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Rhythm and Time – Part 5: The Rests

You can read the rest of this series here:

Part 1: Give Your Writing a Beat of Its Own
Part 2: Add a Little Harmony with Adjectives
Part 3: Dialogue as Your Rhythm
Part 4: Make Your Characters Sing

I started this series several weeks ago by talking about different lines of music—the different parts that we can layer into our writing and how those parts all create a unique rhythm and time for our writing—but I haven’t really talked yet about the actual timing of our writing.

For those not familiar with music, there are different tempo signatures that musicians read to know how to play a piece of music. This signature has two numbers—one to tell you how many beats to play per measure of music, and one to tell you which note gets a full beat. You can probably recognize different rhythms even if you don’t read music. A waltz has a very distinctive rhythm, as does a rock ballad or a polka.

Musicians also have other indicators about how fast to play—some kind of direction at the beginning of the piece like “slowly,” “very fast,” or “driving beat.” This is how a rock ballad, a rap, and a symphony can all have the same time signature—they may all be 4/4 time, but the direction is different for each one.

So what does this have to do with writing? It’s about pacing, which is sort of the writer’s way of saying “timing.”

I’ve discussed structure in another series on this site, so I won’t go into that here except to say that I think the structure of writing is similar to measures, bars, clefs, and timing in music. You don’t expect the chorus before the verse, just like you don’t expect the climax of a story in the middle of the book. And yet, there are plenty of musicians who break the music rules and give us runaway hits. Same with books—plenty of authors break the rules and manage to still tell compelling stories. So rather than discuss more about structure, I want to talk about timing and pacing in a story and where rests come into the equation.

Timing and Pace

Just like in music, every story has its own pacing—the timing and speed that’s right for that particular story. A thriller or mystery might move along at a pretty intense clip. A literary novel will have a slower pace with perhaps less intense or more internal plot points. With speculative fiction, pacing and timing are all over the place—from a tight, intense urban fantasy to a slow, meandering epic journey, you can read just about any timing your heart desires.

But the one thing that all stories have in common, no matter what the speed, timing, or pacing, is the rest. Just as in music, there are beats where the story takes a breather. It may be a quick rest or a long rest, but the rests are there. And you need to build rests into your story as well, because every reader needs a moment to catch their breath.

What kinds of rests do we see in stories?

Description of Setting
Descriptive passages are wonderful for not only enhancing your setting, but allowing your reader to soak up your world for a bit before diving back into action. If you just ended with an intense action scene, some rich description can be a welcome relief to the reader. The description doesn’t have to be dull, tame, or mundane. It’s more about the pacing of the story. You can write a gory description of a bloody battlefield, and it will still give your reader a rest.

Expository Dialogue
Sometimes, there are moments when one character just has to explain something to another. These moments can be valuable rest periods for the reader. One example from my novel, Ravenmarked: The main character had his berserker button pushed, and he took a little break from his appointed task to go mete out some justice on some bad guys. The next night, he finally breaks down and tells his companion why that particular button makes him go berserk. She didn’t know the information before, and it was a good moment for her to learn it, plus it slowed down the story for a moment after that intensity. Of course, you can also use those conversations to hint at future tension. I used that conversation as an opportunity for the two people to admit they were growing very fond of each other, but also recognize the fact that they had a very tough road ahead if there was any hope of a relationship.

Point of View Shifts
Changing a point of view can heighten tension, introduce new action, or give your reader a rest—it’s all a matter of how you use the shift. But by shifting to a completely different setting (from the countryside to the palace, for example) or plot, you can give your reader time to recover from intense action elsewhere.

Chapter or Section Breaks
Don’t forget the very mundane types of rests, because they’re equally as vital as the more literary rests. A chapter, section, or even paragraph break can give your reader a rest period. Have you ever been reading and known you needed to stop, so you went looking for the next chapter break? Consider breaking up long chapters or sections to give your reader an easy place to pause.

Sometimes, we writers get really caught up in description and action and our own stories, and it’s easy to forget that our readers need visual and literary rests in our works. Make sure you build your rests in, even if they’re short. Your readers will appreciate the opportunities to breathe.

In two weeks, I’ll wrap up this series with some final thoughts about repeats and choruses in your work.

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4 Comments

  1. […] This post was Twitted by xiaiswriting […]

  2. Well said, Amy. Sometimes the timing comes easy, other times you have to work to find a resting place, or the right moment to slow the action. I am always wary of ending a scene with a resting moment, but they can be useful to space moments of tension.
    You have managed to explain this concept, simply. Took me far too long to work this out. Wish I had your articles on hand, years ago.
    They will be kept handy now!

  3. Thanks, Rosalie! I’m really glad my articles are helpful. I agree–you don’t always want to end a scene or section on a rest, because you don’t want the reader to fall asleep! But sometimes you can give a breather without reducing the tension of the story, and that’s ideal, I think.

    Thanks for the nice compliment! 🙂

  4. […] two weeks we’ll be taking a rest. VN:F [1.9.20_1166]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)Rhythm and Time – Part 4: Make Your […]

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