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Writing Excuses 8.15: Narrative Rhythm

Writing Excuses 8.15: Narrative Rhythm


Key points: narrative rhythm and pacing are all about raising the tension and slowdowns or breaks. Short stories and thrillers may not have breaks at all, while other stories let the reader breath. Different books need different pacing. Moments of dialogue or other beats can provide the contrast to make the highs really stand out. Sneaky trick: put the rests at the front of the chapter, not the last. Use cliffhangers and hooks to keep readers going across the chapter breaks. Don't do cat scares, do honest changes in understanding. Look at the balance of rising action and falling action in your story. You probably want more rising action! Rising action raises the tension, but is not necessarily a fight or physical action. A brief fall before the climax can increase the punch of the climax. Tag your scenes with emotions, and make sure you have a good mix. Pace and narrative rhythm are very much matters of personal taste, some people feel like a racer, some don't. Mixing up the kinds of tension can also add a change of pace.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 15.
[Brandon] This...
[Howard] No.
[Brandon] Is Writing Excuses, Narrative Rhythm.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Dan.
[Dan] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Howard.
[Howard] I'm not convinced.
[Howard] Also, I have to confess, I don't actually know what we're talking about.
[Brandon] We are talking about the way you shake up your narrative at various points in order to help your rhythm, or slow the book down, or potentially make the reader stop and ask questions, or make them continue on through it very quickly at speed. You do this by juggling action sequence versus sequence of argument versus conversation versus introspection. Where you place these things in a story can really help enhance how the rhythm of your story is going to feel.
[Dan] One of the first places I learned about this was actually a college class I took about musical theater and discussing, "Why do you have songs in a play? Why don't you just do the play?" They started looking at different plays and saying, "Well, in this one, the songs serve this purpose, and in this one, they serve that purpose." In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is a just outright farce screwball comedy, the songs in there are a respite. They give you a break from the just breakneck pace of this crazy story. You get to slow down for three or four minutes while they sing a song and catch your breath, and then it's back into the madness again.
[Mary] The challenge with the slowdown is to do it in such a way that people don't get bored and put the book down and walk away from it.
[Dan] Exactly.
[Mary] But there are times when an audience needs a break in order for you to continue ratcheting the tension up.

[Brandon] I feel that this is strongly dependent on the type of story you're writing and the length. For instance, a shorter story as happens in thrillers... A short novel thriller, you need much... You need breaks much less frequently. In fact, you may not need one at all. Some thrillers can happen where it's boom boom boom boom boom boom boom and you gasp at the end of it. But you read it in all... Basically one sitting, and it works.
[Howard] I've mentioned Dean Koontz's book Intensity as an example of that, where he deliberately set out... See, now I think I know what we're talking about. He set out to write something that instead of being scene-sequel format, was just scene scene scene scene scene scene scene, and if there was any time spent reacting in recovering to the previous action, it was spent at a dead run. A third of the way through the book, I realized I can't keep this up. So I just kept to the end and read the end. Was it a successful thing that he did? Well, not really for me, but he's Dean Koontz.
[Brandon] I do think that even the best... The highest level of thrillers are going to manage this in some way. If you go watch the film The Dark Knight, which I think is truly a thriller. It's a really great thriller. It may be my favorite. There is a little bit of up and down and narrative flow. Even though it's basically one big long tense adrenaline fest. There are moments where you've got tense conversation, instead. Or there's moments where you pull back a little bit, and it's Alfred and Batman or things like this.
[Mary] Yeah. Or even in the Avengers, when they're in this giant battle scene, the reason that they will pop in and have a moment of dialogue in the middle of the fight, and usually a moment of funny dialogue, is to give you that breather before they throw you back into the nonstop action.
[Brandon] Yeah. I think the Avengers is a perfect example of this, because there is so much rhythm to that movie, and it hits those rhythm beats really perfectly.

[Dan] The reason that you have those beats, in a thriller or an action movie like that, are because they make the highs more meaningful. If everything were all paced at the same level, it may as well be a low level as a high level because it doesn't matter, you're not going to have any of that variance. But if you take time to slow down or to drop or whatever, then when you go back up again, it's going to be that much more effective.
[Mary] Sometimes if you do the right kind of drop, it can have the same sort of punch as when an airplane drops. There are places where the slowdown is as gut wrenching as the full steam ahead.

