Supposing Poe was giving advice…

We all want to write better and to be more successful; we all want to entertain and engage readers; we all want to please ourselves and be proud of what we have written. I’m sure even writers who have found acclaim and a public think the same, that they want to improve, to write better. However, maybe we can look to these successful and admired writers and see if they have any insight how we can work to best present our thoughts and ideas.

Here is a very quirky list from Edgar Allen Poe; he is known and loved for such poems as ‘The Raven’ and ‘The Haunted Palace’ from which many of us can quote at least  a few lines.  Even today, over two hundred years after he was born in 1809, his tales  are  used as inspiration for films, plays, TV series and other stories – ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ and ‘The Premature Burial’. He is claimed to have ‘invented’ the modern detective story!

However this quirky list is actually a spoof, but it contains a lot of sense as it purports to share some of Poe’s secrets of what makes a gripping yarn:

  1. Employ an unreliable narrator, preferably one who doesn’t know he is insane and has no recollection of such events as digging into a grave to rip out the teeth of his recently departed lover.
  2. Include a beautiful woman with raven locks and porcelain skin, preferably quite young, and let her die tragically of some unknown ailment.
  3. Use grandiloquent words, such as heretofore, forthwith, and nevermore. A little Latin will also enhance the text.
  4. Do not shy away from such grotesqueries as inebriation, imprisonment, insanity, and men costumed as orangutans being burned to death.
  5. When in doubt, bury someone alive.

As I mentioned, this is not anything Poe himself wrote – but amusing as it is, there is truth in the essence of what has been written:

  1. your narrator (if you have one ) is usually an ordinary person with ordinary failings and misconceptions; an ordinary person might misunderstand things, forget things, not notice things (even about themselves) be deluded or mistaken about people and events, have forgotten key elements of have muddled them up. Make your narrator believable and these ‘errors’ can add tension and mystery!
  2. a character who is unusually attractive, unobtainable, mysterious and may deceive other characters into some sort of relationship (not necessarily romantic and the deception may be unintentional on their part) can engage the reader ‘no, don’t trust them!’, ‘no, too good to be true!‘ – and can sometimes mislead the reader – which can lead to a satisfactory or surprise ending.
  3. be very careful about using ‘grandiloquent words,‘ and ‘a little Latin’  – it can be really irritating and very pretentious – unless it is an irritating and pretentious character using them; even then don’t over-use it otherwise more than just the character will be a source of irritation!
  4. be careful with grotesqueries – if judiciously described and written they can be really shocking and effective – however, it’s easy for them to become ludicrous, unbelievable and a real turn-off.
  5. Hmmm… burying alive… maybe not, but the idea of someone being trapped in an inescapable and awful situation (maybe not a terminal one) can really add tension.

Here is an except from Lois Elsden’s novel, Magick, where a character becomes buried alive…

There was a lumpy bit in front of me and I wondered if I’d get a view of the house if I climbed it. I scrambled up over big rocks and what looked like lumps of masonry. It was covered in ferns but in the top was a sort of depression.

I stepped into it and suddenly I was plunged into darkness and stuff was falling with me and I landed heavily, the breath knocked out of me. I lay for a moment absolutely winded, dirt, and stones showering down on me as I tried to work out what had happened. There was a circle of brightness above… the sky, and I stared up at it my senses reeling. I blinked or maybe something covered the hole above me, or maybe I lost consciousness for a few seconds…

I was lying flat on my back on a pile of rubble, in a state of paralysing shock, pain beginning to arrive. I’d bumped my head, and my elbow was beginning to really hurt, tingling and shooting sensations down my arm… and maybe I’d broken my ankle. What an idiot!

I’d fallen into some sort of cave. I began to be able to breathe and after a moment I was able to rollover and sit up. Dim light filtered down from the hole above me, and dust and motes danced in the faint rays and there were little trickles of earth and patters of stones. I felt myself all over, only bruised, I think, and although my ankle and elbow hurt, both still worked.

I don’t often swear but I said a few choice words now because I’d got myself into a ridiculous situation, I just hoped there was some way out…

I groped around for my phone but there was no sign of it; I’d had it in my hand as I was wandering about, it could be anywhere, in the dark recesses of this cave, or anywhere among the jumble of stones and tangle of weeds and briars above… Idiot!

