How to Write Entertaining Short Stories: Tips from Edgar Allan Poe

"The Philosophy of Composition" by Edgar Allan Poe

Due to the droning voice of your high school, middle school, and college professors that read Edgar Allan Poe's works, you most likely associate the name with unnecessary allegory and the terrible memory of falling asleep to his works before having school-lunch pizza. 

Your read The Cask of Amontillado and The Raven, but you don't remember more than 'quoth the raven, nevermore.' 

Like Shakespeare, Poe is the literary genius you're supposed to respect, but you sometimes question why this is the case given that Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code don't put you to sleep.

But Poe is not just the guy whose misogynistic quote -- "The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world" -- had the feminists screaming at their male schoolmates. 

No, Poe is still a literary genius. And his treatise on writing can help any modern writer perfect his craft.

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Unity of Effect and the Vivid Experience

1. Plan your Plot BEFORE Writing

“Nothing is more clear,” writes Poe, “than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Once writing commences, the author must keep the ending “constantly in view” in order to “give a plot its indispensable air of consequence” and inevitability. 

2. Establish a Desired Effect, Make an Impression

Poe believed that a writer must know the 'choice of impression' before writing. Whether it be 'awe,' 'fear,' 'loathing,' or 'disgust.' He believed that a story had the ability to manipulate a reader's emotions in an extreme way. Also, he assumed that each reader could have the same emotion or reading experience. Though, while he was a bit boastful when he claimed The Raven was written to be 'universally appreciable' in such a way that it could 'excite the sensitive soul to tears,' the story sure has stood the test of time for a reason. 

3. Tone and Theme must be Established before Writing

"Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem, melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones." Poe believed in a unity of opposites, perhaps insinuating that if one used and ugliness as a theme, the tone should be happy to achieve the most vivid effect. Poe was a master of using his characters as concrete, actionable mouthpieces for his themes. 

4. Setting

"Place the lover in his chamber...richly furnished." In his writing plans, Poe decided on a setting last. Once he knew his characters, their thematic purpose, the tone of the story, the desired effect in the reader, and the stories end, he could finally decide what place would best compliment the mood. 

And as for the setting of the climax, "A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident." 

Poe keeps “originality always in view.” But originality, for Poe, is not “a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition.” Instead, he writes, it “demands in its attainment less of invention than negation


I've attempted to use many of these short story techniques in my book All Sleep, a book of psychological thrillers. Check out a free preview below. 







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