Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Beethoven’s metronome, or following the rules you know

with 2 comments

Ludwig van Beethoven

In 1815, Ludwig van Beethoven received an unusual gift from an even more unusual acquaintance: a metronome, built using an innovative double pendulum, presented to him by the inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. (Mälzel was a fascinating character: in addition to blatantly stealing the design for his metronome from a rival in Amsterdam, he built ear trumpets for Beethoven and ingenious musical automatons, as well as being the promoter behind the famous, and fake, Mechanical Turk. If somebody hasn’t written a novel about him yet, they should.) Beethoven doesn’t appear to have been entirely comfortable with the metronome, though, and a new study suggests that many of the unusual tempo markings in his scores, which scholarly consensus regards as “absurdly fast and thus possibly wrong,” may have been due to the fact that his metronome was damaged. As a result, many of his pieces need to be adjusted in performance, even though they work beautifully according to their own internal rules—or at least with the metronome that Beethoven had at the time.

And we’re all in the same position. Whenever an author begins to write a story, he brings certain rules, preconceptions, and metrics to the table: ideas about how quickly a story should move, how much description or dialogue is enough, how to handle internal monologue, how to treat transitions, and, more generally, what the best tone and voice for the narrative should be. These are rules and guidelines that the writer has established for himself over the course of many projects, finished or otherwise, and through countless drafts and revisions. Some of these assumptions are more visible than others, but they undergird every choice that he makes. And it’s quite possible that some of them are wrong. Sometimes you don’t realize this until after years have passed, and you’ve had a chance to revisit your old work with an objective eye. No one ever sets out to write a bad story, but you’ll often discover on reading something over again that your rules at the time were flawed, incomplete, or poorly applied. Your metronome could be broken; you just don’t know.


Yet the important thing isn’t to get every rule objectively right—or to slavishly follow the rules laid down by other writers—but to follow the rules you think you know to the best of your ability. There’s no shame in admitting that you haven’t figured out the rules of fiction to your own satisfaction: nobody knows all the rules all the time, not even Updike or Nabokov or Bellow. What is shameful is failing to live up to the rules and standards you’ve set for yourself, whether through sloppiness, laziness, or overconfidence. As with most other things about storytelling, David Mamet in On Directing Film says it best:

If I knew a better answer…I would give it to you, but because I don’t, I have to go back to step number one, which is “keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate those rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”

In my own case, whenever I’ve found that a story I’ve written hasn’t lived up to its full potential, it’s invariably because I failed to apply the rules I knew best: I didn’t cut enough, or I didn’t revise enough, or I didn’t make the throughline clear. These aren’t mystical laws; they’re practical rules I’ve figured out for myself after making a lot of wrong turns. And if I fail at making a story work, it’s because I didn’t treat my own rules with sufficient respect.

What those rules are, of course, will vary enormously from one writer to another, but the search for a personal set of rules is an essential part of any artist’s life. Your rules won’t be the same as mine, or Elmore Leonard’s, but you need to treat them as if they were sacred. If nothing else, they give you a lens through which to regard seemingly unsolvable problems: as Mamet says, if you don’t know the answer, you can at least make sure you’re proceeding in a way that’s consistent with the rules you do know. You don’t need a lot of them, and they don’t need to be any more complicated than “Don’t bore the reader.” Eventually, you’ll conclude that some of them are broken, and you’ll either discard them entirely or replace them with superior versions. But following the rules you trust at any given moment is the only way to produce a personal body of work. Differences in style between writers come down primarily to the sets of rules they’ve chosen to follow, and without that choice, made with full awareness, it’s impossible to develop a consistent personality or intuition. Your metronome may well be broken, at least by the standards you’ll later apply—but for now, you still need to trust it.

(Note: If you haven’t done so already, you might enjoy checking out my new article on Salon, on the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files and its lessons for modern television.) 

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2013 at 9:45 am

2 Responses

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  1. One of the most important things is to begin your process as accurately as you can. Start out by defining, to the best of your ability, what storytelling ACTUALLY IS, and if you do so correctly, you’ll find that all manner of other things fall into place.

    In my case, I found that people read stories (or watch movies, I’m a screenwriter and am dabbling in novels) to get emotions they enjoy but don’t have enough in everyday life. There are other things you might get out of it, like interesting ideas, but those can come from other sources so they aren’t the root cause of people reading or watching stories and movies. Stories and movies are about the emotion. Then you start to see how things like plausibility (making the story believable so the reader can suspend disbelief) help the effect, because feeling like things are really happening makes things more stimulating for the viewer. There is, of course, much much more down this path. But the fundamental purpose is how you make sure your “metronome” is calibrated.


    September 24, 2013 at 7:21 am

  2. Absolutely. And if you’re not sure what to do in a given situation, you can at least make sure you’re following the rules you do know.


    September 24, 2013 at 9:45 pm

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