Mark Twain’s essay on the art of telling a story

Mark Twain’s essay on the art of telling a storyMark Twain’s authorship is timeless as the words weigh heavy and find new nourishment through decades and centuries. For example, the short story collection Gränsfarare (in Swedish) and with the translated title Bordertraveller stories that will be published in August 2020, which is the starting point for this blog, begins with words from his inspiring pen. Below Mark Twain’s essay “How to tell a story” is published in a complete version.



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 for 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.

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 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.


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Samples from the short story Breaths

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An involuntary return is the prelude to “Breaths” which is included in the short story collection “Gränsfarare” by LarsGöran Boström. When Emmy, 26 years old, with a fast-paced career, returns to her hometown, it leads to entanglements on several levels. The clash of cultures is obvious, but beneath the surface, there is a deeper conflict. A contradiction that will bring her valkyrie to life. Here are the first impressions Emmy gets when she arrives.

Samples from the short story Breaths

Excerpt from the short story Breaths

“The familiar contours are getting closer and closer as the train slows in on its way towards the station. A shiver shudders through her slender body. Sickening and hatred, a feeling she has been liberated from for years, now it’s back.
She gropes strained after the railing on her way out of the train. Hands shake like aspen leaves impossible to still completely. Returning home feels like a defeat when, seconds later, she stands with both feet on the platform: Must free herself from the crowd at least. Must, to regain balance. She takes a hard hold of the bags that seem loaded with lead. The train starts squeaking. Now there’s no way back.

Once out at the bus stop, Emmy takes a strained breath to get the feeling to pass. The gray then still gets a little shade. But perhaps it is only the neon sign over the entrance to the tavern opposite that shimmers. She takes a new breath and puts her feet back in motion. The wheels from the large suitcase are strained when forced to cross over the cobblestone. The left shoulder is weighed down by her other overcrowded bag. But it feels stupid to call for a taxi because the road is still short.

She has rented a furnished floor in the middle of the city center. The pictures online seemed trusting. An nineteenth-century building that has retained the interior in a classic style and added state-of-the-art technology. She knows the neighborhood as well as the contents of her own purse. However, the house where the floor is located, she has never set foot. Just passed by with the insight; what a wonderful architecture. From then until now, lots of water has passed under the city’s bridges.

Dusk, which has lain like an upside-down rug over the city, slowly dissolves and passes into the night. Emmy hurries the ladder with a scurrying attacking fear in the back of his head. Soon she will soon be safe and sound in front of the magnificent oak gate. 3424 and the lock clicks. The gate creaks easily when she pulls it up. A sigh of lightening falls over her lips as it strikes and the light in the stairwell lights up. The day has passed as she had planned. Now she only has the rest of her days to defeat.
She drags the heavy suitcase up the stairs to the first floor. The elevator was, of course, out of order. No excitement, no wonder if the pictures online were truthful, as she stands outside what will become her crypt. After the emotion of getting off the train, she knows that the only reason she is here is the managerial post offered; a milestone in her career. Twenty-six years old and to top it all off woman, it will tart the preconceived sentence. Emmy knows what it’s like.

In a city where everyone knows almost everyone. It’s an excellent breeding ground for a grayed-out male world. VIP here is equal to male equals bald as paving the way for his son whose trip to the top gets short and so it always has been, sigh.

Emmy smiles reviled at the tour of her thoughts as she swings open the door to the floor. The impersonality strikes at her in the light of a frightening chandelier. It certainly wasn’t on any web screen. The shoulder bag thuds against the matt lacquered oak planks in the domestic cage. She still disturbs the chandelier, which spreads a faint orange glow as she makes her way into the living room. There, too, several changes must be made. Things that need to be cleaned up. Emmy crashes seconds later on the bed. Exhaustion causes sleep to quickly lull in.

The short story book “Bordertraveller stories” will be published within the coming months where this story is included.