Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Rhythm of the Word

Words are like musical notes. They have to form together properly to make a pleasing sound. That’s why they say the ear is the best writer. Sentences have to have a certain rhythm otherwise they sound choppy and discordant. As a piano player, I draw on my musical skills to understand when writing sounds right and when it doesn’t.

Sentences have to flow like music. The number of syllables in the word also makes a difference when determining which one to use. Too many long sentences won’t work and the same is true of too many short sentences. In music, staccato means a note of short duration. Lunga means long and sostenuto means sustained or lengthened. Forte means loud, adagio slow, pianissimo, soft. Andante means moderate, crescendo means growing progressively louder. When a pianist is unskilled, all the notes may be played exactly the same, without emphasis or feeling. He or she hasn’t put his soul into the music. When a virtuoso pianist hits the keys, we can immediately tell the difference. Some parts of the melody are played soft, others strong. It stirs us emotionally. We hear not just the notes, but the emotion behind it. The same is true of writing. The key is variety. And the ultimate key is to know when to differentiate between all the different options and make the words sing—with emotion, intensity and fire. It can make our writing not only readable, but memorable.

There are 20 Patterns for sentence structure. Here are the first 10:* (I’ve copied these and pasted them next to my computer)

1. Compound sentence: semicolon, no conjunction.   Example: Hard work is only one side of the equation; talent is the other.
2. Compound sentence with elliptical construction.   Example: A red light means stop; a green light, go.
3. Compound sentence with explanatory statement.   Example: Remember what the old saying advises: Be careful what you wish for because you may actually get it.
4. A series without a conjunction.   Example: The United States has a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
5. A series with a variation.   Example: Peering down from the hill, Merlin could see the castle swathed in gloom and fear and death.
6. A series of balanced pairs.   Example: Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere were all famous lovers in literature.
7. An introductory series of appositives.   Example: Vanity, greed, corruption—which serves as the novel’s source of conflict?
8. An internal series of appositives or modifiers.   Example: My favorite red wines—Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot Noir—blend well in making California rose wines.
9. A variation: a single appositive or a pair.   Example: A sudden explosion—artillery fire—signaled the beginning of a barrage.
10. Dependent clauses in a pair or in a series.   Example: When he smelled the odor of pine, when he heard the chatter of jays, when he saw the startled doe, the hunter knew he had reached the center of the forest.

What writers use words that flow the best, ones that are the most pleasing to the ear? What writers make you say ‘gee, I wish I’d written that,’ or ‘gee, that sounds great!’ My favorite wordsmiths are Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. They can create an atmosphere like no other and string sentences together with truly imaginative words that have life and rhythm. Who are your favorite wordsmiths and what special tricks do they use that make you love their writing?

*From “The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success” by Waddell, Esch and Walker
Next week: The Rhythm of the Word, Part 2


Calisa Rhose said...

Something I never really thought about consciously. Thanks!

Lynne Marshall said...

This is fascinating. I love the idea of equating writing with playing the piano. I would have to say I play by ear, using many different "sounds" and tempos.

I love it when I have to stop and read a sentence again because it is so beautifully written. Sandra Kring and Jodi Picoult have done that do me, to name two, as did Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain, and Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner.

Sandra Koehler said...

Writing can be lyrical and that's what makes it musical. Sandy/Alison