Pacing and Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’

Pacing is one of the most important elements in writing, especially horror. Perhaps the best example of this is with Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’

The thread tying this short story together is its tempo. A tempo that is very much like the beating of a heart.

The cadence matches the murderer’s mood. It starts with the narrator telling us ever so calmly, that he is not a madman. We are inclined to believe him because the pace of the words is leisurely. But by the end, the tempo accumulates into a frenzy matching his crazy, racing thoughts.

One of the first things the murderer tells us is that he has acute senses and I think this is what makes this story so believable. When I was younger, certain things like someone shaking their leg would drive me batty. So, I can imagine the unbalanced narrator focusing on the old man’s eye (his victim) until he is convinced it has to be destroyed. And like the killer, I will never forget the description:

“He had the eye of a vulture-a pale blue eye, with a film over it.”

As the murderer sneaks up upon his victim, Poe does a profound job of slowing down the pace while at the same time giving the reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. I can imagine the old man hearing a noise, sitting up in bed, and listening. Listening for a full hour with his fears growing until he is so utterly horrified he is unable to move and knows “death was stalking him.”

When the murderer finally shines his lantern upon the man, all he sees is the vulture’s eye! It is at this moment that he begins to hear the old man’s heartbeat which puts him into a frenzy causing him to shut the old mans eye forever. But after he kills him the dead man’s heartbeat rings in the murders ears, louder and louder until he can no longer stand it and confesses the horrible deed.

Read the ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ out loud (campfire anyone?) and notice how Poe uses pacing throughout the story. Where does he alternate longer sentences with shorter ones? When does he use lots of short sentences in a row? How does this affects the tempo?

Why should you do this? Well, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to study the masters, so yes, read it for enjoyment, but then study it with the intent of learning what makes it scary. Pretty soon you will be pacing your stories just right keeping your readers at the edge of their seats.

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