Rhythmic Beats… Fiction Writing

Sentence rhythmYou may have noticed I’ve been absent lately. To meet my deadline I’ve had to pull away from social media while I work on my first rounds of edits for Marred, design my cover with the art department, and write my tagline and jacket blurb. It’s an exciting time, but I also had a stark realization that I cannot squeeze forty-eight hours into twenty-four. Which was a little disheartening. Admitting that one is human is never easy. It’s humbling, to say the least.

How self-published authors find time to blog and engage on social media is mind-boggling. Of course I suppose they don’t have a deadline hanging over their head, but still…they have to do everything alone. So before I get into this post I think a round of applause is warranted to all of you who choose this path. You’re very brave, and I commend you for having the guts to walk this path. That’s not to say traditional publishing is easier. In my experience there’s more heartbreak and devastation, but at least you end up with a team to help you once you climb out of the slush pile.

Anyway, back to my point.

While editing I find myself consumed with sentence rhythm, matching the character’s inner emotion to the words on the page. Not only by choosing the correct word, but also by concentrating on the way sentences are constructed.

Perhaps sentence rhythm excites me because I’m an auditory writer, as my last guest, Paul Dale Anderson, clarified for me. If you haven’t read his post What Kind Of Writer Are You? you can find it here.

I’ve always noticed rhythmic beats while reading, the way some authors can captivate me by how they place words on a page. I’m not talking about a writer’s voice, though that also plays a part. No, this is something else, something magical, a certain je né sais quoi. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I discovered this mysterious attraction had a namesentence rhythm.

For some reason there’s not a lot out there about sentence rhythm. Why, I have no idea. Because by assigning it a label we can look at a paragraph, or an entire scene, that’s not working and have another tool to use to fix it. 

Sentence Rhythm

To give you a better understanding of what I’m talking about, let’s talk music for a minute.

When you hear a love song your breathing relaxes, your pulse rate slows, muscles ease with the flow of the music, your body begins to sway…back and forth…the sweet sounds lulling you into tranquility.

A fast beat makes you want to jump up and dance, fling out your hands, belt out the song.

Hard core rock. Muscles tense. Head bobs. You want to shout, stomp your feet.

It’s the same for writing.

For example:

Following a winding dirt trail, Sarah strolled through the woods near her home. Beauty and nature surrounded her; she loved being alone with her thoughts. Admiring a hawk overhead, she heard sweet serenades of bullfrogs croaking in a nearby pond and squirrels scurrying through pine needles, scattering chestnuts across the forest floor.

Last Saturday she entertained friends. Three couples relaxed on the back deck of her cozy log cabin, laughing at life, basking in the warmth of friendship. The women sipped fine wine and picked on a succulent fruit platter while their husbands inhaled every piece of barbecue chicken on the grill. The men did not know their wives had outsmarted them, with three juicy steaks marinating in the fridge. Suppressing a titter, Sarah nonchalantly wiped steak sauce off her lips before kissing Carl.

As Sarah’s new Nikes swept across the soft soil she hummed a sweet melody that reminded her of a time long ago–the treasured day she first met Carl. A smile spread across her face, her heart overflowing with love.

What a perfect day.

Can you feel her joy, her peacefulness?

Danger loomed ahead. A dark figure craned his neck around the side of a wide ash tree. Piercing black eyes. Long leather coat. Nature concealed the rest of his body.

Sarah’s heart slammed against her ribs.

He pulled back, out of sight. No shadow. No sign of where he went.

Eyes wide, she stopped dead.

A quick glance behind told her she was alone. Except for him, the man who invaded her space. The man who reeked of evil intentions. The man she never expected to see again. What if he lunged from the bushes? No one would know, no one would help.

She gaped left, right. Panic drummed at her ears. She couldn’t move, couldn’t run. Her feet rooted to the soil.

An icy tongue licked up her spine. How did he find me?

The area betrayed her, turned deadly quiet. Animal sounds coiled through her bones. Sticks cracked in half. Leaves shuffled under heavy boots. The hawk squawked short, quick caws…a cry of danger. For those terrified moments everything stopped. The bullfrogs went silent, chipmunks froze in their tracks. Even the wind didn’t dare move.

Can you feel her fear?

I’ve exaggerated both scenes to make my point. You can probably guess what sort of words affect rhythm. For a languid feel we want run-on or complex sentences. Past particles, verbs ending with -ing, give the impression of time passing, a sense of continuation. We can also put descriptive phrases before the subject and verb, like I did in the first sentence of the first paragraph.

When trouble happens sentences fragment. Jerk. Split in two. The reader tenses, her fight or flight response kicks in, eyes narrow on the page. Lots of -ed, hard sounding verbs and sentence fragments increase tension and build suspense. We want our most important word–the verb–in a place of prominence. I like to also break up my paragraphs. The more white space, the faster someone reads. Drag the reader along, force them to continue. If we have huge blocks of words they’re more apt to stop, lose their place, or get thrown out of the story. Not a good thing for us.

Examples of hard sounding verbs are: crash, halt, thunder, thud, screech, explode, bark… Add -ed to any of these and feel your heart race.

