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[Writing] Rhythm

category: Writing | course: Writing with Style | difficulty:

Rhythm, in writing at least, is what really distinguishes average writing from good writing. You can write a perfectly clear and understandable book without it, but there’s a good chance nobody will read past the first page. Rhythm is what makes the narrative jump from the page into the real world. It turns words into words with meaning, each of them having their own place in the song that is your story.

Ladder of Abstraction

The ladder of abstraction is a tool that is often used to teach about rhythm. On one end of the ladder, the low end, there is the concrete, real and detailed. On the other end, the high end, is the abstract and general. Whenever you write something, it can be placed somewhere on this ladder.

Why is this important? Because this is the key to rhythmic storytelling! Mixing low and high levels of abstraction is what you should be doing all the time.

Imagine a man giving a speech or lecture. If he was talking at the same volume, pitch and speed all the time – that would get pretty boring wouldn’t it? If two or three sentences were spoken in the exact same way, that would be fine. But more of that, and the speech loses its rhythm and becomes one big blur of words. In that sense, going back and forth between levels of abstraction also makes the text more readable, much in the same way punctuation does.

The take-away rule: Often shift your focus to capture both landscape and character. Think of it as looking into your story’s world using a camera from all angles and distances, and describe what happens.

Once upon a time, there was a high school, called Junior High. It was known for its knowledgeable staff and simplicity in teaching methods. (abstract) It stood there tall, brown, with a red roof and dark blue doors. (less abstract) And on a certain Monday, Peter went inside those doors. He was young, only twelve years old. Bright, getting good grades, yet with an awful memory – he couldn’t even remember what he had eaten yesterday. (concrete) But little did he know that his world would soon be turned upside down. (abstract again)

Scene Sequence

This is an area overlapping with the actual plot of your story, but it also has some uses in actual writing. What I mean by scene sequence is this:

Often, we write a scene where something important happens, and in that scene a character thinks back or we take the reader back to a significant moment earlier in time. While flashbacks can be used as a good thing if you intend it, it is recommended to write scenes in sequence.

If an event is important enough to be included as a flashback in another scene, it is important enough to get its own scene. Place the reader in the scene when it is happening. Flashbacks interrupt reading flow and rhythm, and are hard for a reader to snap in and out of.

What about repetition? Repeating a word, sentence or whole part of your story can be useful. It chains parts of your story together, and if that is what you intend, use it. But, if on rereading you find repeating words or phrases in your work that you didn’t intend, remove or rewrite.

Using the scene sequence tip, it is possible for you to eliminate any flashbacks that cause repetition. Because you’ve included a scene as it happened, when it happened, you can assume the reader still knows about it and don’t need to repeat anything from it.

Sentence Length

Already touched on the subject in sentence structure, but here it goes again, because it is important you remember this:

Rhythm is achieved by using sentences of varying length. Placing two or three sentences of the same length after each other is fine, but any more than that will create a certain effect, and you won’t necessarily always want that.

  • Short sentences are quite uncommon, and create an effect of action, surprise and excitement.
  • Medium sentences are the usual length, and lots of these create a monotone narrative.
  • Long sentences are more common among writers, and are used when there’s no action taking place and the writer is explaining or describing something.

Control the pace of your story with these tips.

Parallel Lines

In order to create order in the sea of words, you should use something called parallel lines.

What they mean is that equivalent thoughts demand parallel constructions. Which is a good one-liner, but still vague. Look at it this way:

Say you start your book with a paragraph about how person X always triple checks if he locked every door at night. He is afraid, insecure, has lots of valuable possessions, whatever. But, over the course of the book, he learns a lot and he lets go of this anxiety.

Then if you end the book with a paragraph about how person X always leaves the door open at night in almost the exact same way as the opening paragraph, readers should automatically see that connection.

What do you mean with the exact same way? Qua grammar or structure. If you write a sentence with only very short words, you can balance that with another sentence with only very short words. If you use three examples in a sentence, you can balance it by using three in the next one. If you create a phrase that starts with I have a dream, and then start the next phrase with the same words, you get a connection!

You’ve seen now that parallel lines create connections or balance two parts of a story against each other. But, what if you want to make one part stand out? That’s when you cut across the parallel lines. If you balance everything in a paragraph against each other, except for one sentence, then I think you know which sentence is going to stand out.

She was smart, young and friendly is better than She was smart, young and able to be nice to people she just met.

He liked soccer as much as he liked eating is better than He liked soccer as much as he always got a good mood from shoving food into his mouth.

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