Rhythm in Writing

Something that can be explained and possibly learned, but can’t really be taught.

This is one of the reasons that I do not believe that “anyone” can write. I also think that “anyone” is just an anagram of “annoy” with an extra letter, but I digress. I’ve been a beta reader for a fair number of people, of varying degrees of talent and technical skill, and in that experience, I have found that one of the most innate skills that a writer must have is a sense of rhythm. And that most people who try to write, do not have it.

It’s one thing to tell a hopeful to vary their sentences in length, but what about tone? What about story progression? Perhaps if you are an intuitive editor, you can tell someone that they need to put in a fight so that they have an excuse to vary from the witty banter that has been going on for five pages, and give over some time to description. Or that the exposition can continue, but only through dialogue or internal monologue after so much showing. (Sometimes you do have to reiterate what you hope people just pick up on without any telling)

These kinds of decisions are made all the time in writing fiction, and really anything. For natural writers, the ones who are writing because they have talent and like it–or however you want to define it–it either comes easily or without notice. For those whom I tend to call teenyboppers, it doesn’t happen at all.

Teenyboppers write what they think, some even do it via stream of consciousness. They do not check facts, nor research, and often do not have a grasp of common sense or a good vocabulary. They write characters from television–for some reason, the influence or urge to write has not come from actual books–that they do not even understand from a writer’s point of view. It isn’t writing, it’s using a medium for wish fulfilment.

Which is fine so long as it remains a personal document, and the creator doesn’t shriek for recognition of their nonexistent talent.

Small tangent, but back to my point: these are most of what I have seen in many requests for beta-reading. The rare good writers need technical pointers or maybe stronger characters, better development. But the actual rhythm is fine.

An example of bad rhythm that anyone can explain is that of bullet sentences. This is simply a barrage of short sentences, usually complete rather than fragments, that have the exact same rhythm and basically create a jarring monotone.

He aimed the gun. She leaped for it. They struggled for control. The gun went off. He hit the floor.

Although it is best practise to use shorter sentences in an action scene, this is ridiculous. There’s no up or down, and all of the sentences are structurally similar. (barring, perhaps, the second to last) But a good rhythm comes from varying not only structure and length, but the feel of the sentence.

She broke the lake surface like a baseball through a window. The cold hit her first. Then an ache began in her lungs. She stretched and started kicking, struggling to swim in the icy water. Her hand hit against something hard. A layer of ice had frozen over the lake.

Sure, these are pretty awful bits. But the second is more engaging. This is also not the only place where rhythm is necessary. It’s much more difficult to keep a goo rhythm throughout a narrative or even just a chapter.

The first chapter of my book, A Good Boy’s Guide to Breaking Things, is a good example of rhythm in short-term events. The viewpoint character goes from searching for cigarettes on corpses, to fending off a couple of looters, to taking one of them on as a companion, and then finally attacking other looters and breaking things because the world has gone mad. The way I wrote them, these events lead quite naturally one into the other, but they are also not the same thing over and over.

A boring series of events, no matter how well they connect, is an example of bad rhythm. Man comes home from work. His wife makes dinner. They talk about selling some of his old things to make a bit of extra money. They do the dishes and go to bed.

Aside from not being very dramatic–which, by the by, is not a killer problem–they have the same exact rhythm, one event to another. The everyday stuff is not particularly individualised or punctuated by conflict. A more interesting version, without losing the mundane world aspect would be: After Daddy Daughter Day, man comes home from work. His wife has burned dinner, but neither mentions it. They talk about ways to increase their income so that they can adopt. They fight about the wife getting a job. Man goes to bed while wife stays up to do the dishes.

I hope I’ve made some kind of point, or at least been interesting. I haven’t meant to imply that the way to make a story better or more interesting is simply to add more words. Being simple can be the best way to go. I just tend to think with more words.

Here, just so that there can be an example of short and simple that works. Detective takes job. Client disappears. FBI detains Detective. Detective escapes FBI. Best friend is found dead with client.



One thought on “Rhythm in Writing

  1. You’re right…rhythm definitely offers a certain je ne sais quoi to an otherwise bland style of writing. I often forget this, thanks for the reminder. Now I have to go back over all the stuff I’ve written so far >:|

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