Poe’s Advice for Writers

Along with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe did more than any other American to shape the modern short story. If you read other stories or novels from that era (even ones by famous and highly regarded authors), you very quickly start to notice a pervasive lack of narrative focus. That’s because for the most part people were still fumbling around with form, trying to figure out the shape of short fiction. As a consequence, stories and novels from the earlier part of the 19th century tend to wander this way and that, including lots of more or less interesting passages that ultimately seem to contribute very little to whatever might be the main point of the piece. In fact, sometimes you can’t even tell what that main point is supposed to be.

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Against this meandering compositional approach, Poe argued that fiction should always strive for “unity of effect.” He said that an author’s job was to hone their writing craft to the point where they could consistently and completely dictate the reader’s experience of the work. In order to do this, you need to pick a point and stick to it. Poe didn’t necessarily weigh in on whether authors needed to outline. In fact, outlining doesn’t seem to have been a very common practice in the era. But Poe did say that an author should imaginatively figure out the entire plot (all the way to the end of the narrative) before trying to write anything down. This clearly puts Poe into the “plotter” camp.

In a famous exchange of letters in which the two authors discussed craft, Poe and Charles Dickens agreed about the advantages offered by this strategy of figuring out the end of a story before writing the beginning. They specifically cited William Godwin’s influential novel Caleb Williams (1794) — something of an early legal thriller — as a work that benefitted from being carefully plotted. Godwin supposedly knew how he wanted his book to end and he worked backward from the denouement, inventing scenes and situations that would logically lead him (and his readers) to arrive at the desired conclusion. Poe also liked this approach because he thought it helped the author create a sense of narrative inevitability. The reader feels like everything that happened in the story makes sense and also that it couldn’t have happened any other way. The beauty of this is how it ensures you never break your reader’s suspension of disbelief. Even if your stories have supernatural happenings (as a number of Poe’s do), the world of your fiction needs to feel completely and seamlessly realistic. The mark of narrative truth, as Poe well knew, is perfect internal consistency.

For Poe, a well-written story should not only perfectly embody the author’s intention, but during “the hour of perusal” the author could control “the very soul of the reader.” Poe’s emphasis on “the hour of perusal” indicates his strong preference for short stories, which he called tales. While he read and reviewed a lot of novels during his life (and even penned one himself), Poe thought novels suffered from the fact that readers can’t typically read them in one sitting. The problem here is that all the normal distractions of everyday life prevent a reader from getting lost in the novel and staying completely under the narrative spell until it’s finished. For Poe, when the spell is broken, so is the work’s “unity of effect.” Thus, with a novel the reader can’t reliably take in the fullness of the author’s intention.

This doesn’t mean you can’t write novels.

Like I said, Poe recognized the commercial advantages of the form and tried his hand at one. But it does mean, in order to follow Poe’s writing advice, you need to make sure every element of a story or novel needs to drive toward that “unity of effect.” If something doesn’t advance the plot or serve to reveal character, then you need to edit it out. Yes, Poe’s own writing can seem ornate at times. He consciously cultivated a lush, Gothic style that would evoke the dark and mysterious settings that heightened the reader’s sense of horror. But these prose stylings work because they help Poe create his desired effect. When you look past the long, rambling sentences, and the self-consciously erudite vocabulary, you can still see how Poe stays focused on telling every story in the shortest and sharpest way possible. He believed in keeping things narratively lean.

If you want to follow Poe’s lead, then every sentence, every word, needs to be there for a reason.

Furthermore, when you get to the punchline, you’re done. Poe never lingers after his work has arrived at its narrative denouement. Get in, say what you need to say, and get out.

To be clear, Poe was adamantly opposed to setting any arbitrary or external limits on fiction. This got him into some trouble with his peers, who found many of Poe’s chosen subjects distasteful and much of his writing vulgar. But Poe fearlessly championed the idea of Art for Art’s Sake. An artist needs the absolute freedom to express whatever comes out of them, with no fear and no limits. This radical stance is clearly part of why Poe has remained such an influential artist around the world. We’re lucky these days that it’s perfectly acceptable to write about madness, torture, incest, violent death, or whatever you need to say. You can conjure up and express just about any nightmare scenario you imagine. But this is also a reminder that as artists we need to continue taking risks, continue challenging our readers. In this sense, I think dangerous and transgressive writers like Chuck Palahniuk and Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy perfectly channel Poe’s defiant spirit.

Whatever you’re writing, make sure to be as brutally honest as you can.

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