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.

Not.

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?

9 comments:

C.J. Darlington said...

Alright, I'll give it a shot. I'm going to write as if the two people drowning are a man and woman:

Ralph stood at the edge of the pond, watching them with a grim smile. The man gripped a handful of the limp woman's parka, desperately yanking and pulling at the waterlogged material - uselessly. Her bloody fingers scraped at the edge of the ice leaving long lines of crimson in the snow.

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.

"Help! Oh, God, someone help us!"

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.

Even from this distance Ralph could see the man's fear-laced eyes. But the eyes quickly disappeared beneath the water's surface, only to pop back up. He sputtered and spit out icy water. Funny, one of his gloves was missing.

Ralph 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.

"Oh ... Gggood!"

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.

Anonymous said...

OK. I've been reading the blog for a while, and playing around on the forum, but this is my first comment on the blog. Bear with me if I don't get the formatting just right.

Here is my take on the two paragraphs. I've made more changes than just sentence rhythm. My own style and voice comes through loud and clear--I find it near impossible to edit without doing so. My apologies if it tramps too hard on the author's original work.

Ralph crouched at the edge of the pond, taking in the scene unfolding not thirty yards away. A grim smile parted his lips, then faded as his gaze traveled from the two struggling figures toward the east, toward town. But for the skeletal cottonwoods stretching upward near the main road, the gray February sky held only emptiness from one end of the horizon to the other. Not unusual. Since Thelma died the farm rarely saw any activity--especially visitors. He hadn't expected today would be any different until he found them, then lured them onto the ice.

Their screams grew louder, pulling in his stare once again. Arms flailing, hands splashing. Water churning. Pulling at each other. Pulling at the ice, at thin air.

Hopeless. It was all so hopeless.

Fishing through his coat pocket, Ralph snatched out a pack of cigarettes and tapped it against his palm, then singled out a lone white cylinder and rested it between his lips. He eyed the pack, estimated it would last until noon, then dropped it back into its resting place. His hand returned with a matchbook dangling between two fingers. A quick flick of his wrist produced a flame, but a gust of wind snatched the life from it before he could light up. Frowning, he reached for another match. The breeze died down, but remained strong enough to carry the terrified screams of the two hapless victims expending the last of their strength on the frigid black water of the pond.

Ralph blew three perfect smoke rings toward the ice, then rubbed at the stubble on his chin while watching the smoke blend into the background of the clouds. He found himself wishing it would rain. Darn long time since they'd had any. Sure would be nice to see a break in those cursed clouds.


I took the liberty of changing some of the less active verbs/sentences to a more active form. I won't list every place I did this, but for example in the first sentence I used the word crouched instead of stood. This is not only a more active verb, but I think it adds "flavor" to the scene.

Another liberty I took was to insert more of a sense of dread and darkness into the scene. For example, a gust of wind snatched the life from it instead of the match simply being extinguished by the wind. Another example is how I say the breeze died down. Again, this is using dark imagery in a subtle way.

My external sentence rhythm (I hate the word rhythm--always have to look up the spelling) is limited to the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs. I thought about leading out with external rhythm, but I think the languid style fits better for the first paragraph. In any case, you can see the shorter sentences at work. I threw in the one-liner 3rd paragraph sort of as an exclamation point to the external activity.

Note how I changed the Taking his eyes from their struggles and turned it into the external rhythm paragraph. This is not just a rhythm change, but also moves from telling to showing. I show how they're struggling instead of telling you they did so.

The scene then returns to the internal rhythm. I added an extra paragraph, again to underscore the POV character's detachment.

A few other tidbits: I generally try to replace "of the" with something else (note the sentence with the cottonwoods). I shy away from "-ing" words, but used several in this case to magnify the sense of time passing slowly for the POV character. I gave the wife a name. I added a definite distance from Ralph to the pond. I got rid of for a moment in the first paragraph, it being a phrase I often use that's basically excess fat to be trimmed away while editing.

One final, subtle thing related directly to sentence rhythm. The original said the frigid, black water in the very last sentence. I just didn't think this flowed well. I simply removed the comma, then reversed frigid and black according to the general rule in The Chicago Manual of Style that says to put smaller words in a list first. I think it flows better this way.

