Every novel has a rhythm. It’s the way you “hear” with your inner ear as you. It’s a key factor in transporting the reader from reading words on a page to living the story. It helps to create those vivid mental images that make that transportation happen.
So how do you, the writer, control your novel’s rhythm?
Here are a few of the least often discussed considerations:
1. Structure. The way you choose to structure a novel impacts its rhythm. For example:
A. You impact the novel’s rhythm through chapter length. If you structure short chapters, that speeds up the pacing and that imparts a silent sense of urgency, immediacy. If you write longer chapters, it slows the pacing. I add this one because too often it’s considered trivial and it’s anything but.
B. You impact the novel’s rhythm through point of view. Example. Chapter 1, Scene 1 is in the protagonist’s point of view. Chapter 1, Scene 2 is in the antagonist’s point of view. Chapter 2, you repeat that structure: protagonist/antagonist. This sets up the expectation that you’ll continue that pattern, and that impacts or sets the novel’s rhythm.
C.You impact the novel’s rhythm through setting. Where an event occurs, the details you include that bear on mood and tone impact the novel’s rhythm. (i.e., in a novel once I had a park bench. Every bad thing that happened, occurred at the bench. The first time I used it, it surprised. The second time, it reinforced the first. The third time, as soon as the bench was included–before anything happened, dread was already the primary emotion conveyed. Why? Because the bench impacted rhythm in generating tension.
D.Novel rhythm is impacted by voice and style. Some author voices are lean and mean and others are soft and flowing. Some incorporate a lot of internal thought, vivid imagery. But depending on the presentation by the author, that can set and manipulate the novel’s rhythm.
E. Events. What is happening, of course, impacts the rhythm. The more intense, the faster one reads. The faster one reads, the faster the novel’s overall rhythm.
Short sentences, sharp words, harsh verbiage, snappy dialogue, ridding the work of extraneous matter (when intense we think about whatever has us tense; no backstory or scenic views here)–all of those writing choices impact rhythm in that they speed up reading. When the reader reads faster, it carries the sensation of things happening faster.
To slow the novel’s rhythm, do the opposite.
Novels typically use a combination of “speeds.” There’s a reason for that.
If you start out like a lightning strike and maintain it over the entire novel, you wear out the reader. They have no time to catch their breath. That’s numbing. It’s an innate self-preservation tactic.
If you start out like sludge and maintain it over the entire novel, odds are no one is going to finish it–including the writer. Why? Let’s illustrate:
Imagine yourself in New Orleans. You’re stuck in slow-moving traffic for five hours. Over your left shoulder, you see the Superdome. Five hours later, over your left shoulder, you still see the Superdome. Are you content to sit there another couple hours? Or do you want out? Now?
That’s pretty much the feeling a reader gets in the slower-than-sludge novel.
Again, every novel has a rhythm. During intense events or emotional times, the pacing will speed up. During repose scenes, the pace will slow.
So in the end, don’t shoot for a straight upward spike in rhythm. Don’t shoot for a flatline, either.
Shoot for the ups and downs you’d get on a typical EKG. That heartbeat. Because rhythm is the heartbeat of the novel.
A note: there are multiple articles on Pacing, setting, and other topics discussed here in my writer’s library on the www.vickihinze.com site. Those articles go into greater depth on their specific topics.