Check Your Rhythm

Sometimes you read a story and know something is “off,” but you can’t put your pencil on it. Chances are, the story’s rhythm or “music” is the problem. Most people are aware that rhythm is an inherent facet of poetry, especially classic, rhyming poetry. But if you went to the mall and asked random people if they thought stories have rhythm, the typical person would give you that lopsided, raised-eyebrow look that implies she thinks you’re nuts. 

“What do you mean, rhythm in a story? Like in a song? Foot-tapping rhythm with a beat?”

 “Any kind.” You shrug.

“Well . . . no. There’s poems and songs. That stuff has rhythm. Stories, not so much. No. Stories don’t have rhythm. They’re just plain old talking like people talk."

The fact is, plain old talking does have rhythm, at least when thoughts flow freely. Even the occasional “uhm” or stumble is rhythmic. For example, read aloud the following two sentence excerpt from a YouTube interview between Kathleen Pooler and Susan Weidner. As you read, tap your fingers rhythmically, like a ticking clock or a metronome.

Kathleen: How was writing this story, uh, how did it differ from writing your memoirs?

Susan: Well, it was quite different because I was allowed to use my imagination.

Read these lines aloud again and tap your fingers rhythmically, like a ticking clock or a metronome as you read. Broken into even beats, Kathleen’s sentence sounds like this:

|How was |writing this |story, |uh, |how did it |differ from |writing your |memoirs? 

Susan’s words have a similar flow:

|Well, |it was quite |different be|cause I was |allowed to |use my |imagi|nation. 

Not only are these sentences rhythmic, but they’re streamlined, with no extra words. Contrast this with a sentence from an early draft of written story.
Nobody could refute the certainty of the arrival of furious storms every winter that lashed at houses built out of solid rock that was hewn out of the very bedrock we all lived on . . . 
My head spins and my tongue tangles when I try to read that sentence aloud. I’m reminded of riding on an unpaved mountain road. If this sentence occurred on the first page, I would set this story aside immediately. My sense of things is that if this sentence were actually spoken, it would sound more like this:
Nobody could refute the certain arrival of furious storms every winter. They lashed out at our solid stone houses built from the bedrock we lived on. 
 That revision still isn’t going to gain fame. I’d consider the underlying thought and smooth it even more:
Everyone knew we had killer storms every winter that seemed like they’d wash our solid stone houses off the bedrock we lived on. 
Even that sentence may need more work within the context of the larger story.

Tips for giving your stories rhythm 
  • Trim extra words. 

  • Clear out the dead would

  • Question every use of “that.”

  •  Eliminate the word “very” and related intensifiers in favor of precise language.

  • Use scrap paper and a pen to write the simplest possible version of what you are trying to say in a complicated sentence or passage. Use that to simplify your draft.

  • Read sentence and stories aloud! Notice where your tongue stumbles and follow its lead as you edit.

  • Read them aloud to a group. You’ll notice where your tongue stumbles, but you may not notice that what your spoken words don’t match what’s on the page. Again, follow the lead of your spoken words. That’s what you really mean, and what sounds best.
Write now: read through the draft of a new story or an older one you haven't seen for awhile and find sentences with awkward rhythm. Use the tips above to smooth them out.


kathleen pooler said...

Sharon, what a pleasant surprise to see how Susan and I were in rhythm with our "plain old talking", uhs and all. Interesting because, I felt we were on rhythm during the interview. I appreciate your enlightening post as well as your generous mention and link. Great tips, especially "follow the lead of your spoken word". Thank you!

Susan G. Weidener said...

My thanks, too, Sharon, for mentioning the YouTube interview with Kathy. I agree that brevity is a sign of professional writing . . . and there's nothing worse than dialogue lacking in "rhythm" . . . except for wordy sentences that leave the reader confused and shaking his head, as you point out here. Great tips here for writers.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Kathy and Susan, it was my pleasure to view your interview with so much good material in it. I think rhythm in speech comes fairly naturally to people, but it's easy to get jammed up with writing, trying to sound erudite or whatever.

I'm a strong believer in having "people" to help us write. That may include anything from face-to-face writing groups or email writing buddies to paid editors or writing coaches.