Encounters: Mark Twain and the Art of the Pause

By Kevin Rabalais

Of all the astounding moments in Flaubert, Proust believed that the greatest unfolds in a moment of white space—a pause between chapters near the end of Sentimental Education. An intense scene of protest during the 1848 French Revolution ends when Frédéric Moreau, the novel’s main character, witnesses his friend Sénécal kill the shop worker Dussardier.

Flaubert then begins a new chapter. The Roman numeral that falls between the above and what follows resounds like the shutting of a prison cell.

“He travelled,” Flaubert writes.

Those two words, wrenching after the intense episode that precedes them, establish a new phase of Frédéric’s education. They also remind us of what Isaac Babel had in mind when he wrote: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”

Mark Twain, whose collection The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and memoir Innocents Abroad appeared in 1869 (the same year that Flaubert published Sentimental Education), examines the timing and delivery of a tale—and the art of the pause—in his delightful essay “How to Tell a Story.” See the title. Note the byline. Just try to ignore this one.

In this essay, Twain discusses several categories of storytelling.

“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.”

Only an artist can tell the humorous story, Twain believed, claiming that title for himself.

“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.”

Twain focuses on the art of the oral tale, but anyone who has read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—or anyone who reads as a means to communicate with other cultures and eras, for that matter—hears the storyteller’s voice as it rises from the page. Those black words on the white page become, to paraphrase Clarice Lispector, more than black words on a white page. Such readers also distinguish the story’s tone, and Twain suggests that the proper way to tell the humorous tale is “gravely”:

…the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is something 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 he 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.

After the buildup, we witness the polished timing of that final sentence. It’s the kind of delivery that made Twain an internationally famous lecturer.

Twain went nearly everywhere: Europe and the Holy Land (The Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad), Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia (Following the Equator). Most of the time, he was trying to pay back his creditors. On one of these travels, however, he met his future wife, Olivia Langdon.

While “How to Tell a Story” can help anyone hone the delivery of a tale, Twain—winking, always—cites trying to impress “a girl” as one of the things that pushes the storyteller. Once again, it’s all about getting the timing right:

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 time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.

Twain tells two stories in this essay. He also offers advice on how to avoid becoming, as you tell them, “a pathetic thing to see.” He ends his essay with more general notes, returning again to the pause and that member in the audience you want to impress:

(You must wait 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 undertook.)

It’s a reminder that everything in a story matters, even—sometimes especially—the silences. The charge that envelops white space and properly placed periods can affect us as much us as the words that surround them.


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