My mission as a book coach is to help writers write the best books they can, which means paying attention to:
- the macro elements (the story or argument the book makes)
- the micro elements (the words on the page)
- the emotional realities of the writing life (the habits that lead to success)
I’ve developed a series of posts to help you learn how to write one really great chapter so that you can take those lessons and apply them to all your work.
- Post 1 – Yank Your Reader Into Your Story With a Great Opening Line
- Post 2 – How to Start Your Story in the Right Place
- Post 3 –How to Get the Story Out of Your Head and Onto the Page – a Lesson on Shaking Off the Burden of Knowledge
- Post 4 –A Little Lesson in Dialogue
- Post 5 – Mastering the Art of the Scene
- Post 6 – Back to Basics on Backstory
Once you have the fundamental aspects of your chapter in place, you can work to make it sound good to the reader’s ear – to make it pleasing, memorable, unique and rhythmic. Excellent writing flows. It rises and falls. It builds to a crescendo or falls and dissipates in intensity so that the reader really feels the impact of the journey they have been through.
In his recent memoir, Bruce Springsteen writes about the similarity between music and writing, and it is this flow that he is talking about:
Writing prose has its own set of rules. It connects up to your musical rules, but you gotta create the music without the music. You gotta find the music in the way that the story moves and the rhythms shift and your voice shifts. You’ve got to create momentum purely on the page…..
The Concept of Flow
This concept of flow applies to a book as a whole. Imagine a shoot-‘em-up movie that was nothing but shooting ‘em up. Or a thriller that was nothing but a chase scene. Or a love story that had nothing but love in it. You’d never stick around to find out what happened. We need the ups as well as the downs, and paying attention to the rhythm and pacing of a story allows you to give your reader that experience.
Achieving “Music Without The Music”
The idea of rhythm and pacing – of flow — also applies to any given chapter itself, as well. A chapter can be fast or slow. It can gather speed and drive towards a crashing conclusion, or float to a soft landing. In order to achieve the “music without the music” within a chapter, you need to pay attention to three main things:
- Identity the role of the chapter in the whole story – what is it driving toward? Or recovering from? Knowing this will help with your pacing. Should it move fast or wind down slowly? In order to identify this aspect of the work, create a simple visual outline of your book. To help you do this, I recommend this video by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut. He asks you to graph the plot or the action of the story. Once you do that, you can identify where the chapter in question falls on the graph, which helps you know where it fits in the overall arc of the story.
In this chapter excerpt from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are introduced to a grim world on a grim day. The stakes are established, and things go from bad to worse – and they go there fast. You can imagine the graph of this story like a ball falling off a cliff. We barely have time to get introduced to the characters and their dire circumstances before Collins amps up the tension even more — and reels us in. This pacing fits the role the chapter plays in the whole story.
- Pay attention to the length of the chapter. Sometimes a short, sweet chapter that drills down into one key scene can pack more punch than a chapter that goes on too long. Use your chapter breaks to help you with the pacing and flow.
Collins could have made her Chapter 1 much shorter, ending it perhaps on page 14 when Katniss and Gale part ways before the reaping and he says, “Wear something pretty.” That is a moment where there is change of scene, and we are aware of the big stakes of the day, so it might have made sense from a story perspective. But Collins drives through to the big emotional moment so that there is no rest for the reader. That pacing, in other words, serves her purpose. We are made to wait, to suffer the not knowing just like Katniss does. The length of the chapter itself adds to the sense of drama.
- Pay attention to the last lines. I see a lot of writers making the mistake of holding back too much information and too much emotion at the end of chapters. They go almost to where they need to go and then stop – as if holding back or being coy is what will rope a reader in. But if you have set everything up to rise and fall, and drive towards the end, let us feel it. Let us have it. Get it all on the page, so we can’t help but need to turn the page to find out what happens next.
Collins does this at the end of her first chapter:
It’s time for the drawing. Effie Trinket says as she always does, “Ladies first!” and crosses to the glass ball with the girls’ names. She reaches in, digs her hand deep into the ball, and pulls out a slip of paper. The crowd draws in a collective breath and then you can hear a pin drop, and I’m feeling nauseous and so desperately hoping that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me.
Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me. It’s Primrose Everdeen.
Notice the way Collins lets us feel what Katniss is feeling (“that it’s not me, that it’s not me, that it’s not me”) and how she lets us hope for the tiniest second that Katniss gets her wish ( “And it’s not me.”) and then how she hammers home that what has happened is worse than it being Katniss herself: the name picked is her sister’s name.
“Listen” to Your Own Work
The best test of rhythm and pacing is to read your work out loud to hear how it sounds. Shut the door, and actually read it out loud. Note how it feels, how it moves, the momentum of the thing. This is one of the best ways to ensure that your work will have that music without the music, and be a pleasure to read.
Can you clearly hear the rhythm and pace in your writing? Tell us in the comments.