[Brandon] Now let's say... We've been talking a lot about thrillers, and the narrative flow of boom boom boom boom boom. I actually don't write these as often. I'm writing epic fantasy a lot of the time. Certainly I'll have different pacing methods in different books. Alloy of Law is very different from Way of Kings. But if I look at Way of Kings, one of my philosophies in narrative rhythm is that I want to have big chunks of story that come to a narrative end within the story. I think I've said before on the podcast that many would consider this a bad idea. You always want to keep them pulled into the next and hooked. I don't do that. I say, "beginning, middle, and end, we have ended this plot structure. It's okay to take a breather right here, and then we're going to start another one" because it's a 400,000 word book.
[Howard] Nintendo recognized this when they released the Wii, which is why every 20 minutes, it would throw a little thing up that says, "Hey, why don't you put down the controller and go for a walk. Get some fre..." I'm not kidding. It was really funny. There's a website, and I forget the name of the website, that basically tells you when it is okay to get up and go to the bathroom at a particular movie. It will tell you wait for this in such a scene, and then it is safe to go to the bathroom because nothing important is going to happen. The reason I bring this up is that you absolutely, positively, never want to put that in your book. I mean, you can have a chapter break where it's okay to put the book down and come back to it, but you don't want to write a scene that is okay for the reader to miss.

[Mary] Right. Actually, I was... With the chapter breaks, one of the sneaky tricks that you can do to give people the rest that they need without causing them to put the book down is make sure that the rest portion is in the front or middle of a chapter. Do not put it as the last thing of your chapter. Because people typically will say, "I'm just going to read to the end of this chapter." Then they'll put it down.
[Brandon] See, here is where I disagree from the conventional wisdom. You are right, but I go ahead and say, "You can put the book down now."
[Mary] Well, you're writing...
[Brandon] I'm writing books that big. Now if you don't want people to put the book down, this is what you do. Exactly what Mary is talking about. In fact, in Alloy of Law, I tried to do this. Or in Steelheart, where I'm writing a shorter book, 90,000 words, where I feel I really want you just to keep on going. I try to end as many chapters as possible with one of these, a now we're going to do this. Now, let's go do this. Or the kind of cliffhanger-y sort of chapter end.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Yes. I looked at Dan, he looked like he was going to say something.
[Dan] Well, I was just thinking of a joke that I saw online the other day, that someone said, "When you're writing a thriller, always end every chapter by saying, 'but that would turn out to be a very bad decision, as they were about to find out.' Just like Dan Brown did. Which isn't exactly how Dan Brown did it, but that's how he ends every single one of his chapters, is this something that just hooks you straight through to read it. So as you read it and go, "This is so dumb" you can't stop, because just he is a master of narrative rhythm, frankly.
[Brandon] I've said before that I feel that some of those are dirty tricks, but you sometimes want to use dirty tricks.
[Dan] But they work.
[Brandon] They work. They pull you in. It's the sort of thing where it's... Now, we've talked about this before. Let me reiterate this concept. My personal philosophy on it is... Dan Brown will do this... This is the difference between the dirty trick and the non-dirty trick, and sometimes you have to use the dirty trick. The dirty trick is "They opened the door and then..." Chapter ending. The non-dirty trick, and this is kind of the higher level, I feel, if you can do it. Have them open the door and the thing they find behind the door changes your understanding as a reader of what's going on in such a dramatic way you have to keep reading.
[Dan] Yes. If what's behind the door is so fascinating you can't stop reading, then you've done a good job. But if what's behind the door is super boring, and you would have stopped reading if the chapter had ended there, then you've just pulled a dirty trick.
[Brandon] A lot of the thriller writers will do that. They opened the door and... It was Larry, who had come to give them the test results of this... Then you do the boring scene at the beginning to get them to the end where you're going to hook them again into the next one.

[Dan] It's basically the book equivalent of a cat scare in a movie, where something jumps out and terrifies you, but it's only the cat.
[Howard] Wow, it's been a long time since I've read one of those books. I must've gotten good at dodging them. I remember reading some of those in decades past, but...
[Mary] Yeah. Basically, whatever the cliffhanger is, whatever that hook is, it has to... The payoff has to be worth it.
[Brandon] This is again the problem that people had with Lost, is they felt that... It's the... There's a light under there. You open it up and... Oh, it's just another question. There's nothing fascinating under there, there is something more to get an answer for. What's in the suitcase? Oh, an airplane. Oo, it will be meaningful eventually. Sometimes they did a very good job with this, sometimes they did a poorer job just to keep you watching the next one. Book of the week? Mr. Wells.

