I’ve Got Rhythm

Actually I got rhythm but no music, because I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, or hear pitch since a great bit pneumonia at about 14. (Weirdly songs heard before then I can sing.)

Anyway, what on Earth does that have to do with writing.

Let me tell you.

You see, I came at writing fiction from poetry, which is a minor perversion, and yet has its advantages.

Only even I didn’t quite understand this except in a blind, instinctive way which meant that when I tried to think about it and do it by numbers (there’s always a time you do it by numbers because you’re sick/tired/worried about the baby) I messed it up.

For instance, when in a hurry, what I mimicked was my own ADD brain, which doesn’t work unless the character is drunk, and even then doesn’t convey emotion very well to the normal brain.

Look, a novel is a way to convey experience wrapped in emotion, not a way to convey cold, dispassionate information.  Were it that, we could summarize most novels in 1k words and read a lot more, right?

What we want to mimic is the emotions the character experiences, which in turn imprint the “I lived this” button in the brain.  This is why we remember stories we’ve read often more clearly than the things we lived through.  What we are doing, in fact, is creating false memories.  The attraction of it over real experience is that the reader knows he/she will return unscathed. (Mostly.)

In case that’s not glaringly obvious, this means what we’re playing with is the deep-dreaming mind, which doesn’t respond JUST to logical impulses.

To be clear, this is where the “I’m good with words” bleeds into a different kind of artistry, one that knows how to nudge, push and influence.

Sometimes I think the two crafts are antithetical, and I say that as someone who has a natural flair for words, and who in fact “feels” words and can get close to drunk on them, to the point of repeating poetry like other people hum songs. (This might be genetic. Dad and brother can carry on entire conversations in fragments of poetry, which means they reach much further deep into the soul than mere words can convey.)  A lot of the “beautiful word” books forget they’re supposed to be playing with feelings, not simply displaying their verbal erudition.  The emotional manipulation is crude, in your face, and often not very effective (possibly, though not necessarily) because they themselves haven’t explored emotions in real life and/or because most of their formative reading was for the beautiful words only.

Which brings us to: You can learn it.  Just like you can learn other methods of emotional manipulation (in print. I wouldn’t advise it in your own life. In print, readers want to be played with.  In real life, people tend to get testy.)

One of the ways to do this is rhythm.

It is also what I call “signaling what the book is.”

We used to have a writers’ group that met weekly, and despite prohibitions, people sometimes brought their novels, chapter by chapter (Prohibition? Why, yes. Because you don’t read a novel chapter a week, which meant that you were giving advice that only applied to that situation. “You need to remind us she’s wearing Kevlar” only works well if you read that last page a week ago, not yesterday.) At any rate most of us brought the first three chapters in, then retreated to finish it, and then brought the thing out full.

At one point my husband obsessed over “you must tell us what novel this is upfront.” And he didn’t mean in words.  At the time — I was green as leeks — I thought he was nuts.  I mean, doesn’t the cover say what the book is? But he insisted we should get a sense of what the book was going to be on the first page, and then keep the promise.

Since then, particularly in the days of indie, I’ve come around to his way of thinking. People like to know what journey they’re embarking on, and if they should bring life preserving equipment or a hammock.

Say you’re starting a fantasy book set in a strange magical land…

The mountains of Irisea stretched golden from the kingdom of Viriar to the sea where the mageships sailed.  And every mile along it the magic reigned, its shining strands entering every cottager’s door, plowing alongside every farmer, riding in the backpack of every trader. The magic was in everything, and all of it, gentle and abiding, gathered into the hands of good king Maritius.

“I’m old,” the king said.

Note that it’s early morning and I was nailing baseboard till late last night, and will be resuming the work after I post this, so those rolling paragraphs aren’t quite right. They should be longer and more evocative. Something about the waves of the sea, etc.

Note also the last line. That’s the punch. You’re riding with the magic, from golden peak to golden peak, and seeing the sails on the horizon.  And suddenly you fall to Earth with a blunt, prosaic “I’m old” declaration from the guy who holds it all together.

That’s appropriate, because that will likely be the problem of the whole damn thing, the driving motor of the story. How the most important man in a magical kingdom copes with old age/death/succession.  From there it could go various ways, from the romantic (the prince heir needs a bride) to the horrific (the king starts sacrificing babies so he can live.)

