7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Stories and Poems


There may be no more a macabre­ly misog­y­nis­tic sen­tence in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture than Edgar Allan Poe’s con­tention that “the death… of a beau­ti­ful woman” is “unques­tion­ably the most poet­i­cal top­ic in the world.” (His per­haps iron­ic obser­va­tion prompt­ed Sylvia Plath to write, over a hun­dred years lat­er, “The woman is per­fect­ed / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accom­plish­ment.”) The sen­tence comes from Poe’s 1846 essay “The Phi­los­o­phy of Com­po­si­tion,” and if this work were only known for its lit­er­ary fetishiza­tion of what Elis­a­beth Bron­fen calls “an aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing corpse”—marking deep anx­i­eties about both “female sex­u­al­i­ty and decay”—then it would indeed still be of inter­est to fem­i­nists and aca­d­e­mics, though not per­haps to the aver­age read­er.

But Poe has much more to say that does not involve a romance with dead women. The essay deliv­ers on its title’s promise. It is here that we find Poe’s famous the­o­ry of what good lit­er­a­ture is and does, achiev­ing what he calls “uni­ty of effect.” This lit­er­ary “total­i­ty” results from a col­lec­tion of essen­tial ele­ments that the author deems indis­pens­able in “con­struct­ing a sto­ry,” whether in poet­ry or prose, that pro­duces a “vivid effect.”

To illus­trate what he means, Poe walks us through an analy­sis of his own work, “The Raven.” We are to take for grant­ed as read­ers that “The Raven” achieves its desired effect. Poe has no mis­giv­ings about that. But how does it do so? Against com­mon­place ideas that writ­ers “com­pose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecsta­t­ic intu­ition,” Poe has not “the least dif­fi­cul­ty in recall­ing to mind the pro­gres­sive steps of any of my compositions”—steps he con­sid­ers almost “math­e­mat­i­cal.” Nor does he con­sid­er it a “breach of deco­rum” to pull aside the cur­tain and reveal his tricks. Below, in con­densed form, we have list­ed the major points of Poe’s essay, cov­er­ing the ele­ments he con­sid­ers most nec­es­sary to “effec­tive” lit­er­ary com­po­si­tion.

  1. Know the end­ing in advance, before you begin 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.

  1. Keep it short—the “sin­gle sit­ting” rule.

Poe con­tends that “if any lit­er­ary work is too long to be read at one sit­ting, we must be con­tent to dis­pense with the immense­ly impor­tant effect deriv­able from uni­ty of impres­sion.” Force the read­er to take a break, and “the affairs of the world inter­fere” and break the spell. This “lim­it of a sin­gle sit­ting” admits of excep­tions, of course. It must—or the nov­el would be dis­qual­i­fied as lit­er­a­ture. Poe cites Robin­son Cru­soe as one exam­ple of a work of art “demand­ing of no uni­ty.” But the sin­gle sit­ting rule applies to all poems, and for this rea­son, he writes, Milton’s Par­adise Lost fails to achieve a sus­tained effect.

  1. Decide on the desired effect.

The author must decide in advance “the choice of impres­sion” he or she wish­es to leave on the read­er. Poe assumes here a tremen­dous amount about the abil­i­ty of authors to manip­u­late read­ers’ emo­tions. He even has the audac­i­ty to claim that the design of the “The Raven” ren­dered the work “uni­ver­sal­ly appre­cia­ble.” It may be so, but per­haps it does not uni­ver­sal­ly inspire an appre­ci­a­tion of Beau­ty that “excites the sen­si­tive soul to tears”—Poe’s desired effect for the poem.

  1. Choose the tone of the work.

Poe claims the high­est ground for his work, though it is debat­able whether he was entire­ly seri­ous. As “Beau­ty is the sole legit­i­mate province of the poem” in gen­er­al, and “The Raven” in par­tic­u­lar, “Melan­choly is thus the most legit­i­mate of all poet­i­cal tones.” What­ev­er tone one choos­es, how­ev­er, the tech­nique Poe employs, and rec­om­mends, like­ly applies. It is that of the “refrain”—a repeat­ed “key-note” in word, phrase, or image that sus­tains the mood. In “The Raven,” the word “Nev­er­more” per­forms this func­tion, a word Poe chose for its pho­net­ic as much as for its con­cep­tu­al qual­i­ties.

Poe claims that his choice of the Raven to deliv­er this refrain arose from a desire to rec­on­cile the unthink­ing “monot­o­ny of the exer­cise” with the rea­son­ing capa­bil­i­ties of a human char­ac­ter. He at first con­sid­ered putting the word in the beak of a par­rot, then set­tled on a Raven—“the bird of ill omen”—in keep­ing with the melan­choly tone.

