Vintage Writing Instruction

A podcast of classic articles on writing fiction.
Posted 08/22/2022

Episode 22: A Climax by Suggestion

By J. Albert Mallory. Originally published in the June 1908 issue of "The Editor."

We who are gradually learning to write marketable short fiction, have been frequently told by those who are qualified to give information that much may be learned by a study of the works of Edgar Allan Poe. I have no doubt that those of us who have followed this advice have profited thereby. Certainly more than one successful author owes a great deal to Poe. Judged from the purely artistic standpoint his best tales are as nearly perfect as human ingenuity could make them. Many have imitated his style of narrative and all good short stories to-day are constructed on the general plan of which so good an authority as Brander Mathews says Poe was the originator. And at least one author of international fame has achieved enviable reputation and earned thousands of dollars by boldly lifting whole plots and characters from Poe. Sir A. Conan Doyle, himself, admits that Dupin was the original of Sherlock Holmes.

Robert Louis Stevenson, in his criticism of the works of Poe, says: "He knows the little nothings that make stories or mar them," that is, he was a perfect artist, properly emphasizing every seemingly unimportant detail, and a close study of Poe will show that the whole effect of many of his stories depends altogether on the skill with which these details are handled. Says Stevenson: "Thus the whole spirit of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ depends on fortunato’s carnival costume of cap and bells."

Stevenson himself undoubtedly owed something to Poe, though there is great dissimilarity in the works of the two men; it is, however, a difference of personality rather than one of methods. Both make use of the same "tricks of the trade." Stevenson once informed a publisher who had asked him to change the ending of a story that it was impossible —that a change of the end would also mean a change of the beginning, in fact it would mean an entirely new story. And Poe, in "The Philosophy of Composition," says all true works of art should begin at the end— that the author should first write his climax and so construct his narrative that every sentence should have direct bearing on the conclusion. Certainly one would be hard put to find a superfluous word in the works of either of these masters. Stevenson says "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was inspired by a "bogey dream." It is likely the dream itself was inspired by Poe.

But there is one device frequently used by Poe which Stevenson condemns, but which, it seems to me, is consummate art. By its use Stevenson says "he gets more out of the story than he has put into it," a thing which is manifestly impossible and which Poe never attempted, as I shall endeavor to show. The device to which I refer is the one to which I have given the name—"Climax by Suggestion."

In these days of psychological investigation, hypnotism has been divested of its mystery, its principles are understood by the reading public and the power of suggestion is being recognized as one of the most potent forces at the command of all who succeed. The successful author and the professional hypnotist use methods that are strikingly similar to achieve results that are almost identical. True, the author may know nothing of psychology and have no realization of what he does, but the fact remains that the popular and artistic writer is a hypnotist. The good story is the one in which plot and character are depicted in such skillful style as to grasp the reader’s interest with the opening sentence and hold it to the end. Style is said to be the author’s individuality, but it is more; it is also a knowledge of the exact value of words and how to employ the fewest number of them to suggest to the reader the idea that the author has in mind.

Note that I said "suggest the idea." We are told by the Editor and others competent to speak, that the plot is the thing, to avoid long and detailed description, etc. Good advice, but I am afraid that many of us take it too literally, with the result that we often submit to long-suffering editors perfect gems of plots which, by lack of polish, are so crude as to merit only the curt rejections which they always bring. Plot plus style is really the thing that brings acceptances. Several of our best authors frankly admit that they have appropriated plots found in the crudest of "dime novels." Stevenson took "The Wrecker" from such a source, and one of last season’s ten thousand dollar serials is undoubtedly nothing more than the plot of a dime novel I remember reading as a boy, retold in a skillful manner. The difference between ten thousand dollars and the twenty-five or fifty dollars which the writer of the dime novel probably received may be said to be the difference between plot alone and plot with style added.

Now, taking the dime novel of good, strong plot, utterly devoid of all descriptive embellishments, and the member of "the six best sellers" developed from it, to illustrate my point, I find that the essential difference between the two is that the former is a bald, crude structure, strong but without ornament, while the other is the work of a finished artist who took particular pains to—not describe his characters or their environment, but so suggest those characters and that environment as to compel the reader’s imagination to supply them for himself.

