On Rhythm: Stop Before You Jump, Mr.Hemingway


Right now!

And now…


Jump into an action sequence and danger, and see the characters run and fight and bleed and scream and die and survive!

I say it over and over and over. You don’t write with words. You write with ideas. Let me prove it to you once more:

U don right we’d worse, U right we the I.D. us.

See? Even if I write the wrong words you can follow me, can’t you? And ideas are in words, of course. In a much more concrete way than in music, for instance, which is much more abstract most of the time. But not all of the wide spectrum of ideas, not all of the great strength of ideas are in fact in words. Big words don’t make great ideas. Emotions are in the music. Emotions are all about rhythm. All about punctuation.

Punctuation is overwhelmingly more important than words. Look at the beginning of this post. What did you feel? Confusion, yes, but also, probably, fluctuations in your own take of something I was trying to convey. Some dynamic. But was it the words? Some of it, yes, of course. But much of it was the punctuation. Because… (drums)… rhythm is emotion.

If you are writing action sequences this, for me, is the most important thing you have to learn. How to move attention and emotion at the same time. The masters use a pair of concepts that most screenwriters and movie professionals know about but not all book writers know how to control: buildup & payoff. I’ve talked about this last week, in my post on Netflix’s ‘Godless’.

Hitchcock used to say that an exploding bomb has no tension; it’s actually a release, a payoff. The tension comes from watching the clock numbers decrease one by one in the bomb’s timer hidden under the table while everyone in the restaurant is oblivious to it and goes about their normal lives. You build up the tension before you pay-off the emotional investment with a great bang.  And the way you slow down and speed up descriptions and actions are a way to manage tension, buildups and payoffs.

Look at this passage of Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. He is talking about a bellbullfighter that feels crushed by the image of a bull’s stuffed head he killed and which is being offered to him at a celebration. See how Hemingway uses details,  ‘and’ and commas to build up the speed and the rhythm and the tension gradually until the bullfighter explodes. The words are almost clumsy, but the ideas and the rhythm are very powerful:

«’Towards the end of the speech, Finito began to shake his head and he got further back in the chair all the time.

‘”How are you, little one?” I said to him but when he looked at me he did not recognize me and he only shook his head and said, “No. No. No.”

‘So the president of the Club reached the end of the speech and then, with everybody cheering him, he stood on a chair and reached up and slowly pulled the cord that bound the purple shroud  over the head and slowly  pulled it clear of the head and it stuck on one of the horns and  he lifted it and pulled it off the sharp polished horns and there was that great yellow bull with black horns that swung way out and pointed forward, their white tips sharp as porcupine quills, and the head of the bull was as though he were alive; his forehead was curly as in life and his nostrils were open and his eyes were bright and he was there looking straight at Finito.

‘Everyone shouted and applauded and Finito sunk further in the chair and then everyone was quiet and looking at him and he said , “No. No.” and looked at the bull and pulled further back and then he said “No!”»

See how it works? See how the way Hemingway writes creates the tension of the bullfighter in our head? It’s not the words he uses, it’s the rhythm he imposes and controls masterfully. It’s the buildup he creates.

Now: how do you use that in an action sequence? One way is, paradoxically, to slow down the action. Even to stop. Infamous film directors like Michael Bay or John Woo use pornographic slow motion in the middle of the action, going so far as to put fire, flying pigeons and even explosions in slow motions to manipulate emotions. But others do it other ways. See Christopher Nolan in ‘Inception’. He uses slow motion in the climatic scenes at the end of the movie, but he gives a reason for the slow motion (different levels of consciousness), and jumps from action to action to maintain the tension, using also the unifying song of Edith Piaff to impress the urgency as he slows down the action. So when things slow down, we feel the tension rising.

See also, in writing, how Alexander Kent does it in his novel ‘Command a King’s Ship’. It’s the scene of a naval battle in 1784.51GCF4FFV8L._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

«Dead and wounded lay everywhere, and as marines ran to their places for boarding Bolitho saw Shellabeer mangled beneath a gun, and Pryke, the carpenter, pinned across a hatch coaming by a broken length of gangway, his blood linking with all the rest around him. And Fowlar, could that thing really be him?»

This paragraph where Kent stops the action and gives you an image of the scenario, of the carnage going on, works as slow motion in movies. It’s a moment to stop and feel the danger, before the main character springs into action once more. This not only opens your eyes to things that are happening, but it also builds up tension that will make your final action more intense. That’s how masters do it.

There’s a lot to talk about rhythm and buildups and payoffs, so I will keep speaking about it. Let me finish with an excerpt of my own writing, not as masterful as Hemingway or Kent, of course, but I think can show you how I use differences in speed and even stopping the action with thoughts and feelings, and using short and long sentences and other devices to manipulate rhythm and tension in an action sequence. It’s from my work-in-progress, a post-apocalyptic novel called ‘Laura and the Shadow King’. I hope you like it. Maria is trying to escape her captors with her little girl .

«With the spotlight following the car, she drove passed the truck, and then the BTR and the rest of the soldiers. But then something went wrong. Something was wrong. The tail lights ahead. The SUV. It had stopped. And then white lights. It was coming back. It was reversing. And the BPM was turning around. They had seen her. They had seen her in their rearview mirrors under the spotlight and they knew she shouldn’t be there. That something was wrong. Maria had to stop the car. She had to stop and wait. The soldiers approached from behind. And someone was stepping out of the SUV. More armed soldiers. And a man with a moustache. It was Goran. It was Goran, the Serb. And he looked straight at her. He looked at her and he recognized her.

Oh, My God!! What could she do?? What could she do?? If she didn’t do something immediately, everything was lost. She would lose her daughter! She would lose her forever!

Goran started walking towards her and that’s when she noticed it. She noticed the dirt road on the right. There was a gap in the rails on the right and a dirt road. There was a soldier there, but she didn’t care. She stepped on the gas, bumped the soldier away and sped into the dirt road. And they fired! They fired! She heard the bursts and the back window crashed and the little girl screamed and Maria crouched behind the wheel and she heard the screams back there.


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