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?
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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