This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Usher’s house keeps falling down, falling down, falling down!

Today’s adventure in wrecking Poe-etic houses is about content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of the sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order that they are?

Here’s the opening paragraph from “The Fall of the House of Usher” again:

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Now, if you’re a beginning writer, one of the pieces of advice you receive is to not make every sentence the same length.  Yay!  Good advice.

But why?

The explanation you get is that it sounds weird and kind of boring/monotonous if your sentences are all the same length.  Fair enough; they do.

But that’s not the only reason.  Now that you’re an intermediate writer, it’s time to dig a little deeper, because going, “You should always have sentences of different lengths” doesn’t tell anyone what lengths of sentences to have, or why.  Should you have a range of long (20+ words) to super-long sentences (sky’s the limit), or a range of super-short (under five words, for example) to medium-length (fifteenish word) sentences?

And why?

Different sentence length do different things for a sentence, so it’s not like you can go, “I use longer sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security.”  Hemingway used short sentences to lull the reader into a false sense of security; Agatha Christie used a variety of lengths to do the same.  This false sense of security, it’s everywhere!

So how do you decide?

Let’s look at the first sentence again:

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

The bare minimum content of this sentence is:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.

Next sentence:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

Bare minimum content:

It was depressing.

Third sentence:

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

Bare minimum:

Not even poetically depressing.

Fourth sentence:

I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil.

Bare minimum:

Just depressing.

Fifth sentence:

There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

Bare minimum:

Bleah.

Sixth sentence:

What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

Bare minimum:

Why did I even feel that way?

Seventh sentence:

It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

Bare minimum:

No idea, but I couldn’t shake it.

Eighth sentence:

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Bare minimum:

Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel.

Ninth sentence:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Bare minimum:

But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

To put the bare minimum interpretation together, here is the basic content of the first paragraph:

One day, I went to the House of Usher.  It was depressing.  Not even poetically depressing.  Just depressing.  Bleah.  Why did I even feel that way? No idea, but I couldn’t shake it. Sometimes we just can’t know why we feel what we feel. But maybe if the house had been a little different it wouldn’t be so depressing, I thought, so I looked down in a pool of water at the house’s reflection and it was even worse.

If you haven’t taken a moment to reread (or type in!) “The Fall of the House of Usher” lately, please do.

Throughout the story, the narrator sees–but doesn’t seem to understand–that the Usher family, and his friend in particular, have been engaging in self-destructive, irrational behavior, which probably includes incest.  The whole story, or at least one aspect of it, might be said to be an exercize in providing clues to the reader without ever resolving the mystery per se.  Why did the House of Usher fall?  What ruined it?  It’s a mystery, says the narrator.  Uh-huh.

But then again, I’ve been working a lot on how to add clues to a mystery; thequestion, “How can I hide something in plain sight?,” has been much on my mind.  So that is the aspect I’m going to address here, because it’s what’s obsessing me, not because it’s the One True Answer.

What you find, if you choose to do an independent analysis, will likely be different.

When I look at the content of the paragraph, I see a clue that’s hiding in plain sight.  The unnamed narrator sees what he sees, but, because he can’t explain it logically or doesn’t like what it implies about his feelings, tries to explain it away.  “Shut up, intuition!” says the narrator.

As I continued studying the story, I then kept an eye out for that kind of pattern and saw it everywhere.  Usher gives a hint and the narrator explains it away.  Over and over again.

I did not pick up on this the first time I read this story, or the fifth.  I typed it in, was therefore forced to slow down, and, when I started looking for patterns, had dragged up what I had understood subconsciously the first time to a conscious level so I could actually see it.

The way the sentences are written are readable, but not simple.  At some level, I suspect Poe wanted the reader to be able to read his story, but be at least a little distracted.

His sentence-by-sentence description focuses on the house.  The visuals of what he describes are the house.  But that really isn’t what the content is about–the content is about the narrator’s feelings.

Why doesn’t Poe focus on the narrator’s feelings?  Why does he uses his style to distract from his content?

From my perspective (which isn’t objective, but is in answer to the question of “how to hide things in plain sight” that I brought with me to this study), this story is about distracting oneself from unpleasant truths.

The content of the first paragraph is about distracting oneself from an unpleasant truth; the style distracts the reader from the unpleasant truth that sometimes we distract ourselves from unpleasant truths.

The lengths of the sentences are used as a tool to help accomplish the content of the story.  The two shortest, clearest sentences say, “Why did I feel this way?” and “Dunno.”  That which is clearest is also the most misleading.

So, to sum up what I learned about sentence lengths in this paragraph:

  • Poe may be using super-long sentences to screw with his readers.
  • Watch out if a sentence looks relatively straightforward.

Do you need to write this way?

No!

But you may want to steal the technique once in a while.  Studying like this is not about learning “the right way” to write, or even to analyze.  It’s about learning different techniques that you can then steal, period, end of story.  If your subconscious is like, “Ugh, I don’t even care,” then you won’t end up with the same analysis.  Your subconscious–your muse, if you will–will take you elsewhere.

The important part of studying any work at this level is to follow your muse, not mine.  Some authors will align their content and their sentence style so that their sentences make their content obvious.  Other authors, like Poe, will set up unreliable narrators (as in this story–who can trust a guy who lies to himself?).

What I want you to take away here is that asking, “Why are the sentences in this work the way they are?” is a question that can lead to all sorts of unexpected techniques which you can then steal.  Don’t limit yourself to saying, “Because they’re easy to read” or “Because you should vary the lengths of your sentences.”  That is often not the whole story.

And, as a reminder, don’t even think about this stuff while you’re writing.  It’s for analysis only.  Your muse will steal what it wants and use it when it wants.  Mostly where you’ll actually be conscious of this is when you’re editing and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t screw with that long sentence…I need it to lie to the reader” or whatever.

The more you know, the less you’ll screw up your work during edits.

Next time:  Let’s look at some paragraphs.  What are Poe’s paragraphs like in Usher?  How long are they? Do they vary?  I’m going to say they’re super-long off the cuff, because when I was typing them in, I kept going, “UGH JUST KILL ME I WANT TO STOP FOR THE DAY BUT I SWORE I WOULD FINISH TYPING IN THIS PARAGRAPH AND THAT WAS LIKE THREE KINDLE PAGES AGO.”

But let’s look at them anyway.  Who knows what we’ll find?

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