Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?

by Jami Gold on November 5, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Two drumsticks with text: Does Your Writing Have Rhythm?

We’re probably all familiar with the idea that poetry, music, and song lyrics can have rhythm. But prose writing—our normal, everyday writing with sentences and paragraphs rather than lines, stanzas, and verses—can have a rhythm too.

I’d occasionally heard a rhythm in my head while reading stories but never paid much attention. Several years ago, when I read Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, I learned that not only do others hear rhythm in prose, but also that prose rhythm is considered a good thing.

In his chapter about how he judges submissions (he’s an agent) by the sound of the writing, something clicked for me. After that point, my voice began to develop deeper and stronger. Now, it’s not unusual for me to decide whether or not to make a line-editing change based on rhythm.

A comment from a beta reader might point out an unnecessary word, and I’ll decide to keep it (or change it to a stronger word) because I like the rhythm of the sentence more with those syllables there. Or I’ll change a perfectly good and clear sentence to create a different rhythm. Or I’ll make decisions about punctuation or sentence fragments to achieve a certain rhythm.

That doesn’t mean all my sentences are rhythmic or that our writing has to have a rhythm, but there are times we might want our writing to evoke that sense. For those cases, it’s good to know how to develop rhythm in our writing.

What Does It Mean for Writing to Have Rhythm?

Some people talk about lyrical writing as though it refers to rhythm. Lyrical writing certainly can incorporate rhythm, but it typically also includes other aspects, such as being more descriptive or ornate.

In its most positive form, lyrical writing can be rich, layered, evocative, and beautiful. In its most negative form, lyrical writing can be purple-ish, overwrought, pretentious, and sound like the author is trying too hard.

In contrast, rhythmic writing is simply about the way the words come together—syllables, punctuation, sentence length, hard or soft sounds, etc.—to create a sense of a beat. Sentences should flow smoothly and not jar the reader. Rhythmic writing can also be lyrical, but it doesn’t have to be.

And yes, I’m a genre author, yet I’m talking about this advanced technique to improve writing craft. In other words, while many think of literary fiction when discussing lyrical writing, genre writing can take advantage of these same techniques. Rhythmic writing is not limited, by any means, to literary fiction.

How Can We Know If Our Writing Has Rhythm?

In general, the easiest way to tell if our writing has rhythm is to read it aloud. (Or perhaps to have someone who isn’t familiar with our story read it aloud.) If the sentences of a paragraph could be read in lines and sound like a poem, it’s most likely rhythmic.

Rhythmic writing will often sound like waves of stressed and unstressed syllables and sentences. More importantly for good writing, the cadence of the sentences pushes readers forward, just like how we talk about a song’s “driving beat,” and those stressed syllables or sentences will fall on those words or ideas we want to emphasize.

Why Is Rhythm a Good Thing?

Those last points above are why rhythm can be a good thing for our writing. In addition to rhythm encouraging readers to turn the page like a song we want to turn louder, rhythm also creates connections.

In poetry, a poem’s sounds contribute to its meaning and emotional impact. In music, the beat can increase the emotional power of a song.

Rhythm creates and connects to emotions.

As I said before, I don’t try to make every line I write follow a rhythm. Sometimes we need to say something simple like “She nodded” or “The door was locked” without worrying about the beat.

However, during high-emotion (often deep point-of-view) scenes, I do pay attention to the rhythm. I read those sections aloud and see if I’m juggling all the components of rhythm well. I add and cut and use punctuation to create the right rhythm for the emotions I want.

For example, here are two paragraphs I wrote yesterday:

“He opened his mouth to call them again, but no sound escaped. Like a nightmare where he couldn’t yell, his voice had gone silent. If he never called for them again, he’d never have to face the cold lump in his heart. Never have to face that they weren’t here.

No thinking. No feeling. No pain”

(Eh, it needs work, but hopefully, even that first-draft version will give you an idea of what it means to have rhythm in prose.)

So should we freak out if we’re not good at this? Absolutely not. This is not yet another thing to add to our “we must think about as we’re writing” list.

But it is something we can learn about and try to develop for those times when we want to create a stronger emotional reaction in readers. And it’s certainly something we can pay attention to while editing.

How Can We Improve Our Rhythm?

Rhythm to some extent depends on our voice and whether we have an “ear” for it. If we have to work too hard at it, the seams will show. If we’re too self-conscious about it as we’re writing, we’re more likely to veer into Purple Prose Land.

However, we often have many talents that we’re not aware of until we think about them consciously. Simply by knowing what aspects contribute to the rhythm in our prose can help us improve that aspect of our writing.

The first step for improving our rhythm is a) knowing what we want to emphasize and b) knowing what our brains naturally emphasize:

  • We naturally pay more attention to the beginnings and endings of sentences and paragraphs.
  • We also naturally emphasize shorter sentences (something we could shout) and shorter (strong) words (a syllable or two).

