Thursday, December 16, 2010

Poe’s 5 Rules

In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story in which readers were asked to match wits with the tale’s protagonist in a truly cerebral work, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” ( considered by many scholars to be the first detective story. The story established several concepts that remain hallmarks of the genre and gave future writers five essential guidelines.

Poe’s groundbreaking short story opens with what appears to be nothing less than an essay explaining the cerebral processes upon which his new genre is to be founded. However, in the story itself, writers discover five truisms that I would argue—consciously or unconsciously—today’s writers continue to live by:

1. A crime must occur.
2. The story’s sleuth must possess superior inductive and deductive reasoning skills.
3. The police must be incapable of solving the crime.
4. The ending must offer a dénouement—who, what, why, and how must be explained.
5. The author must "play fair"⎯clues must be present to allow the reader to solve crime.

In graduate school, I was told rules only exist in fiction writing if you get caught breaking them. And it is particularly interesting to view Poe’s rules in light of the evolution of the genre. For instance, what does one do with number three in a police procedural? How does a whydunit or a multiple-point-of-view thriller fit with Poe’s original concept?

Every writer strives to put his or her own stamp on the genre; that is he or she strives to stretch the genre in a new and unique direction. I certainly attempted to do that with my Jack Austin series—Raymond Chandler meets the PGA Tour. Yet it seems to me that every work of crime fiction still meets at least three or four items from Poe’s criteria.

I see this as a testament to the staying power of Poe’s work and his original concept, not as an indictment of the genre as cookie-cutter fiction. Poe’s rules have been stretched and bent often as crime fiction has evolved. Yet but they remain strong enough and necessary enough to have never broken.


Hannah Dennison said...

This is great - I was unfamiliar with Poe's rules! Thanks!

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