Story structure: rhythm

I think of rhythm as a sentence-level thing, but here is a post by Patricia Wrede about rhythm as a story-level thing.

If the pacing in a story isn’t working, one way of adjusting it is to examine the rhythm. Story flow usually works best if there are highs and lows, but a long string of tense, dramatic, or action-packed scene followed by a series of slower reaction, recovery, processing, or planning scenes may not work as well as a sequence that has more’s worth noting that rhythm effects stack—that is, if you have a scene that combines a slightly tense moment from a subplot with a main-plot moment that’s medium-tense, you probably end up with a high-tension scene, while pairing a low-tension main-plot with a high-tension subplot development can raise the tension to medium or more. A writer who’s aware of this can use it to great advantage; a writer who isn’t aware of it may end up wondering why the tension level in their novel seems flat.

This is a brief post. I would like a longer treatment of this topic, which involves the creation of the “page-turner” effect — the compulsive can’t-put-it-down thing.

I’m not sure that “compulsive page-turner” and “high tension” are the same thing. The linked post mentions urgency, stakes, and how much the characters care about the outcome as all things that increase compellingness, which I think is true, but I do think it’s also possible to have a series of low-urgency, possibly low-stakes scenes that are still compulsive page-turners (at least for me). I’m thinking here of various scenes which are basically, “characters are finding out good things about each other and getting their lives in order.” I mean like the “here are our new apartments, I hope you like your place” scene in Regenesis by CJC. This is possibly the lowest-stakes, least urgent scene in the entire novel. It’s also one of my favorite scenes. I just like to watch people move cautiously toward being happy, I guess, and that is what this scene involves.

Regardless, I think rhythm is certainly important in the structure of the story. I believe that with RIHASI, I was thinking of the rhythm kind of like this

Introduce Rihasi … get her together with Kior … event … transition toward the next event plus building the relationship … exciting event … transition plus relationship … exciting event … transition plus relationship … and so on.

I don’t know that the pacing is totally even troughs and waves like the above implies, but it’s mostly fairly even, probably. Not sure how to categorize the part near the end where Rihasi finally lays out the situation and what she’s been doing. It’s a fraught conversation type of scene, I suppose. I do enjoy those. But is it a trough (given that nothing is happening except people talking) or a wave (considering that there’s a lot of emotional freight being carried by those conversations? I’ll tell you: it’s a wave. Why do I think so? Because it’s surrounded by transition/relationship scenes, that’s why. My personal expectation is that many readers will enjoy the exciting events, but also really be into some of the quieter scenes. After all, the story is a romance. The relationship stuff matters.

Oh, now, thinking of rhythm and thus beats, I’m curious whether, I happened to follow standard romance beats without actually thinking about it, kind of similar to this:

Let me see. Introduce the heroine, check. Introduce hero + meet cute, check. No way we can be together, check. Raising the stakes at the end of Act I, actually, yes, I think so, check. Growing awareness of attraction, definitely check, though this is fairly understated. But I think it’s there, given the reactions of early readers.

Totally not there at all: Imagining the happily ever after or feeling like the HEA is within reach. That’s completely absent. Neither Rihasi nor Kior has any expectation of a happy ending, either apart or together. That’s not much like the romance beats on the sketch above.

Also, this rise, crisis, fall looks just a lot too simplistic. Plus the crisis isn’t really a “black moment” and there’s no aftermath/misery beat. (Misery beats, ugh.) And I don’t see why the epiphany and grand gesture are falling action. Those seem like they should be peaks in the story. And where’s the actual climax?

Let me see what other story structures are out there. How about this:

Rising for a good while, the first crisis well past the midpoint, the crisis followed by falling action followed by the real climax. This looks closer. But I’m starting to feel like I can draw a better diagram than this. Plus I’m missing a lot of the romance beats shown in the first diagram.

Neither Rihasi nor Kior expects a happy ending at any point, but Rihasi is striving for a different kind of victory, nothing to do with romance; and Kior is increasingly committed to helping her get there. They don’t expect a happy ending for themselves, but they do expect victory. This is pretty different from an actual romance. They’re not focused on their feelings for each other, though they are developing those feelings. They’re much more focused on achieving a totally different goal, not related to romance in any way. In fact, achieving this goal will spike the romance. That’s what they think. They’re moving inexorably toward victory that will destroy any chance of romance. There’s no way through to a happily ever after. But they’re not miserable about this. More resigned.

So, let me see if I can do a more accurate plot curve for RIHASI:

I mean: spoiler, there’s a happy ending. I’m sure that’s not actually a shock, right?

Anyway, looking at the above, this is what I mean by a trough-and-wave pattern. Lots of waves. Four. Four main waves, with rising action or falling action or level interludes between the waves. That’s more what I think the structure of the story is. Regardless of skipping a lot of beats, I think the structure that includes —

Getting to know each other … coming to admire each other … developing attraction for each other … wishing we could be together, but it’s impossible … unexpected HEA

is definitely a romance structure.

You know the first chapter of RIHASI is available at my Patreon, right? I’ve revised it a bit, but not a lot. And the first bit of the second chapter is the teaser in MARAG. I would call this a meet-cute, or close enough.

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4 thoughts on “Story structure: rhythm”

  1. I have to confess that I have never understood these diagrams. What is the y-axis? Moment by moment tension? Cumulative tension? How much I currently want to turn the page? My emotional valence? Progress towards victory? Principal components analysis on all of these?? I have seen so many of these plots before and everyone else seems to find them intuitive, but I just don’t get it.

    Rachel, your diagram makes more sense to me than any of the others, but I still don’t understand why “A restful interlude” is plotted higher than the first chapter, other than that it happens later in the book (but the x axis is progress through the book, so why would that matter for the y axis?).

    (I was irresponsible about my bedtimes and finished Rihasi, still working on making sure my comments are clear and precise before I hit send on the email.)

  2. oh dear. Rihasi strikes again re bed time!

    I loved the depiction of falling in love. There are some beautiful sentences.

    I guess the original structure depicts where the conflicts are internal, and the rest of the goings on are not continuously life threatening.

  3. You know what, Kate, I think I sort of treat the Y axis as a combination of tension and … I don’t know … positivity. This makes no sense now that I think about it. I’m thinking rising and falling tension, with tension ratchetting upward — hence the overall slope of the line. But that’s obviously not what I was thinking when I made the last bit much higher than the first bit. At that point, I think I was more like, “And they wind up much better off” — so that’s positivity, not tension at all.

    Hmm. Now I kind of want to work this out in three dimensions.

  4. I think the Y axis is supposed to be good and bad fortune? If these are based on Kurt Vonnegut’s Story Shapes. There’s a video about it somewhere.

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