by Kristen Coros
This article was first featured on the now-defunct Sowing the Seeds blog hosted by Vine Leaves Literary Journal.
The poets among us understand the importance of rhythm in writing. Those of us who write prose, however, may give the issue little thought. This post aims to change that!
Let’s start by recognizing that in addition to creating images in the mind of our reader (a process aided by detail, discussed in our last entry) writing is also something we listen to. What we read not only activates the mind’s eye; it engages the mind’s ear. The rhythms of good writing can affect us like music, altering our mood or mental state.
For some writers, rhythm is easily sensed and played by ear. But if you’re among those who find it elusive, it may help to consider the following elements.
In general, good prose is a mix of sentences of varying lengths. Too many short sentences can give writing a clipped quality; too many long ones can tire or frustrate a reader. But while we want to blend, the proportion of short and long sentences will vary depending on our style and subject. When a calm mood or sense of flow is desired, more long sentences are called for; when we’re aiming for urgency or sudden impact, we’ll rely more on short ones.
Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a story following a platoon of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, is often admired for its rhythm. The following excerpt shows the author’s use of different sentence lengths. Note the impact the final short sentences have when positioned after a long one:
When the dustoff arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and that night Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be there, how fast it was, how the poor guy just dropped like so much concrete. Boom-down, he said. Like cement.
Another (tongue-in-cheek) illustration of the power of sentence length comes from one of Roald Dahl’s stories for adults:
I regard each sentence as a little wheel, and my ambition lately has been to gather several hundred of them together at once and to fit them all end to end, with the cogs interlocking, like gears, but each wheel a different size, turning at a different speed. Now and again I try to put a really big one next to a very small one in such a way that the big one, turning slowly, will make the small one spin so fast that it hums. Very tricky, that.
Tired of being warned against adverbs? Well, the truth is that they can (slowly, steadily, undeniably) make our writing clunky; they can mess with our rhythm. As Janet Burroway points out in her book Writing Fiction, we might be tempted to write, “They stopped abruptly,” but this line is less abrupt, in fact, than the line “They stopped.” We may, in other words, be able to cut the adverb and let sentence rhythm do the work for us.
Techniques such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance, which involve echoing sounds, can lend a musical quality to prose. We can think of these as seasoning (bearing in mind that we wouldn’t eat a dish of only salt and oregano). When applied tastefully, the effect is rhythmic and beautiful, as in the opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Good writers, even award-winning ones, break the rules of sentence structure in order to serve their rhythm. A standard grammar book wouldn’t condone these sentences:
“In the car. In tears. Shaking with sobs. I’d never seen him like that.” (Philip Roth, American Pastoral)
“I had my duties. Walk at night. In the morning dig my bed. Eat anything.” (Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces)
But in both cases fragments are useful: Roth’s staccato signals the impact on the narrator, while Michaels’ no-frills sentences mirror the straightforward aims of the boy fugitive.
Accidental repetition is often undesirable: for this reason, an important part of revision involves cutting overused words. When deliberate, however, repeating images or words can be powerful. Here’s another excerpt from “The Things They Carried”:
Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded and the weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.
In this 138-word passage, the words “they carried” are repeated ten times. The effect is a good one, because the author intends for the prose to pile up on itself so that the reader begins to experience the weight of these objects. It’s also satisfying because there is variation: the word “carried” acquires different meanings as physical, mental, and spiritual burdens are itemized. Repetition, in this case, becomes a tool that not only fits the story, but works to reveal different facets of it.
A similar effect is achieved in the opening of Stuart Dybek’s story “We Didn’t”:
We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in the darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in…
This kind of repetition is especially well-suited to certain subjects and themes, including love, grief, trauma, and obsession.
All Together, Now
Here’s one way to think about the issue of rhythm as a whole: if your piece were a song, what kind would it be? Quick and jaunty, or slow and somber? Would its beat be soothing, or driving? How do you want it to move your reader?
Try reading your writing aloud. If it sounds not quite right, experiment with the above tools and tricks, playing with the length of your sentences and the order of the words within them. You will find your rhythm!