Writing With Rhythm
The importance of rhythm in writing is apparent in poetry and music, but it plays a very significant yet somewhat overlooked part in fiction writing as well. When reading a piece of fiction that is effortless and pleasing, we usually refer to it as having good ‘flow.’ This is all down to the length of sentences, the amount of syllables in each chosen word, and the placement of punctuation to create breaks and pauses. All of this, when reading a piece of fiction aloud or in your head, will make you read to the desired rhythm of the writer. This rhythm is what will either keep a reader interested and turning pages, or bore them to a stop.
There is a reason lullabies are successful for lulling babies to sleep—it’s the monotony of their rhythm, the predictability of it, the knowing that there will be nothing new for your brain to comprehend so it may as well switch off for a while and have a rest. This monotony of rhythm is what you need to avoid in your storytelling.
At this point I should explain that rhythm and pacing in fiction writing are similar but not the same thing. Pacing is a placement of paragraphs, sentences, words and punctuation to help change the speed of a scene. This could be with the lengthening of sentences to create a slow and tiresome list, depicting the boredom of a situation and the dragging of time, or perhaps with short and sharp hits of words to speed things up and create panic and drama.
But whereas pacing is used where needed, to make a change to the normal reading pace, rhythm in writing needs to be used throughout your entire manuscript. It is especially important in the non-action parts where not much is happening and you’re merely setting a scene and describing everyday life.
The Khan’s palace was lit with lamps that spat and crackled on the outer walls and gates. Inside, the sound of rain was a low roar that rose and fell in intensity, pouring as solid sheets over the cloisters. Servants gazed out into the yards and gardens, lost in the mute fascination that rain can hold. They stood in groups, reeking of wet wool and silk, their duties abandoned for a time while the storm passed.
Conqueror by Conn Iggulden
In the above extract Iggulden gives a rich and beautiful depiction of the scene, and it contains a rhythm that gracefully changes, keeping the reader interested and wanting to read on. But, if I meddle with the text to make the sentences similar in length and punctuation, it reads completely differently:
The Khan’s palace was lit with lamps that spat and crackled on the outer walls and gates. The sound of rain was a low roar that rose and fell in intensity from inside. It poured as solid sheets over the cloisters and the servants gazed out into the yards and gardens. They were stood in groups and lost in the mute fascination that rain can hold. Their duties were abandoned for a time while the storm passed and they reeked of wet wool and silk.
The information is still exactly the same but is now delivered in a more basic, mundane rhythm. Iggulden’s vivid scene description is enough to hold a reader’s interest for the first few sentences, but as you get further through the paragraph the monotony of sentence length and structure becomes tedious. The ‘flow’—the interesting writing rhythm—has been taken away, leaving it far less appealing to read.
Zoey swallows, placing her hands against the glass that’s as cold as the concrete floor. Her breath fogs the area in front of her face, and she draws a circle there. Inside the circle she makes seven dots with the tip of her finger, one for each of the remaining women, then swipes the last dot away. Tomorrow, only six.
The Last Girl by Joe Hart
Here Joe Hart uses the varying rhythm of the paragraph to gradually build the sentence length, using words and punctuation breaks and putting emphasis on the importance of the last, abruptly short and sudden, rhythm breaking sentence. Here it is broken down:
First sentence: 2 words—comma—13 words.
Second sentence: 10 words—comma—6 words.
Third sentence: 13 words—comma—7 words—comma—6 words.
Fourth sentence: 1 word—comma—2 words.
A snort, quickly muffled. No surprise where that came from. Beckwith’s eyes narrowed. He glared at Jessica, if-looks-could-kill. Serene, she gazed back, innocent as the day is long, except for the derisory glint in her cat-green eyes. No hiding that.
Fade to Dead by Tara Moore
This paragraph depicts one of many scenes where the protagonist shows lack of respect for a certain colleague, but the Moore’s use of choppy rhythm in the paragraph and its absolute lack of predictable beat keeps the scene fresh and interesting. Here is the diverse rhythm broken down:
First sentence: 2 words—comma—2 words.
Second sentence: 6 words.
Third sentence: 3 words.
Fourth sentence: 4 words—comma—4 words.
Fifth sentence: 1 word—comma—3 words—comma—6 words—comma—10 words.
Sixth sentence: 3 words.
All three of these examples show very different but equally successful uses of rhythm to make an otherwise fairy mundane moment in a story hold interest. It could be with the graceful rhythmic differences of Conn Iggulden’s scene setting, the sentence building and sudden sharp beat of Joe Hart to highlight one piece of information, or the fascinating rhythmical chop and change of Tara Moore to keep a repetitive character response fresh.
When it comes to writing rhythm in fiction there is only one rule: Don’t let it get repetitive. Every writer has their own signature rhythm for keeping readers turning pages in the less dramatic parts of their story, and may not even be aware of it. But in understanding what the term ‘flow’ truly means, we can take a closer look at our chosen rhythms, change the beat a little when a scene isn’t working and perhaps even experiment with changing the rhythm between characters, chapters, and entire books. Understanding a little more about our own personal writing rhythm will allow us to explore reader responses to different melodies and beats, and most importantly, keep readers reading.
© 2017 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.