Learning to Write XXVI
Every would-be writer in English has read the following passage from Edgar Allan Poe. Or they have read one of the many reinterpretations of it since it was first penned in the 1840s.
A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents – he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not be the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
And there is some good advice in there, no doubt about it. But most people who have been involved in encouraging people to write good short stories would agree with me that the interpretation of what Poe actually meant here has hindered as many beginners at writing as it has helped.
The problem arises from Poe’s choice of the phrase ‘single effect’. This is usually taken to mean that Poe wishes writers’ to stimulate one, and only one, emotion in the reader throughout the length of the story. And this interpretation is underlined by a reading of many of Poe’s own stories. He wishes to evoke horror, so he begins with horror, proceeds to more horror and then finishes with the most horror the story can carry.
This is not a criticism of Poe as a literary artist. I have enjoyed his work immensely and return to it from time to time. His work is studded with craft and sophistication and modern writers owe him a great debt.
But as soon as we look at short stories from other writers we begin to see that the interpretation of horror, more horror, most horror as a formula is far too limited. A short story can just as easily produce its effect by contrast, by the juxtaposition of opposite emotions, as by an emphasis on only one.
What Poe meant to draw attention to in the above passage is that there is one ‘single effect’ which should belong to every well-conceived short story. And that is the effect on the reader when he or she has read the last word of the story. When the story is finished. The recollection of a successful short story is coloured by a single emotion.
Every story, however its effect is brought about – by cumulative effort or by some kind of reversal – establishes early in its composition a harmony, a kind of melody, by its use of minor incident and form and diction and eloquence. And whatever is brought into the story which offends against this ‘single effect’ is destructive.