Getting the Rhythm Right

I have enjoyed a semi-professional career as a drummer/percussionist for over twenty-five years now, and I must say I was surprised at how handy an innate sense of rhythm has turned out to be for me as a writer.

Having the complexities of multiple time signatures, poly-rhythmic cadences and metric modulation ingrained into the psyche gives the possessor an ear that picks up beats in everything.

When watching a movie or a television show for instance, the pattern behind the lines of the actors is very apparent. Comedy relies on these underlying metrics, which is the reason computer animated movies display such smooth slapstick and physical comedy; the timing of the delivery has been tuned to perfection for every minor gag and byline.

When writing a novel, the rhythm that the reader falls into whilst making their way through the story is very important.

That moment when your reader has to stop and go back to work out who is speaking, a place in the sentences that doesn’t flow properly, a section of wordiness in the wrong place; all these things are, to use a computer game term, immersion breaking.

The reader wants to be lost in the story and a sudden reminder that they’re just reading words on a page is quite unpleasant.

Consider this; I do my best proofreading when I’m sitting up in bed and edging ever closer to drifting off to sleep.

The words will flow into my brain at a steady pace and then, in an instant, something catches. Nothing major, just a few words round the wrong way, but in that drowsy state such a break in the flow jars in the mind.

The section is highlighted and set down for some repairs the next day.

Take a look at this sentence, for example:

“I can’t understand why he isn’t here,” Mary said, “He’d be back within an hour or so, he told me.”

Now, the information is all there for the reader. Mary’s concerned because the mysterious ‘he’ is overly late. There is, however a rhythmic issue here. Let’s spin this about a bit:

“I can’t understand why he isn’t here,” Mary said,”He told me he’d be back in an hour or so.”

See the difference? In reality, Mary is not very likely to say the first lines out loud, she would naturally say the second version, and why? Because of the rhythm, that automatic cadence that we all fall into when we speak out loud.

That final, “He told me.” It forces the mind to trip over it, analyze what’s wrong with it and forcibly rearrange the sentence to something more comfortable.

That’s why editors and writing coaches always impress on us the need to read out loud to ourselves every word we write.

Even though most of us aren’t musicians, we all have an innate feeling and sympathy for rhythm.

One of the most successful bands I ever worked with was an eleven piece funk and soul band, and we used to pack the joint, as the old saying goes.

The appeal of that monster was the fact that there is an emotional intensity projected by a large musical group such as this and that’s what people came not just to hear, but feel; the vibe.

I am discovering that a good book also projects this kind of feeling. The reader is drawn into the story, not just by the adventure being portrayed, but also by the natural cadence of the words.

In the final climactic scenes of The Road Out, there is a car race, a time trial hill-climb.

That part of the book, when it came to proofreading, yielded almost no mistakes at all, and why?

Because I had been over and over that three chapter section countless times; getting the wording just right, making sure the rhythm and intensity built up as it should, all in the hope that it would prove to be a page turner.

Everyone seems happy enough with the way it turned out, but it was a demanding section to write and arrange. I’m very happy that it’s done.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we have to ensure that every line in our writing swings like a pendulum do, however there is an onus on the writer to ensure that the reader enjoys a comfortable ride.

There should be plenty of roller coaster highs and lows, naturally, but they shouldn’t jar and shake the audience on the way up or down.

I would like to install a caveat to this, though. In my humble opinion there is a line to be drawn in the sand at this point.

While rhythmic sense is important in the arranging of words, I am far from convinced that the same holds true for the plot of a story.

Hollywood has been producing movies for decades that tend to adhere to a well-known formula, of which Blake Snyder obligingly wrote a complete mechanical tear-down analysis for in his book Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.

Interestingly, the plot parts are called beats, quite the revealing name, is it not?

I personally dislike the idea that any story should be written to a formula as though it were a recipe for a three course meal.

My life is more like meat and vegetables being thrown in piles at a wall while I scrape the shattered fragments off the floor and try to make a half decent casserole.

Editors tend to rail against writers insulting their readers intelligence, condemning the use of descriptors and explanation in narrative dialogue.

I think the same goes for plot lines. Why does the reader have to know what’s going to happen before it does?

In The Road Out, a decision is made and down the line there comes a point where the heavens open and seven tons of tribulation fall on the main characters in a torrent of stressful tribulation.

No, it’s not all laid out with nice little breaks in between, and this is for a very good reason; because life isn’t like that.

Life can tick along nicely, sometimes for years, things all falling into place as we would like and flowers and dancing fairies everywhere and then the next minute it seems that we have been singled out for special attention by the cruelest mind in the universe as everything turns to custard.

We’re left staggering out of the ruins, with the remnants of our life in our arms, putting it down by the roadside and trying our best to put back into some sort of order whatever might remain.

The advent of self publishing is putting the power back into the writers hands a bit, giving us the chance to break the boundaries imposed upon us by the publishing industry.

This comes at a price, though. With power, comes responsibility.

Lest we forget.





3 thoughts on “Getting the Rhythm Right

  1. Out of sheer curiosity, how do you maintain an even tone? Especially over time, and when your own emotional state can have something on an impact on your writing (and fatigue, stress, etc etc).


    • This is an excellent point Helena. It’s every bit as hard as you can imagine, to be honest.
      The secret, I guess, is to remember that there are many stages to writing a novel, from a rough outline to sketching in the story arcs, researching all the relevant facts, writing a timeline to ensure you don’t come undone in later books (if you’re writing a series), to checking for flow, endless editing and eventually, proofreading.
      This means that you are constantly going back and re-reading from the start.
      When I completed the first re-write, going back to do a flow check saw me astounded at the beginning.
      Did I really write this stuff?
      Please remember, this is my first novel and at over 110,000 words it’s a pretty big one.
      So, I guess I kept re-writing until I had settled into a groove.
      I would imagine it gets easier as time goes on and you establish a style.
      For me it’s been like learning a complex song, which can take years before you’re revealing the fine nuances contained within (Sultans of Swing springs to mind – curse you Pick Withers you show off…)
      Thanks for showing an interest and I’m thinking there’s a post in here somewhere…


      • That would be cool if you did. I tend to write short format stuff only, and really only when the mood (and muse) strike. Which is pretty rare these days, because of, well… stuff 🙂

        Anyways, it is something I have experienced in the past, and have no easy answer to. Please, by all means, post away!


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