Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Craft: Learning from Edgar Allan Poe and Mindy Phillips Lawrence

A guest post today from...

By Mindy Phillips Lawrence

I share Edgar Allan Poe's birth date except for the year. When I began to write in junior high school, Poe’s work fascinated me. He jerked my senses around and sunk deeply into my consciousness, a place where he has stayed. His short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” is only 2376 words but it astounds you with its building action and macabre ending. If you haven’t read it, shame on you! It’s a masterful bit of writing that is a short story course in and of itself. If you use the points on Dennis G. Jerz’s Web site tips on short story writing to judge it (, Poe’s “Amontillado” follows every point.

·        Write a catchy first paragraph

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

Bingo! In the first sentence, we learn that the main character is plotting revenge against his friend Fortunato, which ironically means “good fortune,” for a perceived insult. Poe uses the first paragraph to introduce the murderer, whose name we do not learn until the latter part of the story, and his assumption that he has suffered a wrong worthy or murder.

·        Develop your characters

Short stories should have a limited number of characters. In this case, Poe uses two, Fortunato and Montresor, one who has offended the other. He develops one character through the use of the other, allowing us to also know the storyteller through his statements. 

·        Choose a point of view

Poe uses first person, mostly narrative, which allows Montresor to tell his side of the story only. This form of first person is called imperfect first person by some as the mental clarity of the teller is cloudy. He may or may not be telling the truth. His telling of the story unfolds the method of revenge and also gradually reveals the strands of Montresor’s insanity.

·        Write meaningful dialogue

Poe achieves the powerful development of this story with little use of dialogue. Every word he does use in the conversations has a special meaning, usually ironic as in...

But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said--

"Ha! ha! ha! --he! he! he! --a very good joke, indeed --an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo --he! he! he! --over our wine --he! he! he!"

"The Amontillado!" I said.

"He! he! he! --he! he! he! --yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone."

"Yes," I said, "let us be gone."

"For the love of God, Montresor!"

"Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"

·        Use setting and context

The setting is first in the street and then in the catacombs during Carnival, mostly likely Mardi Gras. The setting mingles the raucous celebration with the impending doom of Fortunato.

·        Set up the plot

The plot in the story is simple: Montresor has a grievance against Fortunato. He chooses murder to solve the grievance and devises a way to commit the perfect revenge. With this simple outline of events, Poe carries us, step-by-step, toward Fortunato’s demise. 

·        Create conflict and tension

Conflict and tension build with Montresor’s description of the relationship between him and Fortunato, the ironic conversation they carry on in which Fortunato means one thing by a statement while Montresor means something completely different. By having Fortunato drunk, Poe obscures any sensibility that his character has.

Every line in the story points to the climax. When we learn of the trowel that Montresor has brought into the catacombs, we know his method of revenge. It’s the deliberate telling of each step of the process that both sickens and thrills readers.

·        Deliver a resolution

The resolution in this story is two-fold: Montresor succeeds in bricking Fortunato’s body in the catacomb and for a half-century no one had found the body. A perfect crime! Or maybe not!

If you follow the development of this story and use is as a guide to write your own, you will find the process to be a great lesson in short story writing. Let me know how you come out.


Short Story Writing

The Cast of Amontillado


Study Guide: the Cask of Amontillado

~Mindy Phillips Lawrence–who shares a birthday with Dolly Parton, Dogen, Janis Joplin, Paula Deen and Edgar Allan Poe–is a writer, editor, and artist living in Springfield, Missouri. She is working on both the book and Kindle versions of the Itty Bitty column she writes for the Sharing with Writers newsletter each issue.  It is scheduled for publication in late 2012.

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Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second ediction of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers . The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor . If your followers at Twitter would benefit from this blog post, please use the little Green widget to let them know about this blog:

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