Monday, June 7, 2010

Rhyming Action

For the past month, in between finishing up course work, I've been struggling with my plot. It's progressed tremendously, thanks to everyone here, on Twitter, my classmates, and Phil, who has helped me talk my way through it. But on a particularly rough day, I still had some time left for writing, but was too frustrated with my plot to work on it anymore. So just like a bad movie, my eyes alighted on The Writer's Chronicle (which comes free to Writing MA students) sitting with the newspaper on my dining room table. I figured it was writing time, so it was okay to just flip through it. And lo and behold, I found K. L. Cook's essay "Narrative Strategy and Dramatic Design." (I wish they had an online version, but you have to be a subscribing member. Honestly, though, it is worth picking up a copy to read this article!)

Cook studies the master plotter, Shakespeare, and outline five techniques he uses. All of them are interesting, but I was particularly taken with his analysis of Rhyming Action. Rhyming Action is when a dramatic structure is used repeatedly throughout a story. As Cook explains it: "gives the reader (or audience member) the sense that the narrative is not only moving forward in time but also repeating an aesthetically beautiful pattern of action."

Shakespeare used it to highlight themes. For example, as Cook explains, in "Othello" the repetition "links the world of marriage and sexual infidelity to the world of criminal investigation and jurisprudence."

How does it work? Well, the example Cook uses in "Othello" is quite complex, so I won't bother explaining the whole thing. Basically, he shows how in Act I, when Othello is accused of "making the beast with two backs" with Desdemona, it leads to a trial and then a judgment. This pattern of raising an alarm, accusing someone, putting someone on trial, etc, is repeated in every act of the play. Incredible, huh? Finally, in Act V, this whole pattern is repeated in the bedroom and Othello judges himself guilty and commits suicide.

Numerous stories have this repeating structure. Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK begins just after Melinda's rape. The climax of the story involves the same perpetrator cornering Melinda in a storage closet.

Like SPEAK, Project Sparkle begins with a life-shattering event. As I read Cook's article, I realized I had been sort of repeating the event in the climax. By deciding to mirror the event exactly, I had a ready made structure to play with, plus this "aesthetically beautiful pattern of action" that Cook talks about.

No offense Anne, but doing the same thing over and over again... isn't that boring?

That's the cool part! I don't think it is, really, and Shakespeare sets an incredible example of how to keep this repetition from becoming boring. He switches the action up with unexpected role reversals. In "Othello's" climax, Emilia ends up accusing Iago. It also makes for a perfect climax: the reader knows exactly what to expect, but the outcome is still surprising.

People say we should study other writers; I'm grateful for Cook to pointing this Rhyming Action structure out to me. Can you think of any other examples? Do you do this in your stories?


  1. Ooh! I do this, but I had no idea it had a name!

  2. Who knew, huh?! How cool that you've been consciously doing this! I think it's a really common narrative structure, but identifying it and thinking concretely about it has really helped me.

  3. That was a nice article.
    Rhyming action is so important to good writing.

    Charles Baxter has a nice essay about Rhyming Action in his book, Burning Down the House. (1997)
    I've read about it in other places, but this essay is particularly nice. Actually, I'd suggest the entire book--great craft stuff.

  4. Oh, what a great recommendation, Sarah! Cook actually quoted Baxter, but stupid me didn't even think to look up Baxter's work. I'll to check out Burning Down the House. Thanks!


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