Showing posts with label On Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label On Writing. Show all posts

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rhythm Method

What makes a story dramatic? Obvious answers come to mind, such as suspenseful plot lines, colorful but conflicted characters, and overwhelming obstacles those characters must overcome by the story's end. But many writers skillfully craft each of those elements and still, they have only so-so manuscripts on their hands. Something's missing

The key to dramatic writing is Rhythm.

 Rhythm is an elusive literary element, as hard to teach as it is to learn. Simply put, weak or poor rhythm jeopardizes the emotional impact of the story. It dampens the drama.

 Areas you can concentrate on to create rhythm in your writing are Sentence Lengths, Variations in Sentence Structures, and the use of Cappers.

Sentence Lengths - Decipher a long sentence and you'll find it contains several modifying phrases and/or clauses, strung together with commas (or semi-colons). Sometimes a lengthy sentence is necessary. But it's important to realize that as readers move through all those modifiers, farther and farther away from the sentence's subject and predicate, they may forget the original point of the sentence by the time they reach the period. A story with too many long sentences will shift readers into glazed-eye gear. Monotony leads to boredom.

 Those multiple commas also affect the rhythm of a long sentence. Think about it. Punctuation marks are the story's breath that guides the emotional impact of a passage. Periods are hard stops that demand emphasis, where commas pause, like a sigh. An em-dash holds its breath. Ellipses are airy, uncertain. Unfinished thoughts that drift away... For rhythm to be dynamic, it requires a variety of punctuation to stir the emotional cauldron. So a long sentence with, say, four commas? Well, that's a lot of sighing.

Variations in Sentence Structures - You create rhythm in a paragraph by varying the lengths and structures of the sentences it comprises. And nothing stifles rhythm like stringing several sentences together in exactly the same way.

 Example: After spotting Dan across the room, Emma approached him with a smile. Before he could speak, she raised her hand for silence. Although he'd been upset, he grinned when she leaned in and kissed his cheek.


 In this silly example, each of the three sentences begins with an introductory phrase set apart from the main clause by a comma, and ends with a modifying prepositional or adverbial phrase. The problem with using several identical sentence structures in a row is that the reader will likely slip into a sing-song internal voice, diminishing the moment's dramatic essence into something that sounds like a nursery rhyme.

Rhythm in writing also depends on variety in sentence lengths to establish musicality, or a pleasing "sound" to the mind's ear. Mix it up. A long sentence, followed by a medium length sentence, and then a short sentence before another long sentence will lend a more melodic sound than the constant drone of same-length sentences. Also, the short sentences will carry more emphasis, stand out with greater emotional impact next to their longer counterparts.

Cappers - A short sentence that comes after several longer ones and serves to "cap off" the preceding information with a burst of dramatic flair is called a Capper. A capper is a literary gimmick, and if you overuse them in a story you risk desensitizing your readers. However, used sparingly, these little sentences carry a powerful dramatic punch.

Example: My lungs felt collapsed; I couldn't draw in enough air. I pleaded, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," over and over under my breath as thoughts collided in my brain. I realized I'd never been in danger before this moment in my life. I was at the mercy of these excited, armed men. Whatever they said I had to do, I would have no choice but to obey. And that terrified me.

"And that terrified me" caps off the five sentences that come before it, wrapping up the sentiments of the passage, before the story moves on.

The above excerpt is from one of my own stories, but here's another (better) example. It's by James Alan Gardner from his 2001 article A Seminar on Writing Prose: Rhythm . It illustrates the capper perfectly:

I was just about to lock in the auto-pilot when the navigation screen flashed every color in the rainbow for three and a half seconds, turned fuzzy gray for a second after that, then went completely blank. Naturally, I hit the DIAGNOSTICS button. Nothing happened-for all I knew, the diagnostic suite might be happily running through the nav system circuits, but the screen didn't show me a thing. I spun my chair to face the command console, but its screen had gone blank too. So had the screens for the engines, communications, and life support. I stared stupidly at all those empty screens until it dawned on me that things had gone awfully quiet behind my back: the usual noise of machinery, air ventilators, and cooling fans had fallen silent. 

Then the lights went out. Shit. 

Rhythm is the heartbeat of life. Picture a room full of people dancing. They're twisting and twirling to the same song, but your eyes will go right to that man or woman whose organic movement and natural beat melds in perfect synchronization with the music. Create that rhythmic vibe in your writing, and you will captivate your reading audience with drama in every sentence.

