Edgar A Poe“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”  Edgar Allen Poe

Think back over the short stories you have read, and you will realize the truth lying in these words.  When you think about Poe’s quote, it makes sense from a practical point of view.  In a short story, there is no time to waste with complete character histories or their litany of day-to-day affairs, their numerous ups and downs.  No, when writing a short story, being concise is important.

Short stories have a singular focus, a primary conflict that the entire tale centers around.  Because of this, tone is essential from beginning to end.  This primary focus is the essence of the story.  Whether there is an internal battle resulting in the characters riding a roller coaster of emotions, or whether it is an external struggle like a political confrontation, the entire story must build on the tone created in the first paragraph.  The ending result is to be an intensified moment of lucidity (for either the audience or the character or both) built on the very first notes that started the tale.  This means that your first paragraph is just as important, if not more so, than your last paragraph.  Short story writers do not have the luxury of several beginning pages, or a chapter, to drag readers into their stories.  They have a sentence, maybe four, to really hook a reader by the nose and yank them into the middle of conflict (notice I said MIDDLE of conflict, not beginning).  Their may be some confusion or questions on the part of the reader, use this to your advantage.

Since Poe is the author of the commencing quote, let me use one of his pieces as an example.  The proceeding excerpt is the first paragraph in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

“THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”

Cask of AmontilladoThis tale, not surprisingly, ends in death, but the death, in and of itself, is not the most important aspect of the story.  Rather, the how it happened was the most important part.  The reader could probably foreshadow death, or at least a huge calamity, from the beginning of the story.  They did not read the story for a predictable ending.  Readers of short stories read for the INTENSITY.  Essentially, it all comes down to this.  Stories, like the Arts in general, are popular for having readers experience new things – new places, new emotions.

From this very first paragraph, the reader is to understand that the mood is dark.  Furthermore, the dark mood is created by a tone laced with hints of bitterness, vengeance/vindictiveness, and even traces of slyness.  As you continue reading the story, these points are not only continued, but are used as the foundation for the plot, meaning they become a greater and greater thread in the story as the tale progresses.

If this were a novel, we would probably have been given more of a background on the characters as well as snippets from Fortunato’s point of view – his fear and anguish.  However, instead we get a singular view point focused on ONE agenda, ONE act.  This sole purpose assists in intensifying the dark and frigid mood that Poe was trying to create.  The reader has no idea what injuries Fortunato inflicted upon the speaker, and it really doesn’t matter to the story.  It’s not part of the mood.  Poe was not interested in justification on the part of Fortunato, so he left this character relatively silent and in the dark.  As Mark Twain once wrote, he “would like to have written a shorter letter but didn’t have the time.”  This is one of the problems short story writers often encounter during their drafting processes.  Too much information is included by trying to inform the audience, make this or that point clear, erase plot holes, make the characters relateable or understandable, etc.  Unfortunately, what ends up happening is the mood is killed faster than a call from your mother during a heated make out session.  Unplanned distractions end up being assassins to even the best stories.

To further expound on Poe’s quote, I’ll add to it a quote from Joseph O’Connor, “A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb.”   Think on this for a week.  Think of how it relates to mood as well as what other implications it may have for short stories.