H. P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Young Writers

Seminal cosmic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft published this article on writing (“Literary Composition”) in the January, 1920 issue of The United Amateur. There are some useful and some hilariously archaic-sounding thoughts in this, and one section in particular stands out among the former. Here, HPL puts names and concise definitions to three abstract dimensions of fiction writing that are absolutely important:

Unity, Mass, Coherence

In developing a theme, whether descriptive or narrative, it is necessary that three structural qualities be present: Unity, Mass, and Coherence. Unity is that principle whereby every part of a composition must have some bearing on the central theme. It is the principle which excludes all extraneous matter, and demands that all threads converge toward the climax. Classical violations of Unity may be found in the episodes of Homer and other epic poets of antiquity, as well as in the digressions of Fielding and other celebrated novelists; but no beginner should venture to emulate such liberties. Unity is the quality we have lately noted and praised in Poe and Bierce.

Mass is that principle which requires the more important parts of a composition to occupy correspondingly important places in the whole composition, the paragraph, and the sentence. It is that law of taste which insists that emphasis be placed where emphasis is due, and is most strikingly embodied in the previously mentioned necessity for an emphatic ending. According to this law, the end of a composition is its most important part, with the beginning next in importance.

Coherence is that principle which groups related parts together and keeps unrelated parts removed from one another. It applies, like Mass, to the whole composition, the paragraph, or the sentence. It demands that kindred events be narrated without interruption, effect following cause in a steady flow.

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