My training is as a musician, and musical concepts still inform all of my creative work, whether it’s editing a film, shooting a photo or even developing a Powerpoint presentation.
The most important of all musical concepts is rhythm: the pace of events as they unfold; the regularity of that pace, or its interruption; the overall tempo, whether the pace is swift or slow.
This concept is essential to storytelling.
Effective storytelling is rhythmic storytelling, in which your narrative moves through time in a way that logical, engaging and ultimately satisfying.
It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
To get an idea of what we mean by the rhythmic basis of effective storytelling, consider Marin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. King’s overall cadence, the rise and fall of his voice and the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream” generate an overall rhythmic feel that draws us in as much as the meaning of the words themselves.
Effective Storytelling And The Rhythm Of Story Shapes
In my storytelling workshops, I place special emphasis on story shapes which the great American author, Kurt Vonnegut, discussed at length.
Put simply, stories that work are stories that have a shape. In effective storytelling, the fortune of the main character, for example, goes up and down over the course of the narrative. One of the classic story shapes is known as “Man-In-Hole,” in which the hero starts his day with average fortune, then faces a problem in which his fortune drops precipitously, putting him in a “hole.” He then works his way out of the hole, and in many cases ends up in a better position than he started out in when the story began.
There is rhythm here. Things go up and they go down. Tension is built and released. Within the larger rhythmic structure of the main story shape there are often smaller structures as well, which also generate rhythm. Scene changes and plot twists, for example, interrupt the rhythmic flow and take us in a new rhythmic direction. As a movie reaches its climax, the rhythm may increase in pace only for it to subside as the story resolves.
Rhythmic Storytelling Even Applies To Static Images
It’s easy to understand how rhythm applies to stories that move through time. But how about photographs, for example, whose creators often describe as “telling a story,” yet are static in nature?
Here too we find rhythm. Successful images move our eye through the image in a specific, directed way. The composition acts as guide. There is a flow. Take this famous shot by Ansel Adams.
How To Get Rhythm Into Your Own Storytelling
The most important thing you can do to become a rhythmic storyteller is to try to answer a number of questions as you develop your stories and analyze others:
1) Is there an overall groove? Is this a story that, broadly speaking, moves quickly or leisurely?
2) Does the story have an overall shape? Is there a general sense of tension and release?
3) Are events happening at the “right” time? Does a certain section last too long or is it too short? Do you feel a need at certain points for “something else to happen”? Conversely, do you feel that a particular section deserves to be lingered upon a bit longer? Does the story feel like it’s flowing, that it’s moving forward like one of your favorite songs?
Get Rhythmic And You’ll Get Engagement
All of life is rhythm. Whether it’s our heartbeat or the regular motions of the planets, we are embedded in a rhythmic universe.
That’s why rhythm has such enormous power. It’s built into who we are.
So the next time you prepare a story, whether it’s a video, a novel or a business presentation, think about its rhythm and craft it in a way that’s musical.
Your audience will be with you all way.