Who knew I was here? No-one. Had I told Kylie where I was going? I couldn’t now remember; I’d burbled on about the house where Sylvia lived as a child, but I’m not sure I said exactly where it was. I’d parked the car down the road near the old gates, and who would think to look for me in the woodland of the estate? What an idiot! How stupid!

My chest began to tighten as I realised the true gravity of my situation. I groped in my pocket for my inhaler, but stupidly I no longer take it everywhere with me.

 I shouted ‘Help’ and my voice echoed round the chamber but did it carry outside? And if it did who was there to hear it? No-one… the place was deserted…

Be calm Thomas, be calm… The silence was profound as if it was pressing round me. At least it was dry in here, at least there didn’t seem to be any nasty creatures… I buttoned down the thought of rats.

Be practical… see if there’s a way out. My eyes were getting used to the dim light; I couldn’t reach the roof above me but I could make out the walls. When I staggered over, tripping and stumbling on the huge lumps of rock and stone which had come down with me,  I realised that the walls weren’t rock, but brick… this was like a cellar, with curved walls going up beyond my reach to the ceiling.

A cellar would have a door, tentatively and trying to keep my terrible fear under control I felt my way along the wall until I got to the far end. This wall, maybe the back wall, was not as long, maybe only eight foot wide and then I was inching back towards the other end where surely I’d find the door. I was in quite a small place, a built place not a natural cave.

There’d been nothing on the floor round the edges of the room, but suddenly I tripped over something which rolled and clattered beneath my foot and I almost fell again. It made my heart jump but it was only some odd bits of wood or sticks as far as I could make out and old sacking or something. I found my way to the end… and there was a wooden door… Thank God!

There was no knob, no handle, nothing; I felt round its edges and worked my way over the rough wood. I put my shoulder against it but it didn’t budge even though I flung myself against it again and again.

It was no good… I couldn’t get out… I was trapped, I was really trapped, and no-one knew I was here, no-one would ever find me…

I was assailed by memories of my childhood, being locked in dark rooms, being trapped alone in the night, crying and screaming and no-one coming…

I shouted again, and again, screamed until I was hoarse and tears poured down my face. I was so frightened, alone and frightened… I’d never see my beloved Kylie again, I’d never hold Kenneil in my arms, or hear my brothers’ voices…

I dashed the tears from my face… I’m a Radwinter, I’m strong, I can deal with this, I’ll find my way out – I will! I have to! I can’t die here alone…

Be brave! Be the man Kylie thinks you are! If the worst comes to the worst… don’t think about yourself, but think that Kylie will be alright, Kenneil will be alright, my brothers will take care of them…

I sat down, trying to think of what to do then I limped round my prison again, feeling the walls. Maybe there’ another entrance, maybe there’s a gap I can squeeze through, fat man through a tiny key hole…

I gathered the stones and rocks which had fallen with me and tried to build them into a heap to stand on. I’m the shortest in the family, and although I could reach the edge of the hole I’d fallen through, there was nothing to hold, nothing to help pull me up even if I were strong enough.

I sat down again, my breathing ragged, my chest heaving. How stupid if I should die from an asthma attack within a few minutes of me being trapped… Panic begins to surge, irrational in a way… but totally rational too. I’m in the middle of a deserted estate, fallen into an underground … into an ice-house… I’ve fallen into the ice-house…

There’s no way out; I can’t climb out, I can’t dig my way out or fight my way out… I’m trapped… I’ll never escape… I have nothing to eat, and worse, nothing to drink…  I’ll die here…

I jump up and blunder around again, feeling the walls from the floor to as high as I can reach, to the curved, vaulted ceiling, sobbing, and calling to Kylie…

Stop! Stop! Stop! I’m frightening myself… and it’s as if I’m fighting with myself, images from childhood, of being locked in, of being shut in the dark, of being helpless and afraid, of feeling foolish and stupid… of being alone, alone in a profound and almost mental way… I shall never see Kylie again…

© Lois Elsden 2017

If you want to find out how Thomas ended up in this situation, and how he escaped, here is a link to ‘Magick’ by Lois Elsden, available now as an ebook, to be published as a paperback in spring 2018:

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