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When we left off last week, we were wondering how, specifically, to create this rhythm.
The goal is to alternate negative and positive experiences on a regular basis throughout the story. To that end, you can develop the positivity/negativity of these experiences through many rhythm lenses, which tend to overlap.
A. Emotional Rhythm
Jodie Archer & Matthew L. Jockers say, “[S]ome novels work for huge numbers of readers not because of what they say to us but what they do to us.” That is, the stories work because they “emotionally,” “viscerally,” and “physically” trigger us.
To that end, try to write “emotional turns with such a regularity of beat that the reader feels the thrum of [the] words in their bodies like the effect of club music,” says Archer-Jockers.
“So how do we do this? How do we take something as intangible as emotional and visceral response and render it in black in on the page?” asks Archer-Jockers. By “paying special attention to positive and negative emotional language.”
Archer-Jockers gives examples from The Da Vinci Code, where the language used in Sophie’s flashbacks provide positivity and in Silas’s flashbacks provide negativity. You can find emotional language examples for yourself, in the books you’re reading, by asking yourself: “‘When does your heartbeat increase?’ ‘When do you feel anxiety in your gut?’ ‘When do you feel the contraction of fear, or the stirring of arousal?’ ‘When does the back of your neck prickle?’ ‘When do you smile’ ‘When do you shout aloud a comment to a character or throw the book against the wall?'”
Emotional rhythm happens at the beats and scene level, in that scenes generally turn from emotionally positive to emotionally negative or vice versa (or from negative to double negative, positive to double positive . . . we’ll get to this more when we get to scenes).
But emotional rhythm also happens at the sequence level, in that earlier scenes in the sequence often set up exposition a reader needs to know in order to fully appreciate the emotional impact of the sequence’s climax.
Speaking of sequences . . .
B. Rhythm of Sequences
One way to build this even rhythm is to plot eight sequences, with odd sequences building toward a negative event, and even sequences building toward a positive event. More or less.
What are sequences?
Syd Field says, “A sequence is a series of scenes tied together, or connected, by one single idea.”
Joseph Paul Gulino says sequences are “segments that have their own internal structure . . . its own protagonist, tension, rising action, and resolution–just like a [story] as a whole. The difference between a sequence and [a complete story] is that the conflicts and issues raised in a sequence are only partially resolved within the sequence, and when they are resolved, the resolution often opens up new issues, which in turn become the subject of subsequent sequences.”
James Thomas says, “What happens is this: a topic is introduced and developed to a peak tension, and then a new topic is introduced that begins to grow toward another peak. Emotional intensity may suspend a little after the peak, but interest will not fade because a new topic will emerge almost immediately and begin moving toward another peak. This is how a [story] moves forward in progressions, which rise, crest, and fall away like waves at the seashore.”
This rhythmic, positive-negative/conflict-resolution change happens (i) at the micro/scene level (that is, every page or so), (ii) at the sequence/movement level, and (iii) at the macro/whole three-act structure level, but it is at the sequence/movement level that you want to deliver evenly spaced and evenly peaked/plummeted ups and downs, achieving 8 peaks and valleys in the whole story. (That’s an average of 8 peaks/valleys total, or four of each. Many stories have more, but few stories have less.)
C. Event Rhythm
Closely tied to sequences is the rise and fall of events.
Karen Pearlman says, “event rhythm, which is sometimes also called movement of plot, movement of story, or even ‘structure,’ . . . is the strategic organization of the events in a narrative to create a coherent and compelling experience of story and ideas. . . . The event rhythm is the flow of structure in motion. It is the movement of the story.”
What’s an event?
“An event is the release of new information or change of direction for characters as they pursue their goals,” says Ms. Pearlman. “Each significant change in a story or structure is an event. Some events are big and have repercussions for the whole plot; others are minor and only change the direction of the plot a bit. In some films events occur rapidly, even dizzyingly; in other films there may be little change over the course of the whole, and the story may consist of just one substantial event. In either case, an event is a perceptible change at the level of story or structure. It is what happens in a story as distinct from emotional changes (which may, of course, be the source of story changes) and image flow (which expresses and reveals the events). Event rhythm is the shaping of time, energy, and movement of events over the course of the story or structure as a whole.”
“Shaping event rhythm relies on knowing when and how audiences know enough about one event and are ready for the next,” says Ms. Pearlman. “If a film engages the interest of a particular audience, but that audience stops caring ‘what happens next,’ then the event rhythm has been misjudged. The editor, in this case, can ask herself: Is there a problem with energy, timing or pace of a particular event? It may not always be the point at which the audience loses interest that has to be changed. In fact, it is often something before that point, something that has given too much away, gone on for too long, dragged too much in its energy, been a distraction, or in some other way stolen the impact of a later event.”
Ms. Pearlman says, “Event rhythm is working at the level of the scene, the sequence, or the whole film. Each scene is a question in a drama: Will the character achieve his objective or be thwarted? . . . Event rhythm is the flow of both the physical and the emotional through scenes, sequences, and structures that release information in a way that supports and conveys the sensations and emotions of the film.”
