How to write a book · Rewriting · The writing business · Writer basics 101

Go beyond the literal – make a story dance

My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.

But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.

Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.

Important as that is, the charm of a story lies beyond this.

It comes in two ways:

  • how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
  • why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’

For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.

Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.

Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.

And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.

Thanks for the pic of Momix Giandomenico Ricci

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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments


8 thoughts on “Go beyond the literal – make a story dance

  1. Lovely writing, Roz. My writing dances after I’ve struggled for a few days, taken a bunch of walks to let ideas build up, then unleash it. When all of that happens, I begin to do my own little dance, as the ideas rush into my head to fast to write them and need to do something to slow them down.

    1. Thanks – and I know what you mean. I remember when I was studying A-level chemistry we were told that nuclear reactors had substances that slowed reactions down so that everything else could cope. Writer brains need something like that.
      Which also doesn’t fit the dance metaphor… 🙂

  2. Fabulous! And jazz is a great example because whilst it has very strict rules, its use of syncopation stop its beat ever sounding repetitive, and its openness to improvisation make it always fresh.

    I’m very much in favour of using musical techniques. I have a column in the ezine Beyondaries called Word Up about specific techniques. First issue I l;ooked at using dialogue tags like breathing marks. In teh next piece I’m looking at the use of arpeggio – I made a video of the piece at

    1. Hi Dan! Thought you might like the interdisciplinary nature of this post – thanks!
      Yes, I remember your Beyondaries piece. That was a very nice point about the pacing effect of dialogue tags. Descriptions, litlte bits of action – even the dreaded ‘crossing the room’ all allow pauses or emphasis in a piece of dialogue. And here you are in action … must go see…

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