The Rhythm Method

Years ago — about 20, dear Lord, seems like yesterday — when I was a relatively inexperienced or at least newly published writer — I showed something I was working on to David Drake, and asked if it was completely disjointed, because it’s what it felt like to me.

I no longer even remember what it was. It might have been fantasy, but then again it might have been mystery. I just remember that I was writing it with no ability to concentrate, and therefore I had a sense that it didn’t hold together or wouldn’t, for a reader.

I thought he was going to tell me that it made no sense, or to scrap the entire scene, but what he said was “oh, it’s all there, it’s just that you need to dance a little faster.”

After I was done blinking at him, he explained. In a lot of these tricks — say a magical cataclism, or directing the readers’ attention away from the guy who really committed the crime, it’s like doing a fan dance. You’re on the stage, with your proverbial wherewithal hanging out for all to see, but you have to move your fans fast enough that, now you see it, now you don’t and no one is sure what they actually saw, and you can’t get run out of town for breaking the indecency rules. Or, if you prefer, no reader sits back and goes, “Now, wait a dang minute!”

He was right. Once I’d taken away some of my more leaden attempts to explain, and just moved the whole thing fast, fast, fast, the scene worked. Isn’t it funny that I can’t remember what scene and in what book it was — to be fair, back then I was doing six books a year, and that’s the ones I admit to, not counting work for hire, book doctoring and pseudonymous, while raising two sons, so it’s all a blur — but I remember when it came out the critiques liked it?

There are many ways to bluff the incredible — i.e. to write something plain impossible and sell it — including make it a joke, exaggerate it even more, write it poetically or well… razzle dazzle. And I can do a post on that, but this one is more down to home.

The timing… of the writing dance. The rhythm of the story.

As abundantly proven by the twice or three times a year that I forget it’s Wednesday, I have very bad sense of timing in real life. And when I started writing, I had a poor sense of timing in fiction too.

I know why. If you read Portuguese novels, the timing is slow, markedly legato, with little side excursions and interesting asides. It is the novel equivalent of a life in which you get four coffee breaks, and an hour for lunch no matter what. It’s the writing equivalent of sitting at a little corner cafe, making the espresso last half an hour before you get back to business.

Even though I’d never read much in Portuguese fiction – no really, their trad put was corrupt and crazy well before ours was – and preferred translation, some of the translations markedly slowed down the novels (yes, it is possible to do.) But also, I was raised in the culture outside the novels. You know the thing that made it slow and stretchy.

I mention this only because when I was first starting to send novels to agents in 1992, one of them — later the second fired agent — told me that my novel was okay, but I had no sense of timing and that was innate and couldn’t be fixed. Which should have been a warning to me not to hire him later, but hey, I’m stupid.

A sense of timing can be learned like anything else. And yes, yours might be totally screwed up, if your favorite reading is Tolkien, Jane Austen, or frankly anyone before the Pulp era.

While the publishers and editors were full of flies when they maintained that no one read because of Radio, TV, Movies, and then at last games, they were right that these experiences changed the way we consumed entertainment. Heck, if I’m right most pulp was read on public transportation, or in the evening, before going to bed, by common folk everywhere, a markedly different public and entertainment than stuff that was published in the very early 20th century or before, which was designed to be read en famille, around the fire, more as a performance, by an educated elite.

To be fair if you’re aiming for the educated — or in our time, often, the pseudo-educated — elite, you can still get away with a much slower tempo, a more layered arrangement, a side trip into the meaning of life before you dispatch your bad guy. You are also limiting your audience, of course, but that might not matter as much in indie where provided you find your niche you can live abundantly on a couple thousand dedicated readers.

Anyway, the point is you should write the tempo for your market.

How can you figure out the tempo for your market? Mostly it needs to be read by someone else who evaluates it, whether that’s your beta readers or a trusted professional. Mostly because while timing can be learned, it is part and parcel of how you view the world, so you need to work at learning it.

Which means first you need to know it’s broken.

There are however certain things you should know about timing, just off the top of my head:

If you’re hiding something, i.e. giving the reader all the info but not wanting them to remember? Do it before something that seems spectacularly big, even if it’s a nothing burger.

If you’re introducing two characters both single and of marriageable age at the same time, people are going to ship them in their head.

If you solve the crime halfway through the book, it better be a fake solution, overturned by the real one.

And your chapters should get shorter and punchier towards the end of the book.

Oh, and if you’re fixing a major timing and rhythm problem?

You should diagram the books you enjoy that have the tempo you want to steal. What do I mean? Well, take the book, and summarize each chapter by major event and plot thread solved. Do that enough and you’ll start to “feel” the tempo.

Well, or at least I did.

And now till next time, when I won’t write the post in the evening. Hopefully.

11 thoughts on “The Rhythm Method

    1. I can’t dance, I can’t talk
      Only thing about me is the way I walk
      I can’t dance, I can’t sing
      I’m just standing here selling everything

  1. Timing/pacing is one of the things I get, but am bad at. Action, pulpy action? That I am more comfortable with. It’s the slow points that kill me.

    I’m writing a slow point right now. Agonizing. But there’s character building to do, and that’s harder to pull off when the bullets start flying (but doable, in certain cases).

    Hopefully the readers don’t hate it too much.

    1. Meanwhile, I’m trying to write action scenes where the hero doesn’t understand much and convey what’s happening without his getting it and doing it quickly enough. . . .

      1. Drake’s “Rolling Hot” shows a progression of someone from having no clue what’s going on to being a competent soldier. Could be a good starting point.

        1. You want to learn how to do a good action scene, studying Dave Drake is a good move. The man has talent and skill, and it shows.

  2. Struggling with a couple of WIPs inspired by veeeery leeeeisuuurely sources, so definitely working on this.

    In the meantime, gonna go all Darmok and Jelad at Tanagra:

  3. But I LIKE the old slow stuff. Most of the new stuff is too fast, nay breakneck speed. They don’t stop and smell the flowers much less bother to describe the scenery. And, get off my lawn.

    1. Then that is the trick. You put in just enough slack, not too much.

      Film Ladd just put up a video about why he does not think ST: Picard’s third season is competent.

      Late in the video he compares a Picard/Crusher scene to a similar scene with Kirk and his old lover in Wrath of Khan. The WOK scene is much shorter, much better acted, and much better written, but also better shot, lit, set designed, etc.

      You can do a lot in a short space, and not have it seem short, and a long scene does not have to drag along.

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