I used to love reading novels to my grade four students. It was a way of sharing a love of story and of language. For some of those students, the experience sold them on reading, and when I run into them as grown-ups, they often mention a favourite book I read to them.
For the magic to happen–and it is magical to gather and lead willing minds on a literary journey–one needs the right books. I discovered that some books just didn’t work when read aloud, even if they contained believable characters and exquisite stories. The missing quality is rhythm. English can be dry and tedious or swirling and sumptuous. English has more words than other Romance languages thanks to the Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans who all added vocabulary. So it is how a writer chooses words and puts them together that either kills a sentence or gives it life.
Here are a few lines of Shakespeare’s that have stuck with me for years after acting in this scene from Cymbeline:
Thou toldst me when we came from horse,
The place was near at hand.
Ne’er long’d my mother so
To see me first, as I have now–
The speaker, Imogen, has been traveling on horseback with an older man who is supposed to be leading her to meet her lover, but has been instructed to kill her. They have left the horses and walk over a rise. So, written with no rhythm, the lines would be:
You told me when we got off our horses that we were almost there. I’m really anxious to get there.
Bor-ing. There’s no one like Shakespeare.
Here’s a line from a short story by E. W. Farnsworth I read this morning–he’s a good writer; I hope he doesn’t mind me dissecting his sentence. It’s the opening line.
“Buxom, beautiful and belligerently single Ellie Armstrong awakened after a night of tossing and turning in her sleep, splashed water on her face and threw open the window.”
I really like the use of alliterative words (buxom, beautiful, belligerently; tossing, turning; sleep, splashed) as they give the sentence a nice rhythmic bounce. The name Ellie Armstrong also slides off the tongue effortlessly. I would only improve the rhythm by putting a period after “turning,” and discarding “in her sleep” because it’s redundant. Then I’d adjust the punctuation. The two sentences would read:
“Buxom, beautiful, and belligerently single, Ellie Armstrong awakened after a night of tossing and turning. She splashed water on her face and threw open the window.”
I hope you are reading these examples out loud a few times, especially the Shakespeare. Once you get the handle on Shakespearean language, it’s marvelous.
Here’s a few lines from a western short story I wrote:
I learned a thing or two about shootin’ and huntin’ from Hank on that journey, how to use both pistol and rifle, how to stalk game, and butcher it after the kill.
Now another writer in my writers’ group said I don’t need the last three words because obviously you only butcher a carcass after you’ve killed it. That’s correct, but I left “after the kill” in because the sentence scans better. The three words give it balance. Am I wrong? Those two lines even look like they’re balanced. And that’s another thing about writing rhythmically, you can turn it into poetry.
Here’s a descriptive paragraph from a short story of mine called River’s Rising disguised as a poem:
It’s a place of sloughs and creeks, home to migrating birds by the thousands, as well as beaver, possum, mink, raccoon,
Coyotes roam the pastureland looking for anything smaller, competing with the eagles and hawks,
Great blue herons wade the streams all year round, and nest high in the cottonwoods come spring,
Black tailed deer graze in the wooded areas and the occasional black bear strolls down from the hills.
Okay, I’m not a poet, but it sort of works, don’t you think?
I’m not sure I can tell you how to write rhythmically, other than to advise reading well-written books, so you develop a sense of what sounds beautiful.
Here is the opening page of The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. I think it is the best piece I have read in a long time.
This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.
I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway. I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you onto stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.
The most wonderful enchanted things happen here–the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.
The author uses strong nouns and verbs–not big words mind you–to increase flow. It doesn’t matter that some of the sentences are long because they don’t break the rhythm. If you read this out loud and fast, you can hear the tudda-tudda-tudda-ta rhythm your tongue and lips make. I am in awe of such perfect writing.
I hope this blog makes you more mindful and appreciative of rhythm in writing. And if you find some examples of perfection when you’re reading, please send them to me. I love being humbled by my betters.