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?