he seem to feel someth' n c-o-l-d, right down 'most agin his head!


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

How To Tell A Story And Other Essays

I have three or four curious incidents to tell about.  They seem to come
under the head of what I named “Mental Telegraphy” in a paper written
seventeen years ago, and published long afterwards. --[The paper entitled
“Mental Telegraphy,” which originally appeared in Harper's Magazine for
December, 1893, is included in the volume entitled The American Claimant
and Other Stories and Sketches.]

Several years ago I made a campaign on the platform with Mr. George W.

Cable.  In Montreal we were honored with a reception.  It began at two in
the afternoon in a long drawing-room in the Windsor Hotel.  Mr. Cable and
I stood at one end of this room, and the ladies and gentlemen entered it
at the other end, crossed it at that end, then came up the long left-hand
side, shook hands with us, said a word or two, and passed on, in the
usual way.  My sight is of the telescopic sort, and I presently
recognized a familiar face among the throng of strangers drifting in at
the distant door, and I said to myself, with surprise and high
gratification, “That is Mrs. R.; I had forgotten that she was a
Canadian.”  She had been a great friend of mine in Carson City, Nevada,

in the early days.  I had not seen her or heard of her for twenty years;

I had not been thinking about her; there was nothing to suggest her to
me, nothing to bring her to my mind; in fact, to me she had long ago
ceased to exist, and had disappeared from my consciousness.  But I knew
her instantly; and I saw her so clearly that I was able to note some of
the particulars of her dress, and did note them, and they remained in my
mind.  I was impatient for her to come.  In the midst of the hand-

shakings I snatched glimpses of her and noted her progress with the slow-

moving file across the end of the room; then I saw her start up the side,

and this gave me a full front view of her face.  I saw her last when she
was within twenty-five feet of me.  For an hour I kept thinking she must
still be in the room somewhere and would come at last, but I was

When I arrived in the lecture-hall that evening some one said: "Come into
the waiting-room; there's a friend of yours there who wants to see you.

You'll not be introduced--you are to do the recognizing without help if
you can."

I said to myself: “It is Mrs. R.; I shan't have any trouble.”

There were perhaps ten ladies present, all seated.  In the midst of them
was Mrs. R., as I had expected.  She was dressed exactly as she was when
I had seen her in the afternoon.  I went forward and shook hands with her
and called her by name, and said:

“I knew you the moment you appeared at the reception this afternoon.”

She looked surprised, and said: “But I was not at the reception.  I have
just arrived from Quebec, and have not been in town an hour.”

It was my turn to be surprised now.  I said: "I can't help it.  I give
you my word of honor that it is as I say.  I saw you at the reception,

and you were dressed precisely as you are now.  When they told me a
moment ago that I should find a friend in this room, your image rose
before me, dress and all, just as I had seen you at the reception."

Those are the facts.  She was not at the reception at all, or anywhere
near it; but I saw her there nevertheless, and most clearly and
unmistakably.  To that I could make oath.  How is one to explain this?  I
was not thinking of her at the time; had not thought of her for years.

But she had been thinking of me, no doubt; did her thoughts flit through
leagues of air to me, and bring with it that clear and pleasant vision of
herself?  I think so.  That was and remains my sole experience in the
matter of apparitions--I mean apparitions that come when one is
(ostensibly) awake.  I could have been asleep for a moment; the
apparition could have been the creature of a dream.  Still, that is
nothing to the point; the feature of interest is the happening of the
thing just at that time, instead of at an earlier or later time, which is
argument that its origin lay in thought-transference.

My next incident will be set aside by most persons as being merely
a “coincidence,” I suppose.  Years ago I used to think sometimes of
making a lecturing trip through the antipodes and the borders of the
Orient, but always gave up the idea, partly because of the great length
of the journey and partly because my wife could not well manage to go
with me.  Towards the end of last January that idea, after an interval of
years, came suddenly into my head again--forcefully, too, and without any
apparent reason.  Whence came it?  What suggested it?  I will touch upon
that presently.

I was at that time where I am now--in Paris.  I wrote at once to Henry M.

Stanley (London), and asked him some questions about his Australian
lecture tour, and inquired who had conducted him and what were the terms.

After a day or two his answer came.  It began:

“The lecture agent for Australia and New Zealand is par
excellence Mr.  R. S. Smythe, of Melbourne.”

He added his itinerary, terms, sea expenses, and some other matters, and
advised me to write Mr. Smythe, which I did--February 3d.  I began my
letter by saying in substance that while he did not know me personally we
had a mutual friend in Stanley, and that would answer for an
introduction.  Then I proposed my trip, and asked if he would give me the
same terms which he had given Stanley.

I mailed my letter to Mr. Smythe February 6th, and three days later I got
a letter from the selfsame Smythe, dated Melbourne, December 17th.  I
would as soon have expected to get a letter from the late George
Washington.  The letter began somewhat as mine to him had begun--with a

DEAR MR. CLEMENS,--It is so long since Archibald Forbes and I
spent that pleasant afternoon in your comfortable house at
Hartford that you have probably quite forgotten the occasion."

In the course of his letter this occurs:

“I am willing to give you” [here be named the terms which he
had given Stanley] “for an antipodean tour to last, say, three

Here was the single essential detail of my letter answered three days
after I had mailed my inquiry.  I might have saved myself the trouble and
the postage--and a few years ago I would have done that very thing, for I
would have argued that my sudden and strong impulse to write and ask some
questions of a stranger on the under side of the globe meant that the
impulse came from that stranger, and that he would answer my questions of
his own motion if I would let him alone.

Mr. Smythe's letter probably passed under my nose on its way to lose
three weeks traveling to America and back, and gave me a whiff of its
contents as it went along.  Letters often act like that.  Instead of the
thought coming to you in an instant from Australia, the (apparently)

unsentient letter imparts it to you as it glides invisibly past your
elbow in the mail-bag.