The hypnotist first takes the mind of his subject off his environment by having him look at a bright object, by a sharp blow under the chin, or by any of a hundred and one other tricks; then, at the precise moment that the objective faculties are farthest removed from a consideration of their surroundings, he suggests to the subject that he is enjoying a banquet or suffering with a toothache. The subject’s imagination supplies the dishes of the banquet or the sharp pains of the toothache.

The trained writer proceeds in much the same way. He has in mind a certain effect before he sets pen to paper. He secures the reader’s attention in the first sentence with a bit of brisk dialogue, a sensational statement, etc. Then, immediately that attention is secured, he holds it, not alone by the things he says, but also by the things he does not say and only suggests. I believe I am safe in saying that Kipling not once in any of his stories devoted a paragraph to the detailed description of the appearance of a character or a landscape. Yet all of us can see Kipling's characters and his landscapes are clear and full of color. He is such a perfect master of language, he knows so well how in a few words to suggest an idea that it is with difficulty we realize that it is our own imagination and not Kipling's that supplies the details.

Only the finished artist can do this thing. The hypnotist must be very careful in the selection of the words he uses; he must present only one idea at a time or he will lose his control of his subject. The writer, once he holds the reader "under the spell," must exercise equal care or he will become confusing and the reader will become involved in such a mental maze of endeavor to construct the scene of the story as he reads that he will become conscious of the effort and lose interest. Even a mystery story must be so constructed that any apparent solution which occurs to the reader, or is made to appear in the narrative itself, shall be immediately rejected. The real solution must be the only logical one.

No writer with whom I am acquainted is so manifestly familiar with the potency of suggestion as Poe. He had a wonderful imagination and used it to the utmost. In the description of horrors he has no equal, but so perfect an artist is he that some of his greatest climaxes are achieved simply by conducting the reader to the brink of the uttermost horror of all and then—leaving him.

For example, take the story of the "Pit and the Pendulum." So skillfully is the story told that the reader imagines that he, himself, is suffering the persecution of the Inquisition. The dark and slimy cell, the rats, the pendulum, are all real, but the one thing in the tale that lingers longest in the memory is the Pit. And yet, what is said of the Pit? Only this:

"The glare from the enkindled roof illumined its inmost recesses. Yet, for a wild moment, did my spirit refuse to comprehend the meaning of what I saw. At length it forced—it wrestled itself into my soul. Oh, for a voice to speak!—oh, horror! Oh, any horror but this!"

Could any description of the Pit’s contents give the reader the thrill of horror that these few words of suggestion do? You may forget the pendulum, the rats, the heated walls, but you can never forget the Pit.

It is by means of this climax by suggestion that Stevenson says Poe gets out of a story more than he puts in. He calls it a "piece of thimble rigging, a pure imposition," but, he adds, "it is hard to condemn him as he deserves, for he cheats us with gusto."

But does he really cheat us at all? I think not. He has not gotten out of the story more than he put in. He put in his own imagination and, by subtle suggestion, he put in the reader’s imagination, too. The Pit contains just what the reader imagines it to contain and he cannot imagine it to contain anything inconsistent with the things the author has already described.

Poe several times makes use of this device and always effectively. In the "Adventure of Hans Pfaall," he says of the moon:

"Those dark and hideous mysteries which lie in the outer regions of the moon—regions which have never yet been turned, and by God's mercy, never shall be turned to the scrutiny of the telescopes of man."

What description could equal that? What person can read it without pausing and letting his own imagination have free play for a few moments?

The conclusions of "A Manuscript Found in a Bottle," and "Arthur Gordon Pym," are also instances of this playing up to the imagination of the reader, this planning of a whole story to meet a climax which is merely a suggestion of something beyond the powers of description. It is the manifestation, not so much of genius, but of knowledge of the art of story telling and I believe it can be acquired by diligent study and hard work.