The Pit and the Pendulum…and Other Writing Traps.

Posted: October 30, 2009 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” –EAP

I  love Edgar Allan Poe.

His writing drips with florid prose, but no matter. Poe nails horror. His distinctive voice, tenebrous and terrifying, still captivates. One of my favorite Poe stories is The Pit and the Pendulum. Confusion, weakness, and fear plague the nameless protagonist as he struggles to escape a series of torturous traps.

Read the original? Check out this awesome(!) hip hop version from

Confusion, weakness, and fear are a common motif in Poe tales. They’re also a common motif in my development as a writer. Sadly, like the poor schlub dodging the pendulum, I fall into traps. For me, there are many pits and pendulums:

Pit #1: The Pacing Pit

A story suffers when a writer mishandles rhythm and pace. An author is given only the first few pages to draw the reader in. Each chapter should end on a tantalizing note. This tidbit compels the reader to keep turning pages.  If tension builds, either through a cascade of smaller conflicts or through the increasing intensity of major conflict, the reader payoff is richer. If nothing much happens for 50 pages here and there, the writer has fallen into the pacing pit.

Pit #2: The Proportion Pit

Then he did this, then he did that. Shower. Bathroom Break. Breakfast. Jewel Heist.

Really? Does the reader really need to read everything that happens to your protagonist? No. Only write the interesting bits which advance the story. It’s the jewel heist, stupid! Cut the rest of the pointless details out. Use appropriate breaks and transition paragraphs to fill in the blanks.

Pendulum #1: Predictable Swings

Back and forth, back and forth. Dull, flat writing kills interest in a story. Yes, edit and tighten up that manuscript. And then go back and highlight the best bits. Analyze why those passages are great. Look for opportunities to add that magic to other crucial moments in the story. With my first manuscript, I found that after the first several rounds out edits, I’d killed my voice. Surgical cuts are necessary, but sometimes healthy grafts of voice are good, too.

Pendulum #2: Linear Swings

The road to writing purgatory is a straight shot. Poe plots are twisted, monstrously crooked things. For good reason. If your manuscript is languishing in a linear funk, shake things up. Don’t move from breakfast to the car ride to the jewel heist. Think about starting with the jewel heist and then move the story along by sliding the puzzle pieces, past and present, into place in an intriguing way.

Pit #666: The Bad Writing Pit

Can’t help you with this one. I haven’t crawled out of this pit myself. You tell me, what writing traps ensnare you?

If #666 has you down in the dumps, try my Delectably Easy (and foolproof!) Pumpkin Dump Cake. Misery loves dessert.

Pumpkin Dump Cake


1 15 oz.  can pumpkin

1 12 ounce can evaporated milk

3 eggs

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup sugar

1 box yellow cake mix (Duncan Hines is best. Always.)

1 cup chopped pecans (optional: I don’t. You might wanna.)

1-1/2 sticks butter, cut into small pats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9×13 pan. Combine all ingredients except for the cake mix and the pats of butter. After mixing well, pour the pumpkin mixture into the pan. Sprinkle the pumpkin goo evenly with cake mix. Sprinkle with nuts (optional). Space out the pats of butter on top of the cake mix.  Bake for 50 minutes to one hours. Allow the concoction to cool off before eating to avoid second degree burns in the mouth.Binge!
  1. Jemi Fraser says:

    Great analogy, Jenny. I loved the creepy video – it would be awesome to use with older students. Certainly gets the story across!

    I think one of my writing pits is dialogue tags. I’m climbing out of this pit, but I still have to watch where I step 🙂

    Great post!

  2. Jemi Fraser says:

    PS: Check out my latest blog post for a little well-deserved “gift” for you!

  3. Cat Woods says:

    My favorite Poe! Nice analogy. I’m afraid I fall into the pits more often than I prefer.

  4. Cat Woods says:

    I left you a little Halloween treat on my blog!

  5. […] found this when reading BookBinge, who originally found it on—a company that creates “original hip-hop music […]

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