6

When writing prose, I noticed that certain words flow smoothly when placed next to others, while other words do not, but I can never be too sure exactly how smoothly they flow, or whether my cadence is rich enough. Right now my words do not flow too well, as you can see. But I want them to flow perfectly.

Must I depend wholly on my ear, or is there some kind of principle that will tell me when a certain kind of word will work best? Sometimes I think I would rather depend on principles than my ear, or at least have some assistance from principles.

I know I asked a similar question, but that was about cadence in general, even though I mentioned harmony. Now I am speaking of harmony in particular.

  • 1
    I'm not sure how to do it by anything other than ear, unless you're an english major or have an editor. Good question, though. – DWKraus Sep 17 '20 at 0:04
11

I highly agree with @EDL's answer: read your work out loud. It takes a long time to hone your ear and understand how prose flows together, and the best way to practice is by reading out loud and seeing if anything sounds strange to the ear.

However, I also want to offer some concrete guidelines to follow to improve your rhythm, so here are a few I've found helpful:

Vary your sentence lengths.

Take the following passage:

Lindsay got up and walked to the door. She opened the door and stepped outside. She snatched up the Times and fled back inside. She stared at the headline and realized she had done this already.

Notice how we have four of the exact same type of sentence in a row - medium-length compound sentences connected with "and" - and as a result this sentence has horrible rhythm. It clunks hard to the ear, and you can hear how repetitive and dull it sounds when you read it out loud to yourself. It sounds like "bah dah, bah dah, bah dah."

Instead, try to keep your sentence lengths and types varied. We could improve this passage dramatically with just a few adjustments to our sentence types:

Lindsay got up, walked to the door - stopped for a moment with her hand on the doorknob. She swore she'd done this already. She opened it, hands trembling, and there was the Times, folded up and bundled neatly on her doorstep. She snatched it up and fled back inside, petrified. The headline was exactly the same.

Match the rhythm to the mood.

Slow, thoughtful scenes should have slow rhythm, while fast-moving action scenes should have fast rhythm. If you're having a relaxing, languid scene where your characters are lounging around and chatting, it's okay to have long, relaxed sentences. Drag out your rhythm and indulge fancies, to match the calm mood of the scene.

Action scenes, suspense scenes, and moments of high tension, on the other hand, are quick, fast-paced and frenetic, and your sentence rhythm should reflect that. Play with tight, tense fragments, and keep your prose fast and furious.

He cocked his gun with a sharp clack. Held still, listening. Dust spun in the air, stung his nose; warehouse floor was cold under his shoes. Nobody here - yet.

Shake up how your sentences start and end, and don't be afraid of fragments.

You probably heard this a lot in your English classes, but your sentences shouldn't all start the same. If you say "he said, he walked, he went" over and over, unless you specifically are doing it for a reason, it gradually bores the reader.

Don't be afraid of using fragments or starting with prepositions to make this happen - there are no hard-and-fast style rules, contrary to what your English teachers claim, and if it sounds good, chop off unnecessary parts of the sentence and start them in unorthodox ways to spice up your writing.

One of my absolute favorite pieces of writing, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, does this wonderfully sometimes:

And wasn't it this bright boy you selected for beating and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man's mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won't stomach them for a minute.

No sentence in this passage starts or sounds the same way, or has the same length or rhythm. And doesn't it just sing?

  • Thanks for your answer. I am thankful for your answer as well as everyone else's. I didn't mark it as the answer because I'm not sure I've gotten all the information I need. Besides variety in sentence structure and length, can you give me any information about the rhythm of syllables themselves (stressed and unstressed syllables? because I feel like that is also important. But thank you for your advice about variety in sentence structure and length. That is very useful information and I definitely intend to use it. I think I sort of use it somewhat unconsciously already. – garbus Sep 20 '20 at 19:09
  • @garbus I'm not sure how stressed/unstressed syllables would strongly relate to writing rhythm to be honest, or what advice I would give for that. Rhythm in writing is how words and sentences flow and how passages are put together - verbal pronunciation of syllables is not directly related to how you write sentences besides whether they sound good out loud. – Sciborg Sep 20 '20 at 22:58
  • @Sciborg Maybe this is just me, but I often read things 'out loud' in my head, if that makes any sense, in which case the pronunciation is relevant. – DM_with_secrets Sep 23 '20 at 22:46
7

Ursula K Lequin said in her book, Steering the Craft, to produce lyrical prose you should read your work aloud.