When we combine those natural power positions with rhythm techniques, we increase the emphasis and the impact:

  • Sentence Length: Paragraph endings are already an emphasized position, so if we combine longer sentences at the beginning of a paragraph with a shorter sentence at the end, we’re creating a strong beat for the reader. Make the most of it by ensuring the information in that position is important, like a “dun, dun, dun…” ending. *smile*
  • Sentence Fragments: Similarly, sentence fragments are typically short and can be used to stress an idea.
  • Power Words: Margie Lawson talks about power words frequently. They’re usually described as words that carry an inherent emotional impact. When placed at the end of sentences, they combine the idea of sentence endings with short, strong words for extra emotional emphasis. In the example above, the power words would include: escaped, nightmare, silent, cold, heart, and pain.
  • Punctuation: We can use punctuation like periods, commas, em-dashes and the like to break up our words into pleasing rhythms. I’ll sometimes use an “optional” comma because I’m trying to emphasize something as well.
  • Paragraphing: The use of white space and occasional short paragraphs (one sentence or phrase) can add an extra strong beat to a prose section. In the example above, spreading the reaction over two paragraphs (with the second one short and definitive) calls more attention to the emotion, dragging the reader deeper into the point of view.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Many rhetorical devices apply to rhythm. The example above uses “anaphora” (one of my favorites), which is the repetition of one or more words at the beginnings of phrases or sentences (both with the “never have to face” and the “No… No… No…” phrases).

When we’re editing our work, we can pay attention to the rhythm of our writing—especially in highly emotional sections where we want a stronger connection with the reader. We can develop our “ear” for rhythm and hear when something hits an off-note. And when we need to improve a section, we can use some (or all!) of the techniques above to strengthen its rhythm.

With stronger beats and a sense of rhythm, our prose can come alive. Readers will feel that driving beat pushing them forward to the next page like a subconscious form of story tension, and they’ll experience a deeper connection to the emotions of our story. *smile*

Have you ever noticed the rhythm of sentences or paragraphs when reading stories? Have you previously struggled to understand the concept of rhythm in prose? Does your voice have a natural rhythm? Does your rhythm come out in drafting or editing mode (or both)? Can you think of other aspects of rhythm or other tips to share?

Pin It
24 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Dyane November 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Great post! I was going to write something similar but you did a wonderful job, so I think I’ll just share it everywhere I can. Thanks for making something that seems to difficult to explain much more concrete.

Reply

Jami Gold November 5, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Hi Dyane,

Thank you! Yes, I hadn’t seen this explained much before, and certainly not with the tips of what to look for, so I hope this is helpful to people. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Davonne Burns November 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Since I read all my stuff out loud I tend to notice the rhythm pretty quickly. I know personally I focus on longer/shorter sentences when doing action scenes to heighten the emotional impact. Though I tend to alternate rather than build up.

Reply

Jami Gold November 5, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Hi Davonne,

Yes, sentence length is a great thing to play around with for action/tension scenes as well. Great point! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Debra Eve November 5, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Thanks for that rhetorical devices link, Jami! That’s a great reference. I love rhythm in writing and do work on it, usually in the last pass. Although difficult, I try to read the finished draft out loud over a few days and make notes.

When a passage sounds particularly awkward, I mark it for later work. Then I break into sentences on the screen, giving each it’s own line. I can usually see the problem I heard at that point.

Reply

Jami Gold November 5, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Hi Debra,

Ooo, great tip to separate out each sentence to its own line while editing. I can see that helping the focus. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the comment!

Reply

Serena Yung November 5, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Ooh!!!! I love this post! As an English lit major (my psych major’s part of my double major), I’m PUSHED to constantly worry about prose rhythm, and you eventually get good at it, and develop your own style as well. Like in my papers, I tend to like short sentences, or I would at least use commas to break down a long sentence into more manageable chunks. There are certain words that I like to use at certain times too. Yes! Beginning and end emphasis for sentences and paragraphs. I love that technique too.

For fiction, I like to make sure my characters are speaking at the right speed, and make the right pauses. I really like to do the. “…..,” said X. “……” So the said X in between makes the reader pause for a moment, which reflects how the character paused for a moment too.

As for the narrative part, yes, I do like to control the length of the sentences so that it sounds right. In general I would want a good variety of lengths so it sounds more musical and less robotic. And manipulating length to convey different feelings is fun too. Oh I love using long/multisyllabic words or simple, monosyllabic words to create different effects. They do FEEL different somehow, and which you use really depends on the situation. Using punctuation to create different paces–yup. Love that too. Perhaps a bit too much though. I have to be careful of semicolons because one reader complained that I was too fond of semicolons. XD. I use them a lot really because I see Victorian novelists use them a lot and I really liked the rhythm they generated. But it’s true that the modern day audience may not be so used to seeing so many semicolons, lol.

About great prose rhythm even outside of literary fiction, I really like the Pellinor series. It’s a teen fantasy but with fabulous prose. I really liked the rhythm in the Eragon series too.

Reply

Jami Gold November 5, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Hi Serena,

Fantastic tips! Yes, I often change around where action beats or dialogue tags fall to create the rhythms and pauses I want for dialogue.

And great point too that there’s no one “right” rhythm. As I mentioned, it’s strongly tied into our voice, so your rhythms will sound different from my rhythms. It’s all about knowing the techniques, understanding how they affect the emotions and natural emphasis points for readers, and then deciding what sounds best to us.

