Finding Your Emotional Rhythm by Eileen Wilks
It has nothing to do with your own emotional ups and downs and everything to do with the journey you take readers on. Emotional rhythm is the emotional pacing of a story. Like pacing in general, it occurs on both the macro and micro level—that is, as a component of your story’s structure, and also within each scene. With emotional rhythm, however, we’re not measuring speed. We’re looking at the emotional changes of the story.
Spending days working on a scene that just doesn’t feel right even though you know what you want to happen, what needs to happen, and it’s driving you nuts . . . until finally you move this bit of dialogue, remove that explanation, add more interaction between these two characters . . . and oh yeah, you can shift this bit to the end, and rewrite this section to add a crucial detail more smoothly and highlight the emotional impact and . . .
Your emotional rhythm will inevitably shape your story, whether you’re conscious of this or not. But knowing about it gives you one more tool in your toolbox when something isn’t working. If you get comments from critique partners or judges about a scene feeling stilted or forced and you don’t understand what they mean, you might look at that scene in terms of the story’s emotional rhythm. Perhaps you’ve included a love scene where you think your genre demands one—but it’s throwing off your innate emotional rhythm. You might have decided to include backstory via dialogue between two characters when your natural emotional rhythm calls for a flashback. Or vice versa.
Something similar happened to me recently. I’d been rewriting the same scene over and over, unable to make it come out right, authentic, real. I finally realized I was trying for scary with plenty of action. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do at that point in the story, you see. But my personal emotional rhythm called for a false dawn—a period when things seem to be looking up, but the undercurrents are saying whoa. Danger ahead.
There is no one right type of emotional rhythm, and your rhythm as a writer may not match with some of the stories you love to read. Why should it? You probably read from a wide variety of styles. I certainly do. I’m going to give some examples, using labels I find convenient. These NYT best-selling authors have clear and consistent—and vastly different—emotional rhythms:
In terms of emotional pacing, Sue Grafton is more of a straight road writer. Her stories build slowly, picking up weight and meaning as they go, to end like juggernauts.
Mary Balogh is more of a tapestry writer. Her books are not fast-paced, nor is there a great deal of obvious external plot., but their emotional rhythm pulls the reader along. Each scene is emotionally dense or charged, often cycling through several emotional changes.
Nora Roberts’s scenes are less emotionally dense, and her books are faster paced. Many of the scenes are dialogue-driven. Each scene has a clear emotional arc, but that arc varies—there’s humor, danger, determination, loss, victory.
You might be a “tapestry” writer if you include a lot of detail in your stories—details about the setting and the characters (major and secondary.) A lot of women’s fiction and historical romance authors are tapestry writers. So are some fantasy writers, both urban fantasy and paranormal romance, because world-building is often a hallmark of the tapestry style. And so is one of my personal favorites who writes books with “thriller” on the spine: Sara Paretsky. Oh, and there’s another favorite author, this one of historical mysteries, I’d call a tapestry writer: Margaret Frazier.
You might be a straight road writer if your stories are tense, dramatic, and end with a shocking bang, one that’s been building throughout the book. Obviously, all books build towards the climax, but with a straight road writer, secondary characters and subplots exist mainly as distractions so that the surprise at the end will be even more satisfying. Many thriller writers are “straight road” writers. Kay Hooper comes to mind. You’ll also find a lot of straight-road writers in romantic suspense, science fiction, and category romance.
You might be a Nora-style author if your stories are dialogue-driven with crisp action scenes (and I consider sex scenes to be action scenes), a clear but varied emotional arc to each scene, and no more detail than is necessary to set up the scenes. Mary Janice Davidson is a good example. So is Jayne Ann Krentz, whatever name she writes under. This emotional rhythm is suited to all types of romance, but you’ll find it in a lot of mysteries, too, and some science fiction.
A type of emotional rhythm I find particularly satisfying as a reader is what I call the “Surprise!” style. These writers surprise the reader over and over; much of the emotion relies on repeated surprise. Writers who do this well often rise to the top of their field. This style works for any and all genres, but is particularly suited for books with plenty of action. Jim Butcher comes to mind. So do Dorothy Dunnet and Janet Evanovitch. Very different writers, stories, genres—but in each case I’m surprised over and over and have to keep reading to see what will happen.
A final note. These are generalizations, not rules . . . generalizations that I find useful, but your speed may vary. Don’t let any of this straight-jacket you. Also, many of us are a blend of styles. For example: a Nora-style author might find category romance a good fit—but I’m mostly a tapestry writer with a dollop of straight-road, not Nora-style at all. And I sold nearly 20 category novels before moving to single title. So take what you like and leave the rest.