Thursday, July 14, 2005
Inner Rhythm Effecting Sentence Rhythm
And we're back, BGs. Thanks for all your comments yesterday. Jason--I'm thinkin' you shouldn't laugh when you're giving a patient a painful shot. I don't know, something about bedside manner . . . Trish, welcome to our BG world! The rest of you--thanks for your suggestions to rest. But I didn't want to leave y'all hangin' for a day.
Check out the title of today's blog. And you thought we’d said everything that needed to be said about rhythm during our action scene edit.
After spending days on sentence rhythm, I received an e-mail from a BG who asked a very astute question, based on his wip. Here’s what he had to say:
In the prologue of my supernatural suspense novel, the villain is watching two people drown that he lured onto thin ice. I wanted my villain to seem detached from the deaths taking place in front him, so I had him light a cigarette and savor the taste.
Having now been through the learnings of the last few weeks on your blog, I went back and read the prologue. My sentences aren't short to speed the action. There is no sense of urgency in them. They are the exact opposite of everything you've been teaching us in the high action of Christy's struggle for survival. The reader can see the figures struggling in vain to get out of the water from the POV of the villain; filtered through his uncaring, detached view of the action, I think this works well in concert with his detached actions. Am I making a fundamental mistake here?
Short answer: no.
This BG ferreted out the one aspect of sentence rhythm that I didn’t cover during our AS edit. I was concerned that folks were getting a little tired of SR, and we needed to move on. The letter showed me I’d left a gaping hole.
Trouble is, nothing is ever easy in teaching fiction. (Or writing it for that matter, huh.) You try to address one concept, and you really can’t without addressing some other concept that lies underneath it. In this case, that concept is inner rhythm (which, naturally, I’ll call IR).
IR is given a full chapter in my book Getting Into Character. I’m not going to repeat everything that’s said in that chapter, but for those of you who haven’t read GIC, here is an overview from the intro to that chapter:
Beneath a character’s external movements lies the internal “movement” of emotion. Without a sense of a character’s unique inner rhythm, the novelist relies on external action to depict feelings in a general way. Gestures and conversation can seem stereotyped, one-dimensional, even false. When an author begins with inner rhythm and works toward the external, each action, facial expression, and spoken word then illuminates the struggle within. Readers feel the emotion . . .
“Rhythm” may seem an unlikely word to apply to emotions. When we hear the word we usually think of music—a song is fast or slow, syncopated or steady. But rhythm doesn’t just apply to music; it’s all around us. There’s the lazy, contented rhythm of lingering in bed on a Saturday morning; the frantic rhythm of dashing for a train; the lulling, hypnotic rhythm of ocean waves. Our bodes respond to certain emotions with rhythm. In tense situations our hearts beat faster, our breaths grow short and ragged. When we stop to think about rhythm in this way, we realize it’s not that we are unfamiliar with inner rhythm, but rather we are so familiar with it that we rarely consider its existence. It is an innate and instinctive as breathing. But as novelists, who constantly study human nature in order to re-create it on paper, we must bring inner rhythm to a conscious level, scrutinize its subtleties, and learn how to employ it for our characters.
Okay, BGs. So we have Wayne’s prologue, in which the external action is high—two people are drowning. Usually a character watching such a scene would become involved in the action himself—that is, the action would affect his inner rhythm. And therefore, if you’re writing in that character’s POV, you would follow the sentence rhythm concepts for action scenes that we discussed earlier. But if that character is unaffected by the outer action, as in Wayne’s character’s case, how do you effectively use sentence rhythm in the scene?
Here is the guideline for just such a scenario as stated in GIC:
Sentence rhythm should match your character’s inner rhythm when this inner rhythm—rather than external action—is the beat that carries the scene.
And so the sentences in the POV of Wayne’s villain can follow the rhythm of languidness—long, even compound or complex sentences instead of the short, ragged rhythm for action. The result, when this is done correctly, is a chilling effect of the character being completely unconcerned about what is happening around him.
But to pump up this effect, we have to accurately depict what is happening externally. If we use only the sentence rhythm for quieter scenes, the reader won't feel the external action enough. So the best thing to do is use both kinds of sentence rhythm, switching back and forth. For example, when Wayne is explaining through the villain’s eyes the struggles of the two people who are drowning, he could use the shorter sentence rhythm of action. Then when he tells us of the villain’s own actions or thoughts, he could switch to a more languid sentence rhythm.
I’m going to run the first two paragraphs of Wayne’s prologue (again, with his permission):
Ralph stood at the edge of the pond, watching them with a grim smile. Taking his eyes from their struggles for a moment, he looked east, towards town. But for the skeletal forms of the cottonwoods by the main road against the grey, February sky, the horizon was empty. Not unusual; since his wife’s death the farm rarely saw visitors. He had counted on today being no different when he lured them out on the ice.
He fished his cigarettes out of his coat pocket. Tapping the pack against his left palm, he pulled out a smoke, put it between his lips, and returned the pack to his pocket. His hand returned with a book of matches. He tore one free and struck a flame, but before he could get it to his cigarette, the match was extinguished by a gust of wind. The breeze carried on it the terrified screams of the two figures in the frigid, black water of the pond.
Note the languid sentence rhythm all the way through. This works for depicting Ralph's detachment, but it doesn't help us feel the external action of two people drowning. In addition, it's not until the last sentence of the second paragraph that we even know what Ralph is watching. I think these paragraphs could use some sentence rhythm editing--adding some shorter SR for the external action, and thereby depicting the dichotomy between that action and Ralph's detached and uncaring inner rhythm. And the action being watched--the drowning--should be made apparent right up front.
Any takers on rewriting part or all of these two paragraphs?