What Can We Steal From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Cask of Amontillado,” short story
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Date of Work: 1846
Where the Work Can Be Found: In any collection of Poe’s works or online.  (Isn’t public domain beautiful?)  Download the story from Project Gutenberg.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Description

Discussion:
“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of the famous American short stories for a very good reason: it’s awesome.  The story is short and sweet.  The first sentence sets up the conflict very quickly: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”  The reader knows instantly that the narrator (Montresor) is going to get revenge on Fortunato.  The surprise is in the form the revenge will take.  Montresor uses Fortunato’s love of wine to lure him into an endless and endlessly creepy underground vault.  The dankness of the cellar gives Fortunato a terrible cough; Montresor begs him to turn back.  The increasingly drunk Montresor insists they taste the wine that may or may not be Amontillado.  Montresor gets his calm revenge.  He simply chains Fortunato to a niche in the rocky wall and starts laying brick around him.  As the wall goes up and the light goes out on Fortunato, he begs the narrator to let him go.  “For the love of God, Montresor.”  “Yes,” the narrator calmly says.  “For the love of God.”  He tosses the torch into Fortunato’s new crypt and slides in the last brick.

Let’s think about intensity and how we depict it.  Sometimes, intensity and tension can be created by characters who are loud and angry and bombastic.  Think about Samuel L. Jackson.  Anyone who writes for him tries to take advantage of how great the guy is at doing INTENSE.  Can you read these lines without hearing his voice?

Carl Lee Hailey from A Time to Kill on the stand, testifying about what he wishes for the men who raped his little girl: “Yes, they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!”

Jules Winfield from Pulp Fiction, toying with a man who owes his boss money: “English, motherfucker, do you speak it?”

And how many people went to see a movie that was clearly bad only because they knew that they would hear Samuel L. Jackson shout:

“Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”

Yes, intensity can be created with high volume and the use of swear words.  Tension can also be created without these qualities.  Think about the last time your significant other used the silent treatment on you.  They weren’t saying a word to you, but they were still driving you crazy.  Poe is very effective at creating this quiet intensity in “Amontillado.”

Does Montresor shout and scream at Fortunato?  No, no, no.  Instead, he pretends to be friendly, offering his friend wine and repeatedly expressing concern for the man’s health.  Look at the words Poe uses to describe the beginning of Montresor’s construction project:

As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

As in the case of the rest of the story, Poe is offering relatively unadorned, unemotional description.  Montresor “busies” himself.  While “throw” may be a somewhat intense verb, it’s pretty clear that Poe allows tension to build in a slow manner that is very effective.

Think about it this way.  Let’s say one of your characters discovers that their lover is being unfaithful.  You could squeeze a lot of drama out of having your character confront the cheater in a belligerent manner.  Think of the show Cheaters.  The host brings the cheatee to witness the cheater in action.  The cheatee gets out of the van, screams, “How could you?” several times, then throws a drink in the cheater’s face.  That’s drama, right?

What if your cheatee sits in the dark and sips a glass of whiskey, waiting for hours for the cheater to arrive?  No shouting…no screaming.  The cheater comes home and is asked some simple questions: “How was your day?”  “Where were you?”  “How’s that coworker you’re always hanging out with?”  See how the tension is ratcheted up?  Instead of enjoying the blowup, the reader is on tenterhooks…what’s going to happen?  When is the hammer going to fall?

Best of all, if you start out calm, you have the option of getting a lot of drama out of a sudden outburst.  This principle can be seen in Pulp Fiction.  Think of the scene in which Jules (Jackson) is questioning Check-Out-the-Big-Brain-on-Brad (played by Syracuse native Frank Whaley).  The audience knows that Jules is upset with Brad and that SOMETHING is going to happen.  Instead of coming in with guns blazing, Jules is cool, asking Brad why the French call the Quarter Pounder a Royale with Cheese and even asking for permission to take a bite of Brad’s Big Kahuna Burger.  Jules is calm and is smiling until he shoots the man on the sofa and Brad knows he’s in big trouble.  (“Describe what Marsellus Wallace looks like!”)

What Should We Steal?:

 

  • Think of your story like a piece of music; use dynamics.  If you start out at full crescendo, there’s nowhere you can go.
  • Withhold the proper details from the reader.  Poe makes it very clear that “Amontillado” is a revenge story.  The reader KNOWS that Fortunato is not going to end up, well, fortunate.  Poe creates suspense by making us wonder what the revenge will be.

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