“The prose needs better pacing, better rhythm” How do you begin to solve that kind of intangible issue? If chunks of your prose feel dull or plodding, consider Ze Frank’s words about the “rhythmic trinity.” Ze Frank is not a writer, but he is an endlessly creative maker and humorist. His groundbreaking 2006 vlog “The Show” profoundly influenced current mega-hit vloggers like John and Hank Green. In Ze’s 3:23 video about “the rhythmic trinity of expectation, silence, and surprise,” he talks about how that trinity helped his music–and how it applies to humor in the classic joke’s setup, pause, and punchline:
“Watching younger comics, you can learn a lot by seeing what’s broken. They might be good at building expectation and delivering surprise, but they haven’t figured out silence yet, and they blast through their lines so fast you don’t have room to laugh. Or they’re all surprise and pauses without building any patterns for the audience to relax into. When it’s all surprise, it stops being a surprise. The craft of it is in the matter of all three: expectation, silence, surprise.”
Writers use expectation, silence, and surprise to create rhythm on both the micro, sentence-to-sentence level and the macro, story level. I’ll save story for a later blog. Right now, I’ll talk about how the rhythmic trinity works on the ground, in your actual prose.
Expectation: Ze says that creating expectation means building patterns for the audience to relax into. So that might mean
- A stretch of quick-paced dialogue popping along
- A series of sentences of similar length, which can create a nice train-wheel rhythm
- A series of short action paragraphs
- A series of brief descriptive passages that take us (for example) from the exterior of the house to the interior
- Any of these creates a certain expectation, one you can then have fun disrupting.
- Slow down prose with a lingering descriptive passage,
- Give any moment more air and breath by using a longer sentence, especially one that follows a series of short, brisk sentences of roughly the same length.
- Insert a sudden break into the dialogue, in which one person literally falls silent
- Sometimes breaking a short sentence out in its own own paragraph makes it more arresting
- Zoom in on a tiny physical detail—or zoom out suddenly to a bird’s eye view of your scene
- Insert a bit of new information that turns the scene on its head
How It Might Work (A Brief, Highly Simplified, and Pedestrian Example)
He said, “I tried.”
I said, “Not hard enough.”
He said, “But I can’t try harder.”
I said, “Well, you you have to.”
He said, “You’re asking too much.”
I said, “I’m asking for what you promised.”
[So now we’ve set up the expectations.]
And then, without warning, as if something had just occurred to him, or as if he’d had a sudden and interesting idea, he frowned and glanced up at the ceiling. for a moment, his eyes rolled up even higher, till I could see their whites. [that string of clauses functioned as a kind of silence or hesitation]
Then he fell face down on the table, quite dead.
[there’s the surprise element, made more surprising by the new paragraph]
More on using the rhythmic trinity on big story issues in my next blog. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more ways you play with rhythm and pacing in your sentences.