Do Violence to Your Reader, Part III:
The Trough and the Wave
by Jill Elizabeth Nelson
The most effective storytellers have a highly developed sense of rhythm and balance. Every wave on the ocean is followed by a trough, and every trough is followed by a wave. The variety is found in the depth of the trough and the height of the wave. This sense of rhythm and balance requires both instinct and planned design. Developing the knack takes practice, but is well worth the bother.
In writing circles, we talk often about heightening the tension and escalating the conflict, but a subtle and necessary aspect of tightening the screws on your characters, and thereby, on your readers is to know when to back off. Let your characters—and your readers—take a deep breath before plunging them once more beneath the stormy waves of tension and emotion.
These short-lived lulls serve not toward dullness in the story, but actually emphasize and highlight the tension, just as the trough of a wave emphasizes the crest of the next wave sweeping in. Our object as writers is not to wear our readers out with perpetual motion, but to draw them ever onward, eager to experience the next emotionally resonant moment.
For instance, in a romance the hero and heroine might savor a sweet and gentle idyll together, but then something occurs to throw them once again into emotional turmoil or physical danger or both. The rapport between the characters is rendered the more poignant and precious by its loss, thus raising the stakes in the reader’s mind for the characters to regain both their safety and intimacy.
In a suspense novel, the heroine might enjoy a brief respite from danger in a return to ordinary daily activities. However, safety proves to be an illusion as the next and more horrific moment of danger overtakes her. Briefly experiencing the false security of the ordinary raises the terror bar on the next eruption of evil both for the character and for the reader.
Perhaps you have never consciously noticed these rhythms in your reading, but you may be using them at some level by instinct in your writing. Becoming aware of the rhythms will enable you to consciously and strategically employ them in your stories.
Here’s your assignment:
Pick up a novel that made a profound impact on you, and evaluate it for the trough and wave rhythms that gripped and fascinated you. How might you apply those rhythms to your current WIP (work in progress)?
Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, library associations, and civic and church groups. She delights to bring the “Ah-ah! Moment” to her students as they make new skills their own. Her handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is now available at Amazon (see links below).
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