You’ll still have the occasional slow, drawn out, beautiful paragraphs. If you’re smart, you’ll contrast them with punch-to-the-gut blunt ones.

This is a completely different beginning from, say:

“Get in,” the man said. He was an ugly customer, what I could see of him through the car window: unshaven mug, squinty eyes. The plaid that covered that thick arm over the window would make elves go blind.

“Get in,” he said. He sounded very sure of it. “The red queen has work for you.”

Note the short, choppy sentences. And the focus is on the there-now. (And yes, I know what sort of novel it would be, though I don’t have a story to go with it. I don’t want to. It’s early.

And then there’s the confused, which is appropriate, because the character is confused:

“Jump,” the mirror said.

I blinked.  There was one thing I knew for sure, and that was that mirrors don’t talk, even if this was great uncle’s whatshisface’s mirror, inherited in the family for generations, a heavy thing in a heavier gilt frame, which had been a pain and a half to move to my college apartment.  I didn’t have any idea why mother had wanted me to bring it with me, either.  I mean, sure, your college essentials: modular bookcase, folding table, desk, and of course heirloom Venetian mirror, right?

“Jump,” the mirror said again.  “Honorable Katrina Varija, jump now.”

The mirror looked like a mirror, reflecting myself in jeans and a loose t-shirt, my long red hair caught back in a ponytail.

Right.  So somehow, somewhere, someone had slipped some drugs into something I ate or drank.  Only I hadn’t eaten or drank anything or been around anyone all day.

Which left going insane as a possibility.  I tried to think of insanity in the family, but came up dry.  My reflection in the mirror looked pale; green eyes wide, lips parted.

The kitchen exploded.

Note the mix of long and short sentences, the here-now and the far away. Because the situation is crazy. As we’ll find out throughout the book.

So, how do you fake it? How — if you don’t instinctively feel it — do you reach past the words to the reader’s feelings, and twist?

Well….  There are rules, and until you develop a feeling, you should follow the rules:

1- long flowing sentences for leisurely descriptions or places where you want the reader to slow down and, metaphorically speaking, admire the sunrise. If you’re thus inclined, this is where to spend your word mastery. Just don’t send the reader to the dictionary. He might not come back. So make sure the harder words are understandable from context.

2- short choppy sentences for fights, moments when you want your reader to breathe in short, choppy breaths.

3- Use the contrast between the two to startle/surprise and sucker punch your reader.

I’d never been as happy as I was leaving the chapel on my new husband’s arm.  The smell of the church, incense and age lingered on us. My family pressed close, hugging and wishing us well, while the bells rang and the village children gathered to throw rice.


Max fell dead at my feet.

4 – if you want people to remember something, to really stop and take it in, give it its own sentence. If it’s more important its own paragraph. If it’s more vital than that, its own chapter.  Remember there is no law that says you can’t have a one sentence chapter.

Now, at least while you’re learning, all of this should be “revision craft.”  After you’re done writing the novel, and all the story is done, you go in and make sure the rhythm matches the mood and evokes the proper emotions at the proper time.

Rhythm — take it from someone who has made every mistake, some of them twice — can be the difference between an exciting scene or a novel that draws you in versus those that put you to sleep or leave you cold. It can compensate for deficiencies in plot. It can drive the reader along when nothing else will.

In fact, it is a lot like the crutch of film makers: scene music, which makes scenes exciting that really aren’t, at all.  Or helps an already tense scene become all encompassing and drawing the viewer in completely.

In the same way, the wrong music can ruin a scene, the wrong rhythm can ruin a novel.  So, start paying attention when you read, and do a revision pass for rhythm too.

Because in this case, the rhythm method works!

27 thoughts on “I’ve Got Rhythm

  1. Just like you can learn other methods of emotional manipulation (in print. I wouldn’t advise it in your own life. In print, readers want to be played with. In real life, people tend to get testy.)


    One of the things I miss about the Navy, and that I adore in my husband, is that I have someone to actually use all these zingers I come up with on!

    It’s like being someone who loves knives, but hates hurting people. To the youtube videos of knive throwing!

