I was playing peek-a-boo with my baby niece on the weekend. The first try she was shocked that I had disappeared behind the pillow but after three or four times she was laughing. Amazing! But then on the fifth try, she wasn’t looking when I popped back out from behind the pillow. So I “disappeared” again but this time reappeared from below the pillow. Hilarious. More importantly I had her attention again–because something had changed in the rhythm.
Often when ‘rhythm’ gets mentioned with respect to writing, it’s on the level of line-readings: the actual beat and flow of the sentences. But I think there’s a meta-rhythm too, that of plot-types and tropes.
How often has someone moaned about a recent Hollywood blockbuster that ‘ticks’ all the boxes? That everyone can tell what’s going to happen from the trailer alone? There’s a good reason for that: the 3-act structure and the Save The Cat methodology, that actually breaks the story down into literal beats and page counts and replicates and replicates. Other people have articulated this before me. It’s very easy to tell you’re in a save-the-cat movie within the first five minutes and at least for me boredom swiftly ensues, even with super-flashy graphics and quippy dialogue.
Outside of STC, there’s still a mountain of advice to the tune of: first act is call to action and one trouble; second act is more trouble and some despair; third act is the final action and the resolution. It’s the advice because it works; and there’s nothing wrong with that, if being somewhat overused. But there is more than one way to tell a story, even if it takes bravery to stick to it.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a methodology, or even a generic rhythm, but what I crave more of is breaks in the rhythm. Because breaks are what keep me interested. Like my niece, I suddenly perk up because what I thought was going to happen didn’t. My favourite books all have a feature in common, no matter the genre: they are messy, like life. Or they take a familiar set of tropes–like those in a rom-com, for instance–and play with the expectations, zigging when you assume they will zag.
That’s a valuable way to tell a story too.
I’ve been working on the ending to this blog post all morning. Originally I was going to counsel readers to be brave, to explore outside the box, break up the three acts, remix and play and follow their own interest, because that’s what I love writing and reading. But in the middle I got a rejection for a story that I like very much that plays by such a logic, and it was a pretty discouraging timing. Who am I to be giving advice? that tiny voice says. And for a tiny voice, it’s awfully loud.
Maybe I’ll come back to this post one day, on a day when I feel as confident at the end as I did in the beginning. Maybe I’ll eventually get successful enough that my opinion on what I like to read will be worth something to someone starting out. Maybe I will never sell anything ever again. That’s unknowable from this particular point in time. So many maybes.
So yes, I suppose this post isn’t going where I thought it would go. Maybe it’s a little unresolved. But I will say this: you made it all the way to the end, didn’t you?
Be brave. Keep swimming. <3