Writers got rhythm

By | December 17, 2015

Human beings love rhythm. We can’t not move when we hear the catchy beat of a pop song. In part that’s because popular music (pop, rock, jazz and blues) loves syncopation – the singer moves on and off the drummer’s beat and so do the guitarist, keyboardist and bass player. Most classical music, though, isn’t syncopated. Beethoven and Brahms wrote music for listening, not dancing.

Movies have rhythm too, determined by scene length, dialog speed, and number of words per page. The film editor, director and screenwriter all make choices appropriate to a speedy car chase film (think Fast and Furious) or a slow and ponderous drama (Barry Lyndon, any Bergman film).

What about writers? Our words on the page or screen can’t make people get up and dance, but we do have a few rhythm tricks up our sleeves.

The first one is simple: vary the length of your sentences. After a series of long and medium sentences, insert a short one.

Read this paragraph by American writer Joan Didion, describing an LA wind called the Santa Ana:

I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.

The sentence length pattern is medium, short, very short, very short, medium. What a splendid rhythm!

Didion is a masterful writer. In the first sentence above she uses a rhythmic device I call the “Biblical comma followed by and”. I went to the store, and I bought some milk is a simple example. The structure is [independent clause], and [independent clause]. The King James Bible is full of this.

Commas and word length affect rhythm too. More commas slow down the sentence; fewer commas speed it up. Short words create a more staccato rhythm, and longer ones create a more flowing rhythm.

So think rhythm the next time you write. Your readers likely won’t notice the devices you’re using, but they will appreciate the effects. Writers got rhythm too.

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