Thursday, February 03, 2011

Feel the Rhythm of the Words

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Fiction it about more than describing a situation and telling readers about it. Good fiction flows and dances across the page, using every word to captivate the reader and lure them deeper into the story.
Which is why rhythm is so important. How the text flows matters, because choppy writing can jar readers right out of the story. It often reads like a list, with flat description, focusing more on the what than the who or the why. There's no sense of storytelling, just boring explanation.
Let’s look at an example:
A dozen zombies came down the hall. The ones in front groaned the loudest. The ones in back shuffled without a sound. The few that broke out of line moaned a little. The moans made Bob want to scream.
Pretty meh, isn't it?

It’s all roughly the same number of words in the same basic format doing the same basic thing. It's as if someone is simply jotting down what happens as quickly as possible. There's no break in the rhythm or sentence structure, so it sounds monotonous.
But let's vary those sentences and move some words around and see what happens.
Zombies came down the hall, dozens of them in long lines. The ones in front groaned the loudest—the back pack just shuffled without a sound. The few that broke out of line moaned a little. That made Bob want to scream.
Better right?
Just breaking up a few of those sentences made a difference. It's still not great, but it's more interesting than the first example.
Let's polish some more and work on adding a rhythm that builds the tension to the end of the paragraph.
Zombies came down the hall, dozens of them in long lines. The ones in front groaned the loudest—the back pack just shuffled forward without a sound. A few of the fresher dead broke ranks, stumbling into the hall, clawing at the posters, the walls, the lockers, looking for something.
Or someone?
They moaned, just a little. Bob swallowed his scream.
Now we're getting somewhere.
Not only is the flow better, but the sense that there's a person here is stronger. It's not just flat description of events, it has some judgment there, using the point of view to show the scene.
"The fresher dead" is Bob's opinion about the age of the zombies. "Broke ranks" suggest Bob has some military background. "Bob swallowed his scream" is what he does, not what someone says he does. The alteration scattered throughout helps build tension. "Shuffled forward without a sound," playing off the S, F, O, and W. "A few of the fresher dead" plays off the F, "Swallowed his scream" plays off the S.
Repetition builds tension in: "...stumbling into the hall, clawing at the posters, the walls, the lockers, looking for something.
Putting the “Or someone?" on its own line creates a full stop. The short phrase after the long rhythmic paragraph before it makes that "Or someone?" really stand out, which it should since this is what Bob's afraid of. This is also what I want readers to worry about too. Are the zombies looking for Bob?

The sentences are no longer just flat descriptions of zombies marching down all, they’re a story showing Bob in danger. And that’s a lot more fun.

Varying the structure and thus the rhythm creates unpredictability in the narrative flow. 

Unpredictability is interesting and draw readers in, while unpredictability makes them skim. And who wants that?

When you write sentences with the same structure and rhythm, it's like dull white noise droning on and putting readers to sleep. A good narrative rhythm keeps them awake and reading, like a great beat that makes you tap your toes.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thank you for this post. You've made the whole rhythm issue much less intimidating. I'm thinking `I can do that,' as opposed to `rhythm- oh no! I stopped writing cheesy poetry just so I wouldn't have to worry about things like rhythm. Help!'

  2. Getting away from writing "lists" is something I know I struggle with. This post will help a lot with that. Cheers.

  3. This is another good post. It seems hard stuff, but if it's hard just to feel it, it's then a question of breaking down what you write and looking for the opportunities, then building it back up again, repeating until it comes naturally. Watch sentence length, linking of ideas and natural pauses especially. As well as alliteration, it's worth looking into consonance and assonance.

  4. I'm pretty picky about the rhythm of words also. It can have a very huge effect on the flow of the story, and the impact it has on the reader.

    Thanks for sharing this. =)


  5. Great post. I'd probably get more out of it if my head wasn't fuzzy from staying up way too late to finish Blue Fire...I'm going to have to come re-read this one. :)

  6. Chicory: Oh good! It really is a lot easier than it sounds. And it doesn't really have anything to do with poetry :)

    Sam: I hope it does :)

    Porky: It is. Once you start thinking about the sentence structure, it becomes a lot easier and second nature. I should have mentioned consonance and assonance, but it just slipped my mind. Thanks for the reminder!

    Tessa: Anytime :)

    Megan: Hehe, hope you enjoyed it! I'd apologize for keeping you up, but I did write it that way on purpose (grin)

  7. I LOVE rhythm in words and sentences. I hate it when I get a string of sentences all together and they're all the same length and structure. Then I feel obliged to break 'em up. :)

  8. Janice: I did enjoy it, immensely! Now I just have to wait until the third one comes out.

  9. Love this! I'm going to share it with my high school writing class. :-)

  10. Carol: Me too!

    Megan: Cool, thanks :) October seems far away, but it'll be here before we know it. And there will probably be ARCs, and thus an ARC giveaway...

    Shannon: Great, thanks!