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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Prose Rhythm

My prose got me lots of "country matters"
if you know what I mean.
Image description: Shakespeare button that says
"Prose before Bros."
In the best writing (as with the best art), the form and content work together.  Within writing, this means that the language enhances the subject being written about.  This is called "prose rhythm."  And it is one of the most "unsung heroes" of craft.  

Though poets spend more of their time laboring over word choice and attempting to enhance the flavor of a poem with the sound of the words it uses, fiction prose benefits from some level of this attention as well.  Within good writing the choice of language should reflect what is being written about.  It is an effect similar to how good cooks pick seasonings that bring out the flavor of what they're cooking.

Sometimes you just need a dash of salt.

This effect is one of the most difficult mistakes to diagnose (especially to self-diagnose) in young writers' prose.  However, when the prose rhythm is working against the subject, the result can be discordant without being obvious why.  It's like the wrong seasoning in a recipe it takes a skilled pallet to taste a dish and know it needed oregano instead of basil.

Think about this example describing the creek behind one of my childhood homes.  "The creek flowed lazily.  It had an occasional burst of speed, but usually drifted gently.  There were many deep pools.  A layer of green scum rested many of the pools because it was so slow.  Dragonflies flitted about this green scum.  They formed an endless dance.

Obviously I exaggerated the effect for illustration, and so this is just horrible writing all around, but it is easy to see why this image of a lazy creek and the endless dance of dragonflies does not work together with these simple sentences and descriptions.  With complex and compound sentences and some wordier descriptions this can be almost immediately cleaned up:  "The creek trickled lazily past the apartments, and though it had an occasional burst of speed, the water usually spilled gently from one deep pool to the next.  It moved so slowly that a layer of emerald green scum formed over many of the pools where a cotillion of red and blue dragonflies danced an endless, mesmerizing dance."

Not going to win me any nobel prizes, but so, SO much better than above because the subject and the language are not working against each other.  A flowing river and choppy prose just don't mesh.

The same thing happens if you try to describe combat in long complex sentences with "soft" verbs ("Cynthia gazed up to see that the warship was falling down right on her position, and there was no way that she would be able to get out of it's path in time.") instead of energetic verbs and short sentences ("Cynthia's eyes shot up to the sky.  The warship tore downward.  It was going to crash right where she was standing.  She could run, but she wouldn't make it.").  In fact, if the language is working against the subject, any scene will take on the quality of a "sour note" about it.  It's very similar to using the wrong spice in a dish; it's hard to know why, but it just doesn't taste quite right.

But the real genius comes not when the language and the subject are simply not working against each other, but when they are working together to enhance what is being written about, and to demonstrate that, I'm going to have to use prose much more skilled than my own.

Consider this example from Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin.  In Chapter 18: On the Ice, the narrator and Estraven, who are making a circuitous route around a hostile government.  LeGuin's normal prose throughout this book consists of sentences an average about twenty to thirty words.  There are often five or six paragraphs per page, and a single sentence paragraph is common with her style.

When they begin walking across a seemingly endless icy landscape, LeGuin begins to weave a much more languid prose.  Sentences like the following are common in this chapter at sixty-nine (~snerk~  I'm so twelve) words.  Whereas LeGuin rarely uses a semi-colon in the rest of the story, in this chapter she uses many.
When it was light and the new sledge ran through rather than over it; when it was partly hardened, the sledge would stick but we on the skis would not, which meant that we were perpetually being pulled up backward with a jolt; and when it was hard it was often heaped up in long wind-waves, sastrugi, that in some places ran up to four feet high.
Paragraphs are closer to half a page or an entire page.  Even the word choice through these parts tends towards longer, more cumbersome words.  This does not end until Estraven goes into kemmer.  In fact, after the sexual tension of these moments, when they return to the long days the length goes back to it's plodding pace.  It's not obvious unless you know what you're looking for or have read it a few times, but it greatly enhances the flavor of a weeks-long hike across a landscape where land and sky have no horizon to discern themselves from each other.

My prose rhythm brings all the Ekumen
in kemmer to the yard.
(Too esoteric?)
Now I had a friend who said this about it: "I don't understand why LeGuin writes so boring here.  I mean it's already a boring chapter and they're just sort of being bored.  Why would she make it ten times worse by making the writing boring too?"  This was a moment before hundreds--perhaps thousands--of irony imps burst forth from the sky and tore his limbs to shreds.  It was so fast and horrible that for a moment he continued to scream even though he had been reduced to a torso and head spurting arterial spray from his stumps.  It was like some awful, macabre blood fountain in a joke gone terribly wrong.  Needless to say, I was glad the imps carried off his torso to do their horrible irony rituals on it, or whatever it is they do.  The torso was never found.

This wasn't some absurd accident that just happened to take place while they were walking through the ice fields and nowhere else. LeGuin didn't suffer a random writing quirk that impaired her ability to end sentences for only the few days (weeks?) she was writing these parts of the book. This is a deliberate effort to make the prose feel like the action being portrayed.

