The Telling of Tom Sawyer

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Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is one of the most endearing pieces of classic literature. Of the many literary novels extant, this is one of the ones that we actually want to read. Why is that? And what do we have to do to make our stories as endearing as Mark Twain did?

This is not a literary analysis. For literary discussion, see the Cliffs Notes. Literary questions provoke discussion because there are multiple correct answers. Authors don’t think about these fuzzy areas that generate more questions than they answer.

What follows is a story analysis. It’s the kind of analysis that helps us become better writers, by looking at what works in the fiction that we read.

Why do we want to read it in the first place?

Mark Twain starts with problems, not solutions. These problems, these conflicts build momentum. From the first words on the first page:

“Tom!”

No answer.

“Tom!”

No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You Tom!”

No answer.

The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for “style,” not service—she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well. She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but still loud enough for the furniture to hear:

“Well, I lay if I get hold of you I’ll—”

She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.

This makes us ask questions. We want to read on to see what’s going on. What happened to Tom? Why does Aunt Polly want to find him? And why is she so angry with him?

Then the story layers these conflicts on top of one another, building complexity and even more momentum. Tom’s feelings for Becky Thatcher, the situation with Injun Joe, and other adventures overlap and even build off of each other.

And his adventures get more interesting as the story progresses. The first conflict is trivial compared to the rest of the story. It only holds our attention for a little while. But they increase in intensity as the story progresses. For example, when Tom breaks down and testifies against Injun Joe, we expect Injun Joe to be brought to justice. But instead he escapes, turning Tom’s moral predicament into a mortal one. Previously, he was afraid that if he spoke out about what he knew that Injun Joe would harm him; now, if Injun Joe gets his hands on him, he will harm him. By the end of the story, we have this story thread, the Becky Thatcher thread, and the lost-in-the-cave thread all coming together.

Three things you can do to engage your audience and make them want to read on:

  1. Always start with a problem, not with a solution.
  2. Layer problems on top of each other to build more momentum and to build complexity into the story.
  3. Escalate conflicts. When one problem is solved, substitute an even worse problem. Better yet, turn a failed solution to a lesser problem into a worse problem, as Twain did with Injun Joe escaping from the courtroom.

Why do we find the story realistic?

In the preface, we read:

Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture.

Mark Twain wrote what he knew. Therefore, his story has an aire of realism to it.

For example, early in the story, Tom is whitewashing the fence. He doesn’t want to perform this chore, until Ben Rogers comes along. Then Tom learns an immutable characteristic of human behavior, that people will pay for what you cannot give them for free. That’s as true today as in Mark Twain’s day. Some consultants gain recognition as experts by charging for advice. To free advice no one wants to listen. But put a steep price-tag on the same advice, and people fall over each other trying to get in front.

We can write what we know not just to add realism to our stories but also to generate story ideas.

  1. Take interesting characteristics from people that you know, and build them into interesting characters.
  2. Think of the most embarrassing moment in your life, or the time you were most afraid, or the time you had an insurmountable challenge in front of you. These problems are great fodder for story conflicts.
  3. Don’t build stories out of the good times. Conflict keeps us on the edge of our seats, not utopia.

Why do we identify with Tom?

Tom is not a good kid. He’s mischeivious, almost an anti-hero. But from early in the story, we sympathize with him. Because while he does get into trouble, he never hurts anyone, at least not anyone who didn’t deserve it. He eats the jam, and he gets into a scuffle, and he plays hookie from school. And we know he’ll be punished for these infractions. We even know that Tom is willing to take the punishment and not complain, which he does on two different occasions for Becky Thatcher. But he does not long to be punished, and neither do we long for him to be.

Tom Sawyer DVD

The 1973 movie on DVD, starring
Johnny Whitaker as Tom,
Jodie Foster as Becky, and
Celeste Holm as Aunt Polly. Full Screen, NTSC.
(IMDb page)

We sympathize with Tom not because he’s perfect, but because he’s imperfect. He’s a realistic boy and a realistic reflection of our own childhoods. But that’s not the whole of the story. This realistic character is put into realistic conflicts. While we may think we want him to be good, we don’t want to see him beat by his Aunt Polly. We don’t want to see him lose.

This is a variation of giving a realistic character a noble goal and an obstacle preventing him from achieving that goal. Later in the story Tom does have truly noble goals, such as saving Muff Potter from the gallows and rescuing Becky from the cave. Nearer the beginning, it’s enough just to have him oppressed.

So, combine conflicts (the first point above) with realism (the second point) to make sympathetic characters.

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Comments

Tim:

I especially enjoyed this, as I’ve read Tom Sawyer 33 times. No joke – I fell in love with the book when I first read it at age 14 and I have re-read it every summer since. Twain is by far my favorite author and this – the first I ever read by him – is by far my favorite of his works. Personally, I consider it a superior work to Huckleberry Finn, although that’s certainly a minority opinion.

Good analysis.

Suldog

Hi, Jim. Thanks. Wow, 33 times? That outdoes me. My favorite novel, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, I haven’t read anywhere close to that. More times than I remember, maybe a half-dozen times, but… Wow.

Tom Sawyer I’ve read a few times, and I too like it better than Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. I especially like his humorous sketches, and I thought of recording a rendition of “Speech On The Weather” for spring this year.

And BTW, thanks for the kind words on my essay “Love Through the Eyes of an Idiot.”

Take care,
-TimK

Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

Thanks for the kind words, Sandra, Rica.

-TimK

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