D. Tension and Relief
Also related to sequences and events is the concept of introducing and developing tension to a breaking point that brings relief.
Dara Marks says, “For human beings it is a natural process to constantly pass in and out of conditions of resistance and release. . . . The pattern of resistance and release generates the pounding drum beat of life. Resistance and release also defines the nature of conflict and resolution. A conflict is a conflict precisely because there is resistance to the solution.”
“But resistance can’t intensify indefinitely. At some point, like an over-extended rubber band, the tension will reach a breaking point and release will follow. No squabble, argument, dispute, or war in history has ever gone completely unresolved. Some sort of reconciliation, compromise, peace treaty, overthrow, invasion, beheading, or surrender occurred that released the conflict toward a resolution and established a new order. It wasn’t necessarily a better order, and no one necessarily won or lost. In fact, you can bet that the new order brought about a new set of conflicts, and the pattern of resistance and release was set back into motion,” says Ms. Marks.
“In terms of story development, this principle of resistance and release causes the story to naturally rise and fall,” says Ms. Marks. “[T]he ending to one problem opens the pathway to encountering and resolving the next.”
E. Comic Relief
A more relaxed approach to creating a rhythm is to just include some comic relief.
Albert Zuckerman says, “One aspect of a plot’s rhythm is relief of some kind from the story’s intensity and from its lead characters’ main struggles. Such relief in fiction often takes the form of a diverting subplot or plots that sometimes have the added value of also being comic.”
“Another approach an author may take to offer relief from high intensity is through an oddball or comic character, one who serves no significant plot function other than to distract or lighten the mood . . . taking the stage . . . just prior to scenes of overwhelming power . . . relax[ing] the audience, lightening its mood and causing it to be more open and receptive, more shocked by the jolting events that follow,” says Mr. Zuckerman. “Ideally, these diversionary characters and scenes should in their own limited way be as dramatic as the core portions of your book.” And tie into the main plot.
“Diversionary subplots and characters . . . can be wonderful enrichments to a novel,” says Mr. Zuckerman, “but it is also possible to get by without them. . . . But every Big Book does require a plot with some alternation of ups and downs.”
F. Cumulative Effect
It’s probably best to think of these lenses as cumulative techniques rather than alternative techniques.
As Karen Pearlman says, “Distinguishing between kinds of rhythm allows us to identify more precisely where a problem may lie or where attention needs to be focused to make a rhythm work.”
How do I Know if I’ve created a Good Rhythm?
Track your story on a graph.
First, decide what you’re tracking. For example, you can track positive/neutral/negative emotion or you can track positive/neutral/negative events, etc.
Archer-Jockers says, “The horizontal zero line in the middle is the space of neutral emotional terrain, perhaps as exciting as making a cup of coffee. Above the line, the scenes in the novel are in positive emotional territory: flirtation, relief, joy, excitement, glee, love–anything that feels good or satisfying–and the higher the spike the more sustained the sentiment is at that moment. Below the line, the situation is less positive for the characters,” and includes anything that feels bad: disagreement, fear, disappointment, anger, etc.
Second, decide on the “view” you want to track, a more macro, sequence- or even act-level view, or a more micro, scene-level view. Or track scene-level rhythm first and use it to then extrapolate the sequence-level rhythm.
Archer-Jockers says, “Changes in direction on the graphs roughly equate to moments of conflict and resolution. The more frequent the peaks and valleys are, the more of an emotional rollercoaster for the characters and for readers. The gradient of the peaks and valleys shows the intensity of changes in emotion. All this stuff translates in the market and in book reviews into words like ‘page-turner,’ ‘suspenseful,’ ‘gripping,’ and ‘addictive.’ “
Last Bits of Advice
Archer-Jockers say that bestsellers evoke an emotional, physical, visceral reaction within the first ten pages, and they also achieve a major emotional dip, for example, by putting the character in serious jeopardy (within the context of the story, of course), within the first forty pages.
Ms. Pearlman says, “The core rhythm of [a story should be] stated in the first shot, established in the first scene, developed in the first sequence, and consistently maintained as a storytelling element conveying the themes and attitudes of the [story].”
Further, “First scenes . . . set up the event rhythms of films, create expectations, and set the pulses of audiences to synchronize with the movement of the story,” says Ms. Pearlman. “But editing first scenes can be like writing introductions: sometimes best to write them after you know how the rest of the story will unfold.”
Top Books on Rhythm in Plotting
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Well, that’s it for me
What about you? Do you think this sequence-level rhythm is a great opportunity or what? Tell us in the comments!
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Next, I think we’re going to do a rhythm example. Or two. One from the list of “regular rhythm” books in Bestseller Code and maybe another example, a story that might not have such a regular rhythm. Or (and?) maybe we’ll do Harry Potter. I think HP1 was written in sixteen sequences, and it wouldn’t surprise me if its rhythm is as regular as FSoG and TDC. Anyway, we’ll see what I’m in the mood to read.
Plus scenes. We’ll get to scenes.
It’s summer . . .
Hope your writing’s going well. See you again soon!