Edgar Allan Poe – the structured writer

When the raven of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous horror poem quoth “Nevermore!” little did it realise that throughout much of the poem’s planning it had been intended to be a parrot. Poe wanted a bird that could utter the theme word, but thanks to his strict self-imposed constraints he switched the sea captain-like parrot for the more Gothic figure of the raven, exchanging literal words for a more eerie, half crazed interpretation of a word’s meaning. The underlying reason for this is that Poe set himself rigorous boundaries in the pursuit of vivid atmosphere. He worked to a structure and advised others to do so too.

Poe, the writer of mostly short horror and detective stories, wrote a couple of long essays, very much in the modern Design Thinking ethos, deconstructing his own creative process and writing style and advising any would-be writers to follow his tips. The main point of his advice was to have built a structure for your story or poem before you begin to write the content (which we have seen also works very well for J. K. Rowling). Know the ending, Poe said, and work backwards from that, to enable everything you say to be tantalisingly leading up the denouement or final reveal. Poe admitted that sometimes revisions would be necessary; he did not think that a clear structure would produce a perfect first draft. However, he argued that if you knew what you were aiming for and what would be effective and appropriate on the way to that aim, then your endeavours would be much clearer to you and hence successful.

In particular, Poe advised writers to think about the atmosphere or mood that they were trying to create – something especially important in a horror or mystery story – and to plan out how to embed this throughout. Select scenes and scenery carefully to help suggest a mood of, say, claustrophobia or delirium. The setting, he believed helped give symbolic references to the audience and sometimes while his settings might seem a little forced in terms of narrative, they do help maintain and build the eeriness he desired. Characters too, he advised were only tools to help the tale move along. They were in that sense a kind of puppet or cipher, not necessarily interesting in themselves. You might describe them as types (even stereotypes) but they were the kinds of types known to his audience and came with certain expectations, thus helping to build the mood. An extremely beautiful dead woman, he believed, was one of the most powerful producers of emotion in narrative horror. This search for understandable and focussed figures is why the original parrot became the raven after some evaluation of how the poem’s sense of doom was building.

Poe also emphasised that it was not just the characters and scenery that mattered to how you structure your story. Choose words and phrases carefully, he advised, to keep building that mood so that the emotions you wish to instil in your audience are carefully manipulated by your crafting of words and their connotations. The value of the words would conjure differing mental images, so their selection was of high importance within his structure.

It could be suggested that Poe turned to structure and constraint in his own writing because he had so many ideas that it could have been chaos if he had run with all of them. He noted that he had always had ideas that came to him when he was in “reverie” but that he had trouble converting these pictorial, abstract ideas into actual words. He would try many styles of writing and experimented with getting the effect of mood and atmosphere just right.


Poe describes two important aspects of the creative process of having ideas; those of collection and incarnation. We might be more familiar with preparation, incubation and the aha! moment for the first, and verification for the latter. In effect, Poe knew that ideas had to be allowed to germinate and then grasped and made into something real. He also described how for him the collection period could last for a long time – sometimes for months – in which he was “slothful” and spent a lot of time on rambles in the mountains and woods in deep thought waiting for ideas to be born. At other times he would look for the dimension between waking and sleeping (hypnagogia) and collect “fantasies” from this state. He had trained himself not to actually fall asleep and could remain in this state for a long period allowing thoughts and ideas from the subconscious to well up like hallucinations.

Suddenly the urge to write it all down would come upon him and he would abruptly wake up properly and then get to his writing. However he collected his ideas he was able to stick at the writing of it until it was done. He said he believed in the “power of words” to be able to convey even the weirdest fantasy in all its atmospheric glory. So Poe was not a person of daily routine, but he was aware of his own creative process and knew when to impose constraints of getting the writing done, and when to allow himself reverie time.

Edgar, the boy, had a troubled history. He was born into an acting family, the Poes, but was orphaned and went to live with the Allans instead, taking their name. Poe’s foster father had not supplied him with much money when he left for university so he gambled away his maintenance and was forced to leave. He was a success in the army but wanted to live a creative life. He married his teenage cousin, who died of consumption while still young; an event which along with simialr deaths of women he loved, contributed to his many writings of death and beautiful women. Nevertheless, he made a success of being a literary critic, which may partly contribute to his understanding of how to compose prose and poetry. He was one of the first professional writers in America to make his sometimes difficult living from his creative works with The Raven being his first hit and others such as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Black Cat and Murders on the Rue Morgue (called the first true detective story) all still popular classics.

Poe’s death in 1849, when he was just forty, was as mysterious as his writings. He had gone missing from his home in New York and eventually turned up in Baltimore, dressed in someone else’s clothing and terminally ill. He died shortly afterwards without being able to express what had happened to him. But as his death was variously attributed to suicide, drugs, alcohol, heart attack, brain congestion and even rabies, it can be seen that his own personality carried an aura of sinister and decadent rebelliousness that went with him to the grave. Though it might be added that his will’s executor was a newspaperman enemy who tried to destroy much of Poe’s literary work and blackened his reputation.

The advice that Poe gives for fantasy writing is also easily applicable to other forms of writing, speechmaking or reports. It would also work well for advertising and branding. His main point that you need to concentrate on setting up an emotional fictitious final reveal is also applicable in non-fiction situations where a conclusion or aim is the whole point of the words or events leading up to it or explaining it. When writing a factual essay, for instance, you should only include material that answers the title questions or proposition or that is an explanation of information needed to understand your reasoning. Cut out anything else.

In a nutshell, Poe’s advice means plan carefully so that you are clear what you are aiming for and work the rest of the project up towards that, leaving out any unnecessary material no matter how much you like it. This advice works well not only for writing but for any creative project that is being made for an audience. Think of the end outcome and what you want your audience or users to do with it and even what you want them to think about it. Clarity and purpose should be your main constraint.

GDP’s Creative Training: How to be More Creative will be availableby the end of November as a PDF book or e-book on Nook and Amazon.


Image credits:

Portrait of Edgar Allan Poe, frontispiece to The Raven, 1885, engraved by Frederick T. Stuart, New York Public Library Digital Collection http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c2ec6db8-7504-912b-e040-e00a18064754

Manet, Edouard, Le Corbeau, ex libris [Poe’s The Raven] 1875, New York Public Library Digital Collection (Samuel Putnam Avery Collection), http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-41c4-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Categories: Case study, Creativity

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