“It was well said of a certain German book that ‘es lasst sich nicht lesen‘ — it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes — die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged.”
You can postulate a couple of things. His dramatic vocab makes it sound neat, sure. The italics? That’s kind of cheating, using those; after all, if writing is strong enough, it shouldn’t need any crutches involving font to dress it up. But I’m interested in something more subtle: form, cadence, rhythm. For this I made up something I call the paragraph clause-diagram. For Poe’s intro paragraph above, it looks like this:
a — b.
a,b,c, ^d — e, f.
a, *, b.
We see here what I call an arc paragraph. It opens with shorter statements and leads into the very complex, many-claused sentence in the middle that is very characteristic of Poe. Then it winds down to a less lengthy sentence, and the end is very clearly punctuated with a one-clause sentence. Not only that, it’s a one-clause sentence that starts with the conj. “and” — which I think is an even stronger indication that a paragraph or thought is ending. If you think of the whole paragraph as one many-claused sentence, the word “and” is the indication that you are coming to the last in a long list of clauses.
My point is that clause length and punctuation, by themselves, have powers than an author can use to communicate. It’s kind of neat. And I’d wager that the arc paragraph isn’t the only shape that can work — but what it does really well is introduce, pulling you up and then setting you down. Musical phrasing works in much the same way.
I tried a funny experiment: writing a random paragraph, with no rules other than that it must conform to the above structure. Here’s what came out:
“I have only to seal the letter with its blood-colored wax — it is finished. The messenger comes tonight. He rides like the horseman from revelation, galloping down the path like a bolt from heaven, and I am always petrified at his coming — with pounding hoof-beats punctuated by a cracking whip, he breaks the vigil of my dreams so savagely. As such, always, I am unnerved by the time his wretched knock reaches my door. But I am also captivated.”
See? It kind of works. But maybe that was because I was trying to write ghoulishy. What if I write about something totally random?
“If I think about my favorite kind of duck — it has to be the mallard. Ducks are awesome. Puppies and kittens too, they’re also adorable, in a more mammalish way, and then there are scaly things — skittering lizards, slithering snakes. I want to hug all of them, but alas, snakes aren’t terribly huggable. And people would think I’m weird.”
Of course, it’s not scary anymore… What I have maintained by keeping the form, however, is a kind of conversational feeling that’s achieved by all the variation and pauses. I don’t know, it’s interesting.