Writing rhythm comes in two forms. One is the overall rhythm of your unique writing style. This rhythm is not something you can read a book about or sit down to your computer and decide, “Today I will work on rhythm.” I think it’s a by-product of mastering other writing techniques and filtering it through a person’s talent. Second is the rhythm of a small passage within a larger work. This is the kind of rhythm you can deliberately work on. Below are three ways to put rhythm in your writing.
Rhythm in Descriptions
One way to enliven descriptions is to give them a rhythm or balance. Listed below are passages I think have enjoyable rhythms.
The sentence describes the things a man decided were the essentials for a vacation on sail boat in England before WWI:
“They reduced themselves, apparently, to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want to fight; a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die.” “The Sins of Prince Saradine” by G.K. Chesterton
I like how Chesterton describes the four items in similar ways, giving a bounce to the sentence and providing a balance to the list. It also give insight into the personality of the man planning the trip. Mr. Chesterton could have just listed the items: “He packed food, guns, brandy, and his friend, a priest.” But the longer version is so much more interesting and entices the reader to read on.
This is a description of Halloween during the Dark Ages from “The Cloak” by Robert Bloch.
“A dark Europe, groaning in superstitious fear, dedicated this Eve to the grinning Unknown. A million doors had once been barred against evil visitants, a million prayers mumbled, a million candles lit.”
The repetition of “millions” gives the description a rhythm, making it memorable.
In “The Monster of Poot Holler”, author Ida Chittum uses rhythm to establish the setting in the Ozarks.
“Folk in other parts of the mountains look down on Poot Hollerians. They say the laziest men and the biggest liars live there too, and men folk who would rather tell a lie on credit than tell the truth for cash.”
Since I write in first person, I try to give my descriptions rhythms suitable to the main character’s personality.
Rhythm in Dialogue
My editor Sharyn Kopf would tell me a section of dialogue needed a beat. Usually that meant a pause to give the section a certain rhythm. Damon Runyon used beats in his dialogue to reproduce the cadence of New York City accents in his tales of gamblers and crooks in the 1920’s and 1930’s. This sentence is from the story, “Dream Street Rose.”
“Well, Rose,” I say, “it is a nice long story, and full of romance and all this and that, and,” I say, “of course I will never be ungentlemanly enough to call a lady a liar, but,” I say, “if it is not a lite, it will do until a lie comes along.”
I use beats in dialogue to change the flow. If the person speaking needs to change the subject, but I don’t want to break in with another person, I use a beat. Or a beat can emphasize what comes after it. This is a sentence from my story, “Debt to Pay”. David is a character talking to a man who thinks David wants to blackmail him.
“”Oh, I know you don’t have much money.” David grinned up at him. “But whoever hired you does.”
Placing the action between the two sentences makes for better flow than putting it at the end.
Rhythm in Humor
Rhythm when writing a humorous passage is critical. In my novel, The Truth and Other Strangers, I have one character with a very bad memory trying to remember the password for a new phone. His cousin is standing beside him.
(I said) “What’s the password to your phone?”
Gabe’s lips twisted in a grimace. “I know we got one.”
“And I know Mike told me.”
“And I know he made it easy for me to remember.”
I sighed. “But you don’t remember it.”
Establishing a rhythm to this exchange emphasizes the humor.
Now it’s your turn. Do you think writing can have rhythm? What kind of rhythm have you discovered in your own writing?
This is one of my favorites lines from a book full of favorite lines. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson may be my favorite Christmas story. If you have never read it, give yourself a treat and get a copy. It may be a children’s chapter book, but anyone can appreciate it.
When I read this post on The Write Conversation, I thought it would be perfect to share during my month of music. I’ve written about how music inspires my writing. This post is about a case of writing inspiring one of the great works of classical music. Enjoy!
At a conference, author Cara Putnam told us that to get ready to write her stories set during World War II, she would listen to songs that were popular during that period. I have found music sets the mood for writing better than even reading stories that have styles I like. When a musical piece starts, I imagine what storyline would match it, as if I was listening to a soundtrack and had to put images to it.
Celtic music puts me in the frame of mind to write about the Lody family, who live in the mountains of West Virginia. Lone Raven, a band I have seen perform numerous times, has put out several albums of Celtic and world music. When I want to work my imagination with my emotions, I put on their albums. Their music makes me think of homes tucked away in deep woods that stretch across the mountains and the complicated ties of family.
If I want to imagine epic action or confrontations, I turn to pieces like the overtures of Richard Wagner, soundtracks by John Williams and Howard Shore, or The Planets by Gustav Holst. If I want both an epic but nostalgic or bittersweet mood, I listen to works by Aaron Copland.
One of the most important ways music helps my writing is by inspiring plot points. If a passages are especially stirring or sad or upbeat, I imagine how the story would fit with that music and may come up with plot twists I hadn’t considered before.
Music also teaches me about pacing. As I create images to fit the piece, I get ideas of how to deepen the story or speed the narrative along.
Now it’s your turn. How does music set the mood of your writing? What are some songs or tunes you count on for inspiration?
Have you ever listened to a song and thought it had the makings of a great story? I love songs that tell stories, and many of them can be adapted for my favorite genre, crime fiction. Below are some songs that have stirred my imagination:
“The Long Black Veil” by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. I first heard it sung by Mick Jagger on the Chieftains album The Long Black Veil.
My friend Bettie Boswell is joining me today because as a writer of both words and music, she brings an informed view about how the two arts interrelated. Thanks so much for stopping by, Bettie!
