Wednesday, November 3, 2010


I truly believe that good writing--writing with voice, as mentioned in the last post--includes good or appropriate rhythms. The sentences and paragraphs take on an almost musical quality, and flow well together as a unit. Good writers often have an innate sense of inner rhythm, but even good writers benefit from knowing WHY something is working, and how to tweak their writing to make it stronger.

What makes a successful rhythm? (macro to micro)

1. A balance of DIALGUE versus NARRATIVE
In general, dialogue is faster reading, narrative slower. It's good to have a nice balance of these two things, especially in a novel. If a novel is predominantly dialogue, it can feel slight or underdeveloped. If a novel is predominantly narrative, it can feel plodding or dry. Mixing these up helps the reader flow back and forth between the faster and the slower elements, providing variety and interest.

2. A balance of tense/action scenes versus quieter, more restful SCENES
The same goes with action versus quieter scenes. If your novel is a thriller, horror, or adventure type with all breakneck-speed scenes, your reader can feel exhausted by the time he/she reaches the end. Even one scene or one page inserted for a much-needed rest can be helpful--and can actually enhance the feeling of tension in the successive action scenes. It's all about contrast, similar to putting black next to white in a painting. The black looks blacker, the white looks whiter. And I probably don't need to mention what might happen if a work is ALL quiet…yaaaaawn.

3. A balance or appropriate use of LONG VERSUS SHORT SENTENCES
If your sentences are pretty much the same length, it begins to read monotonously in the reader's mind. Too many short sentences can become choppy, and while it's true short sentences can be utilized with great effect for more intense scenes, you don't want to overdo it. On the flip side, too many long sentences can become run-on and exhausting. Lengthy descriptions and near-endless phrasings can make a point, but you wouldn't want your entire manuscript populated with them.

4. A balance of SENTENCE STRUCTURE or composition
One thing that can make a paragraph sound choppy even when you have the sentence length varied is how you've constructed your sentences. For instance, if they all have a simple subject-verb-object composition, you'll end up with monotony in your rhythm. If you have the sentence: "The sun always came up above the grove of elms in the summertime" and change it to: "In the summertime, the sun always came up above the grove of elms" in the middle of such a passage, it gives the reader a mental rest from sentences that all sound alike.

You can also fall into monotony if you start too many sentences with the character's name or "she/he" (especially when they're in a row), or even always start with prepositional phrases like "in the summertime." Switch things up a little! Sometimes the wording can be right, but if the sentence pattern is monotonous, it'll still feel/sound wrong.

5. A controlled use of specific WORDS, appropriate to mood or content
In your editing stage (don't worry about it during a rough draft so much), make sure the words you've selected add to the mood and intent of your passage. You wouldn't want to say "trudge" when your main character is in a hurry. Even when choosing between words with the SAME meaning, certain words can have different nuances or sounds to them. For instance:
"The whisper-smooth lapping of the sea on the shore" sounds much more gentle and flowing than "the tranquil breaking of the waves against the rocks"--even though the content is pretty much the same. Part of it is the combination of words together, part of it is because of softer (sibilant) versus harsher consonants. There are S's, P's, and M's here instead of T's, B's, or K's/ck's. Choose your words carefully, because some "fit" a sentence more appropriately than others.

Read your work aloud when you're doing your final manuscript polishing--the offending words or phrases will usually trip up your tongue, feel awkward, and don't sound right. In fact, this is also a good way to catch rhythms that are off in your sentence length and construction. When in doubt or for an incredible eye-opener, have someone else read your work aloud, and make note of where they trip and stumble. Ouch!

How are the writing rhythms in your own work?
Can you think of other things that affect the rhythm of a piece of writing?


  1. Hmmm, Carol, I don't really think about the rhythm in my sentences while I'm writing. But definitely when I'm done. I have my Apple read the ms to me, and I can catch (hopefully) most of the awkward phrasing. Very informative post. Thanks

  2. Hi Shellie, thanks. I definitely think about 1-3 as I'm writing, but like you said, sentence rhythm at least by the time I'm done, as part of the polishing and editing. How nice to have your Apple read your ms aloud to you! Isn't technology wonderful. ;o)

  3. I'm thinking about rhythm all the time when I write. (even in the first draft -- um-ah). It's a part of what I love about pulling words together.

  4. Cool! I love it when writers love words. :o) Because I definitely do!

  5. What an awesome post. :) I'm totally with you on the rhythm thing--I'm always reading my own writing aloud to hear how it sounds, and whether it reads the way I think it does.

    One random thing that really influenced this for me was taking a course in Old English years ago. The poems we studied and translated in that course were full of absolutely amazing aural delights, and it's stuck with me ever since.

  6. Thanks, Meagan! Your course sounds fascinating. "Aural delights"--I love it. Good critiquers catch me when I miss awkward rhythms (usually when I haven't read something aloud yet!)


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