[Dan] Our book of the week this week. We realized as we were going back through our archives that we had never, at least not that we've recorded, promo'ed Lloyd Alexander. He's one of the great masters of young adult and middle grade fantasy. He's... The first fantasy book I read to myself after my dad read me The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings was The Book of Three, which is the first of the Prydain Chronicles. One of my favorite books of all time is actually Taran Wanderer, the fourth book in that series. But we want you to go out and read The Book of Three. It is middle grade, it is incredibly simple. But I recently reread them to my kids and loved them every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. So.
[Howard] Head over to Audible. Start yourself a free 30 day trial membership and pick up Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Free...blipidiblip... The Book of Three for free.
[Brandon] For free.
[Howard] Oh, dear. Then for the rest of that trial, I think everything you pick up from audible is 30% off. What a deal!
[Dan] So you can get the whole series.
[Howard] You could get the whole series at a steep... Well, 30% off discount.
[Dan] That's steep on a highway.
[Brandon] All right.
[Howard] It's really steep for a highway.

[Howard] One of the things that I found interesting when Mary was talking about her outlining, was that the outline that she wrote for the story was... Had no indication of the chapter structure. That the chapter structure was what built pacing, and the outline was its own tool. I mean, the outline suggests pacing, but it did not say, "Chapter 1, this happens, chapter 2, that happens." That came later.
[Brandon] Right. She paces in the moment. That actually brings me to my next big question, which is that I'm sure there are listeners out there thinking, "Okay, that's well and good. How do I do this? I have no sense of this. This is just one of those things that's feeling very overwhelming to me right now as a writer. How?" Do you have any advice for the writer who wants to learn narrative rhythm but doesn't have a sense for it?
[Mary] So there's this theory called rising action and falling action. Rising action are things that ramp up the tension, and falling action are things that... Are resting periods. Trying to put that into play depends on the type of story you're writing. But let's... Oh, let's see. Can anyone besides me help me with a good pop culture example of some...
[Dan] Of rising action and falling action?
[Howard] Besides you? Because I mean if you can do it, then you should help you. [Garbled]
[Mary] Well, I can come up with examples, but I'm having trouble coming up with one that's pop culture. Okay, well, so in Avengers, which I just saw... An example of rising action is literally the moment when the ship takes off. That's very, very literal rising action. They have been ramping up the tension all along. Then we have a moment of falling action, which is the meeting. The meeting continues to move things forward, but it is not physical literal action.
[Brandon] Right. Another good one from the Avengers is they're ramping up the tension between all of them. The different personalities and egos are getting big, and you feel that it's just... I like this one because it's not necessarily that... The rising action is not always a fight. It's gearing up to something's going to snap, something's going to go wrong, I can feel it... Oh, no, and then it does and everything... The proverbial all hell breaks loose.
[Mary] What's actually beautiful about that one is that there is a brief moment of falling action, which is Dr. Banner, put down the...
[Howard] Put down the scepter.
[Mary] Put down the scepter, and he does. You're like, "Okay."
[Brandon] Oh. We had our climax, and we're fall... No! We're not! Everything...
[Mary] Yeah. It's the moment of... It's the calm before the storm. Which is one of the things that that can do for you. So, when you're trying to implement this in your own fiction, you are looking for a balance. I mean, I can throw out numbers and say, "You want 70% rising action and..." But that's not actually helpful. This is where you have to have people, when you're learning this, where you have to have audience members read it for you and tell you where they are getting bored.