  2. Because music was mentioned…. I hope everyone here has seen the trailer for “Shining!”?

    It’s The Shining. Recut. With different music. 😆

      1. In a way, it is. Mary Poppins kills the crappy family life dead, and brings out the hidden shadow selves of every character. It’s like being a consulting necromancer, except everybody lives.

  3. Fights scenes definitely have a rhythm. I’m not sure I’ve captured it myself, but a good fight scene has a flow to it.

    Here’s a WIP sample of Alice fighting in her mecha suit, my contribution to the rhythm method:

    When the warrior strode arrogantly through the gate, Alice took up the ogre’s club and batted him back through with a huge two-handed blow, swinging for the fence. He came running back, sword up on guard this time.

    Athena left her to it. Alice was dealing out the mayhem according to the plan, which was contain and humiliate. Getting his fancy armor smashed by a mere human was right on point.

    When the club finally broke on the warrior’s helmet, Alice drew the two nanotech fighting sticks from the scabbards on her back and laid into him with all the arts she had learned from Syn and Nammu Chen. Her jump suit suit lacked the explosive acceleration of Athena’s artificial muscles, but more than made up for that with sheer power and moving mass.

    The warrior was battered from head to foot. Every time he tried to go on the attack to cut the suit’s armor with his sword, one of Alice’s sticks would come thundering in and break something.

    She got him lined up with the gate and delivered a double blow to his head, followed by a heel strike to the breastplate that sent him back to his own world. She added insult to injury by triggering the jump rocket while her boot was in contact with him, adding to his departure velocity.

    “There, let’s see what laughing boy does with that,” she panted, breathing hard from her exertions.

    I think the reader can follow along and add their own choreography on there. I don’t have to describe “Eskrima double downstroke to the head followed by reverse spin and ushiro mawashi geri heel kick!” Which is good, because nobody knows what all that is, even though that’s what she did in my mind’s eye. I had to go look it up. But it was super flashy when Alice did it. ~:D

    Real fights are nothing like that of course: five subjective seconds of blind hitting and then pain. And you’ll probably barf. And that’s if you’re the “winner.” With training the hitting becomes a little less blind, and the five seconds stretches out to its proper length of… ten seconds.

    Watch some of the fights in these riots sometime, they’re -really- short. One or two hits and its all done.

    Therefore we are not describing reality, we’re weaving a word-tapestry of battle.

    1. My fight scene with the dragon is short but intense. The whole fight took maybe 15 seconds. The dragon took down two of the 4-man squad with a surprise attack from behind, the coward sprinted away, and the hero got an improbably lucky opening and killed it with one desperate sword thrust. (OK, that’s the centerpiece, I still need to work on the before and after…)

      1. Nice!

        Have you considered what it takes to kill something that big with one stab? Either brain-stem inside the skull or spinal cord right at the base of the skull. The guy’s only hope is a fluke thrust through the open mouth and right out the back, or a fluke through the eye socket and down into the center of the brain.

        I have a dragon to fight too. This one is squaring off against Brunhilde. It’s not going to go well for Mr. Dragon. >:D

        1. My dragons aren’t that big–body was about ox-sized, but with a long neck and wicked tail, not that well armored. Dragon got it in the throat with windpipe and artery cut. Sword got stuck in the spine. It took several minutes to die, but Hero got thrown clear and bashed his head on a rock and was out of it.

          1. I definitely buy that. About like a really big flyin’ gator. I can see a lucky cut getting it like that.

            When I’m thinking about monsters, I think about how you’d kill a cow with a sword. It would be very hard to do.

            You can’t cut the head. The skull is THICK and your sword will bounce off. Or snap like a twig, that would happen in the old days a lot more than people think. Swords tended to be brittle, unless made by a very gifted sword smith.

            You need to kill a cow with a sword, you either get it through the eye socket and into the brain (target size one inch) or you cut an artery and then stay out of the way until it bleeds out. Femoral artery would be easier, no horns and it can’t back up very well. Hamstring it, cut the artery and then run away.

            Very not romantic.

            Monster hunters would use spears and bows.

            1. I know my dad figured out where to shoot on the skull to hit the joining-ridge you can see if you look at a cow skull, he can kill a cow with a .22 revolver that way, a sword or spear would work similarly.

              But you’d need to figure out what shape you want the head to be.

