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.
I really like looking at Edgar Allan Poe stories, not just because of the dark, Gothic subject matter, but also because he is such a nerd when it comes to structure. I’ve been typing in a number of his stories lately. I started with “The Cask of Amontillado” a while ago, but I think I’ve talked enough about that story by now. Maybe I’ll type my analysis all up in one place when I turn this into a book, eh? But the latest spat of type-ins started in November with “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I’m working on a Gothic novel about a house and thought typing in Poe would help me stay in a Gothic frame of mind: long, twisty sentences, thick paragraphs, big vocabularies, foreboding statements galore!
But of course I found more than that. I think the reason that Poe is so interesting on a structural level is that he was also, perhaps even primarily, a master poet who worked in formal verse, uniting form and structure as he went. (I suspect that one day he noticed the fact that a repeated word first becomes distorted, then loses meaning, in a process known as “semantic satiation” and decided to write horror poems in which both meaning and sanity decline simultaneously. Check out “The Bells” for a good example.)
In his stories–as I’m rediscovering, in even more depth–Poe unites form and content so smoothly that sometimes it’s difficult to notice when it’s happening. It is that smooth. But once you see it, it’s like having a hidden image pop out, and you can’t un-see it. Poe wrote some serious, dark-minded stuff…but often in his darker stories is a hidden joke buried in the structure.
Note, I’m going to take the stories in kind of the same order that I studied them, which doesn’t follow publication order, but rather my whim. I could put them in order, but then I’d have to explain Poe-analysis things in story A when really I discovered them in story B.
When I start studying a story, I start by typing it in, basically until I get bored. With short stories, I usually type the whole thing in–with novels, not so much.
Things I start looking for, more or less in order:
- The feel of the sentences: length, content, vocab, structure (short and direct, or long and twisted? lots of punctuation or not much? what kind of punctuation?).
- The feel of the paragraphs: length, content, structure.
- The shift between the opening and the middle of the scene (going from setup to action).
- The try/fails of the middle, how long they are, how many of them.
- How the scene wraps up, how long it is.
At that point, I stop and ask myself what I liked or didn’t like about the scene, and what, if anything, else I noticed. I also make a note of the POV character(s), any head-hopping, and try to sum up what happened in the scene, in general. Why were all the elements of the scene in that scene and not another one? That’s the general question I’m trying to answer.
Then I’ll move along to the next scene, either until I’m done or until I feel like I’ve picked up the author’s techniques in that part of the book. I’ll keep re-reading (I never start studying until after I’ve read the story, and re-read it if it hasn’t been lately) until I get to something where I go, “WHAT WAS THAT? HOW EVEN.” Which is pretty often, honestly; if it sounds like I know everything about how stories get written sometimes, it’s mostly just because I’m running off at the mouth. There is such a huge amount to learn, I don’t know if anyone can grasp it all. It’s pretty normal to get intimidated once you start opening up the hood on these stories and tracing where the wires and gears all go.
A note about novels: I’ll sometimes set up an excel spreadsheet so I can study how often POVs show up (for example, in Game of Thrones), or what types of endings each scene has throughout the book. It’s sometimes easier for me to see patterns when I can color-code them. So if I’m working on a novel, I’ll make notes as I go, like, “What’s going on with all the POVs here?” and look at it later in a spreadsheet.
When I’m done with my first pass of a story (and answered any questions I might have via spreadsheet for novels, if necessary), then I’ll step back and go, “Why did the author make the structural decisions that they made?”
I cannot recommend attempting to make that kind of analysis without doing the typing. It’s always tempting to try to pick something apart without really understanding it, but, when it comes to analysis, you can only reach as far as your pre-existing prejudices when you do that. Type it in. Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about is a freaking magic trick, and you won’t be able to see how it’s done without practicing it yourself first. No matter how clumsy it makes you feel!
As I said last time, most of the time (especially in novels), you want to go with a structure that is pretty normal for the genre and subgenre you’re writing in. Once you’ve pulled apart a few stories that fit that mold–the pop song structure of fiction–then it starts to become obvious when something is or is not following that mold.
The answer to the question, “Why did the author write to fit the mold?” is pretty simple: they wanted to meet reader expectations. They didn’t feel like reinventing the wheel! The answer to the question, “Why didn’t the author write to fit the mold?” is usually pretty interesting, though: it’s generally to solve a problem that they couldn’t solve within the mold, or to show off. Sometimes both.
Next time, we’ll get into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” what a douche Usher was, and how Poe made everyone think that it was a story about incest without the narrator ever going there.
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