Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 Poet, short story writer, editor and critic (Editor, Southern Literary Messenger, 1835- 1837) Supporter of magazine literature Poe was a pioneer in short fiction. He was one of the first American writers to write short stories. Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story.
One of Poe’s most important contributions to American Literature was his support of the short story as a serious genre. He insisted that short fiction was equally as important to literature as the novel or poetry. His support of short fiction led to its rise to prominence in later years.
Was a champion of “art for art’s sake” and criticized writers whose work was intentionally moralistic. Known as the father of detective fiction; influenced early science fiction writers; inspired creator of Sherlock Holmes.
What makes a short story a short story? According to Poe’s essay, there are some specific elements in a short story.
LENGTH Poe believed that literary works should be short enough to be read in one sitting. Most scholars define the length of a short story as no shorter than 1000 words, and no longer than 20,000.
METHOD Poe believed that a work of fiction should be written only when the writer knows how it will end.
“UNITY OF EFFECT” Poe also believed that a writer should not write an work of fiction until he was sure what emotional response he wants to create for the reader.
ACTION According to Poe, a story in which nothing happens “is an absolute impossibility.” In other words, action --- the plot --- is vital in a short story.
OTHER CHARACTERISTICS Short stories usually do not have more than TWO or THREE characters.
SETTING The setting of a short story generally does not change. Setting is used to enhance the story.
“In medias res…” Short stories begin “in the middle of the action. Something has already happened to bring a character to the point where he is when we meet him.
CHARACTERIZATION The writer “shows” character development (INDIRECT CHARACTERIZATION) through the character’s words and actions… rather than tells about it (DIRECT CHARACTERIZATION)
SURPRISE ENDINGS Sometimes an ending is ironic (unexpected), or surprising. O. Henry was a master of this! More on him later.
NO WASTE! Every character, word, and action is essential to the plot. Not even time is wasted --- the action takes place in the shortest possible time.
“… AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.” Well, not always. But if the writer follows Poe’s theory, and knows where he is going before he gets there… the ending is usually satisfying.