Often in fiction we talk about voice, language, and tone. Aspects of writing that apply to individual words and sentences. But there aren’t too many discussions about the rhythm or the pacing of individual sentences. Rhythm is something that we’ve given over to poetry.
Though, that hasn’t always been the case. Shakespeare wrote his plays with careful attention to rhyme, meter, rhythm, verse, etc. I’m not suggesting a return to that (I suspect there are very few of us who know/remember enough scansion to even scan Shakespeare’s plays correctly). But I think there’s a lesson to be learned.
Fluidity, if you want a different word for rhythm, is very important to writing. Even fiction writing. I think there’s some acknowledgement of that in “found poetry.” If you aren’t familiar with the concept of found poetry, it’s when a poet/writer takes another’s writing and reworks it to form a poem. Though altering someone else’s text makes me a little uncomfortable, it highlights the fact that some prose is so lovely that it is poetic.
While literary writers aspire to poetic writing, I believe that all writers can benefit from paying attention to rhythm. Think about the best books in the genres you read and write. Do the words on a page stream along? Then the author has put a lot of work into rhythm.
How do we, as writers, grow in this area? One of the best ways that I’ve stumbled across is to read aloud. I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. I resisted reading aloud for years, but it’s the first step to getting a feel for rhythm in your own writing. If you’re reading aloud and your reading stumbles, ask yourself, “Why?” Figure out how you can fix it. And don’t start from chapter one. It’s too easy to get caught up in the plot and ignore the words. Start from the last chapter. Read it aloud to the end of the chapter. Then go to the second to the last chapter, and read it aloud. And so on, until you finish the first chapter.
Yes, it takes a long time. Yes, it will take you longer to get a book finished. But it will begin to teach you how to listen for rhythm. And surprisingly enough, you’ll hear more than rhythm. You’ll see which scenes are underdeveloped, which actions and emotions feel false, and which passages of dialogue are stilted.
Go on, try it.
And if you do read your own books aloud, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned. And if you’ve found other ways to work on rhythm, I’d love to hear them too.