            2. Post encounter, Hero recommends at least a six-man squad with spears. Long spears,

  4. At one point my husband obsessed over “you must tell us what novel this is upfront.” And he didn’t mean in words. At the time — I was green as leeks — I thought he was nuts. I mean, doesn’t the cover say what the book is? But he insisted we should get a sense of what the book was going to be on the first page, and then keep the promise.

    I’m reminded of Mark Steyn’s essay on Opening Numbers on Broadway and his point that the first song is a lot more than just the song that comes first. Get it right, and you can coast through most of the first act on the goodwill it generates. Get it wrong, and you’ll never recover.

  5. You need a really good first song for a set of songs at a concert. And it’s best if you can frontload at least three really good songs, and they should all be exciting and relatively short, and it might be a good idea to have them showcase your chops a bit.

    After that, you can start to play with tonal changes and pacing changes. And then you need at least two good songs at the end, and possibly an encore if you’re somewhere with encores.

  6. Not exactly a traditional fight scene. But I think it has all the elements.


    The rain had stopped and the air was crisp and clean—or at least as clean as air gets in the current age and in a city.

    While walking past a playground, things suddenly didn’t feel right. My hand went to my mother’s pendant as I started to turn around. The figure that had been concealed between two parked cars launched himself at me. His impact pushed me back against the wrought iron fence with some force.

    Reacting as I’d been trained, I immediately attacked, aggressively driving blows at the figure’s torso.

    A glancing hit to the side of my head stunned me momentarily and I dropped to one knee, arm up to block any follow up strike. My assailant used that brief pause to take off running.

    By the time I got my bearings and was on my feet again, he was out of sight. That’s when I noticed my laptop case was gone. The laptop was encrypted with one of the best security programs on the market, so I wasn’t too worried about it being hacked, but all my notes about the case were now lost.

    Was this a planned attack, or a simple snatch-and-grab robbery?

    I hurried the rest of the way to the hotel, one hand pressing my scarf against the side of my head. Apparently my attacker had been wearing a ring.

  7. I think you wrote the punch line of this post first, then worked back from there.
    For example: Honey-Do List.

    In the kingdom of RA, far before the Egyptians even thought of shoving sticks in the mud to plant seeds the King ruled in his absolute authority. His word was law. The King, who’s name was Taka was know by the honorific “DU” which was the Ra’ian word for king. Taka-Du, had one treasure beyond price, one thing he prized above all others, his wife Hani. Now Hani was no ordinary woman: beautiful beyond compare, smart and witty, a true equal for the most powerful man in the world. One day as the King’s wife was carried through the city on her litter, she observed a man beating and berating his wife by a fountain in the square. She was appalled, and asked her guard to inquire as to the trouble. Her servant came back and reported that the man had been asked by his wife to perform some menial task in the household and had responded in anger with her. Under the law he was within his rights. The Queen returned to the palace greatly disturbed.
    That evening, she spoke with the mighty Taka-Du.
    “Darling, if you could, would you grant me a small request?”
    “For you, anything.”
    “I saw a thing today in the square. It was dishonorable. A man beat his wife over a triviality.”
    “My precious, you know the law: It is his right…”
    “But dear, over such a small thing! Could you not, blessed one, at least limit this law so that small favors benefiting the household could be done in peace? Surely this would benefit all in the City.”
    So it was decreed, an obelisk of twenty cubits was erected at each of the entrances to the four-cornered city: on each side was engraved the law, and the law specified a list of things a Man in his household must forebear to his wife, This list which became known to all as the list of Hani-Du, persists and has been passed down to this day.
    So the Honey Do list persists.

      1. I understand. I probably couldn’t go much further with the whole “Sentence first, Story afterward” gag than I did here. That was a story I told my daughter one day off the cuff while she was studying in High School. She was only mildly amused.

  8. Oh, the tease! Now I want to read those first three stories: the fantasy in the strange magical land with the old king, the ugly customer who runs errands for the red queen with work, and the mirror warning of impending danger (exploding kitchen). If only you would write them…!

      1. I, too, would like to read the story about Katrina and the exploding kitchen. In fact, you could use that as a working title: Katrina and the Exploding Kitchen!

        Please let us know when it’s available to buy/lease.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: