Rhythm in Writing

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A story that whips you through scene after scene is as exhausting as a story that drags you through the intervals between scenes at an excruciatingly slow pace.

An experienced storyteller knows when to ramp up the tension and when to slow it down, when to take away a reader’s breath and when to let the reader take a breather when to run through the drama or wander through the background. This alternating of ups and downs, successes and failures, satisfactions and woes is as rhythmic as music and can be as compelling as a drumbeat.

A steady pace of ups and downs can lull a reader into a feeling of complacency, but a syncopated rhythm, with ups and downs coming at uneven intervals, can create an underlying sense of unease that gets beneath a reader’s skin. Even a small shift in pace can have a dramatic impact by making a minor defeat seem catastrophic or making a big victory seemed doomed.

Humorous moments, especially in tense scenes, can create a change of pace, lightening the mood and causing the reader to be more shocked by subsequent horrendous events. Sex scenes can create a change of pace, either as a diversionary tactic or as a quiet time between hectic scenes. A sex scene can even be a fast-paced action scene to get the reader’s blood boiling. (What it can never be, incidentally, is a scene thrown in there just because you thought it was time for a sex scene. Such scenes need to be as germane and as necessary as a plot twist or a revelation. If the scene can be removed from the book without leaving a hole, it should be removed or rewritten.)

A change in rhythm can be subtle, such as a shift in the dynamics between two characters, a change in focus or mood, or simply a preparation for future conflicts. Or it can be as blatant as a murder.  The rate of change in a story can affect the rhythm, too. A lot of changes coming rapidly, one right after the other, create a hectic pace. A few changes after intervals of stasis can make the pace seem slower, even bucolic.

How you present dialogue can change the pace. To speed up the pace you can use quick exchanges with few speaker tags. To slow the pace, use longer speeches and/or more detailed speaker tags.

This example from Light Bringer uses short speaker attributes:

Emery regarded Philip with narrowed eyes. “I always know when one of my students is in trouble. It’s time you told me what’s going on.”

“I was never one of your students.”

Emery waved away the remark. “Between the two of us, we should be able to solve your predicament.”

“I’m not sure there is a solution. Right before I came here, two NSA agents came to my apartment.”

Emery shook his head as if to clear it. “I must have misunderstood. I thought I heard you say NSA agents.”

“I did. That’s who they identified themselves as, anyway. They told me they were concerned about the books I’ve been checking out of the library.”

Emery froze. “They said that?”

“Yes.” Philip paused to reconsider, then heaved a sigh. “No. They told me they wanted to speak to me. I suggested they were there because of the books I read.”

Emery scowled at him. “Have I taught you nothing? Never volunteer. If you don’t know what’s going on, keep your mouth shut until you find out.”

And this example from the same book uses longer speaker attributes which sets a more leisurely pace:

As the cowboy approached, she wondered why a man like him worked in a coffee shop instead of punching cows or whatever men like him usually did.

In a slow, deliberate voice that stopped short of being a drawl, he said, “What can I get for you?”

“Coffee.”

He ushered her to a table. “How about some pie to go with it? Or a muffin? Mabel from the bakery sent over a fresh batch of whole-wheat blueberry muffins.”

“A muffin sounds good.”

He loped around behind the counter. A minute later he returned and set a mug of coffee on the table along with a muffin almost as big as a cake.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before,” he said.

Jane tore open a packet of sugar. “Just passing through.” She dumped the sugar in her coffee and stirred it. Thinking that, next to bars, her sister liked to hang around places like this to get local color, she considered asking the cowboy if he knew where she could find Georgy.

“Hey, Luke,” one of the old men called out. “Bring me a muffin, too.”

Jane sipped her coffee, grateful for the interruption. Georgy would never have forgiven her for inquiring about her, and there would go any hope of getting a loan.

“Holler if you need anything else,” the cowboy said, then ambled off.

These dialogue samples also show one of the contrasts in the book, the fast-paced action/conspiracy story commingling with the slower-paced cowboy story. Then there were the ethereal characters contrasting with the down to earth ones. Lots of scope for pacing in Light Bringer!! (Which, incidentally, is on sale for $1.99 for the Kindle edition on Amazon until November 8, 2011.)

So, let’s talk about rhythm. Do you pay attention to the rhythm of your story? Do you use the rhythm to create a mood or a change of pace? How do you create the rhythm of your story? What devices do you use? Do you make sure that even your story’s quiet moments are necessary to the story? Do you use words or sentence structure to help create the rhythm? (Short words and sentences give the scene a feeling of speed and immediacy. Longer sentences and words create a more relaxed pace.)

5 Comments
  1. joylene says

    I must admit I love using rhythm. I think it’s because I grew up in a house of music and song and singing. Rhythm soothes me, energizes me, sets my heart a beatin’.

    I’m struggling with my current WIP because despite it being a suspense mystery, the conflict is mostly internal. There isn’t a lot of action. Examples that come to mind are Insomnia, The Night Listener, 24 Hours. My goal is to entertain the reader without my usual thrill ride and to not bore them.

    Not easy to do.

    1. Pat Bertram says

      Hi, Joylene! Boring readers is so not the thing to do! I just had a thought. Why not map the basic rhythm of a song that sets your heart beating, and follow the same pattern of ups and downs in your book. The ups don’t have to be action, can be snappy dialogue, a bit of romance, raising an additional question in readers’ minds. But of course, you knew that.

  2. ROD MARSDEN says

    Yes. I agree that pace can either make or break a good story. We all have rhythm. The thing is to get our rhythm into gear. Often when it flows naturally it flows best.

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