Rhythm in Plotting: The bestseller’s best-kept secret – Part 1

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Have you read The Bestseller Code?

The authors, Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers, say that the two bestselling adult books of all time–Fifty Shades of Gray and The Da Vinci Code–share a “regular rhythmic beat” that no other books share, at least not as closely.

Whether coincidence or not, don’t you kind of want to know how to create that regular rhythmic beat in your WIP?  I do.  So we’re going to figure out how best to do that today . . . and next week.  This post came out to a little over 3500 words, so I’m going to split it in two.

Plotting Rhythm–What is it?

Archer-Jockers don’t offer a great definition of rhythm, but they do give us a nice visual:

Image result for da vinci code fifty shades of gray graph

So a working definition of plotting rhythm or pacing could be: the development and arrangement of story events such that two things happen: 1) negative events are followed by positive events, which are followed by negative events, in a repeating cycle, and 2) the introduction, development, and resolution of each of those events takes about the same amount of pages/time.


What’s interesting to me is that this graph shows that each story has roughly eight evenly spaced peaks and valleys, which overlaps quite nicely with the theory of sequences. More on sequences below . . .

Other definitions of rhythm:

James Thomas says, “Rhythm is a pattern of recurring stresses, and dramatic rhythm is a pattern of tensions in the beats, scenes, and acts–a pulsing sensation that occurs when the dramatic intensity rises and falls in each progression.”

William Martin, quoting Herbert Spencer, says, “Rhythm results whenever there is a conflict of forces not in equilibrium.” In other words, rhythm results naturally from the disequilibrium between your main character’s goal (including, at different levels, the story, act, sequence, scene, and beat goals) and the obstacles that stand in his way.

Other kind of Rhythm

This post is mainly concerned with rhythm at the sequence level, but before we get into that, let’s get out of the way that “rhythm” can refer to all sorts of other story things as well, including:

1. Word/Sentence-Level Rhythm

E.M. Forster says, “Rhythm is sometimes quite easy. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for instance, starts with the rhythm ‘diddiddy dum,’ which we can all hear and tap to. But the symphony as a whole has also a rhythm–due mainly to the relation between its movements–which some people can hear but no one can tap to.” That first rhythm, in story terms, is the rhythm at the sentence level, the musicality of the language.  We’ll get to this when we get to voice.  Forster’s second rhythm is the rhythm at the plot level, which is what we’re trying to get clear about today.  

2. Scene-Level Rhythm

Rhythm at the scene level includes the shifting of scene values from positive to negative or negative to positive.  It also includes the rhythm within the scene provided by the beats/tactics/motivation-reaction units within the scene.  (More on these things when we get to scenes.)

So, in other words, the rocking from positive to negative and back again happens on a micro basis every couple of pages or so at this level.

3. Story/Act-Level Rhythm

Rhythm at the Story/Act level is sometimes called Narrative Pattern.  This is the theory that there are, depending on who you ask, only two or seven or twenty, etc., story patterns. We’ll get to narrative pattern someday, but for those interested now, Archer-Jockers says their story algorithm identified seven plots, and that those seven plots matched most closely the plot patterns outlined in Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots*.

4. Narrative Rhythm

Rhythm can also refer to Narrative Rhythm, meaning the number of words or pages given to a block of time in the story.  For example, you can pack ten unimportant years of time into ten words, and you can unpack ten super important seconds of time over the course of ten paragraphs or even ten pages.  

5. Rhythms are Cumulative

Karen Pearlman, a film editor, identifies three rhythms in film editing and says they’re cumulative and impossible to separate.  “In most productions, physical, emotional, and event rhythms are all three at work, all the time, to create the movement and energy of the film. The physical moves emotions, the emotional moves events, and the events move visually and aurally [or, in a novel, imaginatively?]. In this way, the rhythm of the film is experienced as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts.”

Novelists and other writers probably have other and more rhythms to work with, as mentioned above, but I think she’s still right in how they build upon each other.

Anyway, back to the meat of the post:

Why should we care about rhythm in plotting?

1. Rhythm induces readers to synchronize their feelings with the character’s.

Mr. Thomas says, “Rhythm is capable of directly inciting feelings, and because it is based in natural human instincts, it induces these feelings effortlessly. Most of us are inclined to accept rhythm’s emotional effects without even thinking about them.”

Ms. Pearlman agrees. “Riding the rise and fall of tension and release when watching a movie, the audience’s body rhythms and the rhythms of the film sync up. The ‘ride,’ rhythmically speaking, is the movement of the film composed in such a way as to influence the viewer’s pulse, breath, and attention.”

Ms. Pearlman also says, “What is rhythm for? . . . Why does a film need it? . . . two reasons: we need it to create cycles of tension and release and we need it to synchronize the audience with the movement of the film.”  “Here’s how it works: The editor shapes movement of events, movement of emotions, movement of images and sounds into rhythms that we follow empathetically.  If she shapes them well we synchronize with them. We tense with the rise of tension, we let go with the release.  Our minds, emotions, and bodies move with the rhythmic opening and closing of cognitive question about events, the rhythmic rise and fall of emotions, the rhythmic patterns and punctuations of images and sounds.” 

Like I said, Ms. Pearlman’s an editor, but we, as writers, can still shape the movement of events, emotions, and the language used to depict action (what she calls images and sound) into synchronization-inducing rhythms.

2. Rhythm helps readers better appreciate the impact of story events.

Albert Zuckerman says, “If your story is one of unrelenting tension, with frightening events in chapter after chapter, then it might make sense to weave between these chapters a secondary plot strand that is lighter in tone and that also contains a bit of comedy.  Just as we can do more running, swimming, push-ups after a bit of rest, your reader will be better primed to absorb the full impact of a powerful scene if you give him a breather between it and your previous knock-down, drag-out episode.”

Cool, so how do I create rhythm?

F.K. Stanzel says, “Narratives with considerable alternation of the basic forms [by which he means “report, commentary, description, scenic presentation interspersed with action report”] and with frequent transitions between narrative situations [by which he means highs and lows, successes and fiascos] have a strongly pronounced rhythm. Narratives based on only one or two basic forms and on a consistently maintained narrative situation, on the other hand, have a relatively weak rhythm.”

Mr. Zuckerman says, “Plotting a popular novel is . . . an exercise in alternations, in laying out somewhat rhythmically ups and downs, scenes in which the protagonist comes out ahead or wins outright, and scenes in which the hero or heroine is battered or decisively beaten.”

Archer-Jockers says you’re looking for a “measured beat.”  To that end, be sure that “[t]he distance between each peak is about the same, and the distance between each valley is about the same, and finally, the distances between peaks and valleys are about the same.”  Also great is when the height and depth of peaks and valleys are about the same or increasing.

So ask yourself, “Looking at your project, do the fortunes of its protagonist have enough ups and downs? These should more or less permeate your entire story,” says Mr. Zuckerman.  “If they do not, then it might be wise to go back to the drawing board and replot your scenes so that they end up with distinct, albeit sometimes subtle, defeats and victories, failures and successes, satisfactions and woes.”

Okay, but more specifically, how do I create rhythm?

We’ll get to that in Part 2 of this post.  See you next Monday!

Want to run your MS through the Bestseller Code algorithm?

They’ve made it available to the public. I’ve done it. It’s very helpful and, when you nail it, very encouraging. They give everyone with an account the opportunity to give their friends a $20 coupon, so if this is something that interests you, here you go: $20 coupon for MS report at Authors.ai.

Top Books on Rhythm

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