We’ve all read good books, seen good films, been entertained by good music or admired great works of art. But have you ever wondered why these things work on us? What is the principle underlying their success? There’s a fundamental, prime factor at work here about which you probably won’t have learned much at school.
It could be called the most successful technique ever, used by all great artists and in all effective art to one degree or another, except that the word ‘technique’ doesn’t quite do it justice; it is the thing which, as readers or viewers or listeners, we most look for even when we don’t know we’re looking for it; the principle which underlies almost all emotional and spiritual effects in art and in life.
It can be summed up in one word: rhythm. What is rhythm?
In brief, rhythm is any kind of movement or change characterised by the regular recurrence or repetition of strong and weak parts.
The key things are regularity and repetition.
Use Rhythm to Establish Relationships
Rhythm of whatever kind establishes a relationship.
This is how the creative artist enters into a relationship with a person he or she has never met and is never likely to see: a mutual trust or affinity develops between the creator of the work and the participator in it based on repetition and regularity.
Think of an audience in a theatre: it is not merely a group of spectators, unless the play is failing. The people sitting there are participators. What encourages them to participate?
An audience in rapport participates in small or large ways with the performer or the artist or work of art, often by vocal or body motion. In writing, this actually is a component of the action of reading — entering into a rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, with words on a page.
Don’t Be Afraid To Leave Things Out When Creating
Regular omission of a beat or step or full explanation causes the audience to fill it in for themselves and encourages physical or mental participation. Just as we stamp our feet or clap our hands to rhythm in music, so we enter into a piece of art, mentally and silently ‘stamping’ imaginatively with the ‘beat’ of the artwork. And the silences between the beats are just as important as the beats.
This applies to non-musical forms of art too.
Darkness and emptiness in visual art and in story-telling should not be underestimated.
So coming up with at least two apparently unconnected things as we saw earlier is part of the answer; making them work together in a way which engages the reader or audience is another.
Use Harmony — and Disharmony
Some artists often use disharmony and even disappointment within a work to set the reader or viewer or listener up for the ‘joy’ of a restored harmony. A writer can begin an unwanted rhythm, use the reader’s objection or disappointment to focus attention and then transform it into a wanted rhythm. What we call dramatic tension is really an offshoot of this — no tension would exist if all rhythms were entirely regular and predictable.
Rhythm can excite, soothe, lull and arouse any kind of emotion. A rhythm slightly below the usual or expected rhythm of a piece of writing will depress or relax readers; a rhythm marginally above the usual rhythm will capture and interest them. Rhythm and its expression is the basic key to all creativity. Using it well is the most successful technique ever because it underlies so much else.
Take Creativity Further
So let’s take the original idea of the piranha and the banana sandwich that we mentioned last time. Poles apart, but already that establishes a rhythm of sorts — the very fact that they are so different sets up a series of expectations. If this was a novel, the reader would detect disharmony and expect to be surprised and maybe even shocked.
What we have here is similar to the two terminals on an electric motor - they are held apart by the base of the motor and so the positive and negative poles can discharge against each other. That’s creativity right there - the discharge between these two concepts is the imagination trying to connect them.
Try to work out a series of points between the piranha and the banana sandwich by moving one step closer in from each.
• Piranhas and bananas might both be found in tropical regions.
• The boy who is going to eat the sandwich may have a pet goldfish.
Now let’s try and get even closer.
• It might be possible for a piranha to be shipped to England accidentally along with a banana shipment.
• The boy might be reading about piranhas as he eats the sandwich.
So we have a connected narrative now and the flow can go both ways - either a story about a piranha who finds himself in England, or the tale of a boy’s imaginative encounter with a piranha.
It’s only a small example, but a large number of great works of art began along similar lines.
Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings epic, for example, began when his vast imaginative structure of Middle-earth found its way into the innocent children’s story he was telling his own children called The Hobbit.
'The Lark Ascending', one of the most sublimely peaceful pieces of music ever written, was initially composed by Vaughan Williams as he watched troops cross the English Channel at the beginning of the First World War.
C. S. Lewis’s famous children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia began when a series of disconnected images in his imagination were suddenly and unexpectedly brought together by an overpowering image of a lion.
Recognise That There Is No Right Or Wrong
The funny thing about creativity is that it is not something that can be learned in the same way as arithmetic or spelling where there is a right way and a wrong way. Creativity is to do with individual imagination and so there is really no right and wrong. But there are workable techniques for getting started, and I hope that the above has revealed a way for you.