I spend a lot of time reading children’s books these days. And now that my older son is a toddler, he has very strong opinions about what books he’ll sit still for—gone are the days of Goodnight, Moon as bedtime ritual—and his choices run the gamut from delightful (Steam Train, Dream Train), to befuddling (not Meet Babar and His Family again?!), to weird (The Night Pirates), to downright sob-worthy (You Belong Here).
And whether I’m laughing or cringing or crying, his book usually teach me something I need to know about good writing.
Rhythm & Plot
Over the winter, while we cranked the heat and tried to stay cozy, my son developed a strong affection for Dr. Seuss. We read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, oh, a few thousand times.
As we read, I started thinking about structure.
The book opens with setting the scene:
“All that deep,
deep, deep snow,
all that snow had to go”
then quickly adds tension with the arrival of the Cat:
“Oh-oh!” Sally said.
“Don’t you talk to that cat.
That cat is a bad one,
that Cat in the Hat.
He plays lots of bad tricks.
Don’t you let him come near.
You know what he did
the last time he was here.”
The tension continues to build, and build, and build until
And when that happens, the rhythm (here, actual rhyme) is broken.
So much so, that for the first 100 times I read it, all I could think was, Damn Seuss, is it really so hard to find rhymes for “bed”?
But the cat just stood still.
He just looked at the bed.
“This is not the right kind of bed,”
the cat said.
“To take spots off this bed
will be hard,” said the cat.
“I can’t do it alone,”
said the Cat in the Hat.
Until it dawned on me…
Now, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is a short book, and a simple one, so this pinnacle of tension is solved on the next page with the introduction of Little Cat A (who unleashes Little Cat B, who unveils Little Cat C, and on and on, you get the picture).
This moment comes at just past the midpoint of the story, and though there are plot twists and conflicts in the pages ahead, at no other point in the narrative does the rhythm STOP abruptly.
So, what is Dr Seuss up to when the cat comes to a stand still? Why press pause at the most terrifying, tantalizing moment? (Can you guess?)
To call attention to the moment when everything changes.
Plot Shift vs Tension Building
Lots of writers, myself among them, confuse tension building with plot shifts.
In early drafts (and let’s face it, in finished books), I’ll often stumble upon a moment that is meant to build tension functioning as a plot shift or vice versa. You’ve noticed them too: those narrative “jumps” that either don’t feel believable or flatten out an otherwise mounting conflict.
These missteps kill an otherwise good story, leaving the reader scratching their head or putting the book down to check their phone notifications.
So, what does this have to do with rhythm?
Big Picture, Little Picture
Many times, as we write, we think of the big picture things (plot, setting, character) separately from the little picture things (details, dialogue, sentence structure, word choice).
And that’s fine in drafts, but as a piece gets closer and closer to final, the big and the little pictures need to start to cohese.
Rhythm is one of the ways in which this fusion can occur.
Depending on the length of your work, you may have one or more plot shift and several tension builders. If you identify these moments, and separate them from the bulk of the story, you might notice some patterns.
For instance, in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, dialogue plays a big roll in the tension building moments – mainly the dialogue of the narrator. When the Cat speaks, which happens less often, you know something bigger is changing.
If you can’t find a pattern in your own work, that’s problematic. I mean, we’re not talking about rhyming, but we are talking about gaining the reader’s trust and managing expectations. If your tension builders are fast and slow, dialogue-heavy and silent, rooted in place and completely ungrounded, it’ll be hard for the reader to easily gain knowledge of what’s going on.
I know, I know. Easy gets a bad rap, especially in “literature,” but the truth is, good writing goes down as smooth as butter, no matter how difficult, complex, or gut-wrenching.
This might be obvious, but…
I’ll say it again, just in case: rhythm can make or break a story.
You know that person you’ve been eyeing across the bar all night? You know how they’ve just asked you to dance? You know how they’re… bumping and grinding to a Patsy Cline song? Errrrrr, record-scratch, CUT!
Rhythm is all about relativity. Rhythm can be dissonant if it wants to, sure, as long as it’s intentional. Otherwise, you want your rhythm to match your scene.
Chase scene: choppy and breathless. Seduction scene: slooooow it waaaaaayyyyy down. Tenstion building: amp it up some. Plot shift: AMP IT WAY UP (and remember, silence makes its own kind of noise).
You get my drift.
If you doubt me, go pick up a Dr Seuss book (or any good book, for that matter) and break it down. You’ll see my point… again and again and again.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be pondering how, exactly, the steam roller “fell” into the pond in Katy and the Big Snow. 🍺