Writing Tips from Edgar Allan Poe

IPoen addition to being an amazing writer, Poe was apparently a rather opinionated one.  In his essay, The Philosophy of Composition, Poe reveals five secrets for writing vivid poems and short stories.

Keep it short.  The very best literary works can be read, according to Poe, in only one sitting.  I can’t say that I entirely agree with this but you should definitely keep it focused.  Writing that rambles and wonders has lost many a reader.

Focus on the desired effect.  Poe calls it the choice of an impression.   In some of his work, he wanted the reader to focus on beauty.  In other pieces, to be drawn to tears.  What is the emotion that you want your reader to feel?  For you, the author, to work toward this end, you need to make a decision.  Do you want your reader to laugh?  To take up environmental activism?  You need to decide before you can achieve it.

Select your tone.  What is the mood of this particular piece of writing?  Poe achieved this mood by using a word or image as a repeated refrain.  In The Raven, it is the word Nevermore.  In The Tell Tale Heart,  it is the beating of the heart.  What can you use to create the desired effect in your story?

Choose your characters.  Only after deciding on the many abstract features of  a piece, did Poe work on his characters.  I’m not sure that I would recommend this approach.  Face it, how many of his characters do you really remember?  Bingo — the RAVEN.  For me, that’s pretty much it although I remember the mood of his work all too well.

Select the setting.  If you think Poe is late in getting around to his characters, he is even later with the setting, but the way he works it makes sense.  Only once he knows the tone and effect can he set it in the right place.

I’m not sure how effective doing each of these things in this order would be, but I tempted to give it a shot.  Anyone else up to the challenge?


8 thoughts on “Writing Tips from Edgar Allan Poe

    1. How are you having trouble? Most often, my problem is that I just don’t know the character well enough. I need to know their backstory. I need to know what is more important to them than anything else. Once I have that, the rest starts to come together. Does that help at all? If not, let me know what you’re problem is and we’ll see what we can figure out together.

      1. The way I wrote the character Claire, she feels like her mother never loved her and that’s the basis of her insecurities. Her mother is dead as the story opens. I left out a scene that would have attempted to explain to Claire that her mother had a love/hate relationship with her because in some small way Claire was part of the reason her parents married, which was disastrous for Kathryn. But Claire’s character comes across as kind of whiny with no self-confidence. Later in the book she makes some choices that change her character, but I just can’t seem to identify with her enough to get in her head. After I got the manuscript back from a couple readers I started to change her character a little. I gave her polio as a child. The story is circa 1932 when treatments for polio were just making their way to the US. The polio has left her with a slight limp. It was an attempt to help readers gravitate toward her. It helped somewhat, but I still think she comes across as just insipid. Both readers were well satisfied with other major and minor characters, but their reaction to Claire as a whole was the same as mine. I can’t quite figure out, however, where I’m missing it with her. Any suggestions of things to look for?

  1. Btw, it’s a Gothic mystery. Claire’s father is one of the main characters, but I’m thinking of having him die right at the first. Perhaps she just needs to be an orphan since that’s the kind of girl that seems to populate those stories. But that’s also why I didn’t want her to be. If that makes any sense.

    1. I understand why you avoided making your character an orphan. You wanted to keep her from being a part of the herd.

      Recently I read a post on back story sabotage (http://janefriedman.com/2015/02/02/tell-back-story-sabotaging-novel/). It sounds like you might have one of the problems that she describes. Your readers to to empathesize with your character. YOU need to empathize with her as well. But everything that explains why she is the way she is happens off screen. Instead of killing Dad off, you might want to use him to bring the backstory forward. Help him show the rocky relationships that formed her early in life. If you experience someone treating her coldly, she will seem less self-indulgent and more understandable.

      Does that make sense?

      1. I’ll read that article. Actually for a lot of the story her relationship with her father is really strained, but not for the reason people assume at first. I don’t want it to be JUST another Gothic mystery written to a formula, if you know what I mean. Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out in the morning.

      2. If the problem isn’t with the backstory, you may need to work to build empathy. And not just with something like polio. Make it something that readers today will immediately “get.” Being judged. Problems getting along with a parent. You have to give the reader something to enable them to cross from their own world into hers. Think of it as a bridge. What about her can span that gap and make the reader want to care?

      3. Have been gone all day so haven’t had a chance to check out that link. I have Claire feeling like her mother doesn’t love her and their relationship seems very formal, but it seemed like so much backstory to work in. I took a lot of it out. Perhaps I ought to rethink that. Thanks for the thoughts.

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