How to Study Fiction, Part 19: The Fall of the House of Usher

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.

Today is my first post exploring some analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher”!  I’m going to focus on structural analysis, because that seems to be both the hardest type of analysis to find (at the moment I’m writing this) and involves some of the most interesting aspects about the story.  A link to the Project Gutenberg version of the story is here.

(I picked that version because a) it’s free, and b) because we’re looking mostly at structural level stuff, any typos aren’t going to be hugely relevant, so pointing back to an authoratative version that you have to pay for isn’t going to be all that important.)

BRIEFLY:  Structure, for our purposes here, isn’t going to be about plot structure.  There are a million books that will walk you through plot structure, and you should have read some of them as a beginning writer (and will likely have to continue to read them as an intermediate writer).  What we’re talking about is how the events of the story are put together and why.

A lot of people can tell you vaguely what “The Fall of the House of Usher” is about:  some dude, the narrator, goes to his friend’s house; the friend may or may not be nuts; the friend has a sister; she dies; the friend might have been having sex with her; the house falls down; the narrator escapes.

But how are those events (the plot) unfolded?  Which events are told in backstory and which in real time?  Which events are not told at all, but implied?  Are there any tricks to how the story is told that themselves reflect the content of the story?

Let’s find out!

(A note:  I’m super nervous about how this is going to pull off.)

The Fall of the House of Usher

Step one:  Reread the story!

Step two:  Type it in!  It is approximately 7,000 words long.  Don’t do this all at once.  Type in about one to two thousand words a day.  Don’t “fix” anything; just type it in the way you see it.  Note: you may want to adjust the width of the lines in the story so they’re about twenty to twenty-five words long, which is about the width of a modern book and is about as many words as a normal reader can comprehend without some sort of break.

Step three: Understand that Poe was a) writing for another time, and b) a genius.  You may not understand all the things at first glance.  I often found myself at the end of a day’s typing telling myself that I was never going to get this.

Step four:  Make some notes about what you observe about the story.  Whatever you observe about the story.  This will help clear your head so you can observe new things.

Step five:  When you’re done with that, let’s begin some structural analysis, starting with the pacing:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?
  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?
  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?
  • How long are the paragraphs?
  • How long is the story?
  • Do word lengths change?  Where?  Do they change back?
  • Does anything about the “accent” change?
  • Do sentence lengths change?  Do they change back?
  • Do sentence complexities change at all?
  • Do paragraph lengths change?
  • Is there anything that fundamentally breaks a pattern within the story?

After that, we’ll start asking bigger questions about the story, but when you first start doing structural analysis, it’s easier to start with the pacing.  Once you’re intimately familiar with pacing, the structural-level patterns start popping out.

Something to note: 

I’ve found that typing things in hasn’t lost its usefulness yet.  I expected to be able to take in everything I was studying without having to keep typing things in after a few months.

Five years later, I’m still typing things in, but I no longer need to stop and ask myself whether the sentences are long or whether there’s a change in paragraph length.  I look for other, more interesting patterns. But I had to start with the pacing; it’s hard to learn how to think this way, but it’s harder not to, if you’re trying to become a long-term professional writer, a master of the art.

As you become comfortable with a technique, you’ll be able to note when an author uses it without having to analyze it specifically.   But until you look at low-level structural questions in detail, it may be difficult to notice the higher-level techniques that I’m going to point out later.

“Where does she get this stuff?” may cross your mind a time or two.  The answer is, “She’s been typing things in for five-plus years now, and a thing or two sank in.”

A friend of mine once said that being a black belt in a martial art was where the learning really begins.  It’s also where you start studying masters instead of studying moves.

Same thing with writing.  We’re shifting from following rules to studying technique.  Beginning writers expect to have the rules and explanations handed to them on a platter; intermediate writers have to start becoming the people who can make the rules and explanations for the beginners.

Next time, I’ll go over the points above on pacing in the story, pointing out some things that I think might help give a sense of what to look for.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!

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