Highs and lows (Encore)

Slow and steady may win some contests, but if that’s how your story moves along, you Grapevinesnail racermight as well take up something else, like gastropod racing. If, on the other hand, you’d like to write stuff that folks might actually want to read, you need to think in terms of different speeds. If your work only has one tempo, your readers won’t last long.

So, what are the options? A story moves at its own pace, doesn’t it? It can, certainly, but writers who want to be read know the value of a change in tempo. And that applies both mechanically and structurally. By “mechanically,” I mean altering sentence length to avoid repetition. The late Gary Provost provided a brilliant example of this in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer:

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

By “structurally,” I mean the components of a story, whether it’s fiction, essay, memoir, documentation, prayer, speech, or some other construct that escapes me at the moment. Just as sentences must vary, so must content. A steady stream of tragic reversals, like a steady stream of five-word sentences, will wear a reader down. Cut them some slack! You don’t want your readers to continually slog uphill like Sisyphus, struggling against the gravity of your tale to reach the conclusion.

Readers need breaks, just like writers. The easiest way to do this is to vary your content. If the tension has been high, toss in something light: a humorous anecdote, a lighthearted character or a moment of levity. Surely something pleasant happened at some point in your life. Memoirs can be tedious without the occasional foray into the realms of lighter material–good times, happy times, celebrations, victories.

If you’re writing about a time in your life when someone made you utterly miserable, try to find something in your life–no matter how inconsequential–that will offer some semblance of balance. Surely someone, at some point, smiled at you or made you feel like a real human being. Don’t leave that out! It may not have made much of a difference in your life, but it’ll make a difference in the attitude of your reader. This is obviously much easier to accomplish in fiction, but it absolutely applies to non-fiction, and to memoir in particular.

Okay then, now that you know two of the essential secrets of writing magic, hie thee hence and write something memorable!


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Highs and lows (Encore)

  1. sonyabravermanaolcom says:

    I loved this, Josh. Great examples. Entertaining and useful info.

  2. don says:

    Great stuff

  3. Vikki says:

    Good advice about 5 5 word sentences!

  4. Always good and needed advice.

  5. Barry & Anita D Womack says:

    Rock on, brother! You are like a literary lighthouse, keep you in sight and we always know where safe-harbor lies.

  6. Geri Lawhon says:

    Nicely done, thanks for the info.

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