Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rhythm Method

What makes a story dramatic? Obvious answers come to mind, such as suspenseful plot lines, colorful but conflicted characters, and overwhelming obstacles those characters must overcome by the story's end. But many writers skillfully craft each of those elements and still, they have only so-so manuscripts on their hands. Something's missing

The key to dramatic writing is Rhythm.

 Rhythm is an elusive literary element, as hard to teach as it is to learn. Simply put, weak or poor rhythm jeopardizes the emotional impact of the story. It dampens the drama.

 Areas you can concentrate on to create rhythm in your writing are Sentence Lengths, Variations in Sentence Structures, and the use of Cappers.

Sentence Lengths - Decipher a long sentence and you'll find it contains several modifying phrases and/or clauses, strung together with commas (or semi-colons). Sometimes a lengthy sentence is necessary. But it's important to realize that as readers move through all those modifiers, farther and farther away from the sentence's subject and predicate, they may forget the original point of the sentence by the time they reach the period. A story with too many long sentences will shift readers into glazed-eye gear. Monotony leads to boredom.

 Those multiple commas also affect the rhythm of a long sentence. Think about it. Punctuation marks are the story's breath that guides the emotional impact of a passage. Periods are hard stops that demand emphasis, where commas pause, like a sigh. An em-dash holds its breath. Ellipses are airy, uncertain. Unfinished thoughts that drift away... For rhythm to be dynamic, it requires a variety of punctuation to stir the emotional cauldron. So a long sentence with, say, four commas? Well, that's a lot of sighing.

Variations in Sentence Structures - You create rhythm in a paragraph by varying the lengths and structures of the sentences it comprises. And nothing stifles rhythm like stringing several sentences together in exactly the same way.

 Example: After spotting Dan across the room, Emma approached him with a smile. Before he could speak, she raised her hand for silence. Although he'd been upset, he grinned when she leaned in and kissed his cheek.


 In this silly example, each of the three sentences begins with an introductory phrase set apart from the main clause by a comma, and ends with a modifying prepositional or adverbial phrase. The problem with using several identical sentence structures in a row is that the reader will likely slip into a sing-song internal voice, diminishing the moment's dramatic essence into something that sounds like a nursery rhyme.

Rhythm in writing also depends on variety in sentence lengths to establish musicality, or a pleasing "sound" to the mind's ear. Mix it up. A long sentence, followed by a medium length sentence, and then a short sentence before another long sentence will lend a more melodic sound than the constant drone of same-length sentences. Also, the short sentences will carry more emphasis, stand out with greater emotional impact next to their longer counterparts.

Cappers - A short sentence that comes after several longer ones and serves to "cap off" the preceding information with a burst of dramatic flair is called a Capper. A capper is a literary gimmick, and if you overuse them in a story you risk desensitizing your readers. However, used sparingly, these little sentences carry a powerful dramatic punch.

Example: My lungs felt collapsed; I couldn't draw in enough air. I pleaded, "Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod," over and over under my breath as thoughts collided in my brain. I realized I'd never been in danger before this moment in my life. I was at the mercy of these excited, armed men. Whatever they said I had to do, I would have no choice but to obey. And that terrified me.

"And that terrified me" caps off the five sentences that come before it, wrapping up the sentiments of the passage, before the story moves on.

The above excerpt is from one of my own stories, but here's another (better) example. It's by James Alan Gardner from his 2001 article A Seminar on Writing Prose: Rhythm . It illustrates the capper perfectly:

I was just about to lock in the auto-pilot when the navigation screen flashed every color in the rainbow for three and a half seconds, turned fuzzy gray for a second after that, then went completely blank. Naturally, I hit the DIAGNOSTICS button. Nothing happened-for all I knew, the diagnostic suite might be happily running through the nav system circuits, but the screen didn't show me a thing. I spun my chair to face the command console, but its screen had gone blank too. So had the screens for the engines, communications, and life support. I stared stupidly at all those empty screens until it dawned on me that things had gone awfully quiet behind my back: the usual noise of machinery, air ventilators, and cooling fans had fallen silent. 

Then the lights went out. Shit. 

Rhythm is the heartbeat of life. Picture a room full of people dancing. They're twisting and twirling to the same song, but your eyes will go right to that man or woman whose organic movement and natural beat melds in perfect synchronization with the music. Create that rhythmic vibe in your writing, and you will captivate your reading audience with drama in every sentence.

Can you judge the rhythm of your own work, or do you look to reviewers and critique partners to evaluate the fluency of your writing? And, do you think you can Thanks for reading!

[I wrote this article originally to appeared in the January 25, 2012 Drama Newsletter at]