Writing sentences with rhythm

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The finest writing seems to have a way of catching both the reader’s eyes and ears, so that the natural resonance of words constructs a rhythm in the reader’s mind. That rhythm, if used well, will generate not just a pleasant feeling to the prose, but bears within the line the logic of its own semantic weight, by which I mean that rhythm points up emphasis, and meaning will emerge as a result. Not only does the rhythm guide the mind, it generates a sense of expectation, so when that rhythm breaks or is disrupted, the reader feels the shock of it subconsciously, which heightens still the power of the words.

Let me break those ideas down and see if we can make them work for us.

Permit me an indulgence. Read that first paragraph again aloud and see what you notice.

It’s almost entirely iambic, and if we broke the lines up after ten syllables, it would also be pentameter, thus:

The finest writing seems to have a way
Of catching both the reader’s eyes and ears,
So that the natural resonance of words
Constructs a rhythm in the reader’s mind.

Hardly Shakespeare, but the verse works in metrical terms.

If you can’t hear the rhythm, compare the following:

“Then the little Hiawatha learned of every bird its language.”

This is Longfellow doing native drums with trochaic meter in which the first syllable of each pair is stressed. There’s only so much of that the English language can stand.

Because English is a naturally iambic language it only takes a little heightened awareness for us to make that natural inclination work for us. So, fellow word nerds, let’s put it to work for us.

As most of you will dimly recollect, iambic pentameter is a ten syllable line in which the syllables alternate in unstressed/stressed pairs. It’s hard to see when dealing with monosyllables like “the” but multi syllable words have a natural stress pattern which, though there are variants based on usage and dialect, are generally agreed. So “finest” can only be said one way, with the stress on the first syllable. “FINEst,” not “finESTt.” This means that all words have a natural stress pattern which a writer can use to his or her advantage in creating a rhythmic smoothness, an ease or grace to the line that might be helpful.

Before I go any further, let me state the obvious: graceful, rhythmic prose might not be what you want generally and will often not suit a particular scene or moment but, like any other writerly device, it’s a good tool to have. Better yet, it’s a way of making yourself aware of how your prose feels to others whose reading is based on the words themselves, not on what you know is coming or the investment you have placed in the characters etc. You may want other rhythms, and you will almost certainly not want to rely on one like that first paragraph does, but it’s good to be able to hear it.

I’m not suggesting we all start writing verse novels. I’m merely reminding you of a tool which can both create a useful effect and can help refocus your attention on the sound of the words themselves.

As that first paragraph suggests, there are other advantages to using verse to create rhythm. One is for semantic effect. Shakespeare’s iambic is not merely an aesthetic device; it aids comprehension and emphasis. Consider the following:

What light through yonder window breaks
It is the East and Juliet is the sun.

Now break the lines down iambically and see how the stressed (2nd) syllables bear all the meaning of the lines.

Light, yon, win, breaks
Is, East. Jul, is sun.

It’s not the entire sense of the utterance, but there’s a lot of it there. By contrast, consider the unstressed syllables:

What, through, der, dow
It, the, and, iet, the

There’s almost nothing there. So the natural stress pattern of the iambic line helps the ear get a sense of what is being said. This is especially useful in the theatre which is an auditory medium, but most of us “hear” the words in our heads even as we read silently. Being aware of the natural sound of your words as you write can give you greater control of how they read in terms of emphasis, so that, for instance, changing word order or inserting a filler syllable can alter the feel of the line.

This takes a little practice, but it’s more a matter of training your ear to be aware of the sound of the words than it is developing any real skill.

Another useful trick is that when you establish a rhythm, derailing it on purpose creates a subconscious sense of alertness in the reader’s mind. If you look again at that first paragraph, the iambic breaks on “emphasis” as it must, since the word is three syllables, only the first of which is stressed (in metrical terms, it’s a dactyl). The two unstressed syllables break the rhythm of the line thereby creating emphasis on the word “emphasis”! The rhythm is broken again on “subconsciously” which also ends with two unstressed syllables, jarring the reader out of the metrical pattern and, hopefully, making them recognize what the language is doing.

It will be said, of course, that most readers don’t notice such things or don’t care about them. To that I would say that an attentive reader is aware of them, though generally not consciously, and that readers and writers should care. Words are what we do. We should pay attention to them.

Okay. So (you knew this was coming), give me 2-4 lines of iambic pentameter (ten syllables each line, with an alternating pattern of unstressed/stressed), just to flex your verse muscle. Any content you like. Go.

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19 comments to Writing sentences with rhythm

  • What is this? Will no one else take the task
    Of playing games with words and how they sound?
    Pentameter is not my favorite mode
    But I can do it when and if I must!

