Friday, June 15, 2012

Week 25 - Rhythm

17 Jun - 23 Jun: What's the best word in the English language?  Read on... (and no, it's not 'perversion').

"...he has come within sight of the word 'perversion', with its dark, complex thrill, beginning with the enigmatic 'p' that can mean anything, then swiftly tumbling via the ruthless 'r' to the vengeful 'v'."  J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood.

Read a word or a sentence or a paragraph out loudHow does it sound?  Is it harsh or soft?  Does it want to be read quickly or slowly?  Does the sound compliment, contrast or clash with the meaning?  If you think like Coetzee, is it enigmatic; does it tumble; is it vengeful?

How to Write an Uncommonly Good Novel suggests chosing words for more than their dictionary meaning.  Here are some insights from author, Deborah Churchman:
1. Long, resonating and full sounds, for example, nose, range, grieve, and m and n sounds, add a heaviness to a sentence and may be appropriate for things that are monotonous, such as crowds, traffic and droning characters.
2. Quick, explosive sounds, such as B, P, T, D and K quicken pace.
3. Soft, breathy sounds, such as F, SH, CH and H are quiet and secretive.  Churchman recommends them for lovers' meetings.
4. Liquid sounds contain long L, R and W sounds.  Broadening vowels can also turn harsh sounds into much softer ones, e.g., catch to caught, bit to bite.  The classic, I love you is liquidity at its best.  And according to Churchman, the best word in the English language (by vote) is liquid smooth cellophane.
5. Onomatopoeia add action, e.g., splash, snap, thud, and can sound like the element being described.  The slithering snake is a familiar example.  Churchman provides a less obvious one from Edgar Allen Poe: "and the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain," is supposed to sound a bit like a curtain moving in the breeze.
6. Sprawling sounds such as long vowels and groups of consonants, such as spring, throng, scribe, take longer to read and tend to slow down the pace.
7. Pitch describes the ups and downs of a sentence.  If the sentence rises at the end, it is stronger and more masculine.  If it falls, it is soft and feminine, and more suited to reflective situations.
8. Alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) are great in poetry, but should be applied carefully in prose.  Suzie saw something sinister as she sat sullenly on the sideline, might work well in a comedy, but is distracting, and just plain silly, in a serious piece.
9. Repetition of words and sounds for emphasis is recommended by many.  Three seems to be the magic number here.  Any more and the effect is dampened. 

Courtnery Carpenter includes word choice as one of 7-tools-for-pacing-a-novel in her Writer's Digest article, and provides further advice:
10. Action words are good for drama, suspense and conflict, and strangely enough, action scenes. 
11. Words that sound unpleasant or conjure up unpleasant images may be rushed over by the reader, consequently, quickening the pace.  Carpenter includes in this group words like grunt, hiss and slither.
Okay, so these titbits are about sound, not necessarily rhythm. Stephen King, On Writing, (besides meeting his wife there) credits poetry classes for giving him a greater understanding of rhythm in his own prose. 

John Gardner has a very thorough and academic look at rhythm in the Art of Fiction, and also recommends study in poetry for applying rhythm to writing.  Gardner points out (among other things) that one should be aware of the stressed and unstressed syllables in a sentence, as too many stressed syllables slow a sentence down.

Gardner includes faulty rhythm in his section on 'Common Mistakes', suggesting that too much rhythm is not realistic, and that short, sharp stresses and long,flowing ones should suit the scene. Gardner also includes accidental rhyme as something to look out for.

For those who wish to know the difference between iambic, dactylic, anapestic and amphibrachic metre [meter], Google it or talk to a poet.

Exercise 49.  Read aloud a sentence or paragraph you've writtern yourself.  Place a stressed symbol ( - ) above the long syllables and unstressed symbol ( ˘ ) for short syllables.  Experiment with how reordering a series, or rearranging the sentence or paragraph affects the rhythm, and decide on which suits the story best.  (Adapted from Gardner, The Art of Fiction.)

Exercise 50.  Think of, or consult your dictionary for ten words each that, in your mind, fall into the eleven groups listed above.  Think of how you can apply them to a story, or better yet, apply them.  For the 'distinctive' words (ref Clark), e.g., silouette, dynamite, glisten, try to find their etymologies (origins).  For example, discipline means 'to follow', hence, disciple, (depending on your source, of course.  Darn, did I just accidentally rhyme?).

Next week is Week 26.  I will be half way through the year and wondering what I've learnt, and looking back at my goals from Week 1.  Ah oh....


  1. Hello there! I can finally submit a comment.Before I pop a cork, I have a question. What do I call you in your own home?

    So I applied exercise #49 to the opening paragraph of the opening chapter, focusing on #2 and #7, as well as marking the stresses in each sentence. Wow! Huge difference. The opening scene has much more punch to it, which suits the main character perfectly. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Hey Joseph. I'm glad Mr Gardner could be of help. He's a bit of a smarty-pants when it comes to this writing business. (Hopefully, one day I'll be able to offer my own advice about literary awesomeness....)

    I go by Egg in real life, but I came across so many egg sites that I decided to break from the food group and use my other alias. 'Hey you' also works well.

    Thanks for dropping in. Hope your fingers are flying like tomatoes at La Tomatina (but that the end result is not quite as messy). E