From the Archives: The Rhythm of Words

This has already been a full week, and now we’re heading into Easter weekend. I hope you’ll forgive me for choosing another post from the archives.

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Breezes dimple across the water and start wild grasses dipping and dancing. There’s a special rhythm nature brings to the seasons.

What do you think of when someone talks about rhythm? The repetitive thudding bass from the convertible that pulls up beside you at a traffic light? Maybe the toe-tapping that accompanies a rousing piece of music by a favourite band?

What about the rhythm of words?

Rhythm in Writing

I came across a fascinating ‘toy’ recently — the Rhythmwriter. Try it out and then come back so we can carry on our conversation.

Go ahead,

click on the link.

I’ll wait.

Isn’t it fun?

No matter the notes you choose, the resulting pulse is like a dancing heartbeat… a vital signs monitor gone berserk. One bar of assorted notes repeats to create a pleasing rhythm. At least, it’s pleasing until the repetition works its way into your head like an earworm and begins to drive you mad.

We need a certain amount of variety, in the rhythm of both music and writing.

“Just as musical notes blend together to create an auditory tapestry, so should your words.  Mix it up, shuffle the deck, alter the rhythm of your words.  Punctuate a paragraph with some staccato sentences.  Layer your language with elaborate harmonies.  Refrain from playing the same refrain over and over.  Use this musical analogy to think about your audience while you write and don’t forget to vary the rhythm of your words.” [Sari Mathes]

In writing, rhythm is achieved by varying the length of sentences and the style of their structure. We want the end result to sound like us — to reflect our literary voice — but at the same time we want the listening experience to be pleasant.

“The aims here are:

  1. to avoid overusing any one sentence structure in a way that becomes a distraction to the reader,
  2. to move gracefully back and forth between the clarity of simple sentences and the richness of complex sentences, and
  3. to evoke the rhythms of your own vocal style, with the same rising and falling of pitch, the same ebb and flow of phrasing between breaths.” [Michael Fleming]

Fleming suggests the best way to establish a natural rhythm is by reading your work aloud. I wonder how many writers do this. Do you? Do you read your manuscripts aloud while in the sanctuary of a closed room, play the words back to yourself via text-to-speech software, or perhaps share them with others at public readings or critique gatherings?

Are you conscious of developing rhythm in your writing? Do you think it’s more important in poetry than in prose?

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The Rhythm of Words

Breezes dimple across the water and start wild grasses dipping and dancing. There’s a special rhythm nature brings to the seasons.

What do you think of when someone talks about rhythm? The repetitive thudding bass from the convertible that pulls up beside you at a traffic light? Maybe the toe-tapping that accompanies a rousing piece of music by a favourite band?

What about the rhythm of words?

Rhythm in Writing

I came across a fascinating ‘toy’ recently — the Rhythmwriter. Try it out and then come back so we can carry on our conversation.

Go ahead,

click on the link.

I’ll wait.

Isn’t it fun?

No matter the notes you choose, the resulting pulse is like a dancing heartbeat… a vital signs monitor gone berserk. One bar of assorted notes repeats to create a pleasing rhythm. At least, it’s pleasing until the repetition works its way into your head like an earworm and begins to drive you mad.

We need a certain amount of variety, in the rhythm of both music and writing.

“Just as musical notes blend together to create an auditory tapestry, so should your words.  Mix it up, shuffle the deck, alter the rhythm of your words.  Punctuate a paragraph with some staccato sentences.  Layer your language with elaborate harmonies.  Refrain from playing the same refrain over and over.  Use this musical analogy to think about your audience while you write and don’t forget to vary the rhythm of your words.” [Sari Mathes]

In writing, rhythm is achieved by varying the length of sentences and the style of their structure. We want the end result to sound like us — to reflect our literary voice — but at the same time we want the listening experience to be pleasant.

“The aims here are:

  1. to avoid overusing any one sentence structure in a way that becomes a distraction to the reader,
  2. to move gracefully back and forth between the clarity of simple sentences and the richness of complex sentences, and
  3. to evoke the rhythms of your own vocal style, with the same rising and falling of pitch, the same ebb and flow of phrasing between breaths.” [Michael Fleming]

Fleming suggests the best way to establish a natural rhythm is by reading your work aloud. I wonder how many writers do this. Do you? Do you read your manuscripts aloud while in the sanctuary of a closed room, play the words back to yourself via text-to-speech software, or perhaps share them with others at public readings or critique gatherings?

Are you conscious of developing rhythm in your writing? Do you think it’s more important in poetry than in prose?

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Movement and Rhythm in Fiction

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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’?

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

Isaiah 40:8 – NIV

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“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

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