Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Building Better Plots" by Robert Kernen, pt 21

Kernen compares writing to music, which really resonates with me. I’ve realized that point before. Each has its own sort of rhythm and guidelines; each requires its artists to tune in to their own creative process. Just as some musical effects are meant to be felt rather than heard, some writing effects are meant to impact readers subconsciously.

There’s “sledgehammer” writing and there’s metal music. There are stories you could describe as love songs, and there are ballads in music. Lots of similarities. As I’ve paid close attention to some songs with lyrics I particularly admire, I’ve come to realize how hard it must be to write a few lines that can only fill a 2 to 4 minute slot, leave room for music, yet impact listeners deeply. (Okay party songs are probably easier as far as lyrics, but then you’ve got to come up with punchy, edgy, or danceable music.) You think writing 70,000 coherent and striking words, put together in a unique way, is tough? Try to create a tiny story using form guidelines that fits into a 2 to 4 minute timeframe, has music with a strong hook, and present that in a unique way. And rhyme it, too! I’ve written things I think of as lyrics, though I’ve never written music, and I can tell you—sometimes (like fiction writing) it flows out of you already put together, other times you have to rehash and put everything back in the blender. Fiction writers haven’t cornered the market on doing something difficult with words.

I just needed to say that. It helps me feel connected to writers of various kinds. A lot of people have published books, some that might have benefited from further editing that became big sellers anyway, and a lot of people have written songs that don’t especially move me but get bunches of people up and dancing. If they can succeed, I can too. I’m putting effort into succeeding.

Anyway. Kernen says that just as musicians learn the time signature of a piece of music, writers can learn to “hear” the rhythm of their own stories. Finding that rhythm helps you to keep things moving forward and does help you find the best places to put plot points. I worried about having Neal at home for six months without the band, because I was afraid I didn’t have compelling enough plot points to carry that much time. I was afraid of breaking the rhythm by not having him continue to interact with the other major characters.

Then I realized that he doesn’t just sit there thinking the whole time, he interacts with other people. Plus, the band sort of shows up for radio interviews, then physically shows up when they decide to move to another house. Each appearance is brief but reminds readers what those characters are like.

Kernen suggests some exercises for finding fiction rhythm. Take several short stories, and write down each major plot point and when it occurs. Notice how much distance is between them, and the intensity of the points.

Move on to plays or novels. Make note of each major point, but before you reach the climax, try to predict when it’ll happen.

Take the same novel or play and try to tune in to its rhythm. See if you can figure out how the author controls the rhythm to keep readers on their toes and on the edge of their seats.

I recommend doing that. Having said that, I’m not going to do it right now, because I feel it would throw me off the rhythm of working on my plot. I’m in a groove now and I can sense that too long an interruption will spoil it. But it’s helpful to study successful works. Published authors continue to read, partly for that reason. They know they can always improve.

The rhythm of this blog series continues next time with thoughts on endings—when to apply the brakes to a runaway muse train.

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