In this lesson, we’ll focus on the vintage creep or “gothic fiction” style of writing. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a perfect example of the gothic story or what Norton defines as “a subgenre of fiction conventionally featuring plots that involve secrets, mystery, and the supernatural (or the seemingly supernatural) and large, gloomy, and usually antiquated (especially medieval) houses as settings. Examples include Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.'” In the below writing exercises, we will use vintage creepy photographs to generate a short short story, but first, a very short primer on the short short story or flash fiction.
I’ve found the most universally accepted word count to be 1,000; however, many editors consider anything under 1,500 to be a short short story. There are variations between writers and editors regarding what is a flash fiction and what is a microfiction, etc. I tend to think of microfictions as shorter than flash fictions. Here is a general breakdown that I follow:
- Novel — Over 70,000 words
- Novella — 17,500 to 70,000 words
- Novelette — 7,500 to 17,500 words
- Short Story — 1,000 to 7,500 words
- Short Short Story — Under 1,000 words
- Microfiction — Generally, 500 words or less (Some editors will consider everything 1,000 words or less to be a short short story or flash fiction. Some editors will consider a microfiction to be 100 words or less. There is a great deal of variance between editors. If in doubt, simply ask the particular editor.)
There is the additional question of what separates flash fiction from a vignette. I like to think of flash fiction as a fully encapsulated narrative arc, with all the trimmings, only many of the trimmings and details are suggested, planted between the words, subtexts encouraging the reader to work these out for him or herself, but certainly not forgotten. A vignette leaves details out. It is a part of a story, a portion. It may be a character focus or setting study, a section that would function as an aside to a fuller narrative arc. For the linguists, think of the short short fiction as a fully functioning clause without all the adverbial modifiers and phrases, but rather, a few of the modifiers and phrases. Think of the vignette as a phrase without the clause.
The following Freytag’s [frī-täk] pyramid illustrates what we consider to be a full narrative arc: exposition, inciting event, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution and denouement. Notice how the conflict in this pyramid focuses on the internal conflict of character vs. self. In literary fiction, the protagonist’s journey will root in this character vs. self inner conflict. You will have various other conflicts, yes: protagonist versus antagonist (external conflict) and many more, but in literary fiction, the main conflict will settle internally. We are not as interested in the external parameters, except in how these external conflicts further inform the internal conflict of character vs. self. A good example is to consider a literary story arc versus a formulaic story arc. In a literary arc, we are more interested in how the protagonist navigates situations and comes to terms, internally, emotionally, intellectually with these situations. In a formulaic arc, such as a romance arc, we end up following the he versus she arc in an externalized format including the “meet,” the “sex,” and the “breakup” or confirmation of relationship and so on. In a formulaic crime arc, we follow closely the “whodunit” paradigm, trying to figure the external conflict of one character versus another character, or rather, the detective versus the perpetrator, etc. In this course, we will focus on the internal conflict approach to writing character-based fiction.
Also note, below, the “denouement.” The denouement is the “resonance” of the narrative. The ending resonance of the narrative should be planted prior to the ending resolution or last line of your narrative, so that when the reader comes to the last line, the reader is already sensing a cyclical resonance, or to put it another way, when the reader reads the last paragraph and especially the last line, he or she should already be thinking about a larger resonance of the overall narrative as well as the beginning and middle and several moments within the earlier narrative. The denouement, at one time, would be written into the end of the narrative, which was a form that basically handheld the reader and “made sure” the reader felt and considered particular, authorial intentions. Since the Modernists, the denouement has securely taken a reader-focused form, where the author is not force-feeding this resonance to the reader, but rather, more subtly suggesting and allowing the reader to come to his or her own denouement, which is arguably the more connective and artful form of denouement and resonance. This Modernist style as well as this sense of cyclical closure will create in your reader a denouement or resonance that encourages the reader to revisit earlier moments in your narrative, and perhaps will encourage the reader to read the work again while engaging personally. Essentially, you want your reader to want to read your narrative more than once. You also want your reader to invest personal experience, comparisons and so on, as he or she is reading more than once. This is, arguably, how particular narratives gain following. When a narrative encourages the reader to return to it again and again, while also encouraging the reader to feel as though they are comparing self to narrative, then you have a narrative that will be more connective, effective and lasting. In poetry and short short fiction, this inspiration to reread the narrative is essential. Truthfully, all short stories should be read more than once as a rule. Novels, too, but this is less followed with novels and short stories. Poetry and short short stories, however, are built on this expectation that a reader will read again and again so to ascertain more and more subtexts.
