Ah, rhythm. One of the words that defies me to spell it correctly every time I type it. And yet, it is hardly so inscrutable to understand how the word applies to both music and fiction.
From a music perspective, rhythm is sonic action in time. Said another way, it is the arrangement of durational sonic patterns or tone lengths. One way to understand rhythm in music is to tap or clap the melody to a favorite song. In your head you hear the melody, but the tapping is, of course, toneless; what remains—what your tapping out—is the melodic rhythm. (An aside here: I’ve done this for years with my daughter, making a game of trying to guess the song by merely tapping the melodic rhythm—kind of fun.)
From a fiction or writing perspective, rhythm is the flow of words on the page. It will be impossible for me to talk about this without referring to things like “voice,” since one of the ways to develop or write voice has much to do with the rhythm of the words and story. Rhythm also has a relationship to pacing, which we’ll talk about later. Still, there are bits of this that are easily understood all on their own.
In music, rhythmic patterns are often repeated. In fact, this repetition is more important for music than for any other artistic discipline (like say, drama, dance, film, sculpture … or writing). Pretty easy to understand why, since without it music would wander somewhat aimlessly. There is the idea and approach to music composition known as “through composed,” where the song winds onward without returning to previous rhythmic or melodic figures—and I, personally, love these, as I think they have a unique story-telling quality—but that’s the anomaly. Listeners find pleasure in (and make sense of) music best when its rhythms recur.
A key effect of rhythm for both music and fiction, however, is the sense in which it allows the material to assume an abstract sense of “identity” or personality. You’ve likely experienced this with novels you’ve read, but which you couldn’t now retell the plot, though a lingering sense of the reading experience for that book remains. Of course, there are other factors that could account for your “sense” of a book even when your memory fails to recall its specifics; but I submit that the rhythm of the language is a key part of how you experience the book. Again, this feeds voice and pacing and the like, but a writers use of rhythm (whether done consciously or subconsciously) is fundamental to how you will experience the book, and thus enjoy (or not) its tale.
Let’s look at some specifics. In music there is the notion of “accents,” defined as an intensification of length or loudness of tones when compared to contextual notes. In music, there are two types of accents, agogic (length) and dynamic (loudness). An agogic accent most often imbues a feeling of weight and intensity. Now think about books you’ve read where the author italicizes a passage. You perceive and read those sections—as the writer intends you to do—with special emphasis; and they often break up the flow of the standard narrative to achieve this. Similarly, a dynamic accent can add weight or intensity, but think this time in terms of a single word italicized for effect. As a reader, you “hit” that word with emphasis when you read—again, as the writer intends you to do—thus giving it special emphasis and weight in the reading. For some reason, just now, the example that occurs to me is actually from the sitcom “Friends,” where Chandler Bing might say: “Could you be any dumber.”
Of course, a writer may also add rhythmic emphasis to the words on the page by more literally causing the reader to “hear” their volume; examples include punctuation (think of how exclamation points amp the sound in your head when you read) and even the effect use of single sentence, or even single word, paragraphs. And don’t forget something written in all caps—kind of like shouting, isn’t it.
Now without a twenty page treatment of grammar and punctuation as it relates and conveys rhythm, let me just say that how you organize and break up sentences on the page are also rhythm choices. One writer will have several related ideas brought together with semicolons; where another will do a series of short sentences, or even sentence fragments—not using strict subject/verb constructions. All this affects rhythm, is rhythm. I mean, how many of you have ever read one of those over-wrought, impossibly long sentences with endless clauses. Those are extreme, but they make my point, which is a long more complex sentence carries its own unique rhythm vs. short simple sentence structures.
Related to all this is the notion of staccato and legato articulation. Now these most definitely influence voice, as well. But they’re absolutely a function of rhythm. Stacatto in music, you may recall, is notes played in (typically rapid) succession but unconnected—you play the note fast and release fast—they don’t ring or sustain into one another. Stacatto notes have a kind of emphatic nature. Legato articulation, on the other hand, is just the opposite, the notes ringing out and the succession of notes having a more languid flow to them; each note is also often played for a longer duration than staccato notes.
It’s fairly easy to see how these ideas translate to fiction, right? One can make use of short stabs of words and create a kind of insistent rhythm to the language; or alternately, one could draw out the rhythm with longer sentences, paragraphs, etc, and infuse the writing itself with words that “ring” more musically.
Take this example of staccato writing: Stop! I hate EVERYTHING. About, YOU!
