Thursday, July 14, 2011


Today's post is from Natalie of Mama Track.


It’s crucial to writing.

I know, I know. It seems counterintuitive, right? We are attracted to writing because other forms of art, like music and dance, don’t appeal to us. Or, in my case, because we aren’t suited for them. In fact, if you ask my family, they would be hard pressed to name someone with less rhythm than I have.

But good writing, writing that captures the reader and pulls her in, is a very rhythmic thing.

Sometimes, we use rhythm to convey something to our readers. A short, staccato sentence can signal abruptness or a surprising twist, some kind of action that advances the plot. It makes the reader sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, a longer, more complex arrangement, with a parallel or comparative structure, can set the stage and provide a reader with critical background information. But if you try to use a complex sentence to convey a shocking development, something gets lost in the translation. The development is no longer quite so shocking—it’s just buried in a long sentence.

For instance:

“The rain battered the side of the house, and a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky. The lights flickered and went out. Then, from the depths of the basement, I heard a window shatter.”

“As I sat, listening to the rain fall and watching the lightening storm outside the window, the lights flickered, and the power went out; a moment later, I heard the sound of a basement windowing breaking.”

Both of these phrasings suggest the same thing—during a scary storm, the character thought someone might be breaking into her house—but the rhythm of the first helps advance the action and startle the reader. The second sentence almost reads as if the storm might have broken the window. It’s just not as frightening.

Rhythm can also reflect the action in the story. Think of swinging: back and forth, back and forth. We can use sentence structure to reflect that motion, to help our readers feel present in the action. Repetition works the same way—repeating something in a piece can help the readers see its import, its monotony or its very nature.

As authors, it’s up to us.

Dialogue is another place the rhythm has a role. Writing a conversation is challenging, in part because it’s hard to do in a way that feels authentic.

Some of the challenge is that conversation is generally full of rhythmic variations. A typical conversation includes short sentences, long sentences and interruptions. Capturing the randomness and the give and take is difficult.

One of the most effective uses of rhythm is to entertain. People get bored reading the same sentence structure over and over again. It’s not interesting. Their eyes glaze over, and their attention wanders. They might skip to the end of the paragraph and start reading the next one. Or worse—move on.

I’ve spent years drafting legal writing, and it’s boring, not (solely) because of the subject matter, but because of the way it’s presented. Long, complex sentences, one after the other, make people fall asleep. Conversely, stringing short, simple sentences together can create a “See Jane Run” feeling.

Combining a variety of structures makes the reader take notice and creates interest in what the author is actually saying.

For instance:

“I walked to the store. I bought some candy. Then I walked home.”

“I walked to the store, where I bought some candy; subsequently, I returned home, as I had finished my errands.”

“I walked to the store and bought some candy. Then, after my errands were finished, I walked home.”

These sentences say the exact same (boring)thing, but the third example’s construction is just more interesting. If you had an entire post of sentences like either the first or the second examples, readers wouldn’t be engaged. People notice things that are different than at what they have been looking.

The same can be said for paragraph structure. Be honest, don’t you groan a little when you open a book or a blog page and see nothing but a series of long paragraphs? Variety keeps people awake.

Finally, rhythm has a role in voice. That includes finding a rhythm that is ours — a cadence that reflects our speech and our thoughts. We each have our own voice when we speak; mirroring it in our writing helps readers identify a piece as ours.

That’s what makes rhythm so great. Everyone is unique, and there’s no wrong answer. So experiment and find what works for you, what accentuates your writing.

Read your piece aloud. Ensure that it has the flow and cadence you want. Check for balance, timing and awkwardness. Confirm that the rhythm enhances your story, rather than competes with it.

And, most of all, be creative and take risks. Have fun.

This is our chance - whether you can dance or (like me) not - we can all play around with rhythm.

What are some of the ways you like to use rhythm in writing? Are there any aspects that you think are particularly effective or ineffective? What techniques work best for you?

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