Twain and the development of the novel

I ran across the following passage by Mark Twain about the process he went through in writing his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. I thought it was instructive, in part because it’s similar to what I’ve felt about some of the work I’ve done and because I suspect it is common to writers:

“A man who is not born with the novel writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel. I know this from experience. He has no clear idea of his story; in fact he has no story. He merely has some people in his mind, and an incident or two, also a locality. He knows these people, he knows the selected locality, and he trusts that he can plunge those people into those incidents with interesting results. So he goes to work. To write a novel? No–that is a thought which comes later; in the beginning he is only proposing to tell a little tale; a very little tale; a six-page tale. But as it is a tale which he is not acquainted with, and can only find out what it is by listening as it goes along telling itself, it is more than apt to go on and on and on till it spreads itself into a book. I know about this, because it has happened to me so many times.

“And I have noticed another thing: that as the short tale grows into the long tale, the original intention (or motif) is apt to get abolished and find itself superseded by a quite different one. It was so in the case of a magazine sketch which I once started to write–a funny and fantastic sketch about a prince and a pauper; it presently assumed a grave cast of its own accord, and in that new shape spread itself out into a book. Much the same thing happened with Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

Twain goes on for several pages to give the background of the early development of this novel, noting that it was originally to be about a set of co-joined twins and that the character of David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson was not even it in. Several major characters of the early envisioning of the story are relegated to merely walk-on status in the final version, and a few fall down the well and are drowned, as he says, since they were found to have no role as the story developed. His account of the writing of the novel is every bit as entertaining and enlightening as anything he has written. It’s a valuable peek into the workings of a creative mind, but it is a sufficient work of its own as well.

Pudd’nhead Wilson has been called by some a great mess and by others the greatest work Twain ever produced. Possibly as a work of fiction it may be the former; its plot is convoluted and in some ways unbelievable. But as a work of social commentary I think it is bitingly accurate and scathing. I’ve read this novel twice now, both times for discussion groups I’ve been in, and I fully expect to read it again someday.

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One Comment on “Twain and the development of the novel”

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    Very interesting. I think writers are divided into those who discover the story as they go along and those who already have the story but discover the writing as they go along.


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