At the moment, I’m halfway through reading a new fantasy/romance novel. I won’t mention the title or author because I want to reserve judgement until I’m finished, but the book has made me think a great deal about rhythm in writing.
The main character in the book is complex and engaging and the descriptions are rich and imaginative. Nevertheless, I’ve had a difficult time becoming fully engaged in the story because its rhythm feels off. It doesn’t have the compelling beat that I love in a good novel–the kind of book that I can’t put down.
To me, rhythm in a novel is like rhythm in music–it picks me up and carries me along. It makes me feel compelled to reach the next chapter, the next page, the next sentence. Reading a book without the proper rhythm is like listening to a band where the drummer can’t keep a beat.
Rhythm can be hard charging, like in a thriller, or it can be slow and steady, like in a thoughtful character study. Often, it can be difficult to define exactly what makes for good rhythm. There’s no time signature like in music, and there are so many elements that come together to take us on a satisfying literary journey. It’s definitely not just the plot that carries the rhythm. Character, dialogue, setting, and sentence structure all come together to make a book successful.
One of my favorite contemporary novels is Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! The book follows the three Bigtree chidren after their mother dies and their parents’ Florida tourist attraction fails. Kiwi, the older brother, leaves to get a job at the World of Darkness amusement park. When the middle sibling Osceola disappears into the swamp, Ava, the youngest daughter, goes in search of her with the help of the mysterious, seemingly magical Bird Man.
The rhythm of Kiwi and Ava’s adventures are completely different. Kiwi’s struggles to be successful at World of Darkness are mostly light and funny. There’s a breezy, fast-paced rhythm to them. Ava’s journey is slower, like a dream walk. There’s a sense of danger and foreboding that draws us in very differently than Kiwi’s chapters.
The distinct rhythms of their narratives are reflected in their first person (Ava) vs. third person (Kiwi) viewpoints, the language they use, the settings, and the turns in the plot. They almost feel like two different books. Swamplandia! never gets monotonous or boring because the rhythm is so varied. But at the same time, the different character strands blend together so well that we’re left with a deep and complex story that few other recent novels I’ve read have acheived.
Developing good rhythm takes years of practice. It’s like learning to play the drums. But I do have a few tips to share that may help you consider your own rhythm in your writing.
- Watch Hollywood movies. The more rigid structure of Hollywood films, especially the three acts in a typical movie, can give you a good sense of how rhythm works. Watch a movie strictly for the structure. Where do the key plot turns occur?How do the scenes vary in length and tone? Do fast paced scenes alternate with slower paced counterpoints?
- Get honest, outside opinions of how your book is flowing. I read too many self-published books with scenes that seem to go on forever, or with unnecessary characters or dialogue. It’s very difficult for a writer to see objectively how the flow of his/her book is working. Find a fearless reader or three to give you the honest truth.
- Watch out for changing POV. In romances, character POV often switches between the hero and heroine. Don’t overdue it. Switching POVs can take the reader out of the story and lead to redundancy if you present the same information from two points of view.
- Write short stories. Because their flow is so foreshortened, they can help you practice developing rhythm.
I hope these tips at least help you think more about rhythm as you’re reading and writing. Good luck!