So how do you find that rhythm? It’s not as easy as hearing the beat of a song, but it should feel that way to your reader. There should be a cadence to your language—one that reflects the setting and genre you are writing—and to your pace. You can feel it when a one syllable word doesn’t maintain your flow, and you need a two-syllable word that means the same thing. You can feel it when a sentence needs to be connected with another sentence so the cadence of the paragraph isn’t too choppy.
You will find as you start getting words and paragraphs onto the page, that sometimes you will have a rhythm in one chapter and a different rhythm in another, depending on what is happening in the story. If your character has just received terrible news, and they are in shock, you are going to feel that in your word choice and your sentence structure. The language will be bare, sparse, abbreviated. You convey mood and devastation in what you don’t say too; your reader’s heart will synchronize to the beat you create.
For me, the first 30k words are always the hardest because I’m finding the melody as well as establishing a pace and a rhythm for the entire book. But remember, you are the conductor, the director, and you can pick up the pace, slow it down, vary the intensity, and change the volume by pulling the reader in and out. It is one of your most powerful tools. Next time you are watching a movie, pay attention to how the storyline jumps from scene to scene. We don’t follow the characters into the toilet. We don’t lay beside them for eight hours while they sleep. We see a plane taking off in daylight and see the character arriving at a hotel late at night. We might see a character making love to an unknown woman and coming home to another, and we know, in two frames, exactly what is going on without being told (or seeing) everything.
Zoom in, zoom out. Use your tools. Move the story. You can do whatever you want to do as long as you take the reader with you. Don’t leave them behind, but don’t make them wait with you in the line at the DMV either. Just like when music is layered, we may have the strings dancing in double time while the timpani only comes in on the downbeat.
Find the rhythm – close, close, far. Close, close, far. Or, narrow, narrow, wide. Narrow, narrow, wide. Hear that rhythm? You’ll begin to feel it too, and your story will find its pace. Now, obviously, you don’t have to apply the narrow, narrow, wide pattern like a metronome through your story. Your pattern may be much more complex—narrow-narrow-wide, narrow, wide, narrow-narrow-wide, etc. I’ve found it helps some authors who are trying to find the drum beat to simply write a scene closeup and immediately pull away for the next, skipping ahead in the action so they can start to establish a pace.
Use that director’s lens—draw in to a close-up and pull up to bird’s eye view. Rush forward and slow to a crawl. We don’t need a play by play of everything a character does unless the play by play is a pertinent scene, a telling conversation, an imperative clue. Learn to work your director’s lens. Widen and narrow. If you’ve been narrowed in for too long, you’ll start to lose the impact of your close-up as well as perspective. If you’re pulled out for too long, your reader will disconnect from the emotion of the story, or worse, from the story itself. Remember, the close up is infinitely more satisfying, both to write and to read. It’s those behind-closed-doors scenes, the fly on the wall moments, that we all long for. Don’t scrimp on the close-ups. That’s when you see the flaws and the beauty and the suffering under the microscope. That’s the stuff that makes your readers feel and connect to the characters, but if you don’t ever pull back, your story will become a series of close-ups without context, and your reader won’t know what they are looking at. You’ve all seen the extreme closeups where you aren’t sure if you’re looking at sand or skin, right? Are we staring at the curves of a naked body or the sand dunes in an Arabian desert? Make sure your reader knows exactly what the close-up is showing them. They won’t FEEL what you want them to feel otherwise.
Part of finding the rhythm of a story is not staying in a scene too long. Susanna Kearsley, author of one of my favorite books, Winter Sea, said once that she tries not to write too many scenes in the same place. That stumped me for a while, because sometimes a character is trapped in the tower, so to speak, like Rapunzel, and you will have repeated interactions in exactly the same place, over and over again. In those situations, you have to apply what I call the “Rear Window tactic.” In Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, Rear Window, his character has two broken legs and he is confined to his sitting room, where he has nothing to do but stare out his rear window, observing what’s going on through all the other windows in his apartment complex. He can’t leave—and doesn’t throughout the whole movie—but we see what he sees, namely all the lives of his neighbors. He takes us through their windows and into their lives: the woman who is having an affair that begins daily as soon as her husband leaves for work, the family with a sick child, the man who is hounded by never-ending calls—maybe a bill collector. He’s stressed and smoking one cigarette after another. He gets late night visitors and comes home with a split lip and two black eyes. Tension is built because, like the main character, we observe everything, but can’t run from the story unfolding at a steady clip before our eyes. At no time does the rhythm slow. It’s like a drum beat that continues to quicken until our hearts are pounding with the pace. Don’t stay too long in a scene doesn’t mean just physically leaving a location, it means closing the conversation, ending the argument, cutting off the kiss, or drawing the eyes somewhere new.
