Great writing is full of intentional features that give a rhythm to the music of the text. Novice writing is not. Patterns bring readers into a story and are often what make writing great.
As you delve deeper into the writing craft and have read multiple manuscripts, you can assess — even on the first page — if the writing is well-structured or “loose.” This is a huge part of why agents can decide yay or nay on a book just from its opening.
Great authors leave nothing to chance. We aren’t jarred by holes in their stories or inconsistencies that seem to have no rhyme or reason. In great writing, everything is on purpose. Everything in its place and there’s a place for everything, as the saying goes. If there is a beginning, there is an ending. Ideas come full circle.
Patterns in writing are wonderfully satisfying because they make us believe that the author has thought deeply about every aspect of the story at hand. This promise of a well-engineered story draws us in. We relax and suspend disbelief.
We are always pattern-hunting
The human mind is looking for meaning everywhere – including in every nook of a book. It’s in our nature to seek out patterns. This is how we make sense of the world. This means we are quick to put two and two together to make four. We hear the word “wicked” and we might think “witch.” We read that a horrible thunderstorm is rolling in and we think “Uh oh, maybe the author is signaling a sad turn of events.” We are always looking ahead and wondering.
If the strongest pattern in a book is that there appears to be not a single thoughtful pattern, the book will quickly be put down.
Fabulous patterns form much of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of a work. The expectations and convention of modern fiction are all patterns of a kind. A romance follows one general pattern, a thriller another, and a mystery another. The first pattern is about blossoming love between two people, the second maps out a chase for something against dire odds, and the third involves a network of clues that lead to an answer.
These are established genre patterns, but patterns abound in many other forms in books. The most obvious, is the pattern of the Three-Act Structure. The details of Three-Act Structure might only be consumed subconsciously by readers, but they’ll miss them if they are absent. The climax is the biggest promise of any book, it must be there, involve all the main ingredients of the book, and lead to a satisfying resolution of all loose ends.
The most obvious general pattern is that every set-up must have a payoff. Forget the payoff and readers will certainly miss it. Likewise, every hook must have a solid trajectory with a climax.
In short, if something is introduced, it is important. If a promise is made to the reader, it is delivered upon without excuse.
Novel patterns, even never-seen-before, are what help define an author’s unique voice.
When it’s great to break a pattern
Once you have established a pattern, consciously or not, you take a risk if you break it. But it can deliver a powerful shock to readers if you do it right.
Say you’ve built the expectation that your lead character is a shy, retiring librarian. Her pattern includes saying “no thanks” to most things in life. Your readers will know something is afoot when she says “yes” to driving cross-country to help a handsome colleague move into a new house. It’ll be clear how much she likes this fellow because her actions are so out-of-character.
Or, there could be a surprise when the nice librarian turns out to be the killer.
Such twists are based on the power of a great exception. Learn to build strong patterns and you are in the position of being able to use the advanced skills of throwing an exception that is rich in meaning and highly entertaining. Readers will think you are going right — then you go left. They’ll love you for it if it makes sense in the end. The beautiful pattern you crafted did its job.
What really matters is consistency
Most of all, what matters is the presence of a rich and interesting set of patterns and consistency. Consistency builds readers expectations — for the predictable or for wild exceptions — but it also greatly increases readers’ ease with the material.
Take, for example, the multi-character point-of-view (POV) debate. Much has been written on how and when to move from the perspective of one character to another. In the end, what really matters is that you pick a pattern and stick to it.
How you approach POV changes is up to you – whether only at chapter breaks, at section breaks, or after dropping a big clue. What matters is that you pick a way and stick to it. This lets readers easily follow.
Consistency keeps confusion at bay and readability high. It’s not the exact pattern that matters — it’s reliability that helps the reader navigate the story and enjoy the writing.
Purge randomness from your writing
Just as great patterns delight, randomness diminishes the impact of your writing. The most common general weakness of novice or unpolished manuscripts is the dreaded state of randomness.
Fixes to broken patterns can transform a work. Remove or tie up all stray bits and bobs that dither and linger, starts that go nowhere, dead ends that shock, signposts that are missing and misdirect, or circles that are broken.
Equally, watch out for false patterns. These are expectations of significance you might have created inadvertently. They occur as a result of our constant search for meaning. If readers seize on potential starts of patterns but nothing materializes, they might feel the book is going nowhere and grow frustrated.
If something occurs once, it’s an orphan. Think about removing it as superfluous or even spurious. Twice, and it signals to the reader it may or may not be a pattern. Three times and readers take it as an established pattern. This is the “Rule of Three” in fiction. If something appears more than three times, it is a very strong pattern.
What you want is meaning
Mostly, just bear in mind, readers are always looking for meaning, significance, clues, foreshadowing, explanations, impending mysteries, and all other such intrigues.
In the end, patterns are about building a story-world that feels meaningful.
Tying up all forms of randomness is hard enough, but even harder is pulling on the creative strings to introduce strong and satisfying patterns. This double-whammy skill is the lifeblood of great storytellers. Beautiful and innovative patterns can often be the most memorable parts of a work.
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