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!