The Craft: Poe’s Unity of Effect

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains plot details from Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”]

My commitment to shorter pieces is pulling me in new directions, whether I like it or not. You see, I love to write long. If you can say it in 1,000 words why not say it in 10,000? My short stories become novellas. My novellas tend to become novels. I love to write, to create and my first drafts tend to grow and grow and grow. bruckmann-poe-portrait

It’s something I have to change, if I want to honor my commitment to write more short stories. It’s a totally different medium than the novel, and expertise in one doesn’t automatically translate to the other. I’m learning piecemeal how to write better shorts. I was happy this week to ax 600 words from my latest “short” story. But it’s also got me to thinking about what tools I bring to a short piece that I wouldn’t bring to a novel.

So, I thought about it. And thought about it some more. I don’t read many short pieces, but I have my favorites in shorts: Edgar Allen Poe for horror and mystery and Chekhov for literary fiction. I also recently read The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Thinking about those three guys made me realize they all had principles that could help in writing shorter pieces.

Today, I’m going to take on the first one: old Edgar Allan and his “unity of effect.” I’ll come to the other two later.

Poe’s Unity of Effect
I had a great talk with my writing friend, Daniel (of the birdhouse post) over the weekend. He’s serving as what I call an “Alpha” reader, someone who reads my first drafts. As a fellow writer, he can get the raw nature of what’s on a page in the first page and critique it.

Long story short, he read my comedy-horror novella, “AFTA” [I will reveal the full title once I have a final draft.] And the very first thing he said was that I need to think about what I want the piece to be: comedy or horror. He said that it came across as a horror story at the start and end, but that it had comedy (he used the word “slapstick”) elements in the middle.

In other words, the piece lacks a consistent tone. It’s part of what Poe called “the unity of effect.” The Poe Museum’s excellent website puts it best:

Poe’s primary concern was “unity of effect,” which means that every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact.

The website uses the tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” to illustrate this. The tone, for one, is the same from start to finish. For example, here’s the opening section:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.

And a random section from the middle:

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults.

And near the end:

I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.

There you have it: a consistent tone, throughout. And this all came about because Poe thought about the effect he wanted to create, BEFORE he started to write. Here’s the Poe Museum again:

In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe explained that he was attempting to create a melancholy mood with his poem “The Raven.”  He believed the long “o” sound in the word “nevermore” had a very sad sound, so he repeated that sound at the end of each stanza.  Poe also noted that the saddest subject in the world was the death of a beautiful young woman, so he chose that as the subject of his poem.

You get the idea. My biggest problem is that I started writing this piece before I thought about the unity of effect, what I wanted people to feel and how I wanted them to react.

So, what to do?

Well, I thought about it for quite awhile. But not too much. It’s best not to do too much navel-gazing in this business. I decided that I would drive the piece toward being more straight-up horror and suspense. That doesn’t mean that all the humorous elements are being taken out. It just means that my approach to the more-humorous middle section will be to drive the tone toward the suspenseful, with humor woven in. My intent is to have a horror piece with comedy episodes, or breathers, spaced throughout.

Will it work? I’m not sure. But that’s where I’m headed. I hope to have draft two done soon and will start circulating that version to my small team of beta (2nd draft) readers. I’ll gather some feedback and strike out on 3rd draft from there.


Others Works In Progress
In addition to my work on Draft 2 of “AFTA,” my horror novella, I’m shopping around a horror story called “The Ghul of Yazd.” No bites yet from magazines, but it has collected 4 rejections! Yeah!!! You can follow the progress here, where I’ve created a submission tracker for the story.

Other than that, I have about a thousand ideas for short speculative pieces. I will keep you posted on any writing and submission progress here on the blog. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

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