Let’s be real, folks. People write every day. People dance every day. But very few create what we’d consider virtuoso performances. That’s largely because what, on the surface, is a very simple act—”tell a good story!”—”do the Electric Slide!”—requires a heck of a lot more practice and finesse than the average person can manage. So while most of us have the basics pretty well covered, true mastery of the craft requires an intimate knowledge of rhythm and positioning: of what goes where, and when and how to put it there. In prose, these are called positions of emphasis—and they work on every level of your story. Here’s how you can use them to amaze and delight your reader.
So What are the Positions of Emphasis?
Essentially, the rule is this: in a piece of any size, the most important element goes last. The second most important element should go first. And the least important elements go in the middle.
When you think about it from a holistic perspective, that makes sense. The biggest, most exciting part is the climax, of course—the place where (hopefully!) you amaze and delight your reader, and reward their investment in your story. The second-most important part is your opening, where you are working as hard as you possibly can to introduce the characters, get the plot started, and convince the reader to read on. Which then leaves us with the least important part: your Act 2, your mushy middle, where you’re neither starting the story nor finishing it, but working to move everything forward towards the grand conclusion.
Working on a Micro-Level
But here’s the thing: these positions of emphasis also work on the micro-level. Take this sentence, for example—the opening line of Ernest Hemingways’ The Old Man and the Sea:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Check out those positions. The last thing is the most important: the fish, the hunt for which is the basis of the whole story. The first thing is the second most important: the old man, Santiago, who is desperate for a catch. The rest (skiff, Gulf Stream, eighty-four days, etc.) are smaller details, nicely layered in the middle.
Here’s another example of how this same idea can work at the paragraph level—from the opening of Stephen King’s Carrie:
It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on August 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. Mrs. White, a widow, lives with her three-year-old daughter, Carietta. Mrs. White could not be reached for comment.
Here again, we have the most important thing last (the first mention of Carrie, and the ominous silence from her mother), the second-most-important thing first (that strange rain of stones), and all the details in the middle. What I love about this example is that, like the Hemingway one above, the language is perfectly simple and clear—this is not fathoms-deep, arcane stuff!
And while The Old Man and the Sea is the last novel of a famous literary fiction author, Carrie is the first novel of a writer of commercial fiction. In other words, no matter what you write or where you are in your career, you can benefit by consciously using positions of emphasis in your work—in sentences, paragraphs, scenes, chapters, and whole novels. And although your reader probably won’t know just why your writing is so enticing, they don’t have to—because they’ll be coming back for more.
Arianne “Tex” Thompson is home-grown Texas success story. Fearlessly dual-wielding a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in literature, she is the author of the Children of the Drought – an internationally-published epic fantasy Western series from Solaris. Now a professional speaker and writing instructor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Tex is blazing a trail through writers conferences, workshops, and fan conventions around the country – as an endlessly energetic, relentlessly enthusiastic one-woman stampede. Find her online at The Tex Files!