There are other things I changed, but I don't want to take up a zillion pages listing every detail. Just compare some of the original sentences with the new ones. Also, note the things that I kept--there was some good imagery in the original, it just needed a little more punch in the wording.

And finally, may I wish you blessings in publishing anything supernatural. There are only a handful of publishers who will even look at it (Moody, Strang, NavPress, Westbow, and maybe one other). I started out in this genre and gave up after writing three full manuscripts without a bite. It just seems easier to go for something with broader market appeal and change later to what you really want to do after getting a few things published.

Robert Quattlebaum, aka "rquad" on the forum, and hereafter in the blog.

C.J. Darlington said...

By the way, Wayne, I liked your prologue. :-)

Stuart said...

Nice Prologue Wayne :)

I did a bit of rewording, but tried to keep it as close to the original as possible. I didn't want to give too much detail to the couple since Ralph isn't really concerned with them. Also left some less active verbs in his main parts simply because I think they add to the unconcerned detached feeling. :)

so here is my stab at it:

Crack!

The ice gave way and the couple screamed as they plunged into the dark water below. They clawed at the edges of the frozen sheet. The already weakened surface crumbling under their weight.

Ralph stood at the edge of the pond, watching with a grim smile. His gaze wandered from their struggles, looking east, toward town. Skeletal cottonwoods guarded the main road, stretching their stark arms against the grey, February sky. No intruders marred the pristine horizon. Not unusual; the farm rarely saw visitors since his wife’s death. He had counted on today being no different when he had lured the couple onto the ice.

The splashing grew muted. The frigid water taking its toll.

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 rest. His hand returned with a book of matches. He tore one free and struck a flame, but before he could light his cigarette, a gust of wind extinguished the match. He grimaced and tucked the burnt stub into his pocket.

The breeze carried the terrified screams of the couple. They had lost the strength to struggle now. Clinging to each other in the middle of the rippling, black hole.

Ralph smiled as his second match succeeded in lighting his smoke.

Dee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dee said...

Nice job, Wayne. I wasn't sure if the two people were a couple, so my version has two young women. I read it through a couple of times, but didn't see the couple part. Sorry

Dee's Version of Wayne's Prologue

Ralph stood at the not quite frozen pond’s edge and watched his victims struggle inside the unfrozen part.

One flapped the ice with her sweater. Told her that thing was too big.

The other bopped up, but she didn’t take a full breath, garbled instead. “H-h-help.”

He smirked. “Take a breath and shut up next time, babe.”

Then he turned away from their drowning and looked east, towards town. But for the skeletal forms of the cottonwoods by the main road against the gray, February sky, the horizon looked empty. Then he saw the collegians beetle sitting on bricks near the road

Not unusual. Since his wife’s death the farm rarely saw visitors. There was no need for visitors here. He had counted on today being no different. Had no choice, but to lure them out on the ice.

Crack.

He turned back around. Big Sweater tried to pull herself out of the water. Her right elbow gripped the ice; the other girl went down again.

You could save Big Sweater and not be alone at least tonight.

He fished for his cigarettes out of his coat pocket. He tapped the pack against his left palm, pulled out a smoke. Put it between his lips and reached inside again for his matchbook.

Are you going to save her?

He pulled the matchbox out. Slid out the match and struck it against the box.

Woosh. A cold wind gust extinguished it. And that breeze glided into the frantic girl last gasps when the ice she gripped fell and took them both back down into the flesh-numbing freezing water.

“She would've died of something else eventually.” Ralph said to the wind and walked back inside where it was warm and quiet.

Becky said...

Good info, Brandilyn. I think it's time for me to re-read Getting into Character.

I'm not going to take a stab at editing this--my summer is full of edits, so I'll take a pass here. Still, I'm finding this very helpful.

CHickey said...

Okay, Brandilyn. After e-mailing you yesterday, I printed off the last two months worth of blogs and re-read them. Talk about my head swimming! Since I've got my own re-writing to do...thanks a lot...I'll pass on rewriting this. I do think it's a good start, though. Bless you for all the help you're giving us novices!

Wayne said...

I appreciate everyone taking the time to do the rewrite exercise. And rquad, you use some great dark imagery - I really like it, though I think I'll have Ralph "lurk" instead of "crouch." I'm well aware there aren't a lot of houses publishing supernatural suspense. But I only need one. :)