What does rhythm mean in writing? It can mean several things, actually, including when and how you reveal important information, how you jump from character to character, or other aspects of plot and structure. Today, though, I’m going to talk about how rhythm is reflected in tempo of the beats formed by our sentences. Our words can unspool gently like long flowing ribbons, floating on distant breezes. Or they can pounce like cougars, slicing and biting. Which tempo you want to create depends on what’s going on in the story. When things are slow, when characters are calm and your reader can catch her breath to think about how she feels about things, that’s the time for slower, denser sentences with more description and sensory impressions. When action heats up, this changes. You need short, punchy sentences. Sentence fragments. Rapid beats, like a fluttering heart.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from the first chapter in my work in process. Early in the chapter the narrator, Kay, is cleaning up in a hotel kitchen after the guests have left, getting ready for the hotel to shut down for the winter. Here are a couple of sentence from that section:
I was working quickly as I sorted the last tray of mixed flatware into their drawers at the back of the pantry, scalding my fingers on the hot metal…. Tableware sorted, I hurried back out into the kitchen to wipe down the yellowing counters and chipped sink with antiseptic, dump the cloths into the laundry bin, strip off my gloves, and finally tuck some loose ends of my hair back into their clip.
Two sentences with an average length of 37 words. It has a slow tempo, with sensory detail about the scalding hot metal, a step-by-step description of the action, some bits describing the state of things in the hotel and her fly-away hair. The goal is to firmly set the reader in Kay’s world, inside her head, as she goes through the mundane actions that start the evening.
By the end of the chapter the situation has changed. Bizarre creatures from another world have come through a mysterious portal to threaten Kay and Jana, the woman she works for. Jana is fighting for her life, and Kay has to decide whether to stay and help her or get out. Here are some sentence from that section:
Somehow, with no eyes, it looked at me. I couldn’t stop a whimper. It swayed a bit on its many legs, took a sliding step toward the door. Toward me. My breath froze and I stepped back. No, I can’t do this. I turned toward the hallway, pretending that I was going for the phone. In truth, I was running away. Later I would feel bitter about that. Right now, I was too afraid for bitterness.
This passage has almost the same number of words (77 versus 73), but there are 10 sentences with an average length of 8 words each. The tempo is choppy and broken, with few sensory details. Kay’s attention is on what she’s facing and her own reactions, external (whimpering, turning to run) and internal (breath freezing, too afraid for bitterness). There’s no time for anything else!
Try this in your own writing. Take a passage where things are quiet, where you want to help your reader slow down and process what’s happening. Try letting the sentences lengthen, enriching them with sensory detail. Take another passage where the action is furious, where you want the reader to be breathlessly jumping to what’s next. Try cutting sentences into pieces. Fragments, even. (See what I did there?) Strip out unnecessary details, focusing just on what’s directly in front of the character right now.
How do you control the pace and tempo of your story?