Rhythm in your prose

by Margaret Sutherland

If you write fiction, you will have played with the notion of rhythm in your prose.

What is rhythm? To me, it is the choice and arrangement of words in a way that best serves your intention. Rhythm may be abrupt and choppy, as in the dialogue of an autocratic or bad-tempered character. It may race forward in a tempestuous barely-punctuated rush, as in Christina Stead’s great prose. It may bob and bounce along with Dr Seuss, or uncover unusual emphasis by the artful rearrangement of the order of words in a sentence. It will have a subtle flow, akin to melody.

Before the written word came the spoken word. So, in childhood, we first heard the nursery rhymes we remember so easily now. They are mainly nonsense, and it was never for their meaning that we chanted them. Why would we care that an egg rolled down a hill or Miss Muffet was eating curds and whey? Why would today’s sophisticated children enjoy the same silly tales? Because of their rhythm, surely. Grab a baton and you can easily beat time to them: a jaunty six/eight rhythm to Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, Baker’s man; or a solemn two/four time to Hickory-dickory-dock.

Objective prose, such as we read in legal documents, newspaper reports or company brochures, primarily conveys information. It does not need or want a rhythmic style. We read to find out facts, but are hardly pulled into the story or lost in the style of writing. Imaginative prose (novels and short stories) cannot be written like a brochure; they have a story to tell, and that story must be told in a rhythmic and balanced way.

How is rhythm felt? Think of the old song, “The Teddy bears’ Picnic.”

‘If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise.’

These words have a toe-tapping beat.

Conveyed in objective prose, this line might go:

‘Expect a surprise if you go to the woods today.’

Flat. Boring. No rhythm.

Rhythm is also felt in the length and sensual input of a sentence. To illustrate, here are 2 very brief examples from my short story, ‘Rustle of Spring’, where an old woman describes the environments of her warm childhood, and the cold reality of her early married life in a new housing estate.

 (1)The lip-licking smell of bacon floated from the Hydra factory; the malty aroma of beer drifted from the hotel doors; in summer, the tar underfoot was soft and left a pungent sting …


(2) No tall tree, no church steeple, no clock tower. No topsoil for growing – No bus, no church, no dance hall, no library. No restaurant, no cosy teashop where friends might chat. No craft gallery or picture theatre. Nothing to surprise, nowhere to buy flowers. No meeting hall for pensioners. There were no old people.

Does your writing have rhythm? Probably. A good way to check is to read a few paragraphs out loud. Most experienced fiction writers have an instinct for putting their words together; often those who have the most trouble are academics, business executives, or those who constantly produce reports and data. The language of objective prose is often longwinded and clumsy. Try writing words like ‘indictment’ or ‘annual percentage growth’ into heady prose! As fiction writers we are lucky we have the pleasurable tool of rhythm to help draw our reader in to a book that with luck they can’t put down.

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