structure

Repeating Ourselves

My son has autism spectrum disorder. My daughter has some congenital hearing deficit. This means I spend even more time than most parents of young children repeating myself. Then I go to work and repeat myself some more. It gets tedious—especially as a habitually impatient person who (usually) understands things on the first try.

Life is built of repetitions. Most of us do nearly the same thing every working day. My days start with the same beeping alarm, proceed through breakfast and waking myself up…then the tug-of-war to get the kids out of bed, make their at-school meals, and generally try to herd everybody out the door. Waking, working, meals, sleep…the necessities of life are repeated. If we’re inclined, we can sketch broader patterns of repetition: weeks to seasons to years to “history” repeating itself.

We sometimes allow ourselves comfort in repetition, but I think that most of us find it tiresome. We complain about cookie-cutter sitcoms or action movies or rom-coms, about derivative pop songs and comic books and fashion. Part of acquiring “culture” is learning to praise originality and novelty. Even popular consumer culture constantly reinvents its surface features. Why, then, is repetition such a powerful tool in art?

Most musical structures, for example, are about repetition and return. Whether it’s a song’s verse-chorus form, orchestral movements shaped by the sonata principle, or even the simple ternary form, we constantly hear repetition. In electronic dance music (and most dance music, really), the repeated units are even shorter, their repetition more frequent. (There’s also minimalism—if you’re interested in how minimalism, disco, advertising, and “sewing machine” classical tracks used similar structures and principles, check out Robert Fink’s book Repeating Ourselves. Yes, that’s where I got this post’s title.) When we hear something, we want to hear it again. Sometimes we won’t recognize it when it returns. Other times we will. Think about the way themes work in film scores to reinforce characterization and narrative shape. One of my few thrills in the Star Wars prequels came during Episode II, where the Imperial March began to weave into Anakin and Padme’s love scene. The power was in recognition; to recognize, we have to have encountered something previously. Without repetition, recognition is impossible.

In writing, similar principles apply. Essays conclude with amplified versions of the ideas at their openings. The Hero’s Journey classically ends with a return home. Repeating imagery in a poem heightens the image and helps unite the whole. (The same can be done in novels.) We introduce parallel scenes to demonstrate how characters have changed…or how they contrast with their counterparts. On the small scale, repetition creates mood. Assonance accelerates action scenes…or lugubriously oozes through confusion. Alliteration can secure us in Scandinavian scenes or highlight the hurting in our hearts. (The sonic tricks are fun but obviously best used sparingly.)

Repetition creates shape. It creates pattern. It’s possible to develop structures that don’t rely on repetition, but they’re harder to perceive. When we repeat ourselves in writing, we must do so mindfully. Repeated elements gain significance. Too much repetition destroys meaning. (In an early Conan book, for example, the hero was described as “panther-like” in consecutive paragraphs. Rather undercut the effect.) It’s one of the things beta readers and editors can help with tremendously: we’re often blind to the habits that lead us to repeat ourselves.

Repetition is one of our most powerful tools in telling stories and in making words dance. We just have to make sure it’s more like sunrises and coffee than alarm clocks and commutes.

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Mood, Music

I don’t really understand why the question is so common, but writers are repeatedly asked what (if any) music they listen to while writing. It comes up in the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversations. It comes up in blog posts (like this one yesterday from Austin local and WordPress/NaNo stalwart Jackie Dana), in author interviews, and almost any occasion a writer fields questions.

Generally, I’m in the “sometimes listen to music before writing, but rarely while writing” camp. I spent most of my adult life studying music, and even the wallpaper Baroque and early classical performances that so many people use as writing or study music can distract me. (Or just annoy me. There’s a reason I specialized in 20th-century avant-garde music.) There are exceptions, though. When working on a scene from Ghosts of the Old City that I’ve since discarded, I put on György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. It’s dissonant atonal stuff, heavy on strings and built around texture. It was the right music for the scene in question.

And that’s my cue to pivot. I’ve spent the first part of Camp NaNoWriMo cleaning up my outline. (I’ve historically been a pantser, but the middle chunk of Ghosts was a horrible soup until I set aside the time to give it structure.) I was surprised to find myself mentally scoring the scenes to help pin down their content. My thoughts about the scenes’ moods were more musical than verbal.

I started grad school as a composer. I started as a composer because I dug music. And largely, I dug non-pop music because of film scores. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years composing pieces with explicit or implicit narratives. I also spent a lot of time thinking about music and text and how they worked differently for telling stories.

The upshot of this is that my ideas of textual structure are thoroughly tangled with my ideas of musical structure. When I think about pacing, I imagine a conductor’s gestures. I think about conflict in terms of crescendoes and cadences and shifts in orchestration. Back when I composed long pieces, I’d get one or two pieces of 11″x17″ paper and sketch out the shape of the piece. Sometimes I’d do that with a carefully-measured timeline across the top of the pages, others I’d just be roughing it out—“trumpet solo here,” “percussion cacophony,” “pianissimo strings…”. I’d draw shapes and small pictures on the page. I don’t do that with my stories, but my longhand outlines sometimes get close as visualization exercises.

Music plays out in time. In a live performance, at least, you can’t flip back to check if the theme you’re hearing now is related to the one you heard two minutes in. (You can do it with recordings, but unless you’re a music student, I think it’s pretty rare.) It’s the composer’s and performer’s job to make those connections clear, to hold the listener’s attention. You get one shot at structure, start to finish. You can use inherited forms, many of which are based on returning material and/or harmonic progressions, or you can make your own structure. Either way, the structure is experienced linearly.

Books don’t have that limitation. You can read them by flipping around. You can read the end first. You can go back and remind yourself what happened in the first chapter. Despite that difference in the medium, structure in fiction works an awful lot like musical structure. Even if you break up your plot, reveal it in out of sequence bits and pieces, it has to be compelling as it unfolds for the reader. You have to bring them with you through the story. The crescendoes have to get them excited. If you change keys for the bridge, you’d better have a good reason (and probably ought to consider bringing some of the bridge material back to prove its relevance).

A novel isn’t a symphony. The concepts and themes to balance are different. The techniques are different. For me, though, it seems more and more like the principles are the same. Whether you’re writing a story or a string quartet, you’re giving shape to chaos. You’re making the inchoate intelligible. Words or notes, you’re paving a path for your audience.

Long story short, there’s a lot of music involved with my writing even when my speakers aren’t making a sound.