Next incident.  In the following month--March--I was in America.  I spent
a Sunday at Irvington-on-the-Hudson with Mr. John Brisben Walker, of the
Cosmopolitan magazine.  We came into New York next morning, and went to
the Century Club for luncheon.  He said some praiseful things about the
character of the club and the orderly serenity and pleasantness of its
quarters, and asked if I had never tried to acquire membership in it.

I said I had not, and that New York clubs were a continuous expense to
the country members without being of frequent use or benefit to them.

“And now I've got an idea!” said I.  "There's the Lotos--the first New
York club I was ever a member of--my very earliest love in that line.

I have been a member of it for considerably more than twenty years, yet
have seldom had a chance to look in and see the boys.  They turn gray and
grow old while I am not watching.  And my dues go on.  I am going to
Hartford this afternoon for a day or two, but as soon as I get back I
will go to John Elderkin very privately and say: 'Remember the veteran
and confer distinction upon him, for the sake of old times.  Make me an
honorary member and abolish the tax.  If you haven't any such thing as
honorary membership, all the better--create it for my honor and glory.'

That would be a great thing; I will go to John Elderkin as soon as I get
back from Hartford."

I took the last express that afternoon, first telegraphing Mr. F. G.

Whitmore to come and see me next day.  When he came he asked: “Did you
get a letter from Mr. John Elderkin, secretary of the Lotos Club, before
you left New York?”

“Then it just missed you.  If I had known you were coming I would have
kept it.  It is beautiful, and will make you proud.  The Board of
Directors, by unanimous vote, have made you a life member, and squelched
those dues; and, you are to be on hand and receive your distinction on
the night of the 30th, which is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the
founding of the club, and it will not surprise me if they have some great
times there.”

What put the honorary membership in my head that day in the Century Club?

for I had never thought of it before.  I don't know what brought the
thought to me at that particular time instead of earlier, but I am well
satisfied that it originated with the Board of Directors, and had been on
its way to my brain through the air ever since the moment that saw their
vote recorded.

Another incident.  I was in Hartford two or three days as a guest of the
Rev. Joseph H. Twichell.  I have held the rank of Honorary Uncle to his
children for a quarter of a century, and I went out with him in the
trolley-car to visit one of my nieces, who is at Miss Porter's famous
school in Farmington.  The distance is eight or nine miles.  On the way,

talking, I illustrated something with an anecdote.  This is the anecdote:

Two years and a half ago I and the family arrived at Milan on our way to
Rome, and stopped at the Continental.  After dinner I went below and took
a seat in the stone-paved court, where the customary lemon-trees stand in
the customary tubs, and said to myself, “Now this is comfort, comfort and
repose, and nobody to disturb it; I do not know anybody in Milan.”

Then a young gentleman stepped up and shook hands, which damaged my
theory.  He said, in substance:

"You won't remember me, Mr. Clemens, but I remember you very well.  I was
a cadet at West Point when you and Rev. Joseph H. Twichell came there
some years ago and talked to us on a Hundredth Night.  I am a lieutenant
in the regular army now, and my name is H.  I am in Europe, all alone,

for a modest little tour; my regiment is in Arizona."

We became friendly and sociable, and in the course of the talk he told me
of an adventure which had befallen him--about to this effect:

"I was at Bellagio, stopping at the big hotel there, and ten days ago I
lost my letter of credit.  I did not know what in the world to do.  I was
a stranger; I knew no one in Europe; I hadn't a penny in my pocket; I
couldn't even send a telegram to London to get my lost letter replaced;

my hotel bill was a week old, and the presentation of it imminent--so
imminent that it could happen at any moment now.  I was so frightened
that my wits seemed to leave me.  I tramped and tramped, back and forth,

like a crazy person.  If anybody approached me I hurried away, for no
matter what a person looked like, I took him for the head waiter with the

"I was at last in such a desperate state that I was ready to do any wild
thing that promised even the shadow of help, and so this is the insane
thing that I did.  I saw a family lunching at a small table on the
veranda, and recognized their nationality--Americans--father, mother, and
several young daughters--young, tastefully dressed, and pretty--the rule
with our people.  I went straight there in my civilian costume, named my
name, said I was a lieutenant in the army, and told my story and asked
for help.

“What do you suppose the gentleman did?  But you would not guess in
twenty years.  He took out a handful of gold coin and told me to help
myself--freely.  That is what he did.”

The next morning the lieutenant told me his new letter of credit had
arrived in the night, so we strolled to Cook's to draw money to pay back
the benefactor with.  We got it, and then went strolling through the
great arcade.  Presently he said, “Yonder they are; come and be
introduced.”  I was introduced to the parents and the young ladies; then
we separated, and I never saw him or them any m---

“Here we are at Farmington,” said Twichell, interrupting.

We left the trolley-car and tramped through the mud a hundred yards or so
to the school, talking about the time we and Warner walked out there
years ago, and the pleasant time we had.

We had a visit with my niece in the parlor, then started for the trolley
again.  Outside the house we encountered a double rank of twenty or
thirty of Miss Porter's young ladies arriving from a walk, and we stood
aside, ostensibly to let them have room to file past, but really to look
at them.  Presently one of them stepped out of the rank and said:

“You don't know me, Mr. Twichell; but I know your daughter, and that
gives me the privilege of shaking hands with you.”

Then she put out her hand to me, and said:

“And I wish to shake hands with you too, Mr. Clemens.  You don't remember
me, but you were introduced to me in the arcade in Milan two years and a
half ago by Lieutenant H.”

What had put that story into my head after all that stretch of time?  Was
it just the proximity of that young girl, or was it merely an odd

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