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What makes a great victim at the mercy of the monster scene? Find out when Valerie and Leslie analyze the 1843 Horror story “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Genre and Three-Act Summary
“The Tell Tale Heart” is a short Horror story, published in 1843. It’s an excellent example of the core event of the horror genre, namely the victim at the mercy of the monster scene.
Poe is one of the literary greats and his work has influenced countless authors, and has inspired multiple genres. If you write in horror, thriller, action, crime or global internal genres, you definitely want to check him out.
This story, like all of Poe’s work, is in the public domain so you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg. It’s a story told from the antagonist’s point of view, where the sanity of the antagonist is in question. When you read it you’ll instantly see similarities to Lolita, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, among others.
Shawn spends two hours talking about this story in the Ground Your Craft course, we’ve got plenty to say about it today, and still just we’re scratching the surface. Not bad for a story that’s only 2,000 words.
Even though this is a short story, it still has a beginning, middle and an end, so the three-act summary is as follows:
- Beginning Hook – The narrator is preparing the audience (“you”) to hear his confession. He’s positioning himself. It’s not that he wants to deny having killed the old man, it’s that he wants to convince the listener that he’s sane. The evidence of his sanity is the way in which he committed murder.
- Middle Build – The middle build is a description of the murder of the old man. The narrator gives plenty of detail and is quite pleased with his cleverness. He sees himself as defeating the “evil eye” with such cunning that it’s proof positive of his sanity, because of course, a madman would never think to dismember the body and hide it in the floorboards. And he does it in such a way that there isn’t even any blood.
- Ending Payoff – In the ending payoff, three police officers arrive to search the house. The narrator entertains them in the very room where the murder took place and all seems to be going along smoothly, until the narrator believes that hears the old man’s heart beating beneath the floorboards. The sound becomes so loud to him, that he confesses to the murder and begs the police to make it stop.
Analyzing the Scene
Scene Type (confession scene, possibly part of an interrogation)
- What function does this scene serve in the story (EDITOR’S SCENE TYPE)? core event scene for the horror genre
- What kind of scene is this (WRITER’S SCENE TYPE)? confession scene
- What does this scene type accomplish within the context of the novel as a whole? The victim at the mercy of the villain scene is the core event of a horror story.
- How many people are in the scene? more than meets the eye! This is a scene within a scene and there’s a long list of on-stage and off-stage characters, but at its most macro level, it’s a two-person scene—the narrator (I) and the listener (You).
- Where does the scene take place (location)? unknown
- What is the power dynamic at play in this scene? Again, looking at the most macro level, the narrator seems to believe he has the power, but it’s a false belief because remember, he’s already confessed to having killed the old man. Externally, he’s powerless against the opinion of the listener (“you” could be the authorities who are hearing his confession, or a priest/religious leader or someone else entirely), internally, he’s powerless against the disease.
- What is the point of conflict, and how does that relate to the characters’ objects of desire? There are multiple points of conflict. Obviously the narrator and the old man are in conflict, as are the narrator and the three police officers. However, the narrator is also in conflict with the listener (“you”) and most of all, with himself.
When we analyze a scene we need to answer four story event questions, and identify the five commandments of storytelling. These are covered in detail in Story Grid 101 which is available as a free download from the Story Grid website.
Story Event Questions
1. What are the characters literally doing—that is, what are their micro on-the-ground actions?
Framing story: the narrator is telling a story. Within the story, the narrator kills the old man.
2. What is the essential tactic of the characters—that is, what macro behaviours are they employing that are linked to a universal human value?
Framing story: to convince listener that he’s not insane
Within the story: destroy the evil eye
Click here for the Essential Tactic Cheat Sheet.
3. What universal human values have changed for one or more characters in the scene? Which one of those value changes is most important and should be included in the Story Grid Spreadsheet?
The old man moves from life to death. The police officers move from unaware to aware of the death. The narrator goes from Insane to Sane internally, and at the same time, he moves from Life to Damnation (fate worse than death), which we add to the spreadsheet.
- What is the Story Event that sums up the scene’s on-the-ground actions, essential tactics, and value change? We will enter that event in the Story Grid Spreadsheet.
The narrator, who suffers from paranoia, kills an old man to destroy his “evil” eye. As evidence of his sanity, he talks about his method and tells the listener that the dead man’s heart continued to beat after death.
Five Commandments of Storytelling
Inciting Incident: (off page) “You” has asked the narrator to explain what happened, or why he killed the old man.
Progressive Complications (and how they escalate the stakes):
Complications that call the narrator’s sanity into question:
- the disease: adds a layer to the character and the story. He’s not simply a cold-blooded killer. He’s someone with a mental illness.