Examples of soft sounding verbs are: whisper, swish, snap, patter, drawl, rustle… Add -ing to any of these and feel your breathing slow, your neck muscles ease.

Here is an excellent resource with words broken down by the five senses…sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell: http://fcw.needham.k12.ma.us/~cristina_malinn/S02B36079.0/ for those times when the right word escapes you. I love this list; it’s my go-to place when my brain refuses to cooperate.

When I’m in the “zone” writing with rhythmic beats becomes natural. I even find myself striking the keys during suspenseful moments. Or brushing over them as I write easy-going passages. Perhaps Robert Frost was including sentence rhythm when he wrote his famous quote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

If we don’t feel our words we cannot expect anyone else to, either.

As I go through Marred I remember how I felt when I wrote the words. And, in turn, the passages evoke the same visceral responses in me. It’s wonderful, like reuniting with family members I haven’t seen for a while. I’d forgotten how much I loved this story. I poured a lot of myself into this book. Not the plot, not even the main conflict. Little things in each character, but real, sometimes raw, pieces of my soul. I think all writers do that to a certain extent. Don’t you?

Your turn. Do you like to use sentence rhythm in your writing? What attracts you to certain authors? How much of yourself are in your stories and/or characters?

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue's short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue's the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show "Partners in Crime" on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She's also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio -- menu bar).

31 Comments

  1. When I wrote my first draft, I didn’t think too much on this, but looking back, there must have been a natural element to creating the atmosphere through rhythm. I love your advice on using the ‘ing’ words for relaxation. I do shorten my sentences for tension, but I didn’t think about shorter paragraphs; more white space to quicken the pace of the reader. Love it 🙂

    • I’m so glad, Lorelle! And you’re right, many people don’t consider the rhythm of their sentences during a first draft, and that’s fine, sometimes we need to just let the words flow. During editing, however, we can really make our stories shine by adding rhythmic beats. There is a natural element to writing. We can’t help but feel our own words.

  2. Well, Sue, I’ve always thought to sentece rhythm as a given. Isn’t that strange? Maybe the authors I read as a kid, when I was building my reader’s personality, used this tool. I don’t know. I’ve never consciously thought about it. It’s just, you know… if you write, you use rhythm… I’ve always thought that.

    But thanks for sharing. Thinking things out consciously make you understand them better 🙂

    • That’s true, Sarah. But you’d be surprised how many authors don’t “hear” rhythm. And, therefore, their sentences can be awkward or not fit the scene. I think it’s something you’re born with, of course, like anything else one could probably train their ears to hear the beats. I found a great exercise in a craft book where you drum the emotion, listening to the rhythm, and then transfer that rhythm to the page. Because I instinctively hear rhythm, I don’t need to do that, but it’s a great exercise for those who are more visual than auditory.

  3. Fabulous post (as always) Sue! So useful

  4. Hi Sue, Good stuff here! I think rhythm is the core of storytelling. It’s the overall blending of word to sentence to paragraph to scene to chapter – even to series – that keeps the listener’s attention. I’m no musician or poet but I appreciate how rhythm captures my interest, even if I can’t clearly decipher the lyrics. A great example of rhythm is Don McLean’s American Pie (although I know the lyrics by heart).

    • Love that song! “A long, long time ago. I can still remember how the music…used to make me…smile… And I knew if I had the chance…” I know the lyrics, too. 😉 It doesn’t surprise me that we like the same music, too.

  5. I once wrote a blog post on this very subject – how there seems to be an underlying beat to writing, like that o music. My first works had a simple two-beat (like a marching song). As I became more proficient, my writing started having more variations, making me feel like an actual composer at times.

    Thanks for the great resource, too 🙂

  6. I’m all about sentence rhythm when I write. I think it drives the mood of the scene and provides flow, whether smooth or choppy to the passage. Just as with music, there are sentences (and words) that can prove discordant and out of tune. Most of the time I strike those, but other times when I want that screeching clash, I let them stand.

    Lovely post, Sue! The rhythm of words is something I’ve always loved! 🙂

    • I had a feeling about you, Mae, that you were in “the club”, 😉 BTW, I just saw your latest title, Myth and Magic, listed in the NH ebook library list. Or was it Eclipse Lake? No. I’m almost positive it was Myth and Magic. Anyway…I was so excited to see your name. Mind if I email you? I have a quick question that I’d rather not post here.

  7. Wonderful post. You find the topics others never seem to want and make them interesting.

  8. I could feel my heart-rate increasing and my breath becoming shallow before I even read your explanation, Sue!

  9. Oh, there’s no doubt about it, Sue! Language, like music, is constructed in part by rhythm. And each language/dialect/variety has its own distinct rhythm. So does each person, since we’re all impacted by different things. Turning into that as we write makes the writing all that much more effective. That’s particularly true for reaers who have a high dose (as you do) of what Howard Gardner considers musical intelligence.

    • Thank you, Margot. That just made me sit up a little straighter. 😉 I really need to find time to read Howard Gardner. His articles sound fascinating.

Comments are closed

  • Follow me on Amazon (click image of books)

    Books by Sue Coletta