Writing prose without thinking about cadence is like trying to seduce a man by handing him your résumé. The facts are there, but the electric charge isn’t.—Meaghan O’Rourke
By PJ Parrish
I was listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony the other night. And it suddenly struck me how similar it is to a really good mystery. It has a specific structure. It has themes. It has peaks and valleys of emotion. And it builds to a rousing climax wherein all that has come before makes perfect sense, even if you didn’t hear it coming.
And here’s the cool part: Although a symphony adheres to a formula, within that is room for endless variety. Sound familiar? That’s what we do when we write crime fiction. We are working within an old and venerable tradition with a time-honored structure. Yet look at the variety we come up with!
You’re not going to mistake Brahams for John Adams. You won’t mistake P.D. James for S.A. Cosby.
So, I was wondering, are there lessons for us from say, Beethoven?
Now, I have studied music some, but not symphonic structure. So I had to go do some research. Bear with me here for a moment. I’ll try not to get obtuse and artsy-fartsy.
A symphony is usually divided into four parts that conform to a standard pattern — The first movement is lively and sets a mood. The second is slower, more thoughtful and develops the theme. The third is an energetic dance or has boisterous surprises. The fourth is a rollicking finale.
Or in our terms:
Movement 1. The action set-up. Or as James Scott Bell often calls it “the disturbance in the norm.” The first “movement” often poses an unanswered question that gets answered by the novel’s’ end. Here’s some good examples, as presented by Hallie Ephron in her essay for Mystery Writers of America:
- A baby is found abandoned on the steps of a church. Unanswered question: Who left the baby and what happened to the mother? (In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming)
- A criminal defense attorney meets her new client— a woman accused of killing her cop boyfriend. The woman extends a hand and says, “Pleased to meet you, I’m your twin.” Unanswered question: Is this woman the attorney’s twin sister and is she a murderer? (Mistaken Identity, Lisa Scottoline)
- PI Smith receives a late night telephone call from the NYPD, who are holding his 15-year-old nephew Gary. Unanswered question: Why would Gary ask for Smith, whom he hasn’t seen for years? (Winter and Night, S. J. Rozan)
Movement 2. Complications and conflicts. The pace slows down some as the hero investigates. Obstacles fall in his path and clues are dropped. Character is layered in with backstory to deepen our connection with the protag.
Movement 3. The pace quickens as the plot moves toward the final conflict. Roadblocks and problems escalate. You put your protag in physical danger. (Indiana Jones, who hates snakes, ends up in the snake pit). Inner demons affect protag’s ability to act. (but of course you’ve established those demons back in part 2). The stakes keep rising. The clock keeps ticking.
Movement 4. The final conflict and climax. The last shoes drop. The puzzle is solved.. The final face-off happens. The bad guy is vanquished. The world is put back on its correct axis. The orchestra (and you) are now at full power bringing everything to a rollicking and satisfying finale. After your opening, it’s the most important part of your book.
Take a moment and listen to just the first minute or so of the opening movement to Beethoven’s Ninth. (Or if you’re bored with this post, listen to the whole Ninth. I won’t mind).
Isn’t this like the opening chapter of a really juicy thriller?
First, there’s a nervousness in those trembling opening notes. Like we’re looking into this dark place and the hairs are raising on our necks. Then this tiny melody seeps in (the theme in its earliest form). Then suddenly, an explosion of sound that grabs you and says “I have something to show you! Pay attention!” (A body has been discovered? A gun has gone off in the dark?) But then the music pulls back — it’s a scream followed by a regrouging. (The hero has now arrived).
I won’t go into each other movment with such detail. But if you love the Ninth as much as I do, I urge you to listen as if you were reading great mystery. Listen to where the themes are repeated. Listen to where the complications appear. And listen for the echoes and layers of backstory. And listen to that triumphant but poignant ending.
I’ve written here before about how much I think good writing and music are intertwined. Sure, you can write a pretty good book without rhythm. You can even get famous. But you won’t write a book that people remember.
Those who write with rhythm do it in such a subtle way that you, the reader, don’t even realize you’re being moved along a current, oarred along by master with a great ear. Often you’ll hear a book’s style described as “lyrical.” James Lee Burke is the usual reference here. Here’s a graph from Bitterroot:
I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc’s house and walked down the path toward the riverbank. The air smelled of the water’s coldness and the humus back in the darkness of the woods and the deer and elk dung that had dried on the pebbled banks of the river. I watched Doc Voss squat on his haunches in front of a driftwood fire and stir the strips of ham in a skillet with a fork, squinting his eyes against the smoke, his upper body warmed only by a fly vest, his shoulders braided with sinew.
I don’t think “lyrical” is the same thing as having rhythm. The former is more about description (see above). The latter is more about cadence sustained over the book’s whole structure. Not every sentence or paragraph needs to have rhythm. In fact, if you overdo it, you look, well, pretentious. Sort of like Foreigner or Robert James Waller. Sometimes, good rhythm is just moving your characters through time and space with clarity, brevity and precision.
Good writing is an aural thing. But to get that aural vibe right, you have to be visual. You have to pay attention to how your writing looks on the page. Your rhythmic tools are:
- Sentence length
- Paragraph length
- Sentence fragments
- Alliteration. This is a potent spice. Use it sparingly.
Too many long paragraphs? It looks old-fashioned and boring. Too many short paragraphs? That makes your rhythm choppy and nervous. (BUT…if you’re writing dialogue, you want short paragraphs to mimic speech. Also, in action scenes, where you want to rhythm to be tense, of course you go shorter.) Longer paragraphs and lush sentences convey a slowing down, good for description. A tense scene might begin slow but escalate into shorter sentences.
And watch out you don’t fall into the trap of nice writing. This is passage after passage of nice, even-paced, unoffensive prose with neat, grammar-perfect, complete sentences. I had to call Delta yesterday. I was on hold for 20 minutes lisening to this nice mundane melody, over and over. I was really to blow my brains out. Note to Delta CEO Ed Bastian: Why don’t you slip Tom Waits’ “Rain Dogs” into your Musak?
E.L. Doctorow was obsessed with music when it came to his writing. His father ran a small music shop and his mother was an excellent pianist. When upset, she would play Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” — a wild piece whose chords Doctorow always interpreted as a signal to get out of the house. He once told an interviewer:
At a certain point, the difference between music in music, and music in words became elided in my mind. I became attentive to the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences in some way that I’m not even aware of.
Indulge me and allow me one more quote. It’s from an essay I ran across about 20 years ago and I still have the yellowed old copy. In it Haruki Murakami, a musician and novelist, describes the role that music plays in his writing (I’ve condensed it some):
Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work.Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.
And lastly, he speaks of that magic that happens when all the music comes together:
Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.
And on that note, I leave you. Hit it, Frederic.