Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Long Form: Rhythm

Writing Wednesday

I read a fascinating article in Scientific American about learning in babies and toddlers. The authors suggested that very young humans act like little scientists, learning about their world by comparing hypothesis with experimental results. Before you object too strenuously, that's simply the clinical way to say little people reacted differently when they observed something that didn't match their expectations.

In one experiment, toddlers were shown a clear tub containing the same number of black and white balls. Researchers tracking eye movements showed that the children paid much more attention to a person who pulled balls of only one color from the box than one who pulled an equal number of balls of each color. What astonished the scientists was how quickly the toddlers were able to assess the ratio of black and white balls in the box and settle on the expectation that the balls pulled out of the box should be equally distributed between black and white.

Jokes about white men not being able to dance (or jump) because they got no rhythm notwithstanding, a sense of rhythm seems to be a basic human trait. I once heard a musician explain that wherever he went--and regardless of language or culture--if he gave an audience a three-note pattern they could always supply the fourth, on the beat.

When we talk of rhythm, we think first of music--perhaps because the beat of the song and the beat of a heart are not too far removed. But nearly everything we experience over time has rhythm. The toddlers in the experiment, for example, likely didn't do a quick count of the different colored balls in the box but they could easily have seen the visual rhythm of the black and white balls.

What about rhythm in writing?

Pacing is likely the first thing that came to mind. It's usually among the topics when we study the craft of writing because inconsistent pacing, like losing the rhythm in music, compromises the story. In critique groups we'll often point out places where the story slowed down.

Pace is a speed. There is more, however, to rhythm than maintaining a narrative velocity.

Like tension and release, a rhythm that mixes faster and slower is more interesting than only one or the other. Short sentences and clipped dialog read faster and imply action, whereas complex sentences in long paragraphs slow the reader down. Just as a story that's non-stop action wears you out, writing entirely in short or long sentences quickly grows tiresome.

There's the rhythm of the story and the rhythm of the storytelling. In well written stories, those two rhythms work together.

At an even higher level you have the structural rhythm of the novel. A book that switches from one view-point character to another with each chapter has a different feel than a book told from one view point for the first half and another view point for the second.

Timing is another dimension of rhythm that's even harder to characterize. As evidence, you likely know people who can't tell a joke to save their souls. One theory of comedy is that you build your audience up to expect that you'll turn right and then, at the last moment, you turn left. The key element in that theory is the "at the last moment" part. It's simply not funny if you turn too soon.

In terms of writing, I heard an author say she learned that the closer together the resolution of the story threads, the stronger and more satisfying the ending. She had a draft where the protagonists resolved their personal relationship in one chapter, they prepare to confront the antagonist in the next, and had the final confrontation in the third. Readers where indifferent. Then she reworked the three chapters so that none of the threads were resolved until the third and reported that most readers were moved to tears. The important point is that the story didn't change, only the timing.

Rhythm is one of the subtle but deep dimensions that distinguish great novels from the merely good. But like other aspects of the art of the long form, it rings hollow if you apply it too consciously. Instead, try to internalize long form rhythm by learning the rhythms that work in symphonies, films, and novels.

Image: Simon Howden /


  1. Oh man I have a lot to think about...

  2. Loved reading these insights, Deren. Another meaningful and wonderful post!


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