Then you'll hear the cadence. And, you can train your writing self to find the best words to create the effect on the piece you want -- whether it is dissonance because of strife in the scene, or rhythmic to show emotion or rising action.

One method I've heard of, and is beyond me, is the careful use of vowel sounds to evoke additional emotion in the piece. Low sounding words with deep ooh sounds of sadness and warm a-sounds for happiness and sounds in between.

  • Well, when you write, do you hear a rhythm in your head, or do you just change the words until you get it right? – garbus Sep 20 '20 at 19:16
  • @garbus I'm not quite sure what you mean - are you asking whether people can write perfect sentences first time, without redrafting? I don't think there's anything wrong with changing the words until you get it right – DM_with_secrets Sep 23 '20 at 15:17
3

This isn't a great short-term solution, but could you try taking up poetry? Although free verse is obviously quite like prose (I know that statement risks being brutally eviscerated by many poets), other forms such as haikus, limericks, or Shakespeare's famous sonnets have rules to follow about the flow of syllables per line. Not all has to rhyme (although that's an added fun challenge if you like it) but much depends on picking a rough rhythm in the first verse and staying with that. It's excellent practice if you want to work on the fluency of your flow - study Byron, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Keats, Kipling for examples or ideas.

A hint for this is always to keep a thesaurus handy. Often you will write a line that ends perfectly but doesn't flow correctly and/or is the wrong length. The task then becomes to find synonyms for the words so you can improve the flow without detracting from the meaning - and often this improves the meaning, as well as widening your vocabulary and improving your ability to write fluidly and comfortably.

  • Could you recommend any books on free verse poetry, prosody in particular? Is there any information on prosody in free verse poetry that is useful for writing prose? Is there actually information on how to construct free verse rhythms? – garbus Sep 20 '20 at 19:18
3

To expand on Spencer Barnes's answer:

If you are interested in a rules-based analysis of the sounds and rhythms of language, what you need to do is study strict-form metrical poetry. You would never apply what you learn directly to your prose, but it will help you develop your ear for language, and to learn what's going on under the surface. In fact, a self-taught progression through poetry, complete with homework, starting with the strictest forms, and progressing to the most abstract free verse, would be a great way to bring the sense of rhythm you're seeking to your prose.

Here are a few of my favorite poets, (roughly) in order from most strict to most free:

Longfellow
Robert Frost
Shelley
Gwendolyn Brooks
G. M. Hopkins
Tupac
T. S. Elliot
ee cummings
Langston Hughes
Billy Collins

Frost and Tupac are both particularly good at bringing a natural, conversational feel to poems that have strong rhythm, and a strict rhyme scheme.

  • Could you recommend any books on free verse poetry, prosody in particular? Is there any information on prosody in free verse poetry that is useful for writing prose? Is there actually information on how to construct free verse rhythms? – garbus Sep 20 '20 at 19:18
  • I posted the same comment to another answer because they also mentioned free verse poetry. – garbus Sep 20 '20 at 19:19
  • +1, This says my answer far better than I managed to!! – Spencer Barnes Sep 21 '20 at 7:14
  • 1
    @Garbus I don't actually know any books from memory that would suit you, but as Chrissunami kindly gave us an ordered list with the most free at the bottom, that looks like an excellent place you could start. – Spencer Barnes Sep 21 '20 at 7:18
  • 1
    @garbus - There aren't any rules, per se on free verse, that's what makes it "free." I think what you'll find most useful is to study the rules of strict verse, and then stop following them. It may sound counter-intuitive, but that's really the best method. – Chris Sunami supports Monica Sep 21 '20 at 9:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.