Music and the written word have characteristics that are both similar and yet very different: Patterns, rhythms, and lyrical phrases fill music and the written word. Both have meanings that are clear and hidden. Both reach for the listener’s heart and emotions. They move at varying tempos. They both involve pitches but what a difference between the two. Highs and lows move throughout the song and the story but again they have contrasts in meaning. A symphony has distinct sections and so does a story. Picture books may have a recurring refrain and so do many songs.
By popular definition, music is organized sound. The written story consists of organized words. Organization makes the difference between a rambling journal entry and a well-written novel.
Music begins with a BEAT that binds the piece and the performers together. The story has a heartbeat that ties the tale together through either a theme or an outline designed to show changes along a hero’s journey. In writing, the beat can also refer to actions that keep story movement going between conversations in quotes.
RHYTHM adds sparkle to the music by breaking up the constant beat. Rhythm forms patterns that repeat and change. Patterns reveal FORM in the music and make the music memorable and easier to perform. Surprising rhythms are exciting to listen to and make each composition unique. Certain rhythms indicate genre, be it Jazz or Baroque or Rock. When an author pens a story, they will follow certain word rhythms or plot types that will take them into genres such as Young Adult, Picture Book, Mystery, Romance, or Suspense.
PITCH in music makes the music sing as the melody moves through high and low notes. Stories also move through high and low events for the main character. Pitch can strain or relax the musician’s abilities. In the writer’s world, a pitch can be one of the most strenuous events that the author will experience. Will they easily sing out the essence of their story to an editor or agent, or will they over do it and ruin their chance at having their voice (story) heard?
Speaking of voice, in music there are many TIMBRES (tone qualities.) In a symphonic orchestra, a b-flat played on an oboe will sound very different from one played on a tuba or a viola, yet they are in tune with each other. A singer can also perform the same note but he or she will have his or her own unique voice. Authors are encouraged to find their own voice for telling the story in a genuine way. They also need to find special voices for the players making up the orchestra of characters found in their book.
All those voices playing together create HARMONY or dissonance in the music or the story. When things go well there is harmony; when they don’t there is dissonance. Dissonance creates tension in both music and the story. It happens when two voices get too close and create a displeasing sound. Dissonance creates the desire to resolve the sound into something more pleasing. When those two voices give each other a little space, they find harmony and a happy conclusion is the result.
Writing is like being the conductor of an orchestra. The author keeps the beat and rhythm going and knows when to speed up or slow the TEMPO of the story. They know what voices should be part of the story and where to cue the reader that something is about to happen. They lead with quiet or loud words when approaching the DYNAMICS of each scene. They direct emotions by using smooth lyrical sentences, or staccato phrases to make a point. Just as a songwriter chooses the perfect lyrics for a ballad, an author finds words that are meaningful to their chosen audience and to themselves. They stand before that audience, give it their best (after many rehearsal hours of revising,) and hope that they receive a singing review for a work well done.
Best wishes and Merry Christmas to all aspiring writers and musicians,
Bettie Boswell is an author, illustrator, and composer for both Christian and children’s markets. She holds a B.S. in Church Music from Cincinnati Bible College and a Masters in Elementary Education from East Tennessee State University. She lives in Northwest Ohio. Her numerous musicals have been performed at schools, churches, and two community theater events. When she isn’t writing, drawing or composing, she keeps busy with her day job teaching elementary music. You can find her online on Twitter @BboswellB and on Facebook.
My fourth grade teacher read the class a story about a musician who travels through Appalachia and takes on a man who is intimidating a whole community through black magic. This man commands a strange bird, who strikes terror in everyone. The musician defeats the bird when he smashes his guitar on its head. The guitar is strung with silver strings, silver being a metal that evil can’t tolerate.
That was all I remembered of the story. When the internet came around, I tried to find it. After years of trying different combination of key words, I finally found it: “O Ugly Bird!” by Manly Wade Wellman, the first of his stories set in the North Carolina mountains about the wandering musician who goes only by the name of John and battles black magic with Christian symbols.
Mr. Wellman wrote many short stories, and I’ve read many of his other fantasies, but none captured my imagination like the John stories. First, he wrote these in first-person, which I prefer, and second, he wrote in the rhythms and words of Appalachia, where both sides of my family comes from. Also I haven’t read many stories where the hero consistently uses Christian symbols to defeat supernatural evil.
I include the John stories this month because almost all the stories are centered around a song. In “O Ugly Bird!”, John makes up songs to goad the witch-man. In others, he searches for unusual songs to sing. Sometimes the songs have power over people, like leading a greedy man to his doom in “The Desrick of Yandro”. Other songs, like “Vandy, Vandy”, relate a story that tells John something about the enemy he’s locked horns with. In one of my favorites, “Nobody Ever Goes There”, a young couple end up on an island in a river that no one in town visits after dark. As dark shapes begin to close in on them, John stands on the bridge to the island and sings a version of “Do Lord”. That song may be the most upbeat gospel song ever written. No wonder the evil creatures have to back off. There’s even a Christmas story, “On the Hills and Everywhere.”
Mr. Wellman wrote five novels featuring John, but I tried one and didn’t like it. Some people put these stories under “horror” or “dark fantasy”. They were written between 1951 to 1987, so they aren’t graphic or explicit. I couldn’t read them if they were.
Another bonus for me are all the wonderful names of the characters. “John” is the only boring one in the bunch. For women, we have Vandy Millen, Tilda Fleming, Craye Sawtelle, and Donie Carawan. For men, there’s Joris Yandro, Tewk Millen, Shull Cobart, and Forney Meecham.
Mr. Wellman also wrote a story featuring Sherlock Holmes during World War II. You can find it in the anthology, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. Its title sums up the Holmes legend perfectly, “But Our Hero Was Not Dead.”