Can you judge the rhythm of your own work, or do you look to reviewers and critique partners to evaluate the fluency of your writing? And, do you think you can Thanks for reading!

[I wrote this article originally to appeared in the January 25, 2012 Drama Newsletter at]


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

All Aboard! (*cue maniacal laughter and intro music*)

November is here, and even though I'm not a ticketed passenger aboard the NaNo Crazy Train, I am inspired to set challenging goals for myself.  I have Stephen King to thank, as absurd as that sounds.  His book On Writing has lit a bonfire under my writer's ass.  (Seriously, if you haven't read that book, you're missing out.  Here's the Amazon link: To The Best Writing Book on the Craft...EVAH.)

King isn't the only successful writer to advocate a daily writing schedule, and I adopted the practice over a year ago.  My problem has been considering blog post writing part of that goal.  Some days, if I'm being completely honest, the only writing I accomplish is on my blog.  That will change this month.

Starting this past Monday, I no longer consider writing on my blog part of my daily writing practice.  Per Mr. King's advice, I pledge to write between 1000 and 2000 words a day OF MY MANUSCRIPT.  In On Writing, King talks about two catagories of daily writing: "With the Door Closed" and "With the Door Open."

In November, I'll be writing with the door closed.

What he refers to by "writing with the door closed" is how (he suggests) a writer should pen the first draft.  The door to your writing space is closed; the phone is unplugged/off; the Internet is closed -- no Blogger/Twitter/FaceBook/email/  No matter what, you sit down to write and you don't stop before you've met your word count goal.

Now, some may not agree with this method.  We all work differently, and there's no right or wrong way to approach your craft.  But my goal for the month of November is to re-establish productive daily writing habits, and I'm riding my tidal wave of On Writing inspiration.  So far, I've had success.  On Monday I wrote 1467 words, and yesterday I wrote 2150.  Today, I'm shooting for 2000.

Incidentally, "writing with the door open" refers to the revision/edit phase of a MS when, according to Stephen King, it's time to show some of your work to a small group of beta readers.  I part company with King's philosophy on this point.  (He's probably right, mind you.  But I have my reasons...)  I plan to continue sharing my rough, first draft work with Jessica, my awesome critique partner.  At least for this, my first novel, I appreciate the feedback she gives me and the "deadlines" we stick to in exchanging our work.  That, too, is keeping me on track.

I still plan to write occasional blog posts, but I won't be sticking to my regular MWF schedule.  I probably won't be able to comment on your posts as often, either.  I think November is the best month to relax the blog schedule, since so many of you purchased your NaNo tickets this year.  I think we'll all be ready to meet back here in December, right?

So, happy writing to all of you.  Best of luck meeting your daily work count goals, and remember to schedule in and enjoy your downtime with family and friends.  Drink water throughout the day, especially if you're like me and slug down more than your daily recommended dose of caffeinated coffee.  And write, write, write!!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Stephen King's On Writing

There are no coincidences in life, of this I am sure.  Timing is divine.  And that's the reason I hadn't gotten around to reading Stephen King's On Writing before now.

For the rest of you who make up the infinitesimal percentage I belonged to  of people who still haven't read On Writing, here's why you should pick it up today:

If you are a writer:  King talks about the craft like you're sitting on a sofa across the room from him, feet up on the coffee table or tucked underneath you.  He's so accessible, describing his life from his earliest memories forward and how his experiences shaped his writing.  You'll find yourself nodding as you read, validated as the writer you are, when he says things like:

"There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.  Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up." -- Stephen King, On Writing (Copyright 2000 by Stephen King, published by Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. -- This Scribner trade paperback edition July 2010, page 37.)

If you're a Stephen King fan:  You don't have to be a writer to love this book.  If you devoured Stephen King classics like Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot, The Dead Zone, Misery, etc. etc., you will learn in On Writing what everyday experiences sparked the ideas for his stories.  This book is part memoir, a backstage pass into the creative mind of Stephen King, where he tells you where the dots fell and how he connected them.

But as I said at the beginning of this post, timing in life is often extraordinary.  I was reading On Writing yesterday when I came across a passage that spoke directly to me, its message seemingly intended for me:

"The most important [lesson King learned while writing Carrie] is that the writer's original perception of a character or characters may be as erroneous as the reader's.  Running a close second was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.  Sometimes you have to  go on when you don't feel like it, and sometimes you're doing good work when it feels like all you're managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position." -- Stephen 78.

Thank you, Mr. King.  I needed to hear that!