Come to think of it, I may owe Tolkien an apology for all the terrible things I said about his unending landscape descriptions. Clearly he just wanted to convey that Middle Earth is the most boring fucking place in the entire literary multiverse to have to physically walk across. He actually did a great job.

Authors often use short sentences with very vivid verbs during combat or other exciting sequences, or long sentences during scenes of prolonged tension.  I guarantee you that when Stephen King busts out his patented one phrase paragraphs, he is exactly representing a short thought breaking a long one--usually something happening directly in the mind of his characters.  Some authors are so superfly, they even take prose rhythm to the level of the word, using tons of T word alliteration if they're trying to describe the pop of distant gunfire or a sonorous use of luscious and smooth sounding consonants and vowely words if they're trying to portray a seduction.  Some authors even arbitrarily alter sentence construction to be deliberately awkward when they're in the head of confused characters.

If it's so unknown, is it really that important?

Prose rhythm is one of the elements of craft that is generally considered to separate average writing from good writing.  (And a discongruent prose rhythm is one of the things that separates competent writing from bad writing.) While prose rhythm is extremely important within the literary genre and will be the focus of many an MFA lecture, it can enhance and enrich even the most commercial of "genre tripe." It was no mistake I chose LeGuin as an example, and it's no coincidence that someone so skilled in prose rhythm is considered to be one of the best science fiction authors of all time and even sometimes given a begrudging nod by the literary world.

It is also often confused for one of those "genius that can't be taught" things about writing.  In fact, it can be taught quite easily, it's just a skill not a knowledge, so it's something that requires practice and finesse not something you can intellectually grasp and move on.

Just be careful.  You CAN go too far.  Prose rhythm usually takes several revisions to get just right, and if you're firing it off in a first draft, you're probably coming on a little too strong.

This effect should be like the perfect seasoning of herbs and spices.  Subtle and enhancing, but not the meal itself.  It is as easy to add too much prose rhythm as it is to add too much salt, thyme, or garlic. (I just threw that last one in as a joke--there's no such thing as too much garlic.)  If your prose rhythm isn't subtle--if it involves extremely uncharacteristic word choices, conspicuous constructions, and Monty-Python-skit caliber alliteration--it's going to jump off the page and pull your reader right out of the story.  It should be a thing they notice with delight on a second or third reading, not something that hits them on the head right away.  MFA programs have a word they use for this ham-handed overuse of craft: being "writerly."  But in the real world, a reader will just roll their eyes and perhaps say, "Oh you think you're so clever don't you Ms. Meyers."


  1. I didn't know there was a term for this! Prose rhythm seems a good fit.

    I encounter issues with it in software tech writing environments that require direct, concise sentences. Unless there's a reason (and there can be many reasons), you construct a set of instructions with second person, present tense, subject/predicate structures. If you can use the same phrasing and words that you've already used, then do so. Users aren't reading about how to print a Word doc because they're fascinated. They just want to know as quickly as possible what they have to do to have a piece of paper in their hands.

    I often deal with junior writers or people who aren't writers but took an English class back in college. Almost invariably, they want to use flavorful test, compelling prose, and oh boy, different words. They had an English teacher tell them once that there a dozen different ways to say "happy" to the average reader, so be sure to use at least half of them before you write "happy" again.

    But just as prose rhythm communicates stories and emotions beyond the individual words themselves, it also communicates needed information quickly without user having to absorb every word.

    1. This is a really good point! The prose rhythm conventions for different KINDS of writing very much serve that writing's higher functions. I never thought about this outside of fiction, but it actually fits really well.

  2. Thanks for this post... It solidifies a notion I had already sort of been aware of. I'll pay a little more attention next time I'm trying to figure out why a particular section just doesn't sound right, or an emotionally charged scene doesn't have the right impact.

    I think this ties in intimately with the idea of voice... I wrote a prologue after having had a particularly vivid dream once, and it had a totally different writing style than my usual one. It was from the point of view of an old Russian immigrant, and I realized that, in my head, the phrases were coming with the same choppy bluntness that Russian speakers tend to have. As someone who tends toward embellishing my long, comma-ridden, mellifluous phrases with a surfeit of colorful and flowery adjectives, it was almost jarring.

    I want a little time and leisure to do the research for that story, as I quite liked the character and the tone. :)

    1. ~nods~ Yes. Absolutely. Narrative voice has some distinctions with prose rhythm, but they share a LOT of overlap especially "philosophically"--one is simply exclusive to character voice and the other has to do with the events or subject matter.

  3. Thanks Chris, how does this relate to lyrical prose? Does it? I imagine the beats of rhythm, if they are planned and ordered, will contribute to a work being lyrical, i.e. having qualities of music. Is that right? Helpful post, Ellen

  4. Hmm from reading this post, I realize that I spend a lot of time combing my prose to make it sound pleasant to my ears, but I don't think enough about whether the rhythm actually fits the mood! I liked the before and after examples on the lazy creek.

  5. What a wonderful post! Chock full of sophisticated advice, interesting examples, and laugh-out-loud humor. Lots of showing not telling. Count me a fan!

  6. What a fun post! Sophisticated advice, interesting examples, and laugh-out-loud humor. Lots of showing not telling. Count me a fan!