Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

SwingRecognize Duke Ellington’s jazz classic? It’s been running through my mind lately.

I’ve been working on getting my swing on.

As I fill in the gaps in the first half of my middle section, I’ve found an idea that works well for me: highs and lows.

In any good story, you need to balance the moments of high tension, stress, and conflict against calmer, more peaceful periods. Let’s look at an example I’m familiar with: The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Here’s a way of analyzing that story, with the “down moments on the left and the HIGH MOMENTS ON THE RIGHT. Even if you don’t know the story, you can see the up and down pattern here.

Relaxing, smoking a pipe, joking with Gandalf

DWARFS TRASHING MY HOUSE!

Peaceful travel on ponies

TROLLS!

Beautiful Rivendell

MISTY MOUNTAINS! WITH GOBLINS!

Sneaking through tunnels (and finding the Ring)

GOLLUM PUZZLES

Reconnect with dwarfs who now respect me

ORCS! WARGS! FIRE! EAGLES!

Beorn: safety, and horses

MIRKWOOD! WITH SPIDERS AND ELVES!

Lake-town people like us

DRAGON ATTACK! FIRE AND DESTRUCTION!

Safety with the dragon hoard

BATTLE OF FIVE ARMIES

Back home again, with treasure

Most stories have this kind of structure. It’s sometimes called pacing, sometimes scene and sequel (though that’s more properly applied at a smaller level of analysis). The point of this is that I’m using it to figure out how to find my missing elements. I know how many chapters I need in this section. What I want is for each chapter to go either up or down: start with a calmer moment and ratchet up to a crisis, or start at the crisis and relax down to calmness. It’s helped me to come up with a couple of good ideas to match that map. I’m not quite done yet, but I still have time in my schedule!

Another thing to notice about the Hobbit plan outlined above is that right through to the last crisis point, each crisis is more critical, more threatening, than the one before. The stakes keep climbing, from dwarfs trashing my house through fighting trolls, then orcs, then a dragon, then finally five armies fighting together against a common enemy. That kind of relentless climb is what I’m aiming for.

Have you seen this kind of see-saw structure in stories you’ve read, or written? Share some examples here!

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

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