Movement and Rhythm in Fiction


I take a lot of photographs of mountains, but as my header indicates, I also like grasses. Although our summer garden isn’t sunny enough to grow many of them, I often have a pot of Japanese Blood Grass on my deck that spans more than one season. Wild grasses catch my eye during many of my photo journeys.

Grasses 5

There’s something about how grasses dip and sway with grace in a breeze… how their subdued, freeze-dried colours blend into any landscape. Theirs is a soft, unobtrusive kind of beauty, but their movement creates magic. Have you ever been on the prairies just before harvest and watched the wind dance through a field of oats or wheat? The ripples play out with a rhythm like ocean waves.

Grasses 2

In garden landscaping I’ve heard a well designed yard should feature distinctive rhythms, an apparently random repetition of colours, heights and textures that begs the eye to flow from one place in the garden to another. Without realizing why, the casual visitor enjoys a display that’s meant to reflect the personal taste of the homeowner.

Grass 1

I believe our writing should have the same result. Whatever the genre, words should undulate through a scene, enticing the reader into a mission of discovery without drawing attention to their task.

Writers love to play with words, sometimes a little too much. In a Vancouver Sun article several years ago, I suggested, “Shutting readers out is never an author’s intention. Why then do talented writers construct carefully choreographed pieces of literary ingenuity that require a reader to stop and admire their cleverness? When the view is that spectacular, the journey itself grinds to a halt.” I love the special effect of words in poetry. In fiction, not so much; I’d prefer they remain inconspicuous.

Grasses 4

I’m not sure how one deliberately sets out to achieve that kind of movement and rhythm in writing, but I notice when it’s missing. When I read part of my manuscript aloud and stumble over the words, run out of breath before the end of a sentence, or add words that aren’t actually there, I know the piece still needs work.

Are you conscious of trying to create subtle rhythms in your writing? How do you evaluate ‘flow’?


“The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

Isaiah 40:8 – NIV


“I walk without flinching through the burning cathedral of the summer,
My bank of wild grass is majestic and full of music.
It is a fire that solitude presses against my lips.”

Violette Leduc

~  ~  ~

12 thoughts on “Movement and Rhythm in Fiction

  1. Judith Robl says:

    Reading aloud is the only way to hear the rhythm of our words. They should form a subtle background music for the story they are telling, enhancing the movement of the story rather than overshadowing it.

    I find it most disturbing to watch a film where the music obscures the dialog. But the music touches emotional nerves within us that words alone have difficulty in reaching.

    Great post, my friend! Good words and a good reminder.

  2. cluculzwriter says:

    Generally, I read out loud and hear where the rhyme is lacking or out of beat. It’s a strange sensation, but my ears pick up the dropped notes, and then I’m able to fill them in. As for grass, since i was a kid, I love to break off a tall stalk, then skim my fingers over the stock and watch the seeds scatter to the wind. I can even dream up adventures for each seed. Well, I used to when I was a kid. Not so much any more.

    • Carol says:

      I think an author’s ear must become attuned to the cadence when the writing flows.

      My hubby remembers pulling stalks of wheat and chewing the grain heads into a version of gum. My experience is limited to running my hand across the silkiness of the wild grass heads. I don’t think I ever created a story for the seeds though. 🙂

  3. My writing is organic/SOTP. I don’t try to impress the reader (or myself) with my word choice. I’m more concerned about making the characters act like people in real life. I want my readers to care about and identify with them.

    • Carol says:

      I’m pretty much a SOTP writer, too, Susan. My first draft pours out without much thought for the specific word choices. It’s during revisions that I start realizing the dialogue may sound authentic, but the narrative isn’t what I want it to be. Your inner ear for that while doing the original writing is likely better honed than mine.

  4. pastordt says:

    Carol – this is just wonderful. You have put into words something that I have struggled mightily with in some writing: this need to call attention to how beautifully crafted it is. Perhaps it’s a stylistic choice, but I gotta say, sometimes it leaves me cold – and even a little bit peeved. It’s like we’re headed into a story (whether it’s fiction or memoir) and all of a sudden we’re jerked to a stop because the choice of words requires us to re-read, to notice something about the word choice itself. Occasionally, that can be effective. But as an overall pattern, I find it terribly distracting. It also underscores how important it is to read our own work out loud. I have this tendency to write sentences that are too long and complicated and reading aloud always makes those surface!!

    • Carol says:

      Long sentences are one of my downfalls, too. When I read them in my head they seem fine, with pauses at the commas. When I read them aloud and find myself gasping for a breath at those commas the reality hits home.

  5. Wonderfully enlightening post and comments. Thanks, Carol. I always learn when I stop in here 🙂

    • Carol says:

      Thanks, Brooke. I don’t write with the idea of teaching anything so much as to convey something I believe. Just sharing my ‘musings’, but I’m glad if they touch a chord with you.

  6. Sue Harrison says:

    A wonderful post, Carol! Thank you for your wisdom!

    I love constructing the rhythms in my fiction. For my 6 Alaska books I studied 6 Native American languages (Aleut, 2 Athabascan languages, Lakota/Dakota, Cree, Ojibway – plus comparative studies of Yu’pik & Aleut) to get their rhythms in my head. Despite their huge differences, their rhythms are generally anapestic. Soft, soft, loud / soft, soft, loud. English is (also generally) a loud, soft / loud, soft. Quite a contrast. What fun and what a challenge to try to use that anapestic rhythm as the foundation for an otherwise poly-rhythmic phrasing throughout the novels!

    Carol, you make a great point about not stopping the reader in his/her tracks with something too poetic or overdone. May I make a case here, though, for the weird, erratic, bizarre? Sometimes an unusual way of seeing the world can be a method of characterization. Some of my favorite novels set me on my ear in the first page or two until I wiggle into that quirky character who is speaking and begin to rejoice in his vision of the world.

    The first sentence of ROOM: A NOVEL by Emma Donoghue: “Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.” Don’t cha love it!!

    • Carol says:

      I love hearing a character’s distinctive voice — and the challenge of trying to create one for my characters — and yes, that first sentence of Jack’s was a good initiation into what was to come in ROOM. I admit to not finishing the book, though… for personal reasons I felt it was presumptuous that the author knew how Jack and his mother felt and thought. And yet it was well written.

      What a task you undertook in studying all those languages to get the rhythms right! That’s dedication to research!

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