  • The rhythm’s what I notice when I read!
    The best lines hold me with their patterned beat.
    The flow is smooth that way, and so I weed
    Whatever words this notion fail to meet.

    … well, I try, anyway. 😛

  • TwilightHero

    Hearing words I read as though narrated
    is but, for me, the order of the day.
    What is it like for others, I wonder
    who only see what authors have to say.

    Entirely too proud of myself for that 😛 I too consider rhythm a vital part of writing – books that lack it throw me off. Lines in my WIP have to have some semblance of flow before I’m satisfied.

  • Nice, guys. I can’t not be a teacher though, so forgive me if I indicate where the meter doesn’t quite work 🙂

    Lyn,
    great example. Your last 3 lines are perfect, partly because the multisyllable “playing” establishes the rhythm/ The first line is dependent solely on monosyllables so the rhythm gets dictated by content issues: you can read it iambically if you force it, but I think most people will put the stress on “no” because of the way you phrase the demand and that throws the meter off. To get it right they have to stress “will” which seems odd. This is helpful because it shows how monosyllables do have a rhythm (contrary to what I suggested) but it’s one driven by sense. Nice job.

    Laura,
    lovely!

    Twilight,
    The first word throws us off because the stress has to fall on the first syllable (HEARing), but you settle into it after that. The third line is missing a syllable and that derails the rhythm after “others.” Consider adding a single filler syllable to round it out: “What is it like for others, then I wonder.” Or something. Good job.

  • TwilightHero

    Thanks AJ 🙂 Well technically, the third line does have ten syllables…but I see what you mean; I screwed up the stresses there too. (Oops.) Oh well. I got some of it right.

  • Twilight,
    you’re right. You have the syllables if you pronounce it ‘wonDER’

  • Not amazingly good at this and still not 100% sure it works as I have it. It took me far too long to intentionally play with the structure. I usually write by sound and flow and never really stop and think about the poetic structure of it.

    I tried though, and intentionally tried to interrupt the flow of the last sentence to see what affect it had.

    Its blood was black and stank of foul decay
    A sound like hell unleashed assailed her ears
    And then it charged, its eyes alight with rage
    A final, last ditch effort to take her soul.

  • Perfect, Daniel, except for that “effort to take” which you are already aware of. If you want to maintain the meter, you might substitute something like “A final, last ditch reach to take her soul.”

  • AJ – you’re right… so we substitute the first line with:

    “What challenge this? Will no one else step up?”

    Our language has a lilt built into it. Iambic rhythm moves the mind forward but alliteration awakens us to the subtle song whispering within. Taking ten minutes to tweak the tempo may massage the melody and mothion and give your passage a bit of pizazz.

    🙂 Sorry. Couldn’t resist! AJ – this is WAAAAY to fun!

  • Nice, Lyn 🙂 Maybe we’ll have to do a post on alliteration at some point.

  • Razziecat

    Hi, guys! Nothing like a taking a Friday off:

    It feels like sheer indulgence to sleep in
    But that is what I did this very day;
    I love a nice long weekend now and then
    To recharge, sometimes it’s the only way

    I cheated a little, as the emphasis on “recharge” is a bit flexible…I’ve heard it with the emphasis on either “re” or “charge,” depending on context.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well sorry but I tend to stream of consciousness when focused on the meter of the line:

    Come meet me under silk and yellow skies
    where storm winds gnash their teeth and clap their hands
    to scour sense and sanity from sights
    we see too much, and thoughts, and spoken lines.

  • Razzie,
    yes, first time through I stumbled on recharge, but the rest works nicely. Enjoy your long weekend!

    Hep
    not sure I follow the sense exactly, but the verse works and that’s why we’re here today 🙂

  • Lovely post, A.J. And something to which I should give more thought as I write. I look for rhythm and flow in my prose, but I don’t think I take as much care with it as you do.

    But I think I’ll skip today’s writing assignment, thanks. Haiku is about the summit of my poetic sophistication . . .

  • Thanks, David. Skipping permitted.

    See me after class.

  • Dr Hartley, did I miss anything important in class today? -laughs and runs away-

  • Yeah, Misty, you’d better run…

  • I read the chapter after class, decided I sucked at it, and skipped the quiz. Zero for the day’s work, I know.

  • Thanks, A.J.! That was a lot of fun. And it made me even more aware of the rhythm during edits today. One of the issues I’ve had to deal with lately, in switching my story from present tense to past, is that it changes the number of syllables in each sentence. As a result, I’ve often found myself searching for alternate words, and deleting unnecessary ones, just to give it the right flow. This post really rang true for me.