My brother, a musician, named three properties that become his focus as he works to craft a piece of music. They are: the key of the piece, the tempo, and the kick pattern.
“Making sure the song is in the right key is essential,” he said. “You would be amazed at how changing the key of the song can change the entire feeling.” He talked about some songs we both knew and how they didn’t work the same way with a key change. “This especially goes for songs that modulate for a build at the end. It can be catastrophic for certain song structures.”
“The second thing I experiment with is the song’s tempo. I have songs I struggle to keep from being too slow or too fast.” He talked about one of his slower songs, Give In. “I played with the speed of that one for quite a while. Any slower and it lost its intensity, but playing it faster took away from the serious mood.”
“The last thing will probably sound shallow, but it’s not. It’s the kick pattern. And I’m not talking about the beat of the drum so much as the pattern in the listener’s head. You want them to anticipate when the drum is coming, even when the sound isn’t there at all. The listener needs that. But you don’t want the pattern to be predictable, either.”
As he talked, I realized the method to his music was the same method I use to improve my writing. Instead of using chords in a key pattern, I’m focused on the structure of the setting. The setting of the story houses the mood, the atmosphere, the foundational guidelines of my piece. Without it, my work has suffered from being too ambiguous or lifeless. I’ve changed the setting suddenly, and it’s ruined my whole story.
Tempo is obvious. I’ve discussed the importance of keeping the pace of a story in the forefront of a writer’s mind—not letting the characters slip into reveries or flashbacks at the wrong moment, making sure there is a goal the story continues to move toward. Even the simplest digressions can have an impact on the way your reader perceives your work. Some digressions bring your reader into a closer connection with the experience you’re sharing, and some digressions confuse, and even polarize, your reader.
Lastly, there is a pattern created by the writer in every story. Sometimes it’s called the voice or the style of the work. But it’s more than that. It’s that unspoken rhythm of thought the reader recognizes and latches onto. This is comparable to the kick pattern of a song, I think. Certain stories ooze personality, the story’s own flair, from the first word. Tolkien had a beautiful sense of this. Mary Shelley played around with it in Frankenstein. (Personally, I think she overplayed it.) Maximum Ride held readers with a snarky, hard-edged flow–not just the dialogue, but the storyline itself rattled with that teen angst pattern. These three examples are easy to pick up on, but all literature of length sits within a pattern that the reader subconsciously recognizes and expects to continue throughout the work.
My brother opened my eyes to this universal rule of the artist: We don’t mold the message alone; we mold every pause between. From the dead spaces to the underlying matter, we orchestrate and riddle out the kinks, so the listener can get to know the work without needing to know why it resonates.