[Brandon] You know what, I'm going to go... I'm going to say, since you said that, where they're getting bored. I read a lot of student fiction. I teach the class. Most of the time, the students are putting in too much falling and not enough rising. They are not as good at ratcheting up the tension as they are at having people stand around and chat. You can have tension while people are standing around and chatting, but you need to add on the pressure. You need to keep things rising.
[Dan] A quick trick that you can do... A thing that I do and some of my books is look at each scene... This works after you've done something or even in the planning stages. Look at each scene, and try to take it with a single emotion.
[Mary] Oh. Yeah, that's a good thing.
[Dan] Then make sure that (A) you don't have two identical emotions next to each other. You don't want anger and anger right next to each other, or wonder and wonder. You want to separate anger and then wonder and then inquisitive and then sad and then tense. Spread those out and get a good mix of them.
[Mary] The... Along those lines, when you're looking at rhythm and pacing, the speed at which you do these things and the length at which scenes last, a lot of that is going to depend on the length of the overall work. The analogy that I use is a clothesline. In a short story, you're trying to hold tension, and it's a short piece of cord, and you can get it pretty tight, so that it's a nice straight line with just your hands. If you're trying to stretch it all the way across the room, you're going to need to put a lot more tension on it, and sometimes you will need things in the middle to help support it. In the middle are sometimes those places where you take a moment to let readers take stock and understand what's happening. The we've been having lots and lots and lots of action, and now people are going to stop and kind of explain what's going on, and then go forward again. Those taking stock moments are things that you don't need in short fiction, as much. Every now and then you do, but... So this is...
[Brandon] This is more a novel thing. It really is. Because basically your short fiction, and people keep asking about it, so we should probably talk more about short fiction. My experience has been, you want to have like basically those emotions... You're going to pick one or two. You're going to have that emotion built to its climax, and that's going to be basically the finish of your story. That's one big dividing line. In a novel, you would have that build to a climax, have another emotion for a while, and then start ratcheting up.

[Dan] Now, one thing that we... We talk about it a lot, but haven't defined for a while, is scene-sequel format. Which is where you have a scene, and then the next scene is actually a sequel to it, where it rather than standing on its own, it's a chance to take stock or to look back, to re-examine what's happened, and then move on to the next phase of the story. I'm not saying that your book should be a long string of scene-sequel scene-sequel scene-sequel, but make sure to put those sequels in.
[Brandon] Yeah, a lot of your chapters will have a sequel chapter to it.
[Howard] I'd... When I look at scene-sequel format, I realize that early in the book, it's usually scene-sequel scene-sequel scene-sequel, but towards the end of the book, it's often sequel scene scene scene sequel scene scene scene scene-sequel scene because you're getting...
[Mary] Explosion!
[Howard] Exactly. Then, at the end, there's a big explosion. When we first started talking about this narrative rhythm, I'm musically trained, composition major. I look at scene-sequel format... That's not the be-all end-all of narrative rhythm. That is the kick drum and snare drum of backbeat rock 'n roll narrative rhythm. Many of these other things that we've talked about are the other percussion instruments that a good drummer will bring into play, and the key that we happen to be in that tells us where we are in the song. Maybe that musical metaphor isn't working for anybody besides me, but it's helping me understand it.

[Mary] I'm actually really glad that you brought that up, because this gets to the heart of why this is so hard to teach, because it is a matter of personal taste. Some people like books that are very, very quickly paced. Some people like things that are slower. So when someone is trying to tell you how to do this, it's not something that we can teach because it depends on what you like to read.
[Brandon] There are sequences in some of my books where I ratchet for like 70,000 words before we have...
[Mary] That's an entire book for me.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's an entire book in a lot of genres. That's an entire book in some of my other series. This is... We're building this, we're building this, we're building this, we're building this, we're building this, we're building this, BOOM! That's part of an epic fantasy sort of thing.
[Dan] Well, it's important to say, I think, that even if you're trying to do that, if you're trying to do a lot of building over time, you can vary the kind of intensities...
[Brandon] Yes, you can.
[Dan] Have different flavors. One of my favorite episodes of the Battle Star Galactica series was the boxing episode. Which, they'd been running from bad guys for episodes and episodes and episodes, and then they had an episode that was just a boxing match between all the characters. It was a little tournament. It was not slow. It was an incredibly tense episode. But it was all very internal, character relationship tension, rather than we're being hunted by monsters tension.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and do our book of the week.
[Howard] You mean writing prompt?
[Brandon] Writing prompt.
[Mary] Twice in a row. I think it might be time for us to take a... Talk about falling action.
[Howard] [whistle]
[Mary] So. Writing prompt. So for your writing prompt, what I want you to do is take a classic fairytale and write it once so that it's all rising action, and once where you insert two pieces of falling action.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] That's very clinical.
[Howard] That is very clinical.
[Dan] It's okay.
[Howard] Good practice for you, fair listener.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. If you write that, someday it might be our book of the week.
[Mary] Aha!
[Brandon] Ha ha, that's what I meant. You're out of excuses. So am I. Go write.
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