The Girl from Ipanema


Am I dating myself to invoke the 1962 runaway hit that had the world swaying to the bossa nova? Here was rhythm. Smooth, tactile. Thrilling. That’s the kind of pulse I want in my writing.

When it comes to tempo and cadence, I think narrative prose gets the short straw. We tend to relegate such things to poetry. Step-together-step. Tap.

So today’s killer blog tip is to let the measure of your writing tell the story.

Let me explain what I mean. Your protagonist enters the room, and all eyes are riveted, waiting to see what he’ll do. You have planned this for weeks – you know just what happens next. But as you delicately unravel your plotline, a primal yawn escapes – and you realize in horror that your words just aren’t keeping pace with your ideas.

What can we do to put the accent back on the action?

  1. Vary your sentence length. In the same way that your storyline is building toward a crescendo, you want your prose to swell with emotion, to wax and to wane as it mirrors your message. So mix it up a little. Break up those long descriptions with a short, terse sentence that grabs attention. In 9 Ways to Write Brilliant Short Sentences, Author John Matthew Fox writes: “A short sentence can gut punch you. [It can] deliver surprise with the utmost efficiency [and] usher in a fantastic plot revelation with a deft flick of a few syllables.” He credits these simple structures with “power due to their brevity” and “agility because they have nothing to weigh them down.” And nothing says action like a short sentence. Go get ’em.
  2. Drop the passive tense. While the twists and turns of life might appear to be arbitrary at times, I think the simple act of holding the pen – of authoring a story – is proof enough that there is a grand design. We won’t let our characters drift without purpose. So why abdicate their motives to the passive voice? Journalist Constance Hale, who penned a series of articles on writing for the New York Times, offers this: “Set your protagonist in action. Do you want him, as Hamlet would say, to ‘take arms against a sea of troubles,’ or would you rather he … [lie] flat on his back, leaving his destiny to someone else?”
  3. Make some music. There are as many styles of writing out there as there are writers. So this last point is just a suggestion to broaden your horizon: don’t be afraid of poetry. Some forms work very well in prose. Like sun and shadow, they teach us the stillness between sounds and the sheer pleasure of words. If you prefer to keep your dialogue conversational, poetry can be good training for hearing the rise and the fall of your character’s voice. I recommend you add poetry to your reading list. My favorite is Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose lyrical alliteration mimics the deeper substance of his rhyme. The tug and pull of poetic verse can add tension and intrigue to your story angle.

Shall we dance?

If you like what you’re reading, check out all my posts in the How to Write Killer Blogs series:
Verbs are Choice Weapons in the Hands of the Word Slinger
Cool Writing Condensates
Get Your Writing in Gear






13 thoughts on “The Girl from Ipanema

  1. Wow! This would have been a huge miss, if you hadn’t commented on my blogpost. I’m so delighted after reading your tips, I want to go and try all of them right now. These are certainly things which I feel will be helpful for me. In some time, I’ll now also go through your other posts with help on writing. I’m sure they’ll be great crutches for people like me to walk on!

    Thanks a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad it helps, LIMH 🙂 I’ve been knocking around this concept for a while, so it’s very affirming that it made a connection with you. I will say that blogging is the rawest (is that a word?) form of our writing – where we can blithely pour out our thoughts unfettered by the rules of writing. That’s one of its charms. Yet I find that the horsepower under the hood that puts some narrative out ahead of others – that compels you to read on – succeeds by harnessing a few simple conventions. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely! And you are doing a fine job by sharing these simple conventions with the world. It’ll definitely help all boost their skills. I wouldn’t call blogging as raw – the drafts that we write maybe. However, the final post is always sculpted after quite a many cuts and moulds here and there! Thanks again for sharing your wisdom. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Meet and Greet – A welcome to new bloggers – Makeovers, Music and Reviews | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  3. I am so glad you showed up on my blog today so I didn’t miss this post! I am really behind on keeping up with the bloggers I follow and I need to change that. Anyway, I think I kind of write like you are talking about. I will make a paragraph of a short single sentence to give it emphasis. I have only posted one poem; however, I will quote song lyrics that fit my topic. I am by no means a perfect writer, but it is nice to know that I am getting a bit of it right! Thanks for this and for the nice words you left on my blog today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, wonderful K! 😀 Been noodling over your challenge for a week – in fact, it prompted my thoughts on sentence variety (lol). so watch for a reblog later today with my submission!! Love the way these prompts push the boundaries on my writing.


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