Rhythm in Writing

New fiction writers often don't consider the difference between words and meaning. Think of words as containers that carry meaning. A high words to meaning ratio can often slow the pace. Ever listen to someone spend an hour saying 5 minutes worth of information? You feel like you're going to die of boredom. The reverse isn't always true. A high meaning to word ratio can speed up the pace, but slow down the reader as they try and keep track of the chaos, even if all the details are there. Ever listen to someone tell you an exciting story but you need to sit down and digest everything before it registers?

There is a balance, but that balance shifts back and forth dynamically. When someone tells a good joke, they slow down and take their time with the set up. When the teller is ready to give the punch line, they give it quickly and clearly.

Writers sometimes have trouble recognizing what rhythm they should use at what point and what mechanics are involved in changing rhythm. Let's look at how this effect is done in film. Character and world building moments are done with long takes. Often, directors use close ups of characters to show their emotions so we get an idea of their character through how they react to events. Something sad happens and we get a close up of the protagonist looking sad so we sympathize. We get a close up of the antagonist's face, who isn't sad so we know that's the villain. In these scenes, the camera stays on one person or scene for long periods of time so we have time to soak up the emotions of the moment. When action scenes happen, the director uses a lot of cuts or camera angle changes to give us the illusion everything is happening quickly. Rarely in action scenes is new information given. But when it is--like if a character pulls out a hidden knife in the middle of a fight--the camera will focus on the knife for a longer period of time, so we can adjust to the new reality of the scene. Once enough time is given for us to accept there is now a knife involved, then the scene proceeds as before with fast camera angle changes until the action stops or slows.

This same technique can be done in writing. Use of short, choppy sentences forces us to use a high meaning to word ratio. This is great for fast action scenes. Let's carry on the example from last week with poor Claire in the alley way.

"The man steps from the shadows. An old scar cuts into the side of his face. He pounds his fingerless gloved fist against his palm as he stares at her.

Claire scans the dark alley. Beside her, the broken leg of an old wooden chair lays discarded. He steps towards her. She brings her fists up to block her face. The man swings a right cross. Claire ducks in time. The wind from the blow rips at her short, crimson hair. She dives for the chair leg, holding the splintered end towards the man. He reaches into his coat and pulls out a knife. The blade's cold steel glistens in the moonlight."

First off, let me say, had I been writing this as a real story, I wouldn't use uncreative, cliches like physical disfigurements and fingerless gloves to identify the man as a villain, but you get the point of what I'm doing here. Notice how I switch between short, choppy sentences for action, then I use a longer sentence to slip some detail about the characters in between? It serves a dual purpose. It gives a sense of a brief passage of time in between attacks, and gives the reader some details. If a reader can't picture the scene, it doesn't have any impact.

But there are other, non action, times you want to pack a lot of meaning in a short period without choppy sentences. For example: describing side characters and scenery in places where you don't want to distract the reader too much from the important stuff. You want the reader to be able to picture a scene, but the scene isn't the story. Next week, I'll talk about how to use poetic devices to accomplish this.

Stories Are About People

"It was a dark and stormy night."

Other than being a horrible cliche, this classic, terrible story opener fails to do the most basic thing an opening line is designed to do: grab the reader. No one wants to read stories about the weather. So how do you grab the reader in one line?

Humans are social creatures. We are naturally curious about other people--even fictional ones. As such, an opening line about a person in a sympathetic situation should do the trick. Imagine a story that starts out...

"Claire was running out of time. She squeezed at the small puncture on her arm. Her vision blurred as she peered around the corner in the dark alley. The silhouette of a man stood between her and freedom."

The first sentence gives us both a person to root for and some tension. We, as readers, are conditioned into thinking the first character introduced is generally the protagonist. Therefore, we already know to root for Claire by the end of the first sentence.

What's coursing through her veins? We assume it's poison. Maybe she was drugged or bitten. At this point, it's not explained in detail. Why? Because that's not important right now. What is important is that the protagonist is in trouble, the situation seems desperate, and there's a shadowy figure that serves as an obstacle Claire will need to overcome before time runs out.