So why, you may be asking, would someone read flash fiction?
Why would anyone read a form that leaves out some of these details, perhaps most of these details? There are many answers to this question, but the one I like best is that flash fiction when written well, precisely, with brevity and virtuosity, is as resonant as a perfectly formed poem, but it is prosaic, accessible, less built on metaphor than a poem, though, perhaps more so than a short story. The narrative voice is accessible and it forms frame, mood and tone, characters and conflict, but it is doing something that a longer work does not do as well. Flash fiction allows the reader a great deal of imaginative and exploratory room within the narrative. For readers who like room to explore within a narrative, room to stretch intellect and artistry, flash fiction can be a mental playground like no other prosaic form. As a writer of flash fiction, the key is giving just the right amount of strategic and precise detail to form this playground for the reader. Just as a child will become bored with a playground too familiar and full of rusty old equipment, or be overwhelmed with too much equipment, so can the reader. Finding the perfect balance will let the reader play and create and then return for more because this form is less about writers showing their geniuses and more about writers who can provide structure and room for their readers to exercise their own emotions and intellects.
If I still haven’t convinced you, consider this. Even if you are a diehard long form writer, and you simply thought you’d try this flash thing everyone is talking about, imagine how much richer and complete your chapters and scenes will be when you approach them as little works all their own, within the larger context of the overall narrative frame. Writing and practicing flash fiction will make you more aware of your scene and chapter work within the larger work.
And for those of you who are already in love with the flash form. Welcome. Now, let’s stretch your talents and see if we can get you writing some new stories!
Reading Assignment | “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1863)
The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly—very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers—of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back—but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.
I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out—”Who’s there?”
I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself—”It is nothing but the wind in the chimney—it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.
It was open—wide, wide open—and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness—all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.
And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!—do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once—once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eve would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye—not even his—could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha! ha!
When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock—still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart,—for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.
I smiled,—for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct:—It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness—until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.
No doubt I now grew very pale;—but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased—and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath—and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly—more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
Writing Assignment | Infusing Gothic Subjects with Modern Settings
Choose two photographs from the above gallery. Choose the two that evoke the most curiosity for you. Now, place each of the subjects within your chosen photographs within the same modern setting. It might be a house or a room within the house. It might be in the park or a restaurant or at work.
Example: Let’s say a writer chooses the following photographs and sets the very gothic subjects in a modern marketing firm. It is daytime, morning, and the clients are the Victorian woman and the two sad clowns. They are siblings and come from a family of circus performers who lost their fortunes years ago when independent traveling circuses gave way Barnum. The family has turned to selling giant sting rays. The giant sting rays have become the new fashionable wall hangings or cuisine, etc. What does the marketing team pitch to its clients in order to make giant sting rays the new “must have” product of the year? How does this modern setting juxtapose to the gothic client characters? This narrative might take an magic realism turn or it might be set in a very realistic aesthetic with clients who behave as they are living in the past. How might the conflict between past and present present itself in the characters, both gothic and modern?
Guidelines, Submissions & Formatting
- This workshop is a free and autonomous workshop. If you would like to work with an instructor and receive individual feedback, edits and end notes on this work or others, please visit our group or One on One Workshop options.
- Submission Format: Universal-Manuscript-Format
- First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising.
- Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. Consider, during this revision, how the two characters interact and what that might mean in a sociopolitical and/or human relationship way. How do they foil each other? Flesh out any sections that might further reflect this sociopolitical undercurrent of the work but be careful not to make this undercurrent too obvious. Let the reader have room to work this out for him or herself. Remember, we don’t answer questions for our readers, we simply prompt our readers to ask good questions. Giving our readers room to make meaning for themselves within our narratives is a sign of artistic and literary excellence. Now, lay the work aside for at least a day before your next revision.
- Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.