- narrator describes the murder
- a neighbour does hear a sound and calls police
- the police don’t leave quickly
- narrator entertains police at the scene of the crime
- narrator puts his chair over the boards that conceal the dismembered body
- narrator hears the heartbeat (twice)
Complications that drive the narrator to murder:
- the evil eye: makes the narrator’s blood run cold
- the old man hears the narrator enter his bedroom: increases the chance of getting caught
- the old man groans: he knows someone is in the room and that he’s not safe
- the old man’s eyes are open: the narrator feels like the evil eye is targeting him, incites him further to murder
- the narrator hears the heart beating for the first time: drives him even further to murder, fears that a neighbour will hear the heartbeat
- the time of night (witching hours midnight to 4:00am): excites the narrator to terror
Turning Point Progressive Complication: The narrator hears the beating of the tell tale heart.
Crisis: Does he ignore it and hope the police don’t hear it? Or does he try to explain it away somehow?
Climax: He ignores it and hopes that the police don’t hear it.
Resolution: The noise gets louder until the narrator can’t take it anymore. He confesses to the murder and begs the police to make the beating stop.
What’s special about this scene?
Valerie: The Tell Tale Heart is a rich, complex story. It’s a terrific illustration of how much a writer can pack into 2,000 words. Writers often fall into the trap of adding more characters or more plotlines to complicate a story, but that’s not always necessary (and it doesn’t work nearly as well as writers think it does).
Poe doesn’t tell us much in this story, but yet tells us a great deal. For example, we don’t know who the narrator is (name or gender) or even when the story is (reference to a lantern, but that doesn’t necessarily date it).
Leslie: We’ve talked about scene and beat types, but there are narrative types too. The narrative type can describe the basic situation, the POV, the speaker, the audience, the purpose, all of the things I’ve been looking at in my Roundtable explorations of POV and narrative device. The narrative type is a global shorthand for the elements of the narration in the story.
What’s the point? Why is this important? Narrative types give your story useful constraints that help you narrow the field of choices. It’s easier to choose among 10 options than a thousand. And even better if you can narrow it to five. That’s what narrative types do for you.
Premise: The narrator, who is extraordinarily sensitive to sensory stimulus, in his home, is bothered by the old man’s eye, which looks evil to him. You could tell this as someone outside the story, but it’s more interesting in this case to get inside the killer’s mind and ask, what makes someone commit a violent act.
POV: first person, “I as protagonist,” the narrator is the one who killed the old man.
Narrative device: The protagonist is responding to a question that was asked off the page. We don’t know much about the audience, but we can guess that it’s in the context of a police interrogation or court proceedings. (Interesting to note that the M’Naghten rules on insanity and criminal responsibility were being developed at this time.) The narrator’s explicit purpose is to convince the audience that he’s not insane, just extraordinarily sensitive to what’s happening in his immediate environment.
Narrative type: “Listen while I Tell You” according to Wallace Hilldick. This is typically a first-person, past-tense narrative, often used in short stories. The key to this narrative type is that it’s written as if someone is speaking (rather than writing as in a written confession or letter or in thoughts as in a stream of consciousness narrative). Rhythm of sentences, word choice (slang and contractions). You’re relying on subtext a great deal, revealing character through the act of speech and essential tactics, rather than by what they say.
Here, we have no response from the audience, but you could indicate a response in various ways (“Wolves of Karelia” handled this really well).
Potential pitfalls: The narrative can sound too much like the author’s own voice (it’s about a story rather than telling a story) or it can feel too much like speech so that it’s distracting. It looks easy, and that’s why many writers choose it. But creating an authentic narrative that appears to be someone else speaking is tricky. We can inadvertently adopt the wrong elements of examples because we don’t see what’s happening beneath the surface. So it’s important to study closely. The Tell-Tale Heart would be a great example to study if you want to translate the feeling of a spoken narrative to written text.
Here are questions to ask yourself if you’re using this narrative type from Wallace Hildick’s Thirteen Types of Narrative: A Practical Guide on How to Tell a Story, 32.
- Is the narrator an active character in the story or simply an onlooker?
- If active, does it distract from the excitement at all to know that the character has lived to tell the tale?
- How does their background (education, upbringing, nationality, etc.) come through in the words and constructions they use?
- How does their personality come through?
- What significant interaction is there between the events narrated and the narrator’s personality and background?
- Would the story be better if it had been presented in some other form?
Leslie: Narrative types help us find a narrative device that will best showcase our story. Giving the narrator a clear purpose/object of desire gives your story purpose.
Valerie: Even though Poe is generally considered a horror writer, his stories influence so many genres that, once again, it drives home the idea of reading widely and deeply.
Join us next time when we analyze “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen.
Your Writers’ Room editors are Valerie Francis, specializing in stories by, for and about women, and Leslie Watts who helps fiction and nonfiction writers craft epic stories that matter.
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