Active Reading


Many people roll their eyes at the thought of analyzing a piece of writing. They say things like, “I just like the story.” But if they experience a good story while reading, they have good writing to thank for it. Story is important. Being able to imagine and structure a narrative is an admirable talent. Writing, though, is the delivery of that story. Effective communication through written words is its own unique craft. Too many readers feel that enjoying the writing as well as the story takes years of schooling or some innate ability. But it’s only a matter of practice and active reading, paying attention to the choice of words and the manner in which they’re written. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s work, for example. Poe is known outside of scholarly circles for his fantastical tales. But look at the writing choices he’s made in the opening of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

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.

Start with big picture observations. The story is obviously in the first person (the narrator is telling us his own story). And he’s obviously “not all there” (hearing all things in heaven? earth? hell?). Knowing we’re inside the head of an insane man helps create a suspension of disbelief. We don’t have to make sense of the nature of the universe we’re in; we can just believe what the narrator says as 100% true to him, because he is insane.

Where Poe really shines, however, is in his use of repetition and rhythm. Always a poet, he ratchets up the tension and terror of the tale with the repetition of phrases and short sentence structures, relieved at greater and greater intervals by longer ones. Look for repeated words and the progression of sentence length in the following passage.

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!

It’s impossible to read this prose and not hear the quick and slow, loud and soft ravings of a madman. The tension is in the writing, it evokes a visceral response from an engaged reader that serves the content, the experience of the story. Poe calls this the “unity of effect.” The next time you read “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or any other story, do it with a highlighter and appreciate how careful writing can convey and add to a great story.