By contrast, here’s a legato example: The day you made our son feel less about himself, only because he couldn’t measure up to the desires you had of him in your own heart, was the day I fell out of love with you and began to know a hate of my own.
Now, another technique a writer may use with rhythm is to write a section or passage that runs counter to the general pace and rhythm of the entire book. A thriller, for example, has by definition a fast pace. The language on the page is meant to reinforce the content of the story. The effective writer is going to be pushing that pace with strong rhythmic structure: uncomplicated sentences, short paragraphs, short chapters, word choice that doesn’t make the reader reach for his or her dictionary, etc. However, imagine that in the midst of the storm, there’s a moment of reflection, maybe the protagonist is contemplating his or her own mortality, or maybe even there’s a love scene.
Now, some writers may choose staccato for a sex scene—you can imagine that, can’t you. But the general tone and rhythm of a moment of emotional connection can often be more effective if it’s slower, more legato. You must consider the context, though, since the inverse of what I’ve just said might be true in a romance or literary novel, where the general rhythm is more legato, and the interruption of that—an emotional disturbance of break up of the flow—is short, stabbing lines of text, e.g. anger or dismay, etc.
But it’s all rhythm.
Typically, with rhythm in music, notes occur on the beat of the meter, meter being things like 4/4, 6/8, etc, where the first number denotes the number of notes in a measure, and the second denotes the value of the note (how long you hold it when you play it). A measure is the number of beats “measured” together (the denominator in something like 4/4). And the beat—the note value in the numerator of the meter (like, say, 4/4)—is the pulse of the song (though, some musicians might say the pulse is always on the “one,” meaning always emphasizing the first note in a measure). Essentially, then, rhythms are based on fractions, but don’t worry too much about that. If you can look at a sliced pizza and figure out how much everyone should get, you can do fractions.
A helpful examples from the music world might be to consider a waltz, which has a very recognizable 3/4 rhythm. Haven’t heard a waltz, you say. I guessing you’re wrong. If you haven’t heard of Blue Danube by Johann Strauss by name, then you’ve almost certainly seen the Loony Tunes adaption of it.
You remember. The rare occasion where Porky Pig is hunting Bugs Bunny, and the dog begins to cry when Bugs pretends to get shot; the dog cries the tune of the waltz for a few measures. The name of that one is the “Corny Concerto,” and you can find it on Youtube.
Or maybe more simply, consider the song “Happy Birthday” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” With these examples it’s easy to begin hearing the rhythm in music.
And for a more modern example—and one that’s a bit heavier—consider the band Disturbed. I can’t think of a better example of vocal rhythms than what David Michael Draiman. He literally maps the syllables of many of his lyrics to the beats of the music the band is playing. It often even has a military feel, almost like a machine gun. And with the band playing crunchy staccato rhythms beneath the vocals, it has a visceral impact on the listener. If you haven’t heard Disturbed, go Google them now and listen to some of their music, if for no other reason than to understand how rhythm can play such a key role in composition. (Note: This video is not for the feint of heart. Really. Serious themes here.)
(View the original music video here)
And to tie this back to writing, the literary equivalent of something like this, as I’ve mentioned, would be short sentences, perhaps even just fragments or single words. It’s rapid fire, straight, powerful, and to the point.
With this context of the meter and its use in music—and before closing this topic down—I want to last talk a bit about syncopation. A rhythm is described as syncopated when the notes occur between the beats of the music meter, so the note is played between beats 2 and 3, or somesuch.
In writing, one example of syncopation would, again, be the dropping in of a single word sentence or even a very short sentence amidst the more regular rhythm of your language. It draws attention to those words, as it falls outside the regular beats of your prose. You also have the added benefit—just as syncopation does in music—of this devise often imparting energy and even instability to the mood of your passage. This kind of effect is often used at climactic scenes to great effect.
And it’s easy to begin grasping the whole idea of rhythm in writing by listening to someone speak a foreign language. You can almost always hear the motion and rhythm in their words even if the words themselves are unintelligible. You can tell if they are angry, sad, contented, all by the rhythm of their speech. You can similarly tell if a particular piece or section of music is conveying those emotions by their use of rhythm. Such should also be true of your fiction … if you’re doing it well. Simply be aware of the number of words (notes) you’re using in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, paragraphs in a chapter, etc, and then pay attention to how you repeat, vary, and contrast those numbers and you’ll begin to establish and understand the role rhythm is (or should be) playing in your work.