  1. Deter­mine the theme and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of the work.

Here Poe makes his claim about “the death of a beau­ti­ful woman,” and adds, “the lips best suit­ed for such top­ic are those of a bereaved lover.” He choos­es these par­tic­u­lars to rep­re­sent his theme—“the most melan­choly,” Death. Con­trary to the meth­ods of many a writer, Poe moves from the abstract to the con­crete, choos­ing char­ac­ters as mouth­pieces of ideas.

  1. Estab­lish the cli­max.

In “The Raven,” Poe says, he “had now to com­bine the two ideas, of a lover lament­ing his deceased mis­tress and a Raven con­tin­u­ous­ly repeat­ing the word ‘Nev­er­more.’” In bring­ing them togeth­er, he com­posed the third-to-last stan­za first, allow­ing it to deter­mine the “rhythm, the metre, and the length and gen­er­al arrange­ment” of the remain­der of the poem. As in the plan­ning stage, Poe rec­om­mends that the writ­ing “have its beginning—at the end.”

  1. Deter­mine the set­ting.

Though this aspect of any work seems the obvi­ous place to start, Poe holds it to the end, after he has already decid­ed why he wants to place cer­tain char­ac­ters in place, say­ing cer­tain things. Only when he has clar­i­fied his pur­pose and broad­ly sketched in advance how he intends to acheive it does he decide “to place the lover in his cham­ber… rich­ly fur­nished.” Arriv­ing at these details last does not mean, how­ev­er, that they are after­thoughts, but that they are suggested—or inevitably fol­low from—the work that comes before. In the case of “The Raven,” Poe tells us that in order to car­ry out his lit­er­ary scheme, “a close cir­cum­scrip­tion of space is absolute­ly nec­es­sary to the effect of insu­lat­ed inci­dent.”

Through­out his analy­sis, Poe con­tin­ues to stress—with the high degree of rep­e­ti­tion he favors in all of his writing—that he 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.” In oth­er words, Poe rec­om­mends that the writer make full use of famil­iar con­ven­tions and forms, but vary­ing, com­bin­ing, and adapt­ing them to suit the pur­pose of the work and make them his or her own.

Though some of Poe’s dis­cus­sion of tech­nique relates specif­i­cal­ly to poet­ry, as his own prose fic­tion tes­ti­fies, these steps can equal­ly apply to the art of the short sto­ry. And though he insists that depic­tions of Beau­ty and Death—or the melan­choly beau­ty of death—mark the high­est of lit­er­ary aims, one could cer­tain­ly adapt his for­mu­la to less obses­sive­ly mor­bid themes as well.

Relat­ed Con­tents:

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” Read by Christo­pher Walken, Vin­cent Price, and Christo­pher Lee

H.P. Love­craft Gives Five Tips for Writ­ing a Hor­ror Sto­ry, or Any Piece of “Weird Fic­tion”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Nik Willmore says:

    Anoth­er mas­ter­ful read­ing on The Raven is by the actor who played the god­like char­ac­ter Q on Star Trek, John de Lan­cy:


  • Catherine Tolbert says:

    Per­haps you do not know the melan­choly of being a bereaved lover.

  • Donald L. Denis says:

    Hold up. Poe implies that the death of a woman is more mov­ing than that of a man and your char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of this state­ment is “misog­y­nis­tic?” Are you cel­e­brat­ing Oppo­site Day all year this year??

  • Fred says:

    Misog­y­nis­tic? Only some­one who com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stands Poe’s exces­sive­ly mor­bid and roman­tic out­look could use such a dumb term to describe him.

  • simon lépine says:

    … love it… beau résumé de son analyse…

  • Kathy says:

    I agree.

  • Henri says:

    Isn’t this essay sar­cas­tic towards a super-plan­ning type of writ­ing?

    I doubt any­one has writ­ten a poem of “The Raven’s” crafts­man­ship like this. Per­haps it is more of a recon­struc­tion of the ratio­nal under­cur­rents under­ly­ing the intu­itive process?

  • Pip says:

    def­i­nite­ly agree 👍

  • Robin says:

    Bereave­ment, grief, heart­break­ing sad­ness — that’s the beau­ty, not the corpse: the love so great it leaves a chasm in its absence. How any­one can mis­con­true his mean­ing, I do not know.

  • Ty says:

    Are you imply­ing that plan­ning a short sto­ry or poem in that way some­how makes the work less artis­tic or some­thing?

  • Jeff says:

    He did­n’t say beau­ty and death are the high­est lit­er­ary aims, he said they were the high­est poet­ic aims.

  • Jonathan C. says:

    Their nar­ra­tives are raw and real­is­tic to some extent of the two sto­ries. And Poe used tech­niques that let him express his imag­i­na­tion through the writ­ing of these two sto­ries, He also said that they were the high­est poet­ic goals.

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