Maintaining a story’s rhythm is also about transitions. The transitions between your movements must be fluid. Fluidity is what separates great storytellers from amateurs. Fluidity moves the reader along without them even knowing they are moving; they are caught in the current you create. Read your manuscript out loud. It’s painful, I know, but as you read, the places where the rhythm is off and the fluidity is non-existent will become more apparent. Sometimes the rhythm can be thrown off by too many words or unnecessary adjectives. Information that doesn’t paint or color but weighs down the narrative should be eliminated. Other times the rhythm will be right, but the character is not singing the right notes—namely behaving in ways or using words that don’t feel authentic to that character. If the characterization is off, the fluidity is lost. Your reader will draw back, frown, or roll their eyes, and if they continue reading they will do so with a more jaundiced eye. You will have reminded them they are reading, and instead of being immersed in your tale, they will simply be wading along, dipping their toes.
Have you ever finished a novel and decided you hate the author? Not the story. Not the characters, the author, and you dislike them not because they can’t write but because they have wrapped themselves around the narrative so completely that all you see, hear, and feel is the author’s world view and personality instead of the character’s world view and personality. The best stories are those where we forget we are reading at all. We are there with the characters, absorbed and immersed in their journey and between their ears; the author’s voice should be perfectly blended with the character’s voice. That blend is essential to the creating of a symphony. You are the director, not the leading lady.
Every author has a style, or a way of conveying the story. No matter what the genre, that style is recognizable. But an author should never let their writing style conflict with their story telling. The story is king, and if your “style’ throws the reader out of the tale (or off the beat) a writer must be willing to change her style to suit the story. A novel set in 1850s America along the Oregon Trail (I just finished writing one) is going to have a different tone and timbre than a story set in a medieval Norse kingdom, like The First Girl Child. What the author focuses on might still be the same – relationships, character growth, the romance, the struggle—but the language and prose will be markedly different. Setting is king, and it dictates how the story will be told and who will tell it. Don’t confuse your style of writing (the way you use punctuation, the way you connect thoughts, whether you write sentences that are a paragraph long, or you like simple prose) with your style of storytelling. No matter what I write—and I am fortunate to write in several genres—I tend to focus on the love story, the emotions, and the relationships between characters, and that angle doesn’t change whether I write a fairytale or a western. When I find an author I love, it doesn’t matter where they take me or what story they tell. I will follow them anywhere because I like the way they tell stories. When a reader tells me, “I don’t like historical novels or I don’t like fantasies, I always ask, “But do you like the way this author tells stories?” If your readers like the way you tell stories, genre won’t matter at all.
When I find an author I love, it doesn’t matter where they take me or what story they tell. I will follow them anywhere because I like the way they tell stories. When a reader tells me, “I don’t like historical novels or I don’t like fantasies, I always ask, “But do you like the way this author tells stories?” If your readers like the way you tell stories, genre won’t matter at all.
Recently, at a book convention, I overheard a discussion between an editor and an author. The editor said she would never be able to write a book herself, but she knew how to make a story that was already written better. She knew how to cut out what wasn’t necessary and could easily recognize where the narrative needed to be expanded upon. Sounds like a good editor, and we all need those. Sometimes as writers, we get lost in our own stories, in the details and the detritus, and the power of the tale is lost in lace and embellishments.
The rabbit holes we gleefully follow while researching shouldn’t be included in the story. A novel isn’t a chance to brag about what we know or what we think we know. An author whose writing I admire, Suanne Laqueur, said that she does research not so she can regurgitate it throughout the story, but so that it is “like a river of lava running beneath their everyday lives, bubbling up in little ways.” Research, for me, is for my own understanding more than anything else. It helps me become my character’s. It helps me know them so they come alive on the page.
In my New York Times Bestseller, A Different Blue, the main character, a sculptor of wood, talks about negative space, and I think those words apply to the art of writing as well. “It’s not just about what’s there, but what isn’t there. Do you see how the carving is created by removing wood? When I carve, it’s the negative space that creates line, perspective, and beauty. Negative space is where the wood is carved away, creating openings that in turn create shape.”
Good storytelling is all about creating that shape. Don’t be afraid to carve. Carving can be the key to finding your story’s heart beneath all the layers. And the wonderful thing about writing as a medium is that you can always put the words back. My final piece of advice to my fellow writers: finish. End your symphony. Don’t get stuck in the first movement or the same refrain. See it through to the end before you abandon your song; you just might find you are a fabulous storyteller after all.