Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Got Rhythm

Stories and symphonies are similar in many respects.  Structural similarities abound: most notably, there are the refrain, a thematic central element that is repeated, and the coda or conclusion. Along the way both composer and writer weave patterns that reveal the unfolding story and, along with these, the rhythm that paces the piece. In music this is the succession of notes and with writing, the manner in which words are broken into sentence and how those sentences are parsed.  Both dictate the rhythm of a piece.

One of the first things I was taught about writing, as opposed to having discovered through practice, was the importance of sentence variation.  A paragraph composed of only five word sentences might be crystal clear and elegantly worded, but it would be tedious and boring to read.  Variety could be achieved by simply combining a few sentences that were related, separating them into comma delimited phrases.  Of course there are examples where variety is not needed - tech manuals are a good example. Legal documents are examples where carefully composed and complex sentences are absolutely needed. In both cases the enjoyment of the reader is not an issue, quite unlike fiction.

Variety is not the only reason to vary sentences in a work of fiction.  Sentence length can also be used to impart a sense of scene e.g.  She floated across the lake in spring, detecting the scent of blossoms in the air, listening to the buzz of insects aroused from their winter's rest, and basking in the warm sun. This languorous phrasing is far different than a fight scene that demands a more active sentence length e.g.  A foot flies.  You dodge and counter. He blocks your thrust. He falls. The fight continues as you circle and parry, slash and thrust, counter and defend until both of you, exhausted, fall.

Rhythm provides the difference in feeling between these two examples.  The type of descriptive narrative used in the first example would be completely inappropriate for the action scene where it would break the streaming continuity of what is taking place.

As I said in the opening paragraph, the structure of the overall symphony or story has a certain rhythm.  It is produced not merely by the words chosen to impart a scene, but the way the scenes vary in tension or emotion.  Do all the emotional peaks come in one lump or are they distributed across the entire span of the story?  Think of this as breathing.  Another question is if the high point of the action comes near the epiphany. If it is buried in the story's middle it will lose its punch. Neither do you want the story to peak too early.  Too early or too late are equally deadly for reading enjoyment.  Long stretches of exposition that slow the story also affect the rhythm of a piece and should be distributed in shorter sections if possible.  Another technique, if applicable, is to alternate narrative and dialogue. Too much of either becomes boring so balance is important.

While composing a story the writer should attempt to categorize each scene in terms of depth of description, its emotional content, the amount of tension, and the density of exposition.  The point of this is to arrange the scenes to balance tension and release, follow bathos with pathos, shift from emotional highs to despair, and use humor to offset horror. I have a little checklist to make certain that the right questions get answered.

Of course this begs the question of content and style, but that's another subject entirely.

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