I have to laugh at your admission of punctuation overuse. I had an editor cure me of too much punctuation “bling” (especially ellipses, em-dashes, and exclamation points). I think I’ve moved toward more sentence fragments now, so I’m not sure she’d consider that an improvement. LOL!

The thing with semicolons is interesting. I’ve heard that many editors avoid semicolons, or that they should be used sparingly, because sentences read “cleaner” without them.

Think about a reader reading along and then they come to a semicolon. Now they’re being told that the two clauses relate somehow, like an analogy. They might stop and process that relationship. They might rewind their thoughts to review the sentence from the beginning. And if they’re grammatically minded at all, a portion of their brain might be compelled to analyze the sentence to see if the semicolon was used properly. All of those activities take the reader out of the story.

Semicolons are kind of like slurring your sentences. 🙂 All that said, when there’s a really strong connection between the two sentences, I’d say to go ahead and use semicolons anyway if that’s how your voice works.

Thanks for sharing your insights! 🙂

Reply

Serena Yung November 6, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Lol, I think my problem is that I’m so used to reading literary classics with semicolons with them, that my brain doesn’t really process them in such a complex way at all, so they don’t bother me. XD

But I think I can understand that people not used to seeing such abundant uses of semicolons might find these ; very off-putting, lol.

Reply

Jami Gold November 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Hi Serena,

I use them, so I’m not against them at all. I just use them very sparingly–only when it’s the best punctuation choice for the situation. 🙂 But as always, do what works for you, and thanks for the comment!

Reply

Roselynn Roberts November 6, 2013 at 4:55 am

I have really enjoyed your newsletters especially this one. Rarely do you see a post discuss rhythm in genre writing. Do you have more examples of rhythm in genre writing you can share?

Reply

Jami Gold November 6, 2013 at 10:31 am

Hi Roselynn,

I’m glad this has been helpful. 🙂

Here are another couple of lines I wrote last night:

“Her abdomen ached at the exertion, threatening to open the wound. But she had to see. Had to know.”

Again the use of echoing (“had to”) and short, punchy phrases help drive the reader forward. I’m reluctant to post too many more samples of my own work–unedited as they are. LOL!

However, as I mentioned in the post, Margie Lawson talks about rhythm a lot (she calls it cadence). In this article on Romance University, she shares several examples from different genres and discusses many of these same techniques for what gives her examples cadence.

I hope that helps. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Taurean Watkins November 6, 2013 at 8:38 am

First off, thanks for sharing insight on this topic, but also for broadening it as well, because often when we think of “Rhythm” we inherently think of music and/or poetry.

So, it’s nice to hear how writing can have a rhythm without being musically or poetically inclined. At least, not in an overt way as say Ellen Hopkins (Novels in Verse), or musically inclined in the traditional sense. (Like MANY picture books, even if they don’t have meter or rhyme)

As much as I LOVE music, and have experimented with it now that I make videos (Both for my site and for the fun of it), I don’t have the chops to do it overtly in prose without it sounding hokey, and that’s on top of just telling a non-boring, solid STORY.

For me, I do think my stories have rhythm, but in terms of characterization, rather than the just the prose itself. I really wanted distinction and nuance from my characters to come through. I had to make sure whatever my MC said or did is not mirrored by another character.

Thanks for opening up the conversation from a new angle, Jami.

Reply

Jami Gold November 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

Hi Taurean,

Yes, I’m not a musical person. I’m not coordinated enough to play a single instrument, my singing is cringe-worthy, and I couldn’t tell the difference between an A note and an E note if my life depended on it. LOL!

However, I think that rhythm goes above and beyond all that. Even if we’re not coordinated enough to dance, most of us could nod heads or tap toes to the beat for many songs.

Great point about how just as we might have different rhythms from other authors because our voice is different, our characters can have different rhythms too. Their voices will be different from other characters. Thanks for adding to the conversation with that insight! 🙂

Reply

Diana J Febry November 6, 2013 at 11:09 am

Some excellent tips, especially about placing power words at the end of sentences. Other than mixing up long and short sentences I’ve never really thought that much about rhythm. Off to do some editing.

Reply

Jami Gold November 6, 2013 at 11:51 am

Hi Diana,

Yes, that tip about strong words at the ends of sentences also plays into why–even if it’s grammatically correct–we’d usually want to avoid ending sentences on prepositions. We know that in English, the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” rule isn’t as grammatically taboo as in other languages. As long as the complete thought is in the sentence, it’s grammatically okay. However, prepositions end on a weak note.

We can actually use this technique to make a character sound wishy-washy. 🙂 If much of their dialogue ends in prepositions, readers will come away with an impression that they’re weak. Conversely, alpha males shouldn’t end sentences with prepositions. LOL!

It can be fun to play with language to create impressions. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Teagan Kearney November 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Thanks, Jami for this great informative post with practical advice.

Reply

Jami Gold November 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Hi Teagan,

I hope it’s helpful. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

What do you think?

24 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Previous post:

Next post: