The Rhythm of Writing

Here’s a nice post from Writers Helping Writers: What is Rhythmic Writing?

Rhythm is one of the most underrated aspects of writing, but readers sense the rhythm in our words, whether they realize it or not. Rhythm attracts readers to certain authors. … Rhythm forces the reader to either rush through the pages, flipping one after another, or nestle in the comfy chair to quietly enjoy the story. Words dance. The writer who pays attention to story rhythm creates sentences that waltz, jerk, tango, stutter, tap dance, float, and sing.

This is all true! I’m immediately disposed to approve of this article. Let me see, where does the article go …

–Rhythm defines mood

–Rhythm defines pace

–Rhythm is created by sentence structure, and here’s another mention of punctuation:

If each sentence follows the same structure and rhythm, the writing becomes boring and predictable. Writers who play with rhythm can create tension in many ways, depending on punctuation and word choice.

Yes, see there? Punctuation is totally necessary even for writers who roll their eyes at semicolons and possibly even periods. This is a particularly good companion article to the punctuation post linked here because guess what author is now used to show varying sentence structure? PJ Parrish, who wrote the linked post. Pure coincidence: I didn’t go looking for anything using her writing to illustrate anything. Here’s the excerpt:

In the following example, notice how the intentional repetition of hard -ed verbs create tension in The Killing Song by PJ Parrish

He watched her for the next hour. Watched her playing with the plastic snow globe she had picked up in the souvenir shop. Watched her finish her peach tart, tuck her Fodor’s in her purse and wind the red scarf around her slender white neck.

In the next sentence, the authors slow the pace by varying the sentence structure, adding gerunds, and visceral detail, yet maintain the creepy atmosphere.

In the crowded elevator traveling down from the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower, he stood behind her, closing his eyes as he breathed in the grassy scent of her hair.

Those are indeed good sentences, and comprise a good illustration of the point being made.

Several good illustrations of rhythm created by sentence structure. Worth clicking through.

Now, let’s take a look at a much longer excerpt from a hard-boiled detective type of novel. This is the beginning of The Hard Way, a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child, which I haven’t read because I’m not a fan of hard-boiled detective novels. But this kind of novel is, I think, the very best for illustrating a particular type of style. Especially in dialogue, so I’ve included a good bit of dialogue here.

JACK REACHER ORDERED espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever. Not that the waiter was slow. Just that the move was slick. So slick, Reacher had no idea what he was watching. It was just an urban scene, repeated everywhere in the world a billion times a day: A guy unlocked a car and got in and drove away. That was all.

But that was enough.

The espresso had been close to perfect, so Reacher went back to the same café exactly twenty–four hours later. Two nights in the same place was unusual for Reacher, but he figured great coffee was worth a change in his routine. The café was on the west side of Sixth Avenue in New York City, in the middle of the block between Bleecker and Houston. It occupied the ground floor of an undistinguished -four–story building. The upper stories looked like anonymous rental apartments. The cafe itself looked like a transplant from a back street in Rome. Inside it had low light and scarred wooden walls and a dented chrome machine as hot and long as a locomotive, and a counter. Outside there was a single line of metal tables on the sidewalk behind a low canvas screen. Reacher took the same end table he had used the night before and chose the same seat. He stretched out and got comfortable and tipped his chair up on two legs. That put his back against the cafe’s outside wall and left him looking east, across the sidewalk and the width of the avenue. He liked to sit outside in the summer, in New York City. Especially at night. He liked the electric darkness and the hot dirty air and the blasts of noise and traffic and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped a lonely man feel connected and isolated both at the same time.

He was served by the same waiter as the night before and ordered the same drink, double espresso in a foam cup, no sugar, no spoon. He paid for it as soon as it arrived and left his change on the table. That way he could leave exactly when he wanted to without insulting the waiter or bilking the owner or stealing the china. Reacher always arranged the smallest details in his life so he could move on at a split second’s notice. It was an obsessive habit. He owned nothing and carried nothing. Physically he was a big man, but he cast a small shadow and left very little in his wake.

He drank his coffee slowly and felt the night heat come up off the sidewalk. He watched cars and people. Watched taxis flow north and garbage trucks pause at the curbs. Saw knots of strange young people heading for clubs. Watched girls who had once been boys totter south. Saw a blue German sedan park on the block. Watched a compact man in a gray suit get out and walk north. Watched him thread between two sidewalk tables and head inside to where the café staff was clustered in back. Watched him ask them questions.

The guy was medium height, not young, not old, too solid to be called wiry, too slight to be called heavy. His hair was gray at the temples and cut short and neat. He kept himself balanced on the balls of his feet. His mouth didn’t move much as he talked. But his eyes did. They flicked left and right tirelessly. The guy was about forty, Reacher guessed, and furthermore Reacher guessed he had gotten to be about forty by staying relentlessly aware of everything that was happening around him. Reacher had seen the same look in elite infantry veterans who had survived long jungle tours.

Then Reacher’s waiter turned suddenly and pointed straight at him. The compact man in the gray suit stared over. Reacher stared back, over his shoulder, through the window. Eye contact was made. Without breaking it the man in the suit mouthed thank you to the waiter and started back out the way he had entered. He stepped through the door and made a right inside the low canvas screen and threaded his way down to Reacher’s table. Reacher let him stand there mute for a moment while he made up his mind. Then he said “Yes,” to him, like an answer, not a question.

“Yes what?” the guy said back.

“Yes whatever,” Reacher said. “Yes I’m having a pleasant evening, yes you can join me, yes you can ask me whatever it is you want to ask me.”

The guy scraped a chair out and sat down, his back to the river of traffic, blocking Reacher’s view.

“Actually I do have a question,” he said.

“I know,” Reacher said. “About last night.”

“How did you know that?” The guy’s voice was low and quiet and his accent was flat and clipped and British.

“The waiter pointed me out,” Reacher said. “And the only thing that distinguishes me from his other customers is that I was here last night and they weren’t.”

“You’re certain about that?”

“Turn your head away,” Reacher said. “Watch the traffic.”

The guy turned his head away. Watched the traffic.

“Now tell me what I’m wearing,” Reacher said.

“Green shirt,” the British guy said. “Cotton, baggy, cheap, doesn’t look new, sleeves rolled to the elbow, over a green T-shirt, also cheap and not new, a little tight, untucked over -flat–front khaki chinos, no socks, English shoes, pebbled leather, brown, not new, but not very old either, probably expensive. Frayed laces, like you pull on them too hard when you tie them. Maybe indicative of a -self–discipline obsession.”

“OK,” Reacher said.

“OK what?”

“You notice things,” Reacher said. “And I notice things. We’re two of a kind. We’re peas in a pod. I’m the only customer here now who was also here last night. I’m certain of that. And that’s what you asked the staff. Had to be. That’s the only reason the waiter would have pointed me out.”

The guy turned back.

“Did you see a car last night?” he asked.

“I saw plenty of cars last night,” Reacher said. “This is Sixth Avenue.”

“A Mercedes Benz. Parked over there.” The guy twisted again and pointed on a slight diagonal at a length of empty curb by a fire hydrant on the other side of the street.

Reacher said, “Silver, four-door sedan, an S-420, New York vanity plates starting OSC, a lot of city miles on it. Dirty paint, scuffed tires, dinged rims, dents and scrapes on both bumpers.”

The guy turned back again.

“You saw it,” he said.

“It was right there,” Reacher said. “Obviously I saw it.”

“Did you see it leave?”

Reacher nodded. “Just before eleven -forty–five a guy got in and drove it away.”

“You’re not wearing a watch.”

“I always know what time it is.”

“It must have been closer to midnight.”

“Maybe,” Reacher said. “Whatever.”

“Did you get a look at the driver?”

“I told you, I saw him get in and drive away.”

The guy stood up.

“I need you to come with me,” he said. Then he put his hand in his pocket. “I’ll buy your coffee.”

“I already paid for it.”

“So let’s go.”


“To see my boss.”

“Who’s your boss?”

“A man called Lane.”

“You’re not a cop,” Reacher said. “That’s my guess. Based on observation.”

I just think that’s an interesting way to write dialogue. And the descriptive paragraphs handle sentences kind of the same way, stripped down and short, with lots of fragments and lots of repetition and LOTS of short clauses. Even so, the descriptive paragraphs also offer a good handful of much longer sentences. I do think this is effective writing, even if the subgenre doesn’t particularly appeal to me.

Now, let’s contrast that with the opening of Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose. This is, of course, a far more poetic style, as far removed as one can possibly get from the curt style of a hard-boiled detective novel. It’s also sometimes one of my favorites by McKillip, though that changes based on my mood. This is the novel where everyone keeps telling the same story about a boy and his father and the curse that surrounds them, but the story changes every time it’s told. I tried to do something similar once, but it didn’t work out and I gave up. Maybe eventually I’ll try that again.

Anyway, let’s take a look:

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.

I was kneeling at the well; I had just lifted water to my lips. The well was one of the wood’s secrets: a deep spring as clear as light, hidden under an overhang of dark stones down which the brier roses fall, white as snow, red as blood, all summer long. The vines hide the water unless you know to look. I found it one hot afternoon when I stopped to smell the roses. Beneath their sweet scent lay something shadowy, mysterious: the smell of earth, water, wet stone. I moved the cascading briers and looked down at my own reflection.

Corbet, he called himself to the villagers. But I saw him before he had any name at all.

My name is Rois, and I look nothing like a rose. The water told me that. Water never lies. I look more like a blackbird, with my flighty black hair and eyes more amber than the blackbird’s sunny yellow. My skin is not fit for fairy tales, since I liked to stand in light, with my eyes closed, my face turned upward toward the sun. That’s how I saw him at first: as a fall of light, and then something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. I did not move; I let the water stream silently down my wrist. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked, and saw his face more clearly.

I must have made some noise then. Perhaps I shifted among the wild fern. Perhaps I sighed. He looked toward me, but there was too much light; I must have been a blur of shadow in his eyes.

Then he walked out of the light.

Of course I thought about him, at first the way you think about weather or time, something always at the edge of your mind. He didn’t seem real to me, just something I dreamed on a hot summer day, as I swallowed water scented with roses and stone. I remembered his eyes, odd, heavy-lidded, the color, I thought then, of his hair. When I saw them a day or two later, I was surprised.

I gathered wild lilies and honeysuckle and bleeding heart, which my sister, Laurel, loved. I stayed in the wood for a long time, watching, but he had gone. The sky turned the color of a mourning dove’s breast before I walked out of the trees. I remembered time, then. I was tired and ravenous, and I wished I had ridden to the wood. I wished I had worn shoes. But I had learned where to find wild ginger, and what tree bled a crust of honey out of a split in the wood, and where the blackberries would ripen. My father despaired of me; my sister wondered at me. But my despair was greater if I caged my wonder, like a wild bird. Some days I let it fly free, and followed it. On those days I found the honey, and the secret well, and the mandrake root.

My sister, Laurel, is quite beautiful. She has chestnut hair, and skin like ripened peaches, and great grey eyes that seem to see things that are not quite discernible to others. She doesn’t really see that well; her world is simple and fully human. Her brows lift and pucker worriedly when she encounters ambiguities, or sometimes only me. Everyone in the village loves her; she is gentle and sweet-spoken. She was to marry the next spring.

That twilight, when I came home barefoot, my skirt full of flowers, her lover, Perrin, was there. Perrin looked at me askance, as always, and shook his head.

“Barefoot. And with rose petals in your hair. You look like something conceived under a mushroom.”

I stuck a stem of honeysuckle in his hair, and one of bleeding heart into my father’s. It slid forward to dangle in front of his nose, a chain of little hearts. We laughed. He pointed a stubby finger at me.

“It’s time you stopped dancing among the ferns and put your shoes on, and learned a thing or two from your sister’s practical ways.” He drank his beer, the hearts still trembling over his nose. I nodded gravely.

“I know.”

“You say that,” he grumbled. “But you don’t really listen.” He pushed the flower stem behind his ear, and drank more beer.

“Because you don’t really mean what you say.” I dropped all my flowers in Laurel’s lap, and went behind him to put my arms around his neck. “You love me as I am. Besides, when Laurel marries, who will care for you?”

He snorted, even as he patted my hands. “You can’t even remember to close a door at night. What I think is that you should find someone to care for you, before you tumble in a pond and drown, or fall out of a tree.”

“I haven’t,” I lied with some dignity, “climbed a tree for years.”

Perrin made an outraged noise. “I saw you up a pear tree near the old Lynn ruins only last autumn.”

“I was hungry. That hardly counts.” I loosed my father, and reached for bread, being still hungry. He sighed.

“At least sit down. Never mind about getting the bracken out of your hair, or washing your hands, or anything else remotely civilized. How will you ever find a husband?”

I sat. A face turned toward me out of light, and for just a moment I forgot to breathe. Then I swallowed bread, while Laurel, gathering flowers on her lap, said amiably,

“Perhaps she doesn’t want one. Not everyone does.” But her brows had twitched into that little, anxious pucker. I was silent, making resolutions, then discarding them all as useless.

“I want,” I said shortly, “to do what I want to do.”

We lived comfortably in the rambling, thatched farmhouse that had grown askew with age. Centuries of footsteps had worn shallow valleys into the flagstones; the floors had settled haphazardly into the earth; door frames tilted; ceilings sagged. Other things happen to old houses, that only I seemed to notice. Smells had woven into the wood, so that lavender or baking bread scented the air at unexpected moments. The windows at night sometimes reflected other fires, the shadows of other faces. Spiders wove webs in high, shadowed corners that grew more elaborate through the years, as if each generation inherited and added to an airy palace. I wondered sometimes if they would die out when we did, or leave their intricate houses if we left ours. But I doubted that I would ever know: My father, with his wheat, and apple orchards, and his barns and stables, only grew more prosperous, and my sister’s marriage at least would provide him with heirs for his house and his spiders.

SO MUCH MORE DESCRIPTION is included in the dialogue. All those movement tags and thought tags! How does that change the rhythm, even ignoring the descriptive paragraphs? I mean, these different ways of handling dialogue make an enormous difference to the rhythm of the novels. No one would describe McKillip’s writing as curt even though a few lines are in fact curt. No one would describe Lee Child’s as poetic even though some of his descriptive sentences actually are poetic.

Her writing invites the reader to slow down and linger.

His drags the reader through the dialogue and demands the reader turn the page at once, now!

Both authors utilize rhythm as one element of their writing, and wow, do they create different effects. Kind of neat to read excerpts with very distinctive styles like this and think about mood and tone, pacing and feel.

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3 thoughts on “The Rhythm of Writing”

  1. This makes me want to reread the old Reacher books. Not really interested in them now that the author has changed, but the old ones were quite good. Real page turners, and it’s interesting to see you analyze the structure this